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Building a Canoe
Splitting ribs




Construction of a birchbark canoe

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.

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 Peeling bark                                                                                                                             Collecting spruce roots

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     
character than the original bark.  Birch trees do not normally die from the removal of bark.                              

Woodwork for framing is most frequently made of white cedar.  This is a lightweight and decay resistant wood that can be readily be split to form gunwales, ribs, and internal sheathing.  Other woods are sometimes used, especially for thwarts.

Birchbark canoes are usually laced and sewn together with split spruce roots.   Gathering roots in the swamp can be a real experience.

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 Building frame with stakes set                                                                                    Unrolling bark on building bed

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.

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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.

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  Sides pieced up and gunwales being placed                                                                        Bow stem piece assembly




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Lacing gunwales                                                                                                 Gunwale lacing partially completed                                                            

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.

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Sewing gores (an "inside job")                                            

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.

                                                                                                                                                                                 Almost done sewing

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Lacing ends                                                                                 

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.

                                                                                                                                                                                           Ready for ribs

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  Carving ribs and sheathing                                                                                                Bending ribs after boiling                                             

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.

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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


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Pitching seams                                                                                                                                  Ready to paddle                                                                                                                                                       

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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Last modified: November 25, 1999