Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Paddling in the off-season.

Wintertime for me is the time of year that I get most of my boat-building time in during my classes. It sort of satisfies my boat Jonez. Still, I wish that I had some paddling that I could get in this time of year without heading South.

While I must admit that I'm not usually a fan of plastic canoes and kayaks, they do have their purpose. In particular, for whitewater. Still, some local whitewater paddlers have taken the term "whitewater" to a new extreme:

Check it out!
The best reason for a plastic boat and paddles.

Happy Canoe Year!

Yeah, that was a groaner... But Happy New Year's anyway!

Monday, December 29, 2008

If you can't fix it...

... with duct tape, you're not using enough!

A friend of mine who I've known for quite some time and his wife got me the gift card above as a Christmas present. I must say, they know me pretty well and do a great job with gifts - The one above is no exception. Looking at the gift card and the way it was made, it was difficult for me to tell that it wasn't actually wrapped in duct tape!

On the top of the card was an image of a roll of duct tape and the words, "A true handyman's wrapping paper."

A Christmas Rebuttal

One of my friends sent me this visual rebuttal to my post of paddling Christmas Lights last week.

Which do you prefer?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Amazing SWS(tm) System

These are NOT my presents.

How can you tell?

That's easy. You see at this time of year, all of my wrapping is done by the Amazing SWS(tm) System. It is the only way that I can manage to get all of my wrapping done. So, what is this fantastic system?

It's the Simian Wrapping System(tm) The Simian Wrapping System exists because almost all of my Christmas gifts strangely appear to have been wrapped by monkeys. I try, I really do, to do a neat job wrapping, but somehow the primate in me comes out in my wrapping skills. Perhaps it is because I'm often rushed for time this time of year, but I should really do a better job. Sharp corners? Straight edges? Neatly folded over ends?


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Neither rain, nor sleet nor snow...

Shall keep us from building boats. It may delay us slightly, but we'll still be building boats. Yesterday was supposed to be a "double session" for my canoe building class in which we work all day with a break for lunch and a bit of socializing. This is usually a good thing as we get to have a very productive day as we get to skip one session of moving things in and out of the shop. Unfortunately, as you can see from the picture of the back yard, it snowed rather significantly (about 10" or so) and we decided to just do a single session in the afternoon to allow people to clear driveways and for the roads to be plowed.

(Note the snowy view out the shop window! ) As we were working on the boats one of my students asked why we build them at this time of year. The answer is really simple - would you rather be building canoes when you should be paddling them or when you can't?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Don't do this with your canoe!

Hippo sinks scout leaders' canoe

Three scout leaders from Cornwall are back home after their canoe was sunk by a hippopotamus in west Africa.

Brian Sheen, 66, Geoff Ryder, 59, and Michael Billworth, 23, had to abandon their dugout canoe after the hippo attacked four days into the trip.

They had to trek through the jungle for five days to reach a small village where they received help.

Mr Sheen said, despite training for the dangers of hippos, nothing could have prepared them for the surprise attack.

The three adventurers had planned to paddle 2,500 miles (4,000km) down the river from Faranah in Guinea to promote the scouting movement.

Mr Sheen said: "We were on full hippo watch and all of a sudden we came to an abrupt halt.

"I thought we had hit a rock. Then the front went up and the middle went up.

"Then the back flew in the air and Geoff, who is 16 stone [102kg], was suddenly airborne and landed in the water beside the boat."

Mr Sheen said there was "not the slightest inkling" that there were hippos about on the stretch of river where they were attacked.

"It burst on us like a submarine-launched missile," he said.

"It happened so quickly we didn't have time to be scared."

After dragging Geoff Ryder back on board, the trio managed to get their semi-submerged boat to a mud bank.

"The canoe was going down fast," said Mr Sheen.

"The hippo was about 20 yards away looking at us."

His concerns were raised when the animal was heard running through the undergrowth nearby.

"We hoped he wouldn't come back for a second bite," said Mr Sheen who was relieved to see the beast heading inland.

The three then ditched most of their gear, apart from satellite navigation systems, and started a trek through head-high elephant grass and bamboo.

It took five days and nights.

"Every few yards there were crevasses where the rainwater had run down to the river.

"We had seen a village before the attack. It was our only hope," said Mr Sheen.

"We were pretty whacked. The temperature was 100F [38C] during the day."

The villagers, who were initially wary, fed the adventurers before giving them all a lift 60 miles (96km) on motorcycles back to Faranah, where they had begun.

The men, who have all returned to Cornwall, now hope to revisit the area next year, but said they would be taking a ferry next time.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2008/12/15 15:35:41 GMT


Thursday, December 18, 2008


In my household there is a cultural gap regarding Christmas deserts. My DW is from the UK. Traditional Christmas deserts include such things as Christmas puddings (steamed - probably made with real lard!) with brandy butter and little bite-size mince pies. I tend to actually like the Christmas puddings, but never really have been a mince pie fan. These are things that I never really had growing up and were somewhat alien to me. (Ok - a confession, we DID have mince pies at Thanksgiving in my parent's house.) Still, one of the items that exemplifies this gap is fruitcake.
Christmas Pudding (With icing and ubiquitous Holly-leaf decoration)

Mince Pies

To be honest, I grew up with Figi's fruitcake which to most people resembles a brick. By the time it arrives at the door, it is a dense, nay, solid item that is probably best used as a door stop. It typically arrived as a slightly battered rendition of the image below:


It wasn't until we were about to get married that I got my true introduction to fruitcake. I was told that it was a traditional English wedding cake. I was in shock. I described my experiences with fruitcake to my bride-to-be and she basically laughed at me. Fruitcake? That door-stop brick from Figi's from my youth? The one immortalized in the song yesterday from NPR that had the lyrics : "Denser than a load of barnyard turkeys, Tougher than a truck of old beef jerky..." When I think Fruitcake that's what I think of.

My other half thinks of fruitcake in a different way. She's from the UK and has a fond memories (dare I say a love?) of the stuff. When she proposed fruitcake as our wedding cake, I nearly dropped out of my chair in shock. She was fairly insistent and as she was making most of the arrangments for the reception, what choice did I have?

Then she told me of the preparation.

In detail.


1. Bake the cake with the dried fruits, etc.
2. Allow to age.
3. Feed it a regular dose of stout and brandy to hydrate the cake. (Ok, at this point I started to get interested..)
4. After the cake can take no more stout and brandy, coat with marzipan and royal icing.
5. Decorate.
6. Serve.

I will admit that once I got a slice of this cake on my wedding day, my attitude towards the stuff was changed. Apparently here in the States we forget steps 3 through 5. The gentleman who made the cake is a chef of the highest order and had done a gorgeous job of decorating (and feeding...) The main body of the cake was decorated with a pastel yellow icing and the tiers were separated with brandy glasses. The decoration on the cake was in pastel pinks and green with hand-made sugar roses that looked like they were freshly picked from the garden.

Now, if I could only get him to make some fruitcake for Christmas dinner!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tech Tip Tuesday

On Sunday night's post about stretching canvas, I was a bit light on detail. There are, however some excellent resources for detail.

Two of them are books. One is by Jerry Stelmok and Rollin Thurlow and is called The Wood and Canvas Canoe. Another book is by Jerry Stelmok and is entitled, Building the Maine Guide Canoe. Both titles are widely available from places like the WoodenBoat Store and the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association's (WCHA) online store.

In these books are some places to find materials that you will need for the job. In particular, the canvas, brass tacks, stem band and filler. There is also an excellent list of suppliers over at the WCHA. I would be remiss in not mentioning that WoodenBoat offers an excellent school where you can take classes (see my earlier posts on the topic) and many builders offer both building and restoration instruction at their shops for a fee - very often all you need to do is ask.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

We must be nuts...

We feed the birds in the winter and by extension, the squirrels. There really isn't any way to feed birds without feeding every other wee beastie that loves seed in the neighborhood.

I have 6 feeders out at the moment. One is a "squirrel-proof" feeder that has a spring-loaded bar which closes over to dispensing holes when something heavier than a bird lands on it. The squirrels have figured out how to disable the bar by moving the spring. There is also a clear plastic feeder that we usually attach to the kitchen window. This year I (hopefully) got smarter and moved it to a window that the squirrels couldn't reach - until DW showed me a picture of the squirrel walking along the lower part of the window jamb.

We also have 4 other pretty run-of-the-mill feeders. 2 are in the front of the house in a tree and 2 are hung on hooks attached to the deck railing. To be honest, I've been getting my money's worth in bird seed watching the antics of the squirrels try to get food out of the feeders. They are quite the acrobats and can manage to hang onto the feeders with their rear feet while eating upside-down. What is amazing is to watch them go from hanging upside-down to pulling themselves up by their stomach muscles to get another mouthful of seed.

What is really amazing is how bold the squirrels are. Last Christmas, we had one that DS and DD named "Piggy" sit in the clear plastic feeder on the window as we ate breakfast about 3 feet away. We even got pictures with the kids putting their hands on the window with Piggy stuffing herself on the other side of the window.

We've seen Piggy around this year - she's recognizable by the white spot on her side. The kids claim that they can identify the different squirrels and have named some of them as well. Piggy we can tell. There's one black squirrel called "Inky". I'll be darned if I can tell the rest of the gray squirrels apart reliably. Some have more white on the back of the ears or brown on their backs and heads, but I haven't got them sorted out.

Inky having a nibble...

This year, the squirrels seem as interested in us as we are in them. They'll sit and watch us from the deck rail. To be honest, it's a bit uncanny sometimes. I feel like an exhibit at the zoo.

Hey You!

Yeah, I'm talkin' to you!


They seem to know that as long as we're in the house, we will not bother them. As soon as we open the door, they head for the hills. The kids think they would like to pet a squirrel, but we certainly don't want any pet squirrels!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Stretching Canvas

One of the things that I've found in talking about cedar and canvas canoes with people is their absolute terror at the thought of replacing canvas on a canoe. I don't know why that is, but it seems to be one of those psychological roadblocks that keeps people from restoring and repairing their canoes. It's not that difficult. The big downside is waiting for the filler to cure once the actual canvas work is done.

Before you start, you need to take off the old canvas. This usually involves removing the outwales and removing the tacks hidden beneath that held the canvas in place. You may also have a keel and brass stem-bands to remove. Typically, all of the fasteners are found along the gunwales and from stem to stern at the centerline of the canoe.

Once the canvas is removed, you will want to inspect the woodwork to see if there is rot, cracked planking or ribs, loose tacks or any varnish work that it needs. If there is such damage, now is the time to repair it.

Once any necessary repairs have been made, make sure the outside is smooth and fair and give it a light sanding and a light coat of linseed oil and turpentine. This helps to waterproof and preserve the wood. When done, the boat looks like this:

You should also have your materials collected. You'll need a few specialty items and a few tools.
  1. Canvas - It should be an appropriate weight for the boat your building - typically #8 -heavy, #10 - Typical or #12 - lightweight and longer than the boat by about a yard or two.
  2. Brass Tacks - AKA Canoe tacks - in two lengths - 7/8" to 11/16" for the at the ribs and 5/16" or 3/8" for the stems.
  3. Bedding Compound - a peanut butter consistancy material for the stem ends.
  4. Filler - a thick paint mixed with or without white lead for "killing the weave" on the canvas. More on this later.
  5. Brass Stem Band and Screws
  6. Cardboard
  7. Prop sticks or weights (sandbags, garden fertilizer, etc.)
  8. Winch - AKA "come-along"
  9. Chain and hooks
  10. C-Clamps
  11. ~3' Blocks with "key" for clamping canvas as stretched and eye bolts to pull canvas. - one set for each end of the canvas.
  12. Canvas "clothespin" - a piece of hardwood with a wide kerf cut up the middle (lengthwise) and a bolt to prevent it from splitting at the closed end of the kerf.
  13. Canvas Stretching Pliers
  14. Small Hammer
  15. Razor Knife
  16. Screwdriver
First, you will need a place with two solid attachment points. These can be trees, sturdy posts or the like. They should be far enough apart to allow you to put the canoe between them with room to spare. They should be strong enough to take the horizontal force you will apply to them. In the picture below, you can see one of the attachment points in the wall to the left of Neil with the come-along hanging from it. He has also hung the keyed blocks from the ceiling by purple straps. It is a good idea at this point to have a clean floor to work on, so the canvas stays clean and more importantly, you don't get debris between the hull and the canvas because when it is stretched anything between the two will show.

After cutting the appropriate length of canvas, fold it in half the log way with the opening at the top and clamp both ends with the keyed wooden blocks. The key keeps the canvas from slipping out under tension. The blocks are clamped together using two or three C-clamps. When this is done, pull up the tension on the canvas to make sure there aren't any wrinkles.

Let the tension off and put the boat in the envelope of canvas. Think of it like a hammock for your boat. Be sure it is well seated in the canvas. Pull up on the tension again, but not so much that you rip the canvas or it slips from the clamps. You will then need to either weight the canoe with bags of something heavy or if you have a ceiling overhead, you can use some wood to prop the boat down from the ceiling. The best way is to protect the inside of the boat with cardboard, put a 2x6 in the bottom of the boat and use another piece of lumber to wedge between the 2x6 and the ceiling joist. Install the canvas "clothespins" at either end as close to the stems to hold the canvas near the hull at the ends.

The longer tacks are then put in. There are two at each rib, just below the top edge of the planking. Usually a scrap of wood is used to protect the inwale. You then grab the canvas with the canvas-stretching pliers and rock the handles into the hull on the block of wood. (In the picture below, the pliers are upside down - see the rounded top?) Placing tacks is done by Braille - you need to feel for the rib location and the top of the planking - sometimes you can see the rib through the canvas. You'll want to be about 1/4" down and 1/4" in from the edges so you don't split planking and ribs. If you get the tension correct, there will be little puckers above the tacks. Make sure any wrinkles in the canvas are being moved from the center of the hull towards the stems. Tacking the canvas is most easily accomplished with two people.

Alternate sides to keep the tension on the canvas even. If there are wrinkles, pull up on the canvas a bit harder. As you get close to the ends, you will also find that you need to trim the canvas near the gunwale so that the pliers can "bite" the canvas for a good grip as there will be too much fabric. You will also find you have to pull the canvas towards the stem to get rid of the wrinkles. When you get all of the tacks put in at the gunwale line, you need to make a choice. You can:

A) Simply let down the tension and cut the canvas (vertically) about a foot beyond the end of the stem. The excess canvas helps you to pull the fabric around the stem to finish this area.


B) Roll a scrap of canvas to be a small "sausage" about 5 layers thick an inch wide and about 4' long (depends on stem length) and staple parallel to the stem through the "sausage" and the canvas into the planking and stem on both sides of both stems from deck to keel. Then cut down the hull as above. You will need to work any wrinkles out as you staple this in place.

The advantage of B is that as you're tacking the stems in place, there is not tension. This is an advantage if you are working alone.

Put the canoe upside down on a pair of saw horses and remove the clamps.

Before you tack the stem slit the canvas down the middle of the envelope. You start this cut at the keel where the fabric would overlap. Put one tack in the stem just above the slit. Then, apply a thin and even layer of bedding compound over the stem and pull the canvas off "normal" to the stem so you get no wrinkles. Starting at the keel and heading towards the deck tack every 3/4" or so. It should look like the the picture below. The wrinkle to the right of the stem shouldn't be there...

Trim the excess canvas close to the stem on the that hasn't been tacked. Apply bedding compund again and repeat in the other direction. Trim the excess canvas again and repeat for the other end of the boat:

The next step is to apply the filler to the canvas. The filler is a tough, abrasion-resistant coating that fills the weave of the cloth and effectively waterproofs the boat. There are leaded and unleaded fillers. I personally prefer the leaded filler for the anti-microbial properties of the white lead. If you avoid contact with the lead, you should do OK. I think it's nice to label the inside of the boat somehow to let a future restorer know that they are dealing with lead... The leaded and unleade filler apply almost the same way, but the leaded tends to inhibit mildew in the canvas for many, many years.

It's applied by brushing on with a heavy brush and then rubbing in with a canvas mitt. (Wear latex or nitrile gloves underneath if it's leaded filler!) It may take several coats. You'll know when to rub with the glove when it rubs smoothly and leaves you with a slate-like finish.

Whe the filler is applied, it will take a few months (yes months - 2-3!) for the filler to cure or "polymerize". When cured, you can sand (wear a mask!) and apply primer and paint - usually a porch and floor enamel and re-install keel, stem band and outwales.

Happy Paddling!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

Fungus Tour of Central Vermont.

As the weather has proceeded to get colder, I was rooting around looking at some pictures stored on my computer. My family went on a camping trip to central Vermont this summer, and I was looking over pictures from the trip and enjoying the thoughts of the warm weather that we enjoyed.

Suddenly, as I looked at the pictures more closely, I was reminded that not only was it much warmer this summer, it was also much wetter as well.

How so?

Well, it seems as though every third picture was of some type of mushroom. That isn't to say that they weren't photogenic mushrooms, tho'.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tech Tip Tuesday

When you build a canoe, you have several decisions to make about the boat. One of the more important decisions is about the stems of your canoe. It is possible to build a several ways:

  • no stems
  • only an inner stem
  • a combination of inner and outer stems
No Stems

Some builders try to save weight by building a canoe without any stems at all. Gil Gilpatrick follows this building method. As a Maine Guide, he uses canoes that he's built using this method for his guiding business. Considering the abuse that these boats take, this method must be strong enough.

This method depends on the fiberglass coating to provide the strength that you need in the ends of the canoe. As you are building the canoe, the strips meet at the ends and one strip is beveled and the other passes by. The strips are glued together to hold the shape of the canoe until the builder can fair and glass the hull. This method requires glassing the hull inside and out. Glassing up in the ends is difficult and messy.

Other than the glassing, I have some concerns about keeping the hull together during the building process. There just isn't a lot of area for the glue where the strips meet in the ends. Also, the fiberglass and epoxy is flexible. If you have an impact, the fiberglass and epoxy flexes and the soft cedar underneath will crush. The fiberglass and epoxy usually recovers, but the wood fibers do not, leaving a delaminated area where the 'glass and epoxy aren't in contact any more.

Oh yeah. Did I mention that it is difficult and messy to glass up inside the stem? (Yeah, I meant to repeat that...)

One Stem

It's also possible to build with only an inner stem. The inner stem provides a larger bonding surface for the glue than strips alone. It is more rugged than without, but takes a bit more time and effort. To save weight on the small canoes my students build, I recommend softwood for the inner stem - usually poplar or basswood. On small canoes, we do not glass over the stem, but cut the fiberglass about an inch away from the stem and paint the wood with epoxy to seal it. The same delamination issue from impact still remains as you don't have an outer stem.

Inner and Outer Stem

This is my preferred method. I use the same softwood inner stem mentioned above, and either a softwood or hardwood outer stem. I feel that this provides a much nicer cosmetic appearance. Also with a hardwood outer stem, the crushing issue from impact is much less of a problem. The choices of hardwood let you choose from different colors to give many different cosmetic appearances.

In addition, there are several areas along the stem where beginners can have difficulty getting good joints. The stems cover these areas and provide a bit of camoflauge for the bad joints while also giving a pleasing appearance, cosmetically.

Building Stems

If you are lucky enough to have some unique pieces of wood that have a curve matching that of your stem (crooks or knees...) You can saw the stems out of solid stock.

Most of us aren't that lucky.

Another way to deal with the issue is to steam bend the stems. This isn't a bad or difficult method, really, but steam-bending is a subject unto itself. When Jerry Stelmok bent stems for his canoes, they were symmetrical, so he bent them out of one wider piece of stock and cut them in half with a table-saw. (This was done to avoid twisting of the stems.) The one thing to keep in mind is that steam-bent stems have a tendency to relax, so it's best to keep them clamped in place until ready to use.

The way I teach my students to make stems is to laminate them from thin strips of stock. First, I cut thin strips that will bend around the forms without breaking. As I cut the strips, I keep them in the same order that they come off the board. I want to laminate them this way. There is a reason - when it comes to bevelling the strip later, keeping the grain direction constant makes the cutting easier as the grain doesn't change directions and tear out. Here is a pack of strips fanned out:

The stem patterns are covered with a layer of tape so that the stems will not be bonded to the forms.

The strips are then bonded together. We usually use wood glue as the stem will be coated with epoxy. You can use polyurethane adhesives, but epoxies would be overkill.

Starting at one end the strips are clamped to the pattern. (there are holes in the pattern to make this possible) I usually use spring-jaw clamps to keep the strips from sliding side-to-side when slippery with glue. You want to be careful to make sure that the stem isn't twisted.

As I've said before - you can never be too rich, too good looking or have too many clamps.

Once the glue has set, the stem can be removed and will hold the shape once removed from the pattern.

In a later post, we'll talk about trimming the stems and bevelling them.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Over the past weekend, a life-long friend was up for one of his infrequent visits. He's generally back visiting once or twice a year and when he is here, we try to get a group of friends who have pretty much known each other our whole lives, together. As we have found, life is much too short not to enjoy the company of our friends. In many ways, we are both a unique an diverse group and more like family. Still, there are those occasions where another blast from the past that was forgotten is revealed again.

As the party DW and I held at the house was winding down, and we were all relaxing in the living room. Somehow, we got onto the topic of "Yip Yips". (Don't ask me how we got there...) Yip Yips were characters created for Sesame Street by Jim Henson and his crew. Growing up, most, if not all of us, were brought up watching the Muppets and they weave their way through our consciousness in strange ways. Anyway, here is a picture of the Yip Yips below:

At the party, one friend had his iPhone with him and after the topic was broached, he brought up a few videos of the Yip Yips from YouTube. As I went looking tonight, I found this:

What I was struck by was the fact that they reminded me of the Flying Spaghetti Monster:

Anyhow - that's the diversion that my brain took tonight - where did yours go?