Introduction: Skin-On-Frame Outrigger Sailing Canoe. Chapter 2: Make the Ribs

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…
Gather Mesquite and Ironwood branches. Shave them to proper thickness and bend them into canoe ribs. Break a few in the process. Learn about invasive plants in Hawaii.

Continues from Chapter 1: Make the Deck, Keel, and Cockpits.

This episode is followed by:
Chapter 3: Lash the frame
Chapter 4: Carve Outrigger and Break Tools
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

We'll be bending ribs from green Kiawe (w'pedia) (the Hawaiian name. Pronounced "ki-ah-vey". It's the same as mesquite) shoots and Ironwood saplings. These are invasive species in Hawaii. Feel good about harvesting them. The kiawe seed pods are tasty and show promise as a treatment for diabetes. Try eating them.

Gather a lot of green sticks 1/2" to 3/4" thick and at least 52" long. "Green" in this case means living ones. Dead ones don't bend nearly as well. You want the sticks to be straight with as few branches as possible. Look in dark shady parts of the woods. Saplings and branches in dark places try to grow toward the sun and put out very few branches.

Thanks to Star for photos and much collaboration.

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

Step 1: 1, 2, Buckle Your Shoe

You'll need shoes with hard soles to walk among these trees. Kiawe trees have hard sharp thorns. They shed thorny branches onto the ground. Say the word "Kiawe" to anyone in Hawaii. They'll shudder and tell you a story about pain. One version of how the plant got here is that missionaries brought it to make the locals wear shoes. The other story is that ranchers brought it for cattle fodder. According to the book Plants and Animals of Hawaii they all came from a single tree planted by a priest in Honolulu in 1828. The pods were good fodder for cattle and horses, who spread the seeds in their dung. Now it's all over the place.

Most of the straight sticks we cut had smaller thorns than this. Some had none at all. The ones growing in the dark seemed to have fewer thorns than the ones that grew in sunny spots.

The first time we went stick hunting I wore crocs. Star wore slippers (flipflops). I got thorns in my feet. They embed in the foam sole and come with you for another jab on the next step. One broke off in my foot, swelled up and got infected. No good. Kiawe is known for that. Next trip out I wore felt-soled tabis. Star wore thick rubber soled reef shoes.

Step 2: 5, 6, Pick Up Sticks

We went into the woods at Baldwin Beach Park on Maui. Like most of Hawaii, pretty much every plant there is an invasive weed introduced by some well-meaning ignoramus. Native species account for about 2% of the flora on the islands.

We walked around looking for the right kind of sticks. Ever try looking for a stick in the woods?
It's not that easy. When you're not looking for a particular stick it seems like the whole place is made of sticks. A whole forest of them. But just try looking for a certain shape or size.

You may end up like this person described in the book "Walden":
There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life. He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Before he had found a stock in all respects suitable the city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, and he sat on one of its mounds to peel the stick. Before he had given it the proper shape the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, and with the point of the stick he wrote the name of the last of that race in the sand, and then resumed his work. By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and ere he had put on the ferule and the head adorned with precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times.
To read more about how that situation turned out, search for "stick" on this page. Thanks for the passage Moana!

Step 3: 7, 8, Lay Them Straight

After looking for sticks for a while we developed the eye. I yelled "hey, straight sticks are a different color!" And even without my glasses I could see where in the woods the straight sticks were. I could look through a thicket of crooked sticks and wrong size sticks and see the good straight ones beyond.
Now when I drive along, I see straight sticks in the woods by the roadside.

When a big Kiawe tree falls over, many of its branches die. The horizontal trunk puts out a lot of shoots that head for the sky as fast as they can. We'd get a few sticks from a single trunk like this.

We cut them with a Japanese pullsaw and a machete. We tried paring the thorns and little branches off with a knife, but the machete is a lot faster. Just shwing shwing shwing the machete along the side of the stick you want to clean and all that other stuff comes off.

We got a dozen in a range of sizes, and a few knotty ones to experiment with. We got a few ironwood and Haole Koa saplings (more invaders) also.

We went home to bend them and see what worked. I broke most of them in that process and went back to the woods for a few dozen more.

Step 4: 9, 10, Do It All Again

See this broken rib?
Don't peel your sticks yet. We found that leaving the bark on helps a lot when bending.
Especially leaving the bark on the outside of the bend is good. It keeps the wood from splitting off on the outside of the bend.

When I made the Cozy Boat I peeled my sticks right away, bent them cold. It was pretty easy due to the wide radius of the bend.

These ribs need a sharp bend , 7" or 8" radius, and I broke a pile of ribs while trying to bend them cold.
Boiling water helps a lot, but I found I couldn't bend a rib much more than 1/2" thick. Width didn't seem to matter much.
So I freehand ripped my sticks on the tablesaw so they had a flat on the inside of the bend and none of them were more than 1/2" thick.

Step 5: Peel Appeal

Eventually you might want to peel some sticks.
Your ribs might bend a lot more easily than mine.
Your boat might have might have a less sharp bend in the ribs.

An Ekco brand vegetable peeler is good for some types of sticks. For the ones I had, scraping with a sharp knife on edge seemed to work better.

Step 6: Knee Bends

The stick will break if you just grab the two ends and pull them together. Thats because the greatest leverage is in the center and all the bending will happen there. So when you're bending wood, do it over your knees to spread the bend out. If one spot seems to be bending less, put your knee on it.
If a spot is bending too much, put the pressure elsewhere.
Give the wood time to move. You'll get the feeling of the wood fibers flowing around to equalize the tension and pressure.

If your stick has knots from branches you cut off, try to put these on the inside of the bend. Especially avoid having a knot in the middle outside of the bend.

Bend a green stick until you start to worry about it, then tie it and set it aside.

Step 7: Make a Bow

Tie a cord from end to end to hold the bend.
Use knots you can untie easily. You'll be doing a lot of that.
I bent a lot of sticks green and set them aside.

You just made a bow! The sticks you haven't bent yet are arrows. Not very good ones. The Boyscout saying is "Any bow good bow. Arrow heap much work." Except in Papua. There's a reed that grows there that makes great arrows. All you have to do is cut it to length. It's so light you don't even need feathers. Whatever you use for a tip will be heavier and the arrow will fly straight.

Anyway, back to the ribs.

Step 8: Danger, Poison!

Make sure you won't poison yourself by boiling the wrong plant.

In Florida there's a story about campers who roasted hotdogs on magnolia branches.
They didn't know magnolia was poisonous. They died.
There's another story about big-wall climbers who were camped on a ledge halfway up a cliff. They thought it would be funny to smoke some flowers growing there. Their bodies had to be retrieved by helicopter.

Not every natural thing is good for you. Find out what you're cutting and what its properties are before coating your mom's skillet with its sap. The ones we got are harmless.

Step 9: Boil Water, Rhett!

Steam or hot water are good for bending wood. It softens the lignin that binds the wood fibers together.
I used a big skillet to boil my water.
If the stick isn't curved enough to dip into the water, ladle the hot water over it with a spatula.

Don't soften the middle point of the stick too much, that part wants to bend and might break. It's the sides of the rib that need softening to spread the bend out.

It takes a while for the hot water to do its magic. There are various theories about how long you need to cook wood per 1/4" of thickness. Once you know what it's supposed to feel like (by breaking some) you'll be able to tell if it's been softened enough.

Step 10: Cutting Corners

No, I'm not slashing my wrist. Don't slash yours. And don't splash boiling water anywhere it shouldn't be.

I'm "tillering" the rib, which means shaving the inside of the bend where I want it to bend more.

Then dip in the boiling water, bend over your knees, tighten the bowstring, tiller it some more, then back in the water, repeat repeat repeat.

Until suddenly you realize it's done and looks like it's supposed to.

Step 11: Let It Set Up

I was lucky to have a sink of the right shape to jam the ribs in when they were done.
Then I cinched up the cord to hold it or jammed it between the gunwales of the boat so it would stay bent properly.

Next time I think I'll make a jig to form ribs on.
Probably another jig to dry them on so they'll hold the shape exactly. That would make the process go a lot more quickly. I've seen Algonquin Indians in Canada jam freshly bent canoe ribs into an existing canoe to cool and set up. That's a good method.

Step 12: You Have Ribs!

Look how magnificent they are!

If you're God, you may now try to make women out of them.
If you're a mere human, make a boat. Boats are female after all.

Depending on the culture. In Indonesia, some are male and some are female.
Inuit boats are female because the skins usually come from female animals.
The males tend to fight too much and their skins get all scarred up. So they're no good for boats.
The gender of the boat can be important. I've heard that an Inuit hunter was supposed to go visit his kayak after making love with his wife. He needed to show the boat some attention so it wouldn't get jealous and kill him on the next hunting trip.

Now that's taken care of, what now?

Let's Lash those ribs to your canoe!