The best place to build a birchbark canoe is outside on the ground. You lay the bark on the ground and bend it upwards, holding it in place with stakes pounded into the earth. Since I live in a townhouse with a small back yard mostly covered in patio stones, this was not possible. So I made a building platform.
This was a platform made out of heavy plywood (scavenged from a packing crate) with 4 by 4 inch pieces of wood underneath to raise it up. You drill holes through it and use thick (1 inch) dowels instead of the stakes pounded into the ground to hold the bark in the correct shape. This is a bit tricky since you can't adjust them much once you've drilled the holes.
So how do you control the shape of the canoe? You make what's called a "form". This is the shape of the bottom of the canoe. The only way I could figure out how to make this was to copy the shape of a canoe I liked, in my case my 11 foot stripper Chipmunk (you can just see Chipmunk in the photo above). Using lots of paper and string and scotch tape I measured the shape of the bottom of Chipmunk as if it had been flattened out. You want the shape of the bottom just until it starts to really bend upwards. Once you thought I had this worked out I cut it out of two more sheets of plywood. You have to cut it in two pieces so you can get it out of the canoe afterwards! Here's my form laid out on my piece of bark on top of the building platform.
Using the form on the building platform you can drill holes in the platform to put your stakes in. How many stakes you need depends on the size of your canoe but I used 7 (I think) on each side.
It's a good idea to build your canoe in the shade as hot sunlight will dry out the bark (and you). I put up a cheap 10 by 10 foot sunshade over my back yard. I was glad of it as we had the hottest summer on record.
While you are preparing the building platform and form, soak your bark in a big garbage can or a lake if you have one. You want it nice and wet and pliable when you start messing around with it.
Once you have your building platform and form, lay the bark out on the platform and center your form on it. My sheet of bark was actually longer than I needed but it had some bad spots so it took me a while to decide what part of the bark to use.
Now you need some heavy rocks to hold the form on place on the bark. I had to make several trips to the local park to bring back enough rocks. I also used a bucket of clay I had on hand too. You want to make sure the form doesn't shift on the bark.
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On to Shaping the sides of the canoe
© Judy Kavanagh 2001