Introduction: Sailing Canoe Chapter 4: Carve Outrigger and Break Tools

About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific I…
Make an outrigger float (Ama) from an Agave Stalk. Break a planer, an angle grinder, a knife, get cut but not badly. Fix a planer and a ukulele.

It's time to build the ama for our outrigger canoe.
My friend Roland Chen has a lot of local knowledge. He suggested using an Agave (pronounced "Ah-gah-vey") stalk. They are big and light. You can collect them by the side of the road here on Maui. I've also seen them in abundance in Mexico, Kenya and other places.

Continues from:
Chapter 1: Make the Deck, Keel, and Cockpits.
Chapter 2: Make Ribs
Chapter 3: Lash the Frame

Followed by:
Chapter 5: Hull Frame Finishing
Chapter 6: Morton's Oar
Chapter 7: Sew a Skin over the Hull Skeleton and Seal it.
Chapter 8: Keel and Rub Strips
Chapter 9: Dipaakak
Chapter 10: Independent Suspension
Chapter X: Maiden Voyage

Please support the WAM canoe project as they preserve and foster canoe knowledge in the Marshall Islands.

Step 1: Find an Agave Stalk

Agave is a desert plant which looks a bit like century plant or Aloe.
In Mexico they call it "Hennequen" and cultivate it for the fibers in the leaves. High wages in Mexico have made the business unprofitable there. The plants I saw there were gigantic and untended. In Kenya I saw new fields being planted and leaves being harvested from existing ones. I watched the big machine in the factory beat the fibers from the leaves while a river of juice flowed out underneath. Agave juice and syrup are being sold as a health food in the U.S. now. You can get a million gallons of it for free in Kenya.

An agave plant lives many years. When it's had enough of life it puts up a tall stalk up to 30 feet high, produces flowers and seeds and dies. The stalk has a thin outer tube of hard wood like coconut wood. The inner wood is light like balsa wood. After a few years the stalk falls over, rots from the inside out, and cracks. When it's green it's very heavy from water weight. You want a stalk that's dry but not too cracked or rotten.

Star and I were driving down from the volcano, feeling totally drunk on breathable air after getting altitude sick up on the mountain. We saw this plant. We decided to stop and ask the owner if we could have the trunk.

Step 2: Harvest It

The owner was thrilled to hear we had a use for the dead plant in his yard.
And his favorite toy was just the thing to help pull it out. We also used his swede saw, chainsaw, etc...
Agave leaves have sharp thorns along their edges. A dense tangle of these things is a hard place to work. We labored away and got a whole bunch of agave logs from previous generations of plants. He told us to help ourselves to bamboo and prickly pears while we were at it. So we did.

Step 3: The Planer Dies

I was really looking forward to carving these with my electric hand planer. Unfortunately it died after about five minutes. One of the bearings froze and spun. The heat from the spinning bearing melted the plastic case. The bearing seat melted and moved, putting the motor out of alignment. The armature iron core rubbed on the field core, there were bad noises and smoke. Damn.

Step 4: Chainsaw the Ends

Without the planer I decided the shape wasn't going to be anything fancy.
I abandoned the idea of carving the float into a traditional Marshallese shape with a diamond shaped cross-section and finely pointed ends. This log would stay mostly log-shaped.
I bought an electric chainsaw for $10 at a yard sale. That's about what it was worth. The plastic frame of the thing couldn't hold the blade straight. The whole thing shifted around and the chain got really loose. I snugged down one of the bolts holding the blade and it pulled out of the plastic. Damn.
The design got even simpler. I managed to cut the ends off at an angle, making chisel shapes. It was slightly easier than using a hand saw, but not much. I didn't lose any fingers.

As you can see, the chain is hanging off the saw in an unealthy way. I'd add "break chainsaw" to the list of broken tools, but this chainsaw was already pretty sick when I got it.

Step 5: Grinder Gets Sick

I went to the hardware store and asked where the "single-use" power tools were. The clerk smiled and showed me. I bought an angle grinder for $10 and some 50 grit sanding disks.
The disks were too big and rubbed on the guard, so I took the guard off. That's not safe. I nicked myself several times and bled a little.

I sanded the log a bit and cleaned up the chainsaw cuts. I rounded off the many sharp corners on the main hull. Sure enough, after an hour or so the tool gets the hiccups. I decided it was the switch. I pulled the wires out of the switch and shorted them together.
I plugged it in and it worked just fine. Even more unsafe than before. At least I wasn't sharing tools with anyone. An always-on powertool with no blade guard tends to scamper around the room quite a bit when an unsuspecting person plugs it in.

I'm listening to really great lectures from the London School of Economics while I work.
Economists make a distiction between ["normative"] and ordinary "positive" statements.
A normative statement involves a value judgment, such as "good" or "bad", whereas a positive statement is simply a description of reality.
Here are two normative and positive statements concerning safety guards on tools.
You shouldn't remove the guard from your tool.
Everyone removes the guard from their tool.

Step 6: Glue Boards Over the Flats

The ends of the log were fairly rotten inside, but I didn't want to cut the log any shorter.
So I glued pieces of 1/4" luan plywood over the ends.
I mixed some epoxy and thickened it with white flour (you know, from the kitchen) and daubed it around the edges. I nailed a board onto that with nails protruding. I'd pull them out later.
I bent the nails over for extra authority where the board wouldn't stay down.
I left a tail on the board and tied that down to bend it. The cut on the log was slightly crowned.
After the epoxy got hard I flipped the log over, ground off the protruding lip at the front and glued a board on the other side.

Step 7: Fix the Ukulele

While I had some glue mixed up I fixed my ukulele. The front was starting to peel off. I didn't have good clamps so I rested a cast iron umbrella base on it.
I bought this well-used instrument at a yard sale for $3. I tuned it to open D tuning like my banjos and guitars on the mainland. It doesn't matter too much that it's got four strings instead of six.
Open D tuning is D A D F# A D. So if you're missing an A or a D string just play that note on one of the other A or D strings. It takes some getting used to but it sounds good.

Step 8: Clean Up the Ends

I used my Japanese pullsaw to trim off the excess plywood at the ends.
Then I used the unsafe disk sander to round off the edges of the plywood patches.

Step 9: Hatching and Hewing

I cut three square notches in the top of the log. They are 18" apart. (on centers)
I'll be attaching a lengthwise stick over these notches.
The outrigger crossbeams will be lashed to this stick.

The Marshallese words:
"kubaak": outrigger float. "ama" in polynesian or international jargon.
"apet": curved crossbeams going to outrigger. "aka" in polynesian or international jargon.
"ai": the raised boss on the outrigger float that the crossbeams get lashed to.

I sawed the sides of the notches with the pullsaw. Then I used the crooked knife (a modified hoof knife) to pry out the chips and carve the notches.
I flattened the top of the log by cutting more hatch marks with the saw and carving with the crooked knife.

Step 10: Break a Knife

I bought this nice knife at a yard sale for $2. I guess it's not made for woodwork. I broke a chunk out of the blade trying to pry chips out of the log. The knife has a bone handle. When the blade is all broken away maybe I could sharpen the handle.

Step 11: Glue on the Lashing Boss "Ai"

I mixed up plenty of epoxy and white flour to make it thick and glued the stick in place.
I screwed it down with the biggest screws I had. The same screws seen in the next step.
I drilled holes in the stick first so the screws wouldn't split it.

I'm glad the screws are there. When I was cleaning up around the glue joints I found out the hard outer wood of the log has a waxy coating that glue doesn't stick to very well. If I'd known that I would have shaved off more of it before gluing.

Step 12: Fix the Planer

The bearing supply house in town had been closed for the weekend and veteran's day holiday.
Now it was open. I went to town and bought a replacement bearing for my planer for $12. The bearing part number was engraved on the old one in tiny letters "607Z". It's a metric bearing.

The bearing seat on the planer was all melted out of shape.
I needed to fill some epoxy in there or the bearing would wobble all over, the motor would bind, etc.
I put tape on the faces of the bearing so epoxy wouldn't get into the races.

The next time I mixed up some epoxy I epoxied the bearing in place. I jigged it with the tip of a screw to hold it against the un-melted side of the hole. The next day I flaked off the excess glue and peeled the tape off the bearing.
I put the planer back together and fired it up. It still rubbed a little bit, but it planed and didn't smoke.
I planed on the log a little bit for fun, but it didn't really need it.

I ordered an antique planer with a metal body on ebay.

Step 13: Paint!

I painted it with some white oilbased paint.
I got a gallon of the paint for $10 from the Habitat for Humanity "Re Store". It's a builder's thrift store. A good store and it supports a good cause.

Step 14: In the Water

Here's the log in the water. It works well.
It's got enough buoyancy and plenty of rocker.
It doesn't seem to matter that the ends are such a weird shape.
When the fat end is forward its buoyancy keeps it up.
When the skinny end is forward the weight of the other end lifts it.

What are we going to tie this outrigger to? Continue the adventure with Chapter 5: Hull Frame Finishing