Build thread: 13' Esprit solo canoe

Looks like it has been awhile since I posted to this build. Funny, it doesn't feel all that long...

One of the nice things about smaller canoes is that you don't need nearly as much lumber!

All the planking is cut. I set the width of the new planking to the Peterborough/Chestnut width of 2 3/4". As so many of the repairs that I do are on those canoes its nice to just pull some planking out of some prepared stock. Also, narrower planking leaves smaller gaps when it eventually shrinks.

I cut the planking on the bandsaw and then run it through the thickness planer. My planer leaves a very nice surface on the wood, but not quite good enough for varnish, so I run one face over the belt sander at 150 grit. I've tried finer but its not really worthwhile.

Planking sure can take awhile. Nothing out of the ordinary here. I do wish that I could build enough of each model before I forget how I decided to set up the planking pattern between the gore planking and the gunnel. Every model is slightly different in how the planks run and every time it feels like its my first time building that canoe!


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As much planking as can be done on the mold is now complete. The rest is easier done with the canoe off of the mold. Its always a thrill to take a new canoe off, that is when it ceases to be a bunch of wood on a mold and starts to take on its new life as a canoe.

With the canoe off the mold it is time to close up the ends. The first thing is to clamp the last ribs in place and to fit and trim the stem down so that I can fit the decks.


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All the trim in this canoe is Walnut.

Now it is time to lay out the deck patterns and cut the decks. While I'm at it I decide to prepare the rest of the trim pieces as well.

When you look at the photo with all of the pieces on the table, you can see the underside of one of the decks. I shape my decks like the old style Chestnut decks, with the heart shape ends, crowned and undercut at the edge so that only a fine edge which follows the crowing shows. This edge is about 1/4" thick.

The gunnel ends are pre-shaped to form a mortise and the stem end is pre-shaped to for a tenon. The whole thing fits together and holds the stem very well. It takes some amount of practice to get this joint to fit as well as you want it too!


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The cant ribs go in now. I only need on full thickness rib at each end. the very last cant rib is done Peterborough/Chestnut style, which is basically a piece of planking. Usually its slightly wider and thicker than the planking, but on this small canoe I used a piece of planking as it fits the scale of the canoe nicely.

As the outer gunnels have to fit flush to the inner gunnels at the stem, the last three or four ribs have to have a taper. But its the inside of the ribs which get shaped, this is why those ribs were not secured to the inwale with ring nails just yet.

I clamp a straight piece of wood to the outside of those ribs, then use another straight edge to draw a taper along the tops of the ribs, then shape them. When they are secured to the inwale the outer surface of the ribs sit fair to themselves and the planking runs nicely to the stem.


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Awesome Douglas! I'm glad you came up with the idea to do a "Build Posting". It's not often lay persons like me get to see a pro builder at work. I really appreciate you taking the time to have us along.
Scott and Tom, thanks for the comments. And you are all welcome, all yo silent masses! I know that you're there as the views number keeps ticking.

You may have noticed that the final cant rib was secured to the inwale with staples. These are stainless steel staples and I have taken to using them for the thin final cant ribs, as well as securing the planking to the stem. I used to use small copper or brass tacks, but they were no end of trouble. They would always be bending as I drove them into the Ash stem. The old Chestnuts and Peterborough's always used small steel nails, obviously for the same reason that I am using the stainless steel staples, they go in! The staple really is nothing else that twin steel nails joined by a wide head.

For fastening the planking to the thin final cant rib I use short copper tacks. Regular canoe tacks are too long and crush rather than curl.
Now that the decks are in and the cant ribs fitted, trimmed, and secured to the gunnels, it is time to continue the topside planking.

Nothing out of the ordinary doing this, just fit and tack in place till done.

But when you're done the canoe really starts to look like a canoe!


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I thought that you might appreciate seeing some of the tools used during planking.

I have an old wooden container that I like to keep my tacks in. There is nothing special about it other than I like it.

My spiling marker is made from an old aluminum meter stick. For those of you in the US, its just like a yard stick, but is a meter long on the metric side. It folds nicely and you can still use it for measuring!

Even on a new build there are still occasions for removing tacks. Trust me. I have tried many tools but the best for me is a sidecutter with the sharp corners of the working end ground round. This allows the cutters to roll the tack out without crushing the cedar (much).

Everyone who comes into the shop seems to find my hammer appealing. I started out using a small-medium weight basic hammer from the hardware store. You have to choose your hammer weight with care-too light and you can't drive in the tacks well, too heavy and you will exhaust your arm in no time. Plus a too heavy hammer is just overkill! Over time the handle wore out where it joined the hammer head. After living with loose head for too long (take that however you like!) I decided to replace the handle. Being left handed I decided to dedicate the handle to left hand use, so it fits the shape of my hand. I also was tired of the my hand sliding up too close to the hammer head, so I made a stop for my thumb. And, while I was making a nice handle, I decided to use curly maple.

A simple pencil holding jig allows me to scribe a line at just the right spot for trimming down the planking for the outer gunnel. I like to have the lip of he outwale fit close to the top of the planking without any gaps. This makes it easy. This sort of jig is also why I bought a proper pencil sharpener instead of just using my utility knife, the jig only works if the pencil point is consistently centered.


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With the planking finished it is time to clean out any tack burrs from inside the ribs. If these are not removed the sander will catch them and create deep swirls in the cedar. Next is to sand the ribs. The planking was sanded beforehand, but the steaming process raises the grain on the ribs and this needs to be sanded prior to varnishing.

Varnish really shows off the new wood! I have used many types of varnish, but now I am sold on Epiphanes. It is predictable, builds up well so fewer coats are needed, and it doesn't run and sag much up near the gunnels! It doesn't matter how much you go back and check your work there always seems to be some sagging going on there.

I varnish prior to canvas so that the varnish does not wick between the planking and soak into the canvas. This seems to be the source of the dreaded paint blisters! Uncured varnish in the canvas heated by the sun. I have never had a repeat of the blister problem since reversing my canvas/varnish protocol.

Once the varnish is done it is time to fair the hull exterior.

I use my angel grinder to knock down the obvious high spots. This tool is fast and can cause damage quickly if you are not experience with it. It also makes a lot of dust, so you need to be prepared for that.

After the grinder, I pull out my big sanding block to further refine the surfaces, then I go over the hull with my random action sander, both 100 and 220 grit.

I finish with a coat of linseed oil and let it dry overnight prior to canvassing.


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Has it only been two weeks since I posted to this build thread? Feels like longer.

Anyway, I've been busy and have moved this canoe along, as well as getting other work done.

Who says that the only people who want traditional wooden canoes are over 50?

Not so. The new owner of the Esprit is well under 30 and wanted to be present for the canvassing of his new canoe. Here he is setting the screws for the seat risers. This has to be done prior to getting the canvas on - the screws go through the planking at each rib.

A piece of canvas is rolled out and cut to size.

After getting the canoe into its canvas sling, it is fastened with stainless steel staples along the gunnel, at each rib. Once it is cut free it is also fastened along the stem.

Finally the fine nap of the fabric is burnt off prior to applying the filler.


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I use the traditional filler recipe that is posted on the WCHA. I have tried many approaches to applying it, but have settle on this approach now: Brush on generously, then re-coat. One the filler has set up a little I put on a rubber glove and smoosh it smooth. I don't use the canvas mitt anymore as it ends up being redundant. Timing is critical, too early and the filler is too wet and it just gets pushed around, too late and it won't polish.

Two coats is all that is needed, then its put aside for the weekend to dry.

After a couple of days drying it is ready enough to start getting the gunnels on.


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Thwarts need to be made. I have gone through a variety of thwart styles, mostly in the Peterborough tradition, but the shape that has evolved into my present day thwart is this one.

I start with the rough cut blank.

Taper the ends down by about half.

The make an arcing bevel along the side of the thwart at 45 degrees.


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This canoe is to be fitted with a kneeling thwart rather than a seat.

If you usually use a 3-point kneel rather than sitting atop of the seat, the kneeling thwart really is nice to use. It presents a wide surface to the paddler's back side, and that surface is set at about 45 degrees.

The kneeling thwart was cut from 4/4 stock and a shallow bevel was cut from the front top face. Additionally, tapered blocks are glued on to the ends to increase the angle that the thwart may be set at.

It rests upon the stringers which were earlier screwed into the canoe. The stringers allow the thwart to be positioned anywhere. The stringers are also long enough that a seat may be installed at some future date.

You can also see the matched set of kneeling thwart, two cross thwarts, and two carry thwarts.


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Gunnel installation time.

I make my gunnels 1" tall x 3/4" wide. There is a 3/16" deep rabbet and a 3/16" thick lip. I make the lip of the gunnel rabbet the same as the depth of the planking trimming cut. This way there is no gap under the gunnel lip, and there is enough wood for future fairing on top.

I use a 1/2" roundover bit to trim the outer surfaces of the gunnel stock.

The ends of the gunnels are tapered for about 18"-24", depending upon the particular canoe. It doesn't really matter how long the taper is as long as all four of the ends are shaped the same. For me, this also allows the 1/2" radius to reduce to a 1/4" radius, a detail which will be important later on. Stay tuned!

Once the gunnels are on its time to trim the rib ends almost flush, leaving only final sanding.


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I went through a lot of screw piloting drill bits before I settled on this combination. The tapered drill bit is sold by Lee Valley, and the countersink is by Dimar. This is THE best countersink that I have ever used. It uses carbide cutters that last and last and last. The whole unit is made in two parts that clamp around the drill bit. This allows the depth of cut to be easily adjusted and it allows for the cutter to bit used on many sizes of drill bits.


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Here's how I get the logo onto the canoe decks, its the same method as for the paddles in case you were wondering.

Some years ago I had two rubber stamps made with my logo, one large and one small. I use printmaking ink and a hard brayer (roller) to apply the ink to the stamp. It does not work to push the stamp into the ink as it will just smear into all the crevices and make a mess when you try and stamp it. A brayer just applies the ink to the design.

Carefully position the stamp and press firmly.

And the result.


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After two base coats of varnish on the trim it is time to start painting the exterior.

Painting always gives me grief.

Not because it is so difficult to do, but because the the feeling that the customer is always expecting a flawless finish, perfectly smooth and super shiny. I am moving more and more towards providing a consistently very good paint job and not getting hung on "perfect". I just need to ensure that the client is expecting the same as what I will deliver.

Anyway, back to the boat at hand!

I give the dried filler a basic sanding and then apply the first coat. I sand and paint three coats of paint before I work on the final coats. If all goes well then four coats will be enough. Sometimes I need five. More costs extra.

This canoe will be the traditional Chestnut green. I had a formula worked out for this colour, but the company, ICI, that made the tint base discontinued that paint base, so out the window it goes. I had to start all over. Fortunately the paint company that i go to has an excellent colour service and they came up with an excellent match.

My sample was from an original can of paint from Chestnut, so I can say with absolute certainty that this is the exact colour that Chestnut used.


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