Crafting a canoe from firewood

"Hold your finger right there, don't move it." We'd been rubbing our fingers over the smooth, silky hull and had felt a slight imperfection. Out came the sander.

“Hold your finger right there, don’t move it.” We’d been rubbing our fingers over the smooth, silky hull and had felt a slight imperfection. Out came the sander.

It’s spellbinding to see a wood strip canoe materialize. Strip by strip the canoe comes alive.

Yukon beetle-killed firewood is central to the Briggs family. We use this dry, durable wood to feed our fireplace. We also turn it into furniture, wooden bowls, and steak or sandwich boards, or we build it into cabins or shops. This wood shimmers in the sun.

It was a natural progression, when my husband, Ken Briggs, contemplated his big load of beetle-killed firewood, to pronounce, “Why not use firewood to make my canoe?”

It was foreordained: a pile of 20-foot logs, requiring a few steps prior to gluing wood. Chosen logs were sawed on a portable band saw mill. Full 1×10 inch boards were cut, then planed down to 7/8 of an inch thick. These boards were then cut into 1/4-inch thick strips with as thin a blade as possible, not being particularly careful in handling, as he required resilient boards. Finally, each strip was milled with a bead and cove so they’d fit together.

A pile of milled spruce strips makes not a boat. A hull-shaped form is needed. Ken’s formwork was built on a 2×10, called a strongback. A strongback is “like concrete foundations for your house,” Ken says. “Any defect will ricochet all the way down the line, and it will cause endless problems.”

A strongback is a straight level base that the formwork of the boat is fastened to. The formwork, cut out of half-inch plywood from a template Ken designed, was nailed to the strongback. As Ken said, “It doesn’t have to be off a lot to have a crooked boat. You really have to use a string line to line up forms. Everything must line up.”

Next came gluing spruce strips onto the formwork and nailing them with miniscule nails to keep them in place. For interest, some cedar strips were added.

While Ken worked on his strip canoe he recounted how his passion for boats began as a small child, dreaming about and playing with boats. His grandad further fueled it by helping him build a boat, and instructing him on how to sharpen and care for tools. Those lessons transferred into realizing the importance of accuracy and patience, as in, gluing strips of wood to the hull.

Putting strips on didn’t take that long. It’s an engrossing, exacting and rather magical process. At first there is one single strip. Then slowly the hull begins to take shape. With every strip, mostly spruce with an occasional cedar insert, the project moves closer to a finished hull.

Spruce proved to be strong. The 16-foot lengths took all the bending and twisting required. At the centre of the hull Ken made joints, using long tapers.

Once all the strips were glued and nailed, all nails were removed and miniscule holes and imperfections

or cracks were filled with an epoxy and sawdust wood filler.

This next stage: patience and sanding. Initial smoothing was with a 50-grit sanding disk on a side grinder. Next 80 grit on a palm sander did the job. When the hull was judged smooth, Ken raised the grain by wetting down the entire boat. Once dry, he palm sanded using 120-grit paper.

Finally came fibreglassing. The six-ounce fiberglass cloth was draped over the entire hull and clamped in place. Ken applied epoxy resin, which is generally used by boat builders as it bonds well to wood. (Of course it was minus 30 Celcius outside. It was crucial to keep the shop very warm.) Sanding continued, between thin coats of epoxy. The final sanding was with wet 400-grit paper on the palm sander. That made a white paste, which had to be washed off.

This labour of love took weeks, and once done I could conceive a glossy form sliding through the water reflecting its shine.

Ken stood back from his work and said, “If you get joy out of spending time and putting a little touch or something special into your creation, then you should build a strip canoe. One shouldn’t be intimidated by it. Even if your job isn’t perfect the wood comes to your rescue.”

Now – 10 weeks later – Ken’s doing trim work – gunnels, seats, thwart, decks. The final touch will be spar varnish for protection from the sun.

In contemplating this woodworking project Ken remarks, “It’s nice to use Yukon wood to make a canoe and not buy the materials. Maybe you have to be a bit of a dreamer to have a canoe like this. There are Kevlar and composite plastics that are excellent.”

He adds, “If you have any artist in you, you’ll love a strip canoe. It fits in with the trees and streams, with the natural world. When you build something you put a bit of yourself into it. It’s not mass produced. If you build in some little flourish then every time you look at it you’ll smile.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukon RCMP are making an appeal for information in the case of Mary Ann Ollie, who was murdered in Ross River last year and whose case remains unsolved. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce executive director Susan Guatto and program manager Andrei Samson outside the chamber office in downtown Whitehorse Feb. 23. (Stephanie Waddell, Yukon News)
When business models shift

Whitehorse chamber offers digital marketing workshop

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The aesthetics and economics of highway strips

One of the many cultural experiences you enjoy while driving from Whitehorse… Continue reading

Submitted
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone.
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone. (Submitted)
Yukon kids express gratitude for nature, pets and friends in art campaign

More than 50 children submitted artwork featuring things they are grateful for

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read