Published on August 13, 2014 by Amy
Birchbark canoes were an important part of many Native American tribes’ life. They used these canoes to transport goods and to hunt. Each tribe had a style of canoe-building. The Ottawa made canoes with a raised, straight bow and stern Ottawan canoes are distinguished from their neighbors, the Ojibwe, who had a curved bow and stern. This gives the Ottawan canoe an angular style when viewed from the side.
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1. Create templates of the gunwales and the central rib from wood. The gunwales are the frame for the sides of the canoe, and dictate its length and shape. For an Ottawan canoe, they must curve upwards as they come together at the bow and stern. The central rib is the curved wooden rib in the very center of the canoe, and determines the widest point of the canoe. Ottawan canoes were roughly 16 to 18 feet long, before they began trading with the European settlers and needed larger canoes to transport trade goods. Canoes for transporting trade goods were much longer and wider.
2. Wet the birch bark and lay down flat. The pale, outer bark should face upwards. Your bark should be at least two to three feet wide and as long as possible, to avoid seams. You can sew together overlapping pieces of bark, but these seams start leaking more often than solid pieces. Put the gunwale template on the bark, centering it carefully.
3. Create your permanent gunwales by carving or bending wood into two shapes- an inner and outer gunwale matching the template shape. Fold the bark upwards so the edges are above the gunwale template and use stakes positioned flush around the outside to hold it upright. Position the inner gunwale on the inside, against the pale side of the bark. Position the outer gunwales on the outside, against the yellowish side of the bark. Use debarked spruce roots to lace the bark to both gunwales, leaving a two-inch space every inch or so. At the bow and stern, the bark should have a slight curve at the keel, or underside, and then straighten as it comes up toward the gunwales. A small curve or corner coming inwards toward the very top of the gunwale is acceptable, but a large curve is not Ottawan style.
4. Cut length of wood for the thwarts. Thwarts are the crossbars that hold the gunwales apart. You will need at least three, one each for the center, bow, and stern. Wedge them in place but do not permanently affix them.
5. Bend the ribs. Cut 2-inch strips from a cedar plank or log. Soak the thinner planks in water until they are easy to bend. Once pliable, bend one into a U-shape and place curve-upwards in a vise so it does not move and spring back into a plank. This will be your largest rib. Bend more cedar planks and tuck them underneath. This will make each rib successively smaller, to create the canoe’s distinctive shape. Repeat with another set of planks and let dry.
6. Remove the cedar planks ribs from the vises. Cut the ribs to size if necessary and taper the ends. Remove the thwarts and templates from the canoe. Insert the ribs, working the tapered ends into the gunwales in the areas with no lashing. Use the largest ribs in the center and the smallest at the bow and stern. Put the thwarts back in place and lash them onto the gunwales with spruce root.
7. Collect dried spruce sap in a canvas bag to make spruce gum. Place the bag of dried sap in a pot of boiling water and work the resin through the holes in the canvas with a stick as it softens. This separates the resin from the dirt. Collect the balls of resin that form and place them in a frying pan. Add tallow and charcoal. Pulverize the charcoal first so it is a fine powder. The mixture in the frying pan becomes a black substance that is plastic-like when warm and hard when cool.
8. Apply the black gum to the seams of the canoe. Heat the gum again if it cools- it must be warm to spread. Once all the seams are covered, your canoe is ready to float.