How to Build Your Own Canoe

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A canoe trip can be a fascinating way to get back in touch with nature. If you want to really tap back into your natural roots, what better way than by making your own boat? Dugout canoes made from hollowed logs have been around for thousands of years. Some of the earliest dugout canoes are 10,000 years old, making this one of the oldest boat-building methods in the world. Time for you to carry on that tradition.

1) Timber!

Find the right tree. Native Americans preferred pine or chestnut, but you can also use spruce, cottonwood, redwood, or cedar. The log should be free of rot and at least eight feet long, although if you want to go bigger, knock yourself out. Some Native American war canoes were almost 100 feet long.

2) Become an Adze Man

An adze, a hybrid of an axe and a hoe, is the handiest device in your boat-building toolbox. Use it to strip away the bark. When you’re done disrobing your log, flatten one side. This will be the bottom of the canoe.

3) Get Fired Up

Flip the log over and use your adze to hack a small trough down the middle, stuff it with kindling, and light it up. Let it burn for about four hours. The fire will soften the wood. If you prefer a different technique, the tribes of the Pacific Northwest would fill the trough with water and searing hot stones.

4) Scrape the Bottom of the Barrel

When the fire dies, scrape the charred tree with your adze. You should be able to dig down about one inch. If you want to be super authentic, scrape out the hull with shells instead. In the early 1600s, colonist William Wood observed Native Americans doing just that. He wrote, “Before they were acquainted with English tooles, they burned hollow, scraping them smooth with Clam-shells and Oystershels.”

5) Rinse and Repeat

Now, do it again. Burn and scrape your boat until you’ve formed a complete hull. As you burrow deeper, you’ll want to prevent some sections from crumbling in the flame. Wrap them with wet clay to control the burn—it’s excellent insulation.

6) Have Another Hobby

The more fires you light, the lighter the boat will be. But the longer you’ll have to wait, too. In 1643, theologian Roger Williams wrote that it took one Native American 12 days to make a canoe. So as you burn your boat, you’ll need to burn time. Might want to pack a book and some beer.

7) Get Polishing

When you’re finished with the controlled burns, rub down the rough edges with sandstone or siltstone. Polish and waterproof it with some pine tar and hot wood ash, or smear it with sap.

8) Ready, Set, Scuttle!

No matter how well-built your canoe is, it will be heavy. (Lewis and Clark used dugouts that literally weighed a ton). Once you dump your boat in the water, you won’t want to lug it out. So if you want to store it safely, follow the Native Americans’ lead and sink it. During the winter, they’d overload their canoes with rocks, sinking them to a shallow bottom. Called scuttling, the process would protect boats from the winter freeze. When spring returned, they’d remove the stones and the boat would bob back to the surface.

Want to be more interesting without chopping down a tree? Rent a normal canoe! Then celebrate your genius by cracking open a Dos Equis.