The last news I shared about our progress in building the 17 foot Freedom Tripping Canoe was that we had finally finished building the Strongback – the level table upon which the entire canoe is built. Well, we’ve finally managed to complete the hull of the Freedom, and I’m so excited to share our progress!
Ryan and I referenced our blueprints and transferred the lines onto MDF to make 15 station molds and the bow and stern stem molds.
The trim pieces and cedar strips we ordered from Bear Mountain boats arrived in a thick stack. I spent hours arranging the wood in different patterns: gradients, dark-light-dark, etc, but the many pieces were so varied in tone and hue that I eventually realized that I should stop trying so hard to control the arrangement and let the beauty of the wood tell me how it should be arranged. So I decided that the canoe’s hull wouldn’t be strictly arranged from dark cedar to lighter cedar – instead the strips would lay in a more casual, artful, thoughtfully-random pattern.
Here’s a good look down the length of the strongback, from the stern looking toward the bow – or “front to back” in non-nautical lingo.
After carefully cutting out each station mold and sanding right down to the transfer line, we assembled the station molds on the strongback. The station molds act as the backbone of the canoe: they must be perfectly square, plumb, and evenly spaced because the curves that they build are the basis for the final form of the canoe’s hull.
Once they were all put up we could finally see the skeleton of the canoe. She would be very narrow at the bow and stern, for swiftness and excellent hydrodynamics, have a wide middle for carrying lots of gear, low to the water so as not to be pushed off course by the wind, and with a shallow rocker for stability.
Once the station molds and stem molds were on the strongback we began the first new! big! challenge: we would need to steam-bend several pieces of hard and soft wood into the shape of the bow and stern stems. Excited and up for the challenge, I grabbed my camping stove and we jerry-rigged a length of PVC pipe and steamed our stem stock for 15 minutes. The hot wood was then transferred to the station molds and clamped in place, then allowed to dry for a few days in the desired curves.
The stem stock was then attached to the stem molds and first and last station molds. From there I marked the centerline and began an arduous process of carving the inside stem, with a spokeshave, into the future shape of the hull. I discovered that the leading edge of the stems would be very narrow where the planking would be attached, and would transition quickly into being very flat on the keel side of the boat. From here we began adding three planks at a time, then shaving off more of the stem, then repeat.
Planking the hull began with four strips of cedar. We decided before planking that we would use a stapleless system to assemble the hull, thus keeping the hull unmarred with staple holes but also drastically increasing our assembly time. With the traditional staple system an unlimited number of planks can be added in a day because each one is stapled to the station mold when it’s glued to the plank beneath it. With the stapleless system only three planks can be assembled at a time – each section must be glued bead to cove, then secured with clamps and bracketed and shimmed into place.
Whenever excess wood glue would seep out from between the planks we would clean it off. Everything that wasn’t removed now would have to be sanded away later, so from here I practiced rigorous glue removal after every planking.
Soon more planks were added to the hull, trimmed to lay flush against the stems. As the planking crossed the bilge (the curve where the sides of the boat meet the bottom) we augmented the stapleless system with ridiculous jigs to hold everything in place: Duct tape, compression straps, bead and cove jigs were just the beginning. We did everything we could think of to hold down the planks that wanted to pop out of their complex curves.
After weeks of delays, unexpected travel and summer adventures we finally began to close in on the completion of the hull. Once we planked the starboard side up to the centerline we measured and cut the planks in a perfectly straight line and began planking the port side.
Finally the time to install the last plank had arrived. It took us a few tries to transfer the curves and bend the last planks so they’d fit into the narrow gap in the hull, but we made it happen.
To complete the assembly of the hull the outside stems – three pieces of hardwood bent to fit the inside stems – had to be shaped, mortised into the hull, and shaped again. A lot of checking and cutting and checking and cutting and sanding finally brought us to the point where we could glue the outside stems onto the hull and shape them to fit the projecting lines of the entire hull. This step completed the construction of the hull’s exterior!
Now we stand back and admire our handy-work and prepare for the next steps: Fairing the hull with planes and sandpaper, then fiberglassing the whole thing!