Pt 2, Ch 3/Canoeing, Sailing & Motor Boating/Miller



by Warren H. Miller.




ANY MAN in the least acquainted with tools can build this canoe. I made my first one when I was twelve and two more when I was sixteen and nineteen respectively. The first one had no sails and only a little cockpit three feet long, so that, while she was good for day cruises and paddling up creeks after snipe and rail birds, you could neither sleep in her nor sail her. The second had a six foot cockpit and leg-o'-mutton mainsail and jigger. Also a gaudy awning-canvas tent which went over the cockpit, and I had many a glorious cruise in her, sleeping at night in the canoe after hauling her out on the beach and banking sand around her to keep her steady.

She had one defect which you should be warned against -- she had a kayak bow and stern, little low six-inch oak blocks screwed to the keel at each end, just high enough to take the six ribbands of the frame. Easy to make, but, gee! she was a wet boat in heavy weather! That kayak bow would shoot through every wave like a dagger, and in spite of an eighteen-inch hood over the cockpit for'd, a deluge of sea water would come aft and most of it would stay in the canoe. But she would go like a streak, and when I was seventeen I sailed her across Prince's Bay in a bird of a southeast blow, soaked to the ears with salt spray but cheerful as a clam at high tide. It was some hike, believe me!

I stung another boy with her for $5 and built No.3, which had a 14-inch bow and 12-inch stern, was fourteen feet long by 32 inches beam. She had lateen-rigged mainsail and jigger, weighed 42 pounds, and was a corking little boat. I had her for ten years and cruised in her for weeks at a time. She finally died of numerous broken ribs, a bunch of kids using her holy bottom as a jumping stand one winter when she was left out in the yard.

Number Four is shown in the accompanying illustrations. She is 16 inches deep at the bow and 14 at the stern, 10 inches amidships, fourteen feet long, 33 inches beam and weighs just 40 pounds, exclusive of her sails. She will cost you $7.00 to build, not including her sails, and for an all-around cruiser is hard to beat, as she will live in water that would drown an open canoe, is a dry, rainproof and mosquito-proof home to sleep in at night, and will sail dozens of miles where you would paddle one.

Most of our writers of boys' books advise building a canvas canoe of barrel hoops. That is conclusive evidence that they never built a canoe in their lives, for of all the material to give you a cranky, unsafe, tippy canoe the barrel hoop is king. The reason is because it is round -- just the shape to roll over -- and can't be made to hold any other shape. Look at any good Indian model canoe (Morris, White, etc.) and you will see that it is flat-bottomed with a fair round bilge or turnup from bottom to sides and it is hard to upset because you must submerge one side before the other can come up. Now any kind of a barrel hoop has been steamed round, there is not a flat spot in it anywhere, and to make a canoe even passably steady you want at least 20 inches of flat bottom before curving up over the bilge.

The ideal rib stick is one that will tend to keep flat and yet permit a sharp bend upward at the bilge. There is no wood better for this purpose than black ash, though white will do. Go to any wagonmaker's shop and ask him for a board of black ash about five feet long, an inch thick and five inches wide. He will charge you fifteen cents for it. Take it to the nearest woodworking mill and get them to rip it up for you into strips one eighth inch thick. You will get some twenty canoe ribs out of the board. While at the mill ask to see their No.1 spruce stock. Tell them you want one board, planed both sides, sixteen feet long, free from knots. Have this ripped up into strips a quarter-inch thick until you have sixteen of them. You will have half your board still left and from it you will have two 3/4-inch pieces ripped off and two 2-inch. Next, you want a piece of 2-inch by 3-inch white oak six feet long, two pieces of 7/8-inch half-round yellow pine molding sixteen feet long, two pieces 1/2-inch quarter-round ditto and one piece 2-1/2 x 1/2-inch beaded white pine for a cockpit coaming. Have them all wrapped up into a bundle, pay your mill bill, which should be about two dollars, and march home with the entire material for your canoe frame on your shoulder. The bundle will weigh thirty pounds.

Arrived home the first thing to do is to set to work at that stick of 2 by 3-inch white oak, for out of it you make the stem and stern knees. From the drawings herewith you will get the angles for bow and stern pieces. Saw across the top of the stick at this angle and again a parallel cut 14 inches from the top. Saw it straight across 9 inches further on and take the two pieces so obtained and stand the 14-inch piece up on the other. You will at once see that you have, roughly, the bow knee.


Click here for larger image of stem.

Click here for larger image of stern.

Draw the curve of the bow on both pieces of wood and saw off the superfluous wood beyond the curve. You now must work both pieces into triangular shape and the best tool to do it with is a camp axe. Your stem should be half an inch thick at the extreme front so as to give room to screw on a brass stem band, so draw two lines 1/2-inch apart down the center of the front face of the blocks. Hew from these lines back to the rear corners with your axe until you have dubbed the stem and keel-piece roughly triangular in cross section and finish smooth with a plane. Now nail the stem to the keel-piece and you are ready to fit the deadwood, the triangular piece which holds both of them together.

Take off the angle for this on a piece of paper from your already assembled stem and keel-piece and transfer the angle to your piece of oak stick, being careful to saw out the block with true cuts square across.

If well done the deadwood block will fit snugly and you can screw it home with 2-1/2-inch, No.14 iron screws into stem and keel-piece. Work over the deadwood block until you get a true fit, as this is what takes the shock if you ram anything (and you're always ramming things on a canoe cruise). Drill holes in the deadwood a little larger than the screws and just a little smaller than these in the back of stem and keel-piece. The bow knee is now done and the stern is made the same way.

The next job will be to cut a shallow 1/8-inch rabbet on stem and stern and keel-piece to take the canvas, and six notches on a side for the ends of the ribbands. The top notches must be deep enough to take two ribbands one on top of the other, 1/2 inch deep. Now saw out the places in both stem and stern keel blocks to take keelson and keel, as shown in the working drawings, and the long job on stem and stern knees is done.

Click here for a larger image.


The canoe will go ahead with a rush from now on. Take one of your 3/4-inch strips and cut it 13 feet long for a keelson. Cut a shallow notch in the center 1/8-inch by 1 inch and cut one like it at every foot each way to within one foot from each end. Turn the notches down and screw on the stern and stem knees at each end of the keelson.

Follow with a ribband nailed along under the keelson and of the same length, and then fit the keel, rockering it 1-1/2 inches each way and screwing from underneath to the keelson with long 3-inch screws or bolts. By rockering is meant tapering along the under side of the keel, which is made out of one of your 2-inch spruce strips and should taper down to 1/2-inch deep at each end, beginning five feet from the end. The job is best done with a hatchet and finished to a line with the plane.

Now you are ready for the center mould. Make it of box boards as shown in the illustrations and set up over the middle notch in the keelson. Now take the first of your ash ribs, slip it through the middle notch and bend it snugly around the mould board, tying together across the top with a piece of string so that the rib cannot fly out straight again.

Now take four ribbands, slip them in pairs over the ends of the mid rib, bend them in at bow and stern and nail them temporarily over their notches with thin brads. Do not cut them off until everything else is done, as there will be a lot of taking up and letting out before the bottom is even and smooth.

Put on all the other ribbands, five on a side, spacing them evenly along the mid rib and tacking them in place by brads driven through ribband and rib into the edge of the mould board. Tack them temporarily over their notches at stem and stern, letting each ribband take its natural curve.

You are now ready for the ribs, only the last two of which at each end will have to be steamed.


Beginning each side of the mid rib, shove in a rib down between the two ribbands of the gunwale, through the notch under the keelson and up between the opposite pair of gunwale ribbands. Tack it with a brad half-driven through the keelson and rib and then push down the ends of the rib on each side until you get a true flat, almost like that of the mid rib with almost as sharp a bend at the bilge. Lash tight with twine around the gunwale.

You will also have to lash the mould board down, as the tendency of the ash rib is to raise it and make your bottom not flat and safe but round and cranky. Put in the other ribs the same way, working in pairs towards bow and stern, always trying to have each curve a little less than the one before it and keeping them as flat across the keelson as possible. The last two will have to be steamed, easily done by simply wrapping a soaking towel of scalding water about the rib and letting it stand ten minutes while you drip on more steaming water from the tea kettle.

The ribs just behind the stem and stern bend up from the keel so sharply that they simply must break, so, to put them in, whittle a block to shape and screw it down on the keelson, cut the rib in two and screw the lower ends of it to the block.

Tie the ribs to the ribbands wherever they cross and then turn the canoe frame over. You will find it all hills and valleys -- a flat spot here, a bulge there, two halves of the same rib uneven, a lopsided place somewhere else. What it needs is patient adjustment, shoving down the end of a rib in one place to give her more bilge, letting it up somewhere else, pulling a ribband in a little flatter or letting it out a bit, but finally the whole bottom will come out smooth and fair and is ready to rivet.

Whether to use copper rivets or clinched copper nails I leave to you. All my canoes except this last one were done with 2d copper nails clinched inside and all were staunch and strong.

In this one I used rivets (No. 1, 7/8-inch long) but it was a tedious job as they all had to have holes drilled for them, a shallow countersink made to sink the rivet-head flush with the ribband, and the little burrs are most exasperating to keep on while you are hammering over the rivet head. With copper nails it is just a drill hole with the brad awl, insert the nail and clinch over. However, do them all but the gunwale, which will be all out of shape from the pressure of the rib ends, and then untie your twine and adjust the gunwale to get a fair and pretty sheer.

Secure with brass screws and cut off the rib ends flush with the gunwale. You will find that the strain of the ribs on the ribbands has pulled both your stem and stern knee out of shape so that ugly cracks show around the deadwood block. You now pull out all those temporary brads in the ribband ends and free the stem and stern. Close up the cracks snugly with a few taps of the hammer and then put back the ribbands, beginning with the gunwales and cutting each off to exactly fit in its notch. Secure with 3/4-inch brass screws, two to the notch.

The frame is now done and should weigh 24 pounds. Next you go in for the deck framing.


At bow and stern insert the triangular white pine boards called breasthooks. Cut a 1-1/2-inch hole for the mainmast step and cut out an oak block with a 1-inch round cup drilled in it for a footstep for the mainmast and secure it to the bow deadwood, giving the mainmast a pretty "rake" or lean aft. Now for the cockpit. If you are going to sleep in her it ought to be six feet long, so the crossbraces must go at the third rib each way from mid rib. Make these crosspieces out of your 2-inch spruce strip, sawing them so as to pitch an inch each way from the center. Cut a notch for the deck ridge piece and then put in your braces with 1-1/2-inch brass screws driven into their ends through the gunwale. At the same time take out the mould board as you no longer need it.


Next get out your ridge pieces of the 2-inch spruce strip, planing them to the ridge along the top surface and fitting them into notches in the cross braces and breasthooks at bow and stern.

The rear ridge piece wants a 1-1/2-inch hole cut in it for the jigger mast step, so you had better nail reinforcing strips on each side where this hole goes through.

The cockpit coaming should go about three inches from the gunwale, parallel to it, so lay off the three inches on each side on the cross braces. Then cut from your 2-1/2-inch white pine beaded cockpit coaming two pieces of the same length as between the marks and screw them to the cross braces, allowing the beading to just project above the cross brace.

To fit the coaming sides, measure off two lengths a little longer than you need, cut a spreader six inches shorter than the inside measurement from gunwale at the mid rib and bend the two coaming sides around this spreader, held fast with a loop of rope at each end. Pick up this frame and put it on the canoe and saw off the coaming ends so that they will exactly fit between the cross braces, slip them into place and secure with blocks, besides nailing with brads to the cockpit end pieces.

At each rib you will now need a small block between gunwale and cockpit coaming secured by 1-1/2-inch brass screws through the gunwale and 1-inch screws through the coaming. When all are in, the spreader can be knocked out and the canoe frame is ready for the canvas and will weigh 28 pounds.

To make the canvas lie smoothly a last job will be to plane the edges of the ribbands round and smooth so that sharp rib edges will not make the canoe look like the ribs of a starved dog.


Get ten yards of 10-oz. duck canvas (20 cents a yard). It will weigh 100 oz. or a little over 6 lbs. Cut it in half and have the two 5-yard pieces sewed together on the sewing machine along the blue line overlap mark.

Now take off the keel and lay this seam along the keelson ribband, tacking it here and there with 4-oz. copper tacks. Fold the canvas up over bow and stern and tack here and there to the gunwale. Cut off the surplus all around and save all of it, for there is enough for both bow and stern deck and the strips of deck outside the coaming.

Now stretch and tack on the canvas, working each way from the center, but do not drive the tacks home nor use more than one every four inches. At the point where the stem and stern rabbet crosses the crack in the bow and stern knee, drill a half-inch hole and drive in a soft white pine plug called a stopwater. Next daub the whole rabbet over with white lead paste and stretch the canvas tight into the rabbet, tacking close together. Now work back along the gunwale towards the mid-rib, stretching the canvas as tight as you can, tacking every two inches and being sure to work on opposite sides of the canoe alternately. In spite of all your care there will probably be a gather or pucker in the canvas amidships, but do not let this worry you, simply slit it four inches down from the gunwale and sew up the overlap.

Take your leftover canvas and get out the bow and stern decks, tacking them over the side of the gunwales.

You will also find that the original pieces of canvas cut off along the side when reversed will exactly fit along the coaming. Tack them to it, stretch taut over the gunwale and trim off all the hangover.

The canoe is now ready for paint and weighs 34 pounds. I have tried all kinds of ways to reduce the paint weight and also its cost. On this last canoe I tried one coat of shellac and two of Sherwin-Williams willow green canoe varnish. Total paint bill $3.00, total weight 6 pounds. On the whole the cheapest and best was that on Waterat III, two coats of white lead paint and a finish of any color preferred. Avoid varnishes and shellacs and save expense. You ought to come out under $2.00 cost and 8 pounds weight.

After the paint is on, put your 7/8-inch yellow pine half round molding along your gunwales, and the 1/2-inch quarter-round beading around the cockpit. Give these two coats of varnish and you are ready to go at your rigging.

    "An exciting moment in a race of decked sailing canoes
with batwing sails."

    [Note: These have more than one crew member and are actually
    "St. Lawrence 88" racing skiffs, which are huge canoes. -- COD]


I have tried leg-o'-mutton, lateen, and battened leg-o'-mutton or Canadian Club, and on the whole I prefer the latter. The leg-o'-mutton is the simplest, but it has long spars impossible to stow in the canoe, and its baggy leach makes it slow sailing. The lateen also has long spars, but the draft is excellent and fast. It is, however, hard to reef.

Waterat IV, my latest canoe, has the battened leg-o'-mutton shown in the illustrations. It is a topheavy, dangerous rig in large sizes for any but first-class canoe sailors, and the amount of canvas shown in the photographs is "man's sized." Sailing the little witch in a squally breeze is some busy occupation! However, by making the boom of the mainsail two feet shorter and all the rest of the measurements in like proportion (the actual dimensions as given in the sail plan drawing) a very good safe rig is had. The best sailcloth is American drilling, 14 cents a yard, and you will want about eight yards.

To lay out a sail, choose a level spot on the lawn and stake out the sail according to the dimensions given, cocking the boom up 18 inches above a right angle and setting the gaff up nearly straight, allowing just room for a block between it and the mast head. Join the stakes with twine and spread out the canvas under the twine outline, always laying it parallel to the leach or after-edge of the sail. Hem it all around and put in grommets every foot along the boom, gaff and luff. To put in the batten, fold over a pocket in the sail just large enough to pass a 1/4-inch by 1-inch strip of spruce ribband and sew a seam along both edges of the pocket on the sewing machine.


To make the spars you can buy 1-1/2-inch and 1-1/4-inch round spruce sticks 14 feet long at any sash-and-door mill for about 25 cents apiece and they will save you much weary planing as all they need is tapering at the ends. The masts are of 1-1/2-inch stock, booms and gaffs 1-1/4-inch. For gaff jaws you can buy a regular brass canoe gaff jaw and bend it over at the right angle to grip the mast when the gaff is up. You will need 5 two-inch mast rings for the luffs of mainsail and mizzen, and don't forget to grease the mast with tallow candle or slush.

Four brass cleats and four pulley blocks complete your running rigging. Two pulley blocks are for the halyards at main and mizzen mast heads, one on the deck for a main halyard fairleader and one on the rudder head for the mizzen sheet.

For extras, first of all, a bottom grid. Cut up what you have left of the ribband stock into 6-foot lengths and tie them to the ribs in the cockpit along between the ribbands. Otherwise your toes will be digging into the canvas bottom all the time, making unsightly dents in it. Another way is to tie in a sheet of oilcloth or heavy canvas, which will serve to keep your feet off the bottom.

You want two canoe paddles, a big double blade with drip cups, and a little single-blade pudding-stick for working in narrow creeks, frogging, etc. The latter may be 30 inches long by 5 inches wide and you saw and whittle it out of a white pine board.


Then you want a cockpit tent to have the best fun in a canoe. Get six yards of 8-ounce duck canvas. Make a rope frame with two spreaders the same size as your cockpit and stretch the rope frame between main and mizzen masts 30 inches above the cockpit. Over this spread your canvas, cutting and pinning until you have a little rectangular house over the cockpit, and have it sewed up on the machine. Cut a door in one side and fill with mosquito netting. Put in staples in the cockpit leading along the sides and grommets in the bottom hem of the tent to match the staples. Take along a browse bag and fill it with leaves or sage at night, and, my word for it, you will sleep in that mosquito-proof, rain-proof and damp-proof canoe-house like a major!

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© 2002 Craig O'Donnell, editor & general factotum.
May not be reproduced without my permission. Go scan your own damn stuff.

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