How to Build a Canoe Like the Native Americans Did


Native American peoples made their own canoes for use on rivers, lakes, and oceans. The canoes were as long as 20 feet and used for transportation and trade. One type of Native American canoe they made is called a dug out canoe, made from hard wood trees such as oak, birch, chestnut, and cedar. The trunk had to be at least 2-3 feet wide. It was chopped down and hauled to the working area. The log was then carved with hand tools and the middle was burned out. The process is labor intensive and took days or even weeks to complete.

Things You'll Need

  • Log
  • Wood carving tools
  • Saw
  • Charcoal briquettes
  • String
  • Select the right log to carve from. The log should not be damaged and should be 13-14 feet for a recreational canoe to sit two people. Drag it to the workspace.

  • Lay the log on a platform made from smaller logs. The base should be stable. Start by cutting through the branches and then move them aside. Make the cuts flush to the trunk. Strip off the bark from the log with a hatchet or saw while using safety precautions.

  • Mark out the shape of the canoe using a marker. Cut off the top 1/4 of the log. You can keep this to construct paddles later.

  • Cut a notch along the top of the canoe for the charcoal briquettes to sit. Stop cutting before you reach the front and back of the boat.

  • Shape the bow and stern of the boat into a hydrodynamic shape. A canoe is an oval. It is widest at the middle. The bow and stern meet at points to allow the canoe to cut through the water. It also gives the canoe its distinctive profile. Find the vertical center of your boat with a level or measuring tape. Draw a line. Also, find the exact center of the boat. Make a mark. Taper out the shape until it meets the middle of the boat. Visualize the form by sketching out the dimensions on a sheet of paper.

  • Round the bottoms of both sides of the boat. This is best achieved by measuring the height of the boat with string and swinging it 45 degrees from the furthest top part of the boat to the bottom. Attach with small nails or thumbtacks. Create a curve in the string by pulling it outward until taught. Trace the line, carve and repeat on the tail end.

  • Set the charcoal briquettes into the notch you created. Wet the sides of the canoe thoroughly before lighting. Burn out the center of the canoe by lighting the charcoal with a match. Do not use lighter fluid. You will lose control of the burn. You want to keep the width of the tree as much as possible.

  • Let the charcoal burn out. It is important to keep vigilant on this step while keeping the sides of the boat wet so it does not burn. Wait until the charcoal is completely turned to white ash. Then wait until it cools. Use a shovel to remove the burnt pieces.

  • Carve the interior of the boat away making the traditional u-shaped interior. This will take days and weeks to accomplish. Keep a liberal 3-4 inch width on the sides of the boat.

  • Repeat the burning and carving away until you are 3/4 of the way through the log. Make sure the sides do not get too thin. The bottom of the boat should be thicker than the sides.

  • Carve a flat bottom to the inside of the boat. This will allow a rider to kneel comfortably.

  • Finish by rubbing with wax or seal with a waterproof wood sealer. Wear your life jacket and test out the new canoe on a still body of water.

Tips & Warnings

  • This is a time consuming process and cannot be rushed.
  • Use a dry and aged wood. A green tree will not burn.
  • Cover the canoe during construction in bad weather.
  • Check the fire laws in your neighborhood before beginning.
  • Do not cut down any trees without supervision.
  • Do not cut down a tree that does not belong to you.
  • Take all safety precautions when working with a chainsaw and heavy machinery.

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  • Photo Credit Titchen/Valueline/Getty Images
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