How to Make Snowshoes: New England Native American Styles

Learn how to make your own traditional-style snowshoes with these diagrams and instructions for constructing and lacing the frames.

| November/December 1990

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    Penobscot above) and Abenaki (below) styles are later developments, with sharper toes and filled toe and heel spaces with weaving tied to a selvage thong.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    The longer, narrow bear paw with a tail is most appropriate for open country and racing.
    PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON LIBRARIES/ERIC A. HEGG
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    Cut two forms from 3/4" scrap wood. Each square equals 1 inch.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    Wampanoag Style: The bear paw is the earliest shoe with one-piece frame, rectangular weaving and no toe hole.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    Blocks of wood are nailed 1 1/4" from the form where the wedges enter. Twelve wedges are needed. The opposite end of each block is 1" from the form.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    With the drawshave or crooked knife, trim both split surfaces flat. Clamp a 3/4" strip of wood, and pencil each edge.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    Nail the two forms to a piece of plywood or several lengths of wood, nailed together by several crosspieces behind.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    With the two forms prepared, search out several straight, knot-free ash or hickory saplings. A length of at least 7' for each frame is needed. Square down to 3/4" with a drawshave or crooked knife, or select a tree of 4" to 5" at the butt end. Split down the center with chisels.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    Cut cross fibers free
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    Mark the inner face and shave the two ends and center to give easier bending.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    To make the crossbars, split out four pieces 1 3/8" wide and 5/16" thick. Place each in position behind the frame and mark. Add 1/4" to fit into frame. Make a series of drilled holes 3/16" in diameter and 1/4" deep. Cut away the wood between and fit the crossbars.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    This face will become the outer surface of the snowshoe frame. When squared, the stave will be 3/4" × 3/4" × 7'.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
  • Snowshoe Frame with Crossbars
    When the crossbars are snugly in place in the frame, drill holes at the tail and push through a finish nail that extends 1/8" on both sides. Bend both projections with a hammer for a secure closure.Tidy up the shoe by sanding the frame and slightly rounding the edges. Apply several coats of a rugged spar varnish. 
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    Measurements vary according to the scrap wood available and the diameter of the can. Raise the staves off the steambox floor with pieces of wood at each end.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
  • Starting Snowshoe Lacing
    To start lacing, mark off the frame measurements as shown. Make a slit near the end of the lacing, then feed the lacing through and snug around the first mark. Keep lacing tight.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    Cover both ends of the steaming box with several thicknesses of burlap.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    The crossbars should be rounded.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
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    Secure the lacing by nailing the tab to the frame. Reinforce the four toe cords and the two toe-bar straps, and finish with a knot.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
  • Snowshoe Lacing Step 2
    Continue following the lacing pattern to create the hexagonal filling characteristic of the earlier New England snowshoes.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
  • Snowshoe Lacing Step 1
    The lacing pattern begins by going back and forth horizontally to form a strong anchor.
    C. KEITH WILBUR
  • Snowshoe Harness Ties 2
    Tying the Harness: Properly tied, the foot should not slide forward to collect blisters. The tie should also be loose enough not to chafe the top of the moccasin. A twist of the foot should shake the snowshoe free.
    C. KEITH WILBUR

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  • Snowshoe Frame with Crossbars
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  • Starting Snowshoe Lacing
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  • Snowshoe Lacing Step 2
  • Snowshoe Lacing Step 1
  • Snowshoe Harness Ties 2

High-tech, mass-produced snowshoes are available from just about any outdoor sporting-good retailer these days, but the handmade snowshoe is one piece of ancient technology that is still just as effective today as it was when it was first invented. With these diagrams and instructions, based on examples from the Museum of Natural History in New York City, you can teach yourself how to make snowshoes in traditional New England Native American styles, using only simple materials.

It's possible—just possible—that the Paleo-Indians wore snowshoes to invade the American continent. After all, they were in use in Asia before America was peopled. Once over the iced-in Bering Strait and into Alaska, the snowshoe would have permitted hunting on the receding glaciers. Floundering mastodons, mammoths, musk-ox, beaver, elk and deer could be tracked, surrounded and dispatched.

These ancient snow feet gradually became known eastward. Probably of solid wood, they generally had a toe hole, crossbars to reinforce the underside, and side frames. Each tribe adapted the wooden plank to its own liking, resulting in a variety of sizes and shapes. Although this slow and awkward winterwear may still be found, the bear paw snowshoe that followed was far and away the better answer to the drifting snows of New England.

Two main types of shoe developed: the short, tailless bear paw (best for rough, wooded terrain) and a longer, narrow bear paw with a tail. The latter type is most appropriate for open country and racing.



Early on, the bear paw was simply a round or oval frame that was bent from a branch with the ends lashed together. The filling was of rawhide strips—sometimes strips of bark or pieces of vine—woven in an unsystematic way and attached to the frame by wrapping. The earliest bear paw had no toe hole (that was a later development) and was lashed firmly to the foot. Worn as big, flat shoes, each had to be lifted and lowered as occurs with ordinary walking.

The invention of the toe hole allowed the snowshoe to be dragged instead of the exhausting raising of each shoe. Thongs were secured to the ball of the foot, to the toe hole, then brought behind the heel. In this way the heel could be raised while the toes were lowered while walking.






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