A Canoe Built (By a Geek Dad) for Two…

Geek Culture

Strip Canoe BuildingStrip Canoe Building

There are many things I want to do in my lifetime. I can check off skydiving, writing a book, and a few others that I’ve counted myself fortunate enough to complete, but still … there are more. I grew up in Florida, and I was lucky enough to have access to a number of rivers, a few bayous, and, of course, the Gulf of Mexico. During my high school days, one of my favorite summer activities was canoeing. I spent many days on Coldwater River or Blackwater River either with friends or solo (often on an ocean kayak because it was lighter and more fun to me). I will never forget one summer day by myself on Coldwater (frigid water year round) when I quietly rounded a bend on the water and came face-to-face with a mother bobcat that had come out from the woods with her two babies to drink from the river. She looked at me and gave the scariest deep growl/screech I’d ever heard — I think I almost flipped my canoe trying to get back out into the center of the river. She scurried away, but my heart was pounding an hour later.

Another time I was out by myself was right after some major storms. I would often show up at the canoe outfitter north of town around 8am or 9am to get on the river before the crowds. On this particular day, I had asked them to drop me off about 15 miles north of the outfitter’s final stop, considered The Day Trip. Probably thirty minutes down the river, I ran into a series of downed trees that completely crossed the river, forcing me to climb out of the canoe while standing on foot wide tree trunks. The tree line was too thick to try to go around the trees by pulling the canoe through the woods, so I was forced to carefully pull, push, and slide the canoe and my supplies over three or four trees that moved up and down in the water under my weight. When I finished the route about 7 or 8 hours later, I informed the outfitter about the trees and was told they’d dropped off about 30 other people at the same starting point, many with larger coolers and kids. Bad day for canoers.

I haven’t been canoeing in a few years, but I’ve got two boys, ages 2 and 5, who I hope will get a chance to do some canoeing on those same rivers someday. But before I take them, one thing I’ve always wanted to do is to build my own canoe. Specifically, a cedar strip canoe. I’m thinking an 18 foot flat hull might be nice for a trip with the boys. Maybe even a few handmade paddles to match. But I’m getting ahead of myself… first, I need to actually figure out how to build one.

And for that, I’m going to be eternally grateful to Gil Gilpatrick. Gil’s been a guide in Maine for over 30 years, having carried his share of tourists down rivers galore. But it’s not his river skills that I need right now (although he’s got those in spades). What I need are his detailed instructions for constructing my own canoe, all covered in his book, Building A Strip Canoe, 2nd Edition.

Before I tell you a bit more about this book, let me tell you that I’ve spent hours and hours hunting down techniques and discussions on the Internet related to building canoes. There’s a lot out there, believe me. You’ll find dozens of differing techniques and conflicting advice. It’s a mess out there. But if you pay careful attention to many commenters and builders and check out who they often refer back to… it’s Gil Gilpatrick. When I started noticing his name on many websites, I quickly discovered that many canoe builders who have documented their own builds used the instructions provided by Gilpatrick.

Be aware that many of Gilpatrick’s earlier books, including the first edition to this book, are difficult to find or expensive to obtain. I tell you this only because if you ever think you might want to build your own canoe, now is the time to grab a copy of this book before it too becomes difficult to find. This one is in full color, and it even comes with removable templates in the back of the book for cutting out the patterns used to shape the eight different canoes he covers in this single book. It’s a large sized book, too, so you won’t be squinting at the photos wondering about any particular step.

I’ve been mulling over building my own canoe for a little over a year now, and I’ve finally decided to do it. (My wife reads my posts, so I imagine as she’s reading this she’s shaking her head and considering calling her attorney.) I’ve got the space in my garage ready. I’ve got all the tools minus one (a router table fence for doing the bead/cove on the cedar strips — call my dad, Ashley, and he’ll tell you the correct fence I need for my upcoming birthday). And I’ve read the book probably five or six times now, so I’m confident in the order of the process. The only part that makes me nervous is the fiberglass portion of the project, and I plan on practicing on scrap before I approach the real hull.

Building a Strip Canoe covers everything — safety, prep work and supply assembly, building the backbone (the frame you’ll first need to build along with the patterns from the included templates) that will provide your canoe support as you glue, staple, and form your canoe. And while I’m not 100% convinced that just anyone can build a canoe, I’ll be the first to admit (as a technical writer by trade) that the instructions Gilpatrick provides are the clearest I could imagine, and after reading the book just once I knew that it contained the right details for me to follow along. I’m comfortable working with wood and many of the tools required, but I believe that even a novice with the right help (and maybe a friend with a table saw and some time) can build a canoe. Gilpatrick covers it all, including putting together authentic cane seating and paddles as well as a list of specialty supply vendors (in case you live somewhere that doesn’t offer access to the fiberglass/epoxy materials and even the wood). This is really the only book you’ll need should you decide you want to now (or ever) build your own canoe. I’m much more confident in this upcoming project with this book in my hand.

Outdoor GearOutdoor Gear

And just as I was preparing my workshop and getting everything ready for a spring start date, Mr. Gilpatrick’s publisher contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in a re-release of another of his books, Building Outdoor Gear, 2nd Edition. After having finished it, I can say without a doubt that it’s the perfect companion to Building a Strip Canoe. It shows you how to construct a variety of things, including a beautiful canoe chair (for use in or out of a canoe… next to a campfire is perfect). There’s a pack frame, a reflector oven (for campfire cooking), a handmade bucksaw, and my favorite: a trip box that will fit perfectly inside your canoe. A total of nine hands-on projects (one of which is duplicated in Building a Strip Canoe — canoe paddles) that go hand-in-hand with the canoe-building book. Oh, it’s in full color as well, and contains the same quality of text instructions and large color photos. And, as with Building a Strip Canoe, this is an update to a very hard to find first edition, so grab a copy of this one as well before it disappears, too.

I can’t wait to start building my own canoe. I even have hopes that my 5 year old will be able to offer some help here and there. I want him to be involved as much as possible, and I hope he’ll enjoy not only the hands-on work with his dad but also the enjoyment that comes from making something that he’ll (hopefully) enjoy for many years. (My heart will likely explode should he or his younger brother one day tell me they want to build their own canoes and then ask for my help.)

I reached out to Mr. Gilpatrick with some questions about both books, and he graciously responded with some advice and stories that have further convinced me that I made the right choice for my instructional material. And should Mr. Gilpatrick ever make it down to Northwest Florida, I’d like to offer him a tour of one or two of the rivers that I spent much time on during my younger days… and hopefully it’ll be a tour in my very own hand-crafted canoe.

Keep reading for my Q&A with Mr. Gilpatrick.

(I’d also like to thank Traci Niese with Fox Chapel Publishing for providing the two books to review.)

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