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Finishing a dugout canoe?

Discussion in 'Birchbarks, Dugouts and Primitive Craft' started by KuKulzA28, Jun 11, 2013.

  1. KuKulzA28

    KuKulzA28 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Hey all! I've been lurking for awhile, and decided to post a question.

    I got a love for dugout canoes, especially the style you see in Venezuela and Guyana that (I think) the Yekwana and related groups make. I've personally seen some when I was in Guyana in the past. Something like this. I'm hoping to make one soon, and I have sourced a big white pine log. I am in the US Northeast (New England) so it's a big Pinus strobus. Though it's my first canoe, I think I have a decent idea of how to go about it. Felling, de-limbing and de-barking, flattening top and bottom, drilling depth-guide holes, hollowing out, fire, etc. The journey will be a great experience and teach me a lot. I am estimating a 20'-25' dugout of White Pine will be roughly 150-250 lbs in weight...

    But before all that, a question sprung up in my head. I believe dugouts are normally kept in the water until they're unusable, and I've heard of them being sunk with rocks during winter (in temperate areas) to keep them from drying out, cracking, or splitting, etc. Now, let's say, I want this dugout canoe to last more than a year or two, and I do not live by the water, and cannot keep it on/in the water permanently for fear of someone stealing it.

    So, the logical next step would be to apply some sort of finish to it for its longevity, yes?
    I know traditionally, Chinese ship-builders used tung oil... but I'm woefully ignorant of whats commonly used today, or what might be best for a dugout canoe.
    Are there special concerns I should have? Should I give it many coats of tung oil, or should I use some sort of maritime paint? or spar varnish or... :confused:

    Any advice appreciated, thanks!
  2. mccloud

    mccloud "Tiger Rag" back on the tidal Potomac In Memoriam

    A couple autumns ago at the mini-assembly near Harrisburg a fellow named Kurt Carr, who is at the state museum in Harrisburg and is an expert on the use of stone tools, gave a talk on the subject. He has constructed about 3 log canoes, one of which he had at the event. If you go to you will be able to read about it. About the third photo down is the log canoe, and that's me paddling in the stern. If you excuse my saying it, it paddled like a log. Nonetheless I was surprised that it did not take much of a paddle stroke to get it to start changing directions. I believe this canoe was carved from a big pine log, and it had a big crack in it, so later in the day when we had 6 people in it, the one in the center was constantly bailing. I believe cracking is a frequent problem of log canoes. If I was about to begin the project you describe, I would cut a green tree, then hollow out the log as quickly as possible without allowing it to dry to create a trough. Then I'd fill the trough with a solution of polyethylene glycol ( maybe its called PEG 5000), a material designed to penetrate into wood and once inside the wood, helps prevent it from cracking, since it does not evaporate over time, as water does. After several months of soaking, then remove the liquid and finish the canoe. Over-coating with an oil or varnish can't hurt. Keep us informed of your progress! Tom McCloud
  3. OP

    KuKulzA28 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Hey Tom, thanks for the advice!

    It paddled like a log, as in somewhat clumsy?

    I have heard of people describing dugouts as everything from crude and clumsy to graceful... but I suppose that within their limitations, there can be quite a bit of variance. After-all, there are some very attractive Polynesian, Haida, Tlingit, Chinook, Ye'kwana, Kali'na, etc dugouts. And they, in my opinion, seem quite refined in their shape, unlike some dugouts which are literally hollowed out logs with little to no modification to the material.
    But I agree, they may never perform like an aluminum, birch bark, or what have you.

    Yea, cracks are my worst fear... I don't want to spend a few days to a week of hard labor only to have the canoe show giant cracks. I will look into PEG...

    Will PEG make stuff such as tung oil, linseed oil, varnish, lanquer, or paint not adhere well to the surface of the canoe due to its waxiness?

    Will update as progress commence... right now we're getting quite a bit of rain so it's not ideal for felling and chainsawing (if I can get my hands on one)...
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2013
  4. mccloud

    mccloud "Tiger Rag" back on the tidal Potomac In Memoriam

    The log canoe in the photo is big, long, heavy, rides on its own trailer, takes about 8 guys to lift it, and so not a surprise that it is rather unresponsive. However it is typical of the sort of dugout log canoe made by east coast natives hundreds of years ago, which have been found buried in swamps. The canoe feels like it wants to rock left/right and would roll if it had the chance. Presumably a part of the building process of the natives was to fill the trough with water, add red-hot rocks and soften the wood, allowing the top of the dugout to be spread, and thwarts inserted. This does nothing to increase the freeboard. To the best of my knowledge the natives of the east coast never added boards to the sides of their canoe to increase depth, but in other locations that was done.

    The log canoes of the eastern US are certainly not as big and seaworthy as those built by the native peoples of the west coast from really large cedar logs. An example of a smaller, more canoe-like 'dugout canoe' is found in the book Bijaboji by Betty Lohman.

    I don't have first hand experience working with PEG-treated wood. What I know has come from reading, places like 'How PEG helps the Hobbyist' by HL Mitchell, on Google books. You are right that PEG-impregnated wood will have a waxy feel, and not all finishes will stick to it, but presumably some urethanes and Danish oil finishes will work, and will seal in the PEG, which is a good thing.

    PEG is a polymer and the number associated with it represents the average molecular weight of a molecule. Small molecules will diffuse into the wood faster than larger, but also will come out faster if in prolonged contact with water, so a good sealer is important. Tom McCloud
  5. Greg Nolan

    Greg Nolan enthusiast

    While the native peoples of the east coast may never have added boards to the sides of their canoes, the European settlers did, first adding "washboards" to increase the freeboard and capacity of dugout canoes in the late 18th/early 19th century, and then in the mid-19th century, lashing together three or more dug-out logs to create a hull for what came to be known as the Chesapeake log canoe -- actually a sailing craft with virtually no resemblance to what we would consider either a dugout or a canoe. The famous Chesapeake skipjacks, oyster-dredging sail boats still in use, are the direct descendants of the "log canoe" sailing craft.

    See and and for more information on this fascinating and idiosyncratic evolution of the canoe into a commercial sailing/fishing boat.

    With overfishing and the pollution of Chesapeake Bay, the commercial oyster fishery there is nearly extinct, and the last few remnants of these marvelous boats may also become extinct, having been maintained and kept in use because of oystering regulations that prohibited dredging with engine-powered boats.
  6. OP

    KuKulzA28 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Yea I can see how that dugout is more unresponsive. I suspect the more refined dugout designs will be more of a pleasure to paddle. The dugouts I saw in Guyana didn't seem to roll so much, but liek you said they did widen the dugout... it did not increase freeboard of course. Still perhaps they made up for certain inherent CONs of the design with experience and skill, and maximized the PROs.

    Greg, I have seen pictures of Amazonian dugouts with boards added to the sides, seems like the natural "next-step"... I'll look into those those you mentioned, even if I'm not gonna make one. Thanks.

    Weeeell, time to go chopping. My arms might be sore tomorrow.

    EDIT: It may be ambitious of me, but I hope to make a good Curiara style dugout, not just a hollowed log. *fingers crossed* that it goes well
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2013
  7. OP

    KuKulzA28 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    A thought just occurred to me. Are there special considerations and precautions I should take for the wood when I complete the hollowing with fire?
    Should I soak the wood with water if it's not too wet/green? Or will it be ok on its own?
  8. Bob Holtzman

    Bob Holtzman Wannabe

    Dugouts need not be heavy and clumsy, even if made from smaller trees like those available on the East Coast. Among modern people with steel tools, it was and still is common for the sides to be as thin as 1/2" to 1" thick, and bottoms 1" to 2", so that some smaller boats can be portaged solo, and those of 8'LOA or so even carried under one's arm. Modern examples in Finland, many places in Central and South America, and the Pacific are seen in a bunch of articles and some videos here:
    I'd stay away from PEG -- it's not meant as a wood protectant and I've never heard of it being used on boats that are actually used. Its main use is for conservation purposes, to displace the water that has invaded the cell structure of waterlogged wood.
    An oil-based product is probably your best bet to keep the log from drying out: tung oil or boiled linseed, or an equal mix of (nonboiled) linseed and turpentine, which is effective but needs to be renewed pretty often, or equal parts linseed, turps and pine tar, which provides longer protection. An alternative to the pine tar is polyurethane, easier to find (if you don't mind the synthetic content).
  9. OP

    KuKulzA28 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    I agree, the dugouts I saw in South America were far from clumsy.... but I'm no expert. Maybe birchbark canoes or canvas ones are better... but I've never used them before.

    As said before, I'm going by this video
    and this one
    to make this curiara, but, although I like carving wood, this will be my first canoe and first project of this size...

    Thanks for the advice Bob. I may use tung oil since I already have a lot of it.

    I love that blog! I actually read up on a lot of the dugouts there in the past... are you the writer behind the blog?
  10. Bob Holtzman

    Bob Holtzman Wannabe

    Thanks for your kind words. Yes, Indigenous Boats is my blog.
  11. OP

    KuKulzA28 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Almost ready to fell down this tree. I've read up on this, I have the tools and the muscle...
    Problem is... how does one move a 20' dugout canoe which'll probably weigh about 300 lbs? ...with a mini-van.

    Trailer? a better roof rack? I might be too poor to transport this canoe...

    Problem being, I don't live right near a large body of water.
  12. Bob Holtzman

    Bob Holtzman Wannabe

    Trailer certainly sounds like the way to go. I wouldn't want to put that much weight on the roof, even if I could.
    HOWEVER, if you do all the major hewing and hollowing before moving it, you'll get the weight down to a small fraction. Then the roofrack becomes more viable.
  13. OP

    KuKulzA28 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Yes trailer seems to be the safest option, but still slightly out of my budget.

    I will be doing all the hollowing and finishing before moving it to a body of water.
    The transportation issue is one of getting the dugout to a nearby lake or river, or even the ocean...

    Right now at 20' with 1.5" thickness all around it'll be about 300 lbs I think. That might push the limits of a roof...
    However, reduce it to 17' with 1.5" thick bottom but 1" thick walls, it can be as low as 200-ish I think...
    which should be fine for the roof of the mini-van (Toyota Sienna), esp if I get a good roof rack. Hmmmm....

    Last edited: Jul 16, 2013
  14. OP

    KuKulzA28 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    The tree isn't falling over. I don't think it's obvious in the picture but the back cut is at or a little past the center.
    Is the front cut too low compared to the back cut? Also, the tree tilts forward slightly before straightening halfway up, I suspect it is just balancing.
    So, should I cut away more from the front, or the back or... ? It's just me, a friend, and axes. So I don't have great resources...
    Not sure what is the safest way to go about this.

    P7180051 copy.jpg
  15. OP

    KuKulzA28 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    For those who care to see, almost done hollowing

  16. Dave Wermuth

    Dave Wermuth Who hid my paddle?

    Thanks for posting.. Do you know of anyone with expertise in dugouts. I am researching a very old found dugout here in Lapeer co.
  17. OP

    KuKulzA28 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    With all due respect, I'd think a PM would've sufficed, seeing as how you've already made a thread dedicated to finding out more about that dugout. No need to hijack.

    And no, I don't personally know any experts who can help you. Seems like knowledgeable forum members were already weighing in on your thread.

    I know some guys down in South America who have made dugouts for traveling on the rivers... but they wouldn't know anything about North American woods, carbon dating, remnants of dugout canoe makers in the US's Midwest, nor carvings or features that might be unique to a specific North American ethnic group or whatever... and neither do I, or I would have posted in your thread with my thoughts, but I'm a newbie to this stuff. I myself was reading your thread to see if I could learn more.
  18. OP

    KuKulzA28 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Done. Not as fine as the Yekwana make it...
    but it's been fired, widened, ash/charred bits cleaned out, back-board is in place, and painted with waterproofer on the outside.

  19. Andre Cloutier

    Andre Cloutier Firestarter. Wicked Firestarter.

    Mr Wermuth, you and i can engage in thread drift on our own posts as per our usual, as we apparently share the same disdain for web forum etiquette;););)
    Any luck with the recurve this fall?
  20. Dave Wermuth

    Dave Wermuth Who hid my paddle?

    ANdre, I'll PM you.

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