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Building Birchbark Canoes
Step by Step Instructions
These step by step instructions on how to build birchbark canoes are simplistic but they will give you the general idea of what's involved. If you've actually found the tree, peeled the bark and set up your work space I think you probably have what it takes to figure it all out anyway!
- Step 1
- Lay the soaked bark on the ground with the white outer side facing up and temporarily weigh the corners with rocks to hold it in place. Then carefully center the pre-built frame on top of the birch bark. At this point, pile stones on top of the frame to hold everything securely but go ahead and remove the stones that have weighted the corners.
- Step 2
- Carefully hold the bark erect and drive stakes into the ground along both sides of the frame to hold the bark upright around the frame. So that the bark will eventually fit snugly around the frame you'll have to cut several gores in appropriate places before you drive the stakes into their permanent positions. Pieces of extra bark may have to be sewn onto the original piece at this point if it isn't big enough.
- Step 3
- Build the inner gunwales...they should be the exact size of the original frame...and temporarily clamp them into position at an appropriate height on the stakes that are holding the bark vertical.
- Step 4
- Build the outer gunwales and sandwich the bark between them and the inner gunwales. Make and mortise the thwarts into the gunwales temporarily. They will have to be removed later to lift the building frame from the bottom of the canoe.
- Step 5
- Mark exact 2" increments along the gunwales on both sides and with split black spruce root, lash the gunwales to the bark leaving two inches between each lashing.
- Step 6
- Split an appropriate number of 2" pieces of cedar into strips that are about 1/4" or 3/8" thick and carve them to shape with a crooked knife.
- Step 7
- These are the ribs and must be soaked in hot water for several days, then steamed and temporarily bent into position between the gunwale lashings and cut to a final size. Thin cedar sheathing is placed between the ribs and the bark to give the birch bark canoes extra strength. The sheathing is thinner than the ribs and wider...maybe three inches or so.
- Step 8
- Remove the frame and lash the thwarts into their permanent positions.
- Step 9
- Build stem pieces for either end of the canoe and while they're in temporary position cut the bark to their profile. In earlier times the shape of the bow differed from one area of the country to the next but often was determined by how the canoe was going to be used.
- Step 10
- Lash the stem pieces to either end of the canoe with split spruce root and at the same time add a small triangular cap.
- Step 11
- Sheath the interior right up to the gunwales insert the ribs in their final positions. Cap the gunwales and secure the cap with wooden pegs which will also secure the ribs.
- Step 12
- Collect lots of spruce gum in a pail and heat it with some fat over a fire. The fat seems to stop the gum from dribbling down the side of the canoe in the sun or cracking in the cold. Spread the mixture over all the seams.
- Step 13
- Carve a paddle.
- Step 14
- Go fishing.
Or better yet plan a canoe trip. Birch bark canoes are very buoyant and will hold hundreds of pounds of gear and a friend or two to help with the paddling.