Carving a Cedar Dugout Canoe - the Souquillou Project (1)





Introduction: Carving a Cedar Dugout Canoe - the Souquillou Project (1)

The coming months, I've decided to be busy.

I've decided to do exactly what a few, well, 'dreamers' in ol' times wanted to avoid at all cost: fighting on multiple fronts at once. Historic stuff, you know.

So, instead of concentrating my efforts on one single project at a time, I'll be busy fighting on the worksites in The Green Fields Of France & In The Dutch Mountains, I'll be busy fighting zombies in & around our house & I'll be preparing The Invasion Of Great Britain.

Yep. The Invasion Of Great Britain.

On my own.

It won't be a surprise, it won't be at night, it won't be in silence & it won't be stealthy.

It will be me & maybe, a handful of lucky Brothers In Arms - against their will, probably, but lucky anyway.

We will arrive by daylight, we will be highly visible, we will be extremely noisy and we will have no fear.

Dear People Of Great Britain, Bricobart will come your way. I will come in peace and I will not stay a 100 years. Only one day, or so - the time to refuel & to bring some democracy - and then I will turn my bow and push it back to where I came from.

Don't try to stop me - I'll reach your coastline anyway since the coming months, I'll be busy building Souquillou - my cedar dugout canoe.

Wanna follow it on facebook? Go ahead!

Step 1: Sooky You

Souquillou (say 'SOOKY YOU') will be inspired by the wonderful tradition of the Haida People of the Pacific West Coast and soaked into Old World Custom Creativity - sometimes also called 'beer'.

'Le souquillou' is the name used in South France for the small & hard vine twigs that are cut every winter to rejuvenate the plants. These dung-like pieces of wood are superb fuel for grilling and spread a wonderful smell while they burn.

I cut thousands of those souquillous, a few winters ago. For almost no money I ruined my back and blistered my hands to blood in those wonderful vineyards. Snipsnapping 12 hours a day, enjoying the smell of the land and the promise of new life. Since this project is somehow born over there it sounded like a respectful idea to call my canoe that way.

The Souquillou Project is not just about the building of a canoe, it's a project about transforming a tree into a seaworthy vessel and get it about 150 km (about 100 miles) from the inland of North France to the white cliffs of the stormy coast of South England.

This crazy project will cover many months - even years, maybe - and the progress will be documented in many Instructables.

La Bassée (France) - Folkstone (UK) in a dugout canoe. No kidding.

I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I do, and I'm looking forward to your support!

Image sources:

Step 2: Wazawidu - With the Drunk'n Sailor

Building a wooden canoe is one of those projects I've been wanting to do for many years.

You know, it all started with a powertape kayak I built in our small appartment in South France. 'Wazawidu' was a 4m long vessel, made with a pvc structure & almost 1/2 km (!) of powertape.

Not the building was the greatest challenge, it was the 'how the hell are we going to get this outside?!' which was the most painful - knowing there was also the pressure of a 'you've got one hour to get this outahere!' and a 'what kind of man decides to build A KAYAK in the living room without talking to his wife BEFORE?!'.

Wazawidu behaved great. We took it almost 10 miles into open sea and it was a small miracle that we didn't cross the coast patrol - though I heard afterwards that I should have got it registered, passing through piles of paperwork and having to pay hundreds of euros to get my own creation in the arms of Mother Sea.

Whatever. That pvc adventure tasted for a lot more and my dreams of a real wooden boat even had a great influence on our choice of a new home.

'Bart needs a barn for his boat', and so we searched for a house with a barn - my wife is very comprehensive, I must say...

Finally, we found what we were looking for and what started as a wild dream became hardcoreality.

But, having a barn is one thing, building a boat another.

'Bart needs a cedar', also.

Problem: we're living in Europe. Not in Britisch Colombia.

So I asked my best friend - he's in the wood business - to find me a cedar, anyway. You never know, you know.

One week later he called me. 'Bart, I've got your cedar. No questions.'

I didn't ask any. The only thing I can tell is that we had to be 'very fast & very furious' to get the job done.

And that we had to use false names. And a car from someone who had it from someone who knew someone.

Whatever: we got that cedar, and we transported it all the way to our barn.




Ready for the next episode.

Step 3: Why Britain?

A journalist asked me 'why I would take that canoe all the way to Britain?'

'Because to America would take me too much time' I answered. Too bad, he didn't see the humor it.

Building a canoe is one thing. Traveling with that canoe another.

Building a traditional wooden canoe will be the most ambitious wood project I've ever done by now, and it would be a missed chance to stop the project at the end of this.

Building Souquillou is only the beginning.

This canoe will be built as a tool, and not as a display. Aim is to make speed, not to make selfies.

Since we live nearby a series of canals that can be followed about 84km to reach the sea, it sounded like a decent idea to travel into salty waters. From the inland to the coast.

But. Every day multiple ferries use these waters to go to England, crossing about 65km of open water.

If a ferry can do it, Souquillou can do it - craftman's logic.

Yes I know, The Channel is one of the busiest waterways in the world. Of course I know there's a high risk of collisioning with, let's say, an oil tanker. Of course I know I need a permit and I won't forget to find an assistance boat to keep an eye on us.

Details, to be worked out. Step by step.

Step 4: When a Cedar Is Not a Cedar

When the trunk was finally dropped in our barn, I started to read everything I could about that fascinating tree species the First Nations used to build their famous vessels.

The more I read and the more pictures I studied, the more I felt that something seemed terribly wrong.

My cedar didn't look like those cedars on the Pacific West Coast.

The bark looked different, the needles looked different, the size looked different and the looks were totally different.

Definitely, we weren't talking about the same tree and whatever it was that was laying in our barn, it wasn't what I asked for.

I figured out that the species in Britisch Columbia is known as the 'Western Red Cedar' (Thuja plicata) - a member of the cypress family, while I had a cultivated version on the 'Lebanon Cedar' (Cedrus libani) - a member of the pine family.

Yes they're both trees, yes they're even both conifers, but beside a common ancestor - and weird enough the same English name - they really have few things in common.

Just when I dialed my friend's phone number to question his botanic competences I read that also the Lebanon cedar was used in commercial & military ship building.

Souquillou WILL be a military ship, and so The Souquillou Project stayed The Souquillou Project.

Same name, different tree.

Instead of studying the papers of Lewis & Clark, I'm studying the history of the Middle East now - which is far more complicated btw.

Step 5: The Roof Is on Fire

The biggest property of the trunk is - of course - it's weight: over 2 tons, which is normally more than 2.000 kilograms.

At the end of the road it's weight will be reduced by more than 90% - between 100 & 120 kilograms, which is still quite a lot.

Two tons isn't something you can lift before breakfast every morning, and since I didn't want to play with car jacks I started thinking about building a small crane.

From another project - my wife and I we restored a windmill, in the past - I had a few manual winches left, and those devices are just perfect to build a custom indoor crane.

All you need is such a winch and a handful of pullys - custom made with some scrap steel and 'those steel wheels from a rolling door'.

Fix the whole to the roof structure and lifting you will. With one winch 'Winch 2' you'll manage the Y-axis, with the other 'Winch 1' the X-axis. If ever I need a 3rd winch, I'll probably call it 'Winch 4'.


Step 6: Tools Can Be Helpful

This project didn't start when that cedar went down. It started when I made the first tool to carve that boat out of it.

Despite the use of power tools to speed up the building process, a lot of work will be done using simple and/or custom made hand tools.

Adzes, axes & carving knives will sculpt the most delicate parts, and I've put a handful of crooked knives & drawknives on my Sookylist to carve the smallest corners of the canoe.

Details will be more important than ever - Sooky is a boat, not a coffin.

I really hope my wife will read this I'ble before my birthday party...


Step 7: More Barn Improvements

Our barn will be a worksite the months to come, and so a few improvements were needed to make it all workable.

I wanted it to be a place where we could have a good time. Friends will come over - or will be forced to come over, we'll carve together - shut up 'n keep on carvin', discuss about wood & The Invasion - but still keep on carvin' anyway, we'll have a few beers or rhums, probably stop carving & likely start to overestimate our chances.

I needed a sturdy table but I didn't want to pay for it. The keyword is pallets - and it turned out to be a very useful feature to store a lot of scrap wood, btw.

I also wanted to make the area open to anyone. Overall, this project is all about having a good time with the cedar trunk as pretext. So I used a few other trunks to make a bench & made another one with more pallets - you didn't see thàt comin' - installed a fire pit and cleared the whole area from zombies.

Storing those blades & axes in a toolbox is good, but throwing them on a stump is better. So rock them, those stumps.

Shopping carts are great to protect vegetables from hungry yaks, but they get perfect when they're used to keep those ash trunks dry - small wood to make handles you know. Some people use them for shopping, also.

A vice in a workshop is nice, but a lonesome heavy anchored vice is one of the best tools to have. So glad I found thàt one, and maybe I'll even add this one. Horespower is what we need.

With all these features I feel our barn is ready.

That (Lebanon) cedar seems ready, also.


Now I'm waiting for the next break between two worksites to get started for real.

Dear People Of Great Britain, we'll meet very soon.

Step 8: Makin' Waves

This project won't be possible without sponsoring. Tools are needed, a trailer needs to be built, assistance boats organised and most important of all, I want to install the loudest mist horn on the market on Sooky You's bow!

So I'm looking for partnerships to get the whole financed and the best way to get the mice out of their holes is to open the jar with peanut butter.

Read: I'm mobilising the press.

Here's a list (2 is a crowd) of press releases (French only):

Step 9: Coming Next...

The weeks to come the trunk will be debarked, faceted and the outside will be shaped.

You can follow it here, or patiently wait for the next I'ble.

See you soon!

UPDATE 12.02.2016.

The trunk is finally as straight as I could get it. One picture every minute. 846 pics or not more than 14 hours of planing. It looked a lot more in reality, though...



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    Been there done that want to do it again. This brings back memories from half a century ago.

    I was always interested in native cultures and the family indulged this interest with lots of books. The discovery that a boat could be made out of a log with only primitive tools fascinated me. Every trip to the park I examined every log as a potential canoe. While on a picnic I found what could only be described as a canoe waiting to be built. Along side a new roadbed was a 7-foot log 20 inches across. The log was small enough Jim and I could roll it but there was no way we could ever carry it home without help. It did not take much convincing to get dad to help with this grand plan. After much effort we drove down the soft roadbed close to the log with the 59 Chevy. This was a huge sedan with a trunk you could park a VW inside, the giant fins made the car look like it should fly at high speeds. We rolled the log close to the car and with all our effort tipped it up on end. When we flipped it into the trunk the crash was scary as the log stuck up at an angle and the rear of the car settled into the soft dirt. We were too committed to leave our canoe now but the car was stuck. A few branches some digging with bare hands and rocking the car with spinning wheels extracted us from our hole. The trunk gasket was never the same after that. The best part was we made it home without any nosy police asking questions. I do recall mom leaving several permanent handprints in the dashboard with this Sunday adventure. She kept calling dad by his full name like she did us kids when we were really in trouble.

    I was in heaven--my own log that would someday be a canoe. I had read how the natives burned out the canoes to hollow them and how they used an adz to chop them. We did not have an adz but we did have matches. First we chopped with the hatchet a shallow depression then used the wood chips to build a fire. The chips burned great except heat has an annoying habit of going up when we wanted it to burn down into the log. The more chips we added the more heat we created and only charred the log a little. Being quick to try something new we brought out the blowtorch. This was a marvelous piece of equipment with a brass tank and heavy duty black phenolic handle. You filled it with gasoline then pumped it up to pressurize the fuel. There was a small pan under the orifice that the flame came out where you lit gasoline to preheat and vaporize the fuel. When it worked correctly it made an 8 to 10 inch flame with a blue inner cone. This was hot enough to braze metal or melt solder. Just the element of danger of pans of gas and pumping the tank was big excitement for a 8-year-old. With all the heat from the blowtorch the wood charred and flamed but remained in the same place. It became obvious you needed a lot of patience to burn out a canoe from a log even with modern appliances. We needed an adz. Next weekend we went to the best hardware store in Houston they had no idea what an adz was. They did have a small rock pick which dad bought. It became obvious even with an adz it would take a lot of patience to make a canoe out of a log. There was a silver lining to this project.

    We began it in the driveway and lived in a suburban neighborhood. That meant lots of folks would walk by the canoe and watch. They would always ask what we were making and after a few minutes of watching we would invite them to have a turn. They would chop until their first blister had formed then go on their way just about the time a new visitor would come up. I was not as clever as Tom Sawyer and never asked them for any trade items for the pleasure of having earned the blister of distinction of a dugout canoe builder.

    When you are 8 years old 3 weeks seems like a long time. Finally the launch day arrived. We wheelbarrowed the log boat to the back yard swimming pool. As the chief instigator I was the test pilot. The disappointment as the canoe flipped me out instantly was huge. The hollow log was stable in the inverted position. Several more attempts were only marginally better. We went back to the driveway and reshaped the bottom a little flatter pointed the bow and stern and carved a face on the prow. The reality was the log was too narrow. However by the end of the summer we could not only paddle the canoe but also even stand up in it. We learned the log canoe had not changed--the paddlers had changed!

    Little brother Louis in the canoe.

    Are you this guy? :

    Yes I had forgotten about that blog and have not looked at it in years.
    I wrote that story 10 years ago for my grand kids. It has expanded into a series of stories for them (when they learn to read.) The collection of stories is several hundred pages of lessons learned from the school of hard knocks. That translates to a lot of stupid things we did with boats in the past 63 years. I keep hoping to find an illustrator as some of the crazy things we did are not documented with photographs.

    I recently built a canoe for my son and wrote about the shovel nosed canoe experiment on instructables.

    Thank you Dr. Joe for this story. I feel honored that you shared it with me - and with the rest of the world - and I'm happy that this project woke up those memories, respect!

    We don't live on the same continent & we probably don't have the same age, but we have this special thing in common: never willing to grow up and a rockhard believe in our own skills. You're still that little boy that wanted to make his canoe, the only thing that's different is that you're having a driving licence, now. And the right to drink beer.

    We're gonna build this canoe. And this project won't be finished untill I feel Britisch pebbles under its bow and, if ever you'd make it to Europe: your beer is in the cooler...

    I hope we get to share a canoe trip some day. A few ideas have crossed this little boys mind since then (concerning dugout canoes). After some research on native canoe designs in the Pacific Northwest there were many designs. The large big water canoes were often head canoes and the whitewater boats were the shovel-nosed canoes. The maritime museum in Astoria Oregon has a great display of a work of art. It is obvious the native designer knew more about canoe design then I ever will. The hull is one finger thick at the gunwale. The hull was flared to make the waves bounce out of the way. The captain had recesses carved for his knees to lock his body into the hull. In order to flare the hull with it as thin as it was he must have destroyed a lot of logs before he discovered how far he could stretch it. Colored pegs were driven into the hull from the outside so when the adze exposed the peg they knew to not carve any deeper. The bottom was three fingers thick. I was totally mesmerized by the quality of this craft. Yet it was the most under displayed craft in the museum.

    To flare the canoe they filled them with water and hot rocks while they built fires around the outer hull. Robert Harjuceder is a tribal carver I follow on Facebook.

    He sent me drawings I used to craft a plywood shovel-nosed canoe.

    The locals used a hand adze shaped like a letter D the cutter was at the bottom of the vertical. The adze was held along the curved part.

    We still have canoe races in town. The next one is in 2 weeks.

    I always enjoy chatting with the builders and seeing their tools.

    You know, I'm planning to come over, one day, and I really hope it won't be one of those dreams I'm just pushing forward like a glacier pushing his terminal morene. That road trip through the west of the US, starting in San Fransisco and cruisin' to the Bering Strait... I'll let you know, promised!

    Thanx for those links, btw. A site that really made me run into this is the site of the Jayhaw Institute -

    There's a series of videos about the construction of a dugout canoe and that's exactly how I want to carve sooky. It's elegant & well thought, there's just one concern: it doesn't have to be a copycat of one of those native canoes since it's not my culture & not my background. It has to be customised, so, and since I really don't have a clue of this creative step in the proces it's just one piece of excitement more.

    Next week I'll start debarking & calibrating the trunk. Yay!!!

    Hey Bart, how's this canoe project going? Britain is in total political disarray at the moment and desperately needs you to invade and conquer. You could bring us back into the kingdom of Europe ..... Please? ...... We did not really mean to leave .... Please help!

    The project's been put on hold since the author doesn't stop pouring concrete & drinking composter! I hope finding some time this summer to give it a big step forward and maybe there have been some political changes, the isles are still there and the challange's still unchanged. The Sooky is boiling inside its coffin, once dug out it'll spit its fire from its iron Trump and Make Europe Big Again!

    I hope to start shaping the outside before the years ends. Stay tuned!