How to Make a Cedar Dugout Canoe

Select, carve, shape and hollow a cedar log to build a canoe.

| January/February 1984

For centuries, the enormous western red cedars that grow along the coast in the Pacific Northwest provided the people of that region with an extraordinary — and very beautiful — form of seagoing transportation. Using simple tools, artisans carved gracefully contoured dugout canoes (some of which measured more than 60 feet long!) from single logs of this fine-grained, rot-resistant wood. The skill with which the great trees were fashioned into functional floating sculptures — boats that were used for everything from daily fishing to major voyages — became a hallmark of many tribal cultures.

Today, however, the art has all but vanished. So when my neighbor, log-house builder Earl Carter, convinced the well-known Canadian sculptor Norman Tait — a Nishga Indian — to come to our seaside village to carve an authentic Northwest Coast-style cedar dugout canoe, I jumped at the chance to observe and record the process.

Mr. Tait spent two weeks here in Gibsons, British Columbia transforming — with Earl's able assistance — a red cedar log into a traditional 15-foot vessel (a work of art that he later shipped to Ottawa to exhibit at the Canada Canoe Festival). As you can see in the Image Gallery, the process was dramatic ... a gradual emergence of form from a forest giant. Perhaps with the description that follows, you'll be inspired to create a similar craft and, along with Tait and Carter, help perpetuate the skills of boat builders long since gone.

Dugout Canoe Plan and Cedar Log 

Like any major construction project, the making of a canoe requires a basic design, or blueprint. Tait — an expert wood-carver — actually whittled a miniature vessel (scaled 1 inch to the foot) based on museum photos and drawings ... and then used the small model to help him determine the dimensions and form of the "real" canoe. Although this is probably the best way to get a feel for the undertaking, those of you who are less practiced with a knife can simply draw a design (you'll probably want to render side, top, bottom, fore, and aft views) for the same purpose. In any case, establish a plan and define the shape and dimensions of the canoe you want to build, so that you'll have a guide of some sort to follow.

With that done, you can concentrate on locating a suitable "blank." Look for a sound red cedar log that's thick enough to give you plenty of solid meat to work with after the bark and sapwood have been peeled off (Tait chose a timber that was about 18 feet long and measured approximately 40 inches at the small end and 46 inches at the base). You'll need a specimen with as few defects as possible, too ... one or two minor checks (cracks in the wood) are acceptable, but rot and knots can pose serious problems. At least half of the log — the top or bottom when it's viewed horizontally — should be more or less free of such flaws.

Unless you're willing to pay a lumber company several hundred dollars for the wood, search along an open beach for a drift log (or hire a beachcomber to find one for you) ... and then either work on the canoe on the spot or haul it — by boat or truck — to a convenient site. Cutting a live tree, of course, is an option open only to owners of cedar-forested land or to individuals who have permission to cut on private property.

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