We build birchbark canoes using historically documented methods and materials. The following example shows the construction of a 15 foot Ojibwe style ricing canoe that we built with our Hamline University archaeology field school class in 1998. Hope you enjoy it.
Click on the thumbnails for a larger view.
The first step in birchbark canoe construction is the gathering of materials.
Birchbark can most easily be harvested during the early summer when the sap is
flowing. At this time the outer bark separates from the inner bark with almost no
effort, in fact, on trees with thick bark, the bark sometimes almost "falls off"
by itself after the vertical cut is made. At other times, the bark is harder to
peel, but is regarded as being of a higher quality and is often called "winter
bark". The inner bark, which contains the active growing layers, will
regenerate a new covering of bark on the tree. This bark is of a different
Birchbark canoes are usually laced and sewn together with split spruce roots. Gathering roots in the swamp can be a real experience.
Ojibwe style canoes are constructed using a building frame to form the shape of the canoe bottom. Some other styles use the gunwale structure for this purpose. After unrolling the bark, the building frame is placed on the bark, weighted down, and the bark for the sides of the canoe held up with stakes. If the bark is not wide enough (the typical situation), additional strips of bark are added to "piece up" the sides. Vertical cuts, called "gores" are made in the bark to allow forming it to the shape of the canoe.
Aligning building frame and weighting with rocks
The gunwales are put into place, and "stem pieces" made of cedar are placed in the ends of the canoe.
Now, begins the tedious process of lacing the bark to the gunwale structure with split spruce root. Holes are punched in the bark with an awl and the root is passed through and laced around the gunwales, holding everything securely together.
All of the seams, including the gores, are sewn together with spruce root. The ends are laced through holes punched through the bark and the stem piece. The thwarts (crosspieces) have been laced into place with the gunwale lacing.
The canoe is now rather loose and flexible supported only by the gunwale and end frame
structures. A layer of internal wood sheathing held in place with ribs must be
added to give the canoe its final shape and rigidity.
Ribs and sheathing are generally split and carved from cedar, and the ribs bent to shape after boiling or steaming. Sheathing is usually between 1/8" and 1/4" thick. Ribs average 3/8" thick.
The sheathing is laid into place and held by temporary ribs. The cedar ribs are cut to length and, with their ends securely fitted under the gunwales, are driven into place. This stretches the bark covering very tight. In fact, the finished canoe is as solid as a completely wooden boat.
Placing sheathing and first ribs Driving home last rib
Cedar cap strips are pegged on the tops of the gunwales. After sealing the seams, the canoe is ready to paddle.
Hope you enjoyed this.
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