Introduction: Cedar Strip Canoe

About: Hobbyist, multidisciplinary...
In 2012 I acquired a free canoe off a guy on Craigslist. It had been a canvas back canoe in a past life. It was really beat up on the outside but the inside showed it had some good bones, ribs to be more specific. I considered redoing the canvas but I instead decided to make it a cedar stripper by gluing the strips to the ribs. To the best of my knowledge this is a very uncommon approach. The end result is a very beautiful if somewhat heavy canoe. It paddles wonderfully and gets me compliments everywhere I go.

Step 1: Tear Down and Assess

First I evaluated what could be saved and what couldn't. The leather weave seats were too dried out and flimsy. It broke my heart to remove them but they had to go. The rear stem was rotten, and the wide cedar planks of the hull were also beyond hope.

I removed the stem and made a new one out of a piece of plywood. I glued the new one in with epoxy.

I left the cedar planks in place and only removed them as needed to install the cedar strips. The old planks helped keep the shape intact as the new skin went on.

Step 2: Stripping

I ordered my strips over the phone from an outfit called Noah's marine. They were a pleasure to deal with. I decided to run them in a horizontal pattern beginning from the lowest point of the gunwales. This was for purely aesthetic reasons.

I peeled off enough of the cedar planks to accommodate the first few rows and sanded the ribs smooth. I used plain white wood glue and bar clamps. The whole process took about three months. Most of that was spent waiting for glue to dry. In a very few where the strips had significant twisting I needed screws to hold them in place. That left some small holes that were later filled in with wood putty.

If I had access to a heated workspace I'm sure it would have been much quicker. Towards the end (in December, in Canada) the cold temperatures meant leaving the strip clamped for several hours to dry. It was long, and painstaking and by the end my jokes about going "stripping" out in the carport were pretty stale. I didn't bother trying to get fancy and match the tones of the seperate strips as they were laying in a pile on my living room floor. I just grabbed whatever was next. On nice days I let each one dry for about 45 minutes. I hope you appreciate the photos of the rows of clamps as much as I do. :)

Step 3: Closing the Gap

So because I'm not that good of a woodworker there was a wobbly gap along the centre where the two halves meet. I decided to fill this gap and fill in the mess where an outer stem should go.

I duct taped all along the inside seem and filled from the outside. I used making tape and newspaper all over the outside to protect from spills etc. before applying the putty I painted a fine layer of liquid epoxy. The liquid epoxy penetrates the wood slightly and provides a chemical bond between the putty and the wood.

After all this cured I sanded the entire hull smooth and shaped the bow and stern into a nice shape. I used a rasp and file for the really tough bits and finished with 400 grit sandpaper.

There were some gaps here and there between strips but nothing of any structural concern. I went over the whole thing filling in gaps and screw holes with wood putty. I then hand sanded again with 400 grit sandpaper.

I'm sure purists of cedar strip canoes get nauseous over this approach and I wanted to hide my shame so I decided to paint a strip over the clumsy weaving line where the two halves of the boat met. I ran a string line from end to end and at its furthest from centre the epoxy putty deviated by two cm. I marked out 2cm from the string along both sides and masked off the rest of the boat. I painted a green line and in the end I think it looks quite sharp.

Step 4: Glassing/sealing

The outer hull was fiber glassed with 6 oz cloth, double layered on the nose, the tail and on the flattish portion on the bottom just so that it's more durable when running into things or beaching the canoe. It was pretty cold that week and it took 3-4 days to really cure. After the glassing I laid two more Coats of epoxy, sanding between layers. After that I did 2 coats of spar varnish which gives it some UV protection.

Step 5: Sealing the Inside

I flipped the canoe onto one side and groaned, now realizing how much was left to do. I removed the old seats, they were beautiful when they were new, but the leather was dried and cracked, and the joinery was failing. Nothing lasts forever.

I sanded the ribs down, doing my best to get them all without damaging the cedar. My big concern over time is that there's no fibreglass protecting the cedar on the inside. The ribs are ash and can take a fair beating but cedar is pretty soft. I'm sure time will catch up and make me look like a fool eventually but for now the cedar and the ribs look quite nice together. After sanding all the ribs on the bottom half (5 hours!) I painted on a nice thick coat of epoxy. I then flipped it around, cried a little, spent another 5 hours with my head tucked into a boat with a power sander and epoxied the other half.

Step 6: New Seats

For the new seats I made a couple frames out of hemlock and plywood. I unfortunately didn't get too many photos of that part. Anyhow I left a sunken area and did some inlays with some extra cedar left over from the canoe. I clamped it all down like a sandwich with a piece of parchment so the clamping block wouldn't stick. I gave it some accents with the same green paint and sealed them up with epoxy. I put a box under the front seat just to put important items (cold beer) somewhere near at hand. They honestly aren't very comfortable but they look pretty I think.

Step 7: Gunwales and Decks

I didn't like how the gunwales looked with exposed cedar strips so I attached some hemlock trim to the corners with epoxy and clamps.

I did another cedar inlay on both decks, also attached with epoxy.

I filled in all the gaps and points with epoxy putty and shaped it all by hand with a rasp and file av's sanding blocks.

I gave it some detail with the same green paint and sealed it all with epoxy and two coats of spar varnish.

Step 8: Conclusion

I had a great time building/refurbishing this boat. It was expensive but I saved myself not having to make a strong back. Time will tell if my method was sound. The canoe is a little on the heavy side but it's very sturdy, stable, and presentable. It can hold enough cargo, including firewood, for a 3 day camping trip. It got me from fairy lake (on Vancouver island, British Columbia), down the San Juan river and into the bay in port renfrew. An amazing day trip if you ever get the chance. I could have bought a used canoe on Craigslist for $300, but then you'd never have a total stranger say "wow! That's a f***ing nice canoe bro!"

I doubt I'll ever build another cedar stripper, or even another canoe, but I will make more boats, more mini bikes, and all manner of things in between. Thanks for reading. Take it easy :)
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