Disposable Canoeing – Travel, build a wooden boat somewhere exotic
The above photo was taken on the third day of our Canoeing trip on the Loire River in France. The two black canoes didn’t even exist a week ago.
When I wrote the original article on Disposable Canoeing I had no idea at all what it would lead to me and a bunch of adventurers, wine and cheese connoisseurs. Most of us didn’t even know each other! The picture above is the result of this adventurism, but what happened to make it happen?
The concept of “Disposable Canoeing” is that sometimes it doesn’t make sense to transport a boat. In Australia I don’t have a car. But maybe I could travel by bus, plane or train to somewhere in Australia, go to the local big box store and buy plywood, a bit of timber, glue, a measuring tape, handsaw, polyester resin and build the boat by the river. Do the trip then give the boat away at the end.
But my more humble idea jumped to another level when journalist and writer, Brian Anderson, said “Why don’t we do it on the Loire?”. He lives in France not far away from the Loire. His book “Small Boats on Green Waters” has many of the writings that attracted me to sailing when I was a kid and also some that I have never been able to find copies of. The book actually fits nicely with this trip. The premise is that we all dream of heading off overseas in a yacht, but it is often the shorter voyages that are memorable. Swallows and Amazons and so on – do what you can with what you’ve got rather than dream. I hurried through the pages while we were building the boats.
When the Disposable Canoe article went up on my website and Duckworks it created a flurry of activity. At one point it looked like there might be a group of 20 or 30, mostly bringing their own boats, but maybe we would be building six boats. It all started looking really big and complicated, so we all got scared. We did set up a website and a Yahoo Discussion group. It is interesting to see what we said back at the beginning!
In the end we were
- Brian Anderson, born in the USA but well established in France. Self designed row/sail boat with detachable cabin
- Albert, originally from the UK but now living in Brittany, France – Bolger Pointy Skiff
- Peter Lord, originally OZ, now living in Denmark – Skin on Frame Double Paddle Canoe
- Shawn Payment, USA all the way, but I think he has lived in South Carolina – builder
- Paul and Sharon Helbert from Virginia USA – builders
- And Me, Michael Storer, cheapskate citizen of the world – builder
In fact we ALL helped with the building which both sped up and slowed down the process, but certainly made it a heap more fun!!!
Boat Building Materials
The idea of “disposable building is that the boats be done as cheaply and simply as necessary with the type of trip being done. In a smooth slow flowing river in the USA, where plywood and timber is astoundingly cheap then that is the way to go. But for rougher waters where knocks were expected, or where the boats want to be kept after the even or overseas where materials are more expensive it may make sense to improve the quality of the materials.
The first decision that was made away from cheap materials was to move to epoxy. This would make the boats a lot stronger and nicer. Polyester Resin has the sole advantage that it can be set up to harden very quickly – perhaps a
couple of hours. However it doesn’t stick to wood very well.
The disadvantage with epoxy is that a drop in temperature could cause problems for us. It was a constant struggle to make sure things would cure overnight.
But all in all I was happy with the decision – it meant that the outside and inside of the hull could be epoxy sealed which meant epoxy could be applied wet on wet, rather than waiting for water based paint to dry in the damp conditions we had many days.
Later … when going backwards in the rapids under the bridge at Tours and ending up on top of a rock, we were very glad we had invested in the epoxy. Shawn and I in our boat were the least experienced canoeists and basically … we hit everything. Maybe it be because when we saw water flowing quickly into any diversion along the river … we would take it!
The second thing that happened was when we went to get the timber and ply at a REAL SAWMILL we ended up with some very, very nice Gaboon Plywood in 10ft x 5ft sheets. It was Gaboon all the way through and was lovely and light. The Joubert premium ply company is little more than an hour away, so Brian was suspicious it was some of Joubert’s not quite up to grade sheets. We didn’t see a single void in the building.
So suddenly we knew the boats were going to be light and pretty.
So what do you do? We make one step to decide on epoxy – a premium solution – and suddenly find we have inherited nice plywood as well!?
This was actually a little bit of a problem – particularly for me – as nice materials kindof force me to build a nice boat. Some of the others saw this to varying degrees as well. I think Brian summed it up with “if you add 10 minutes to a whole bunch of standard processes, it adds up to a lot of time.
But the boats actually looked beautiful at the end – and those who wanted a break from the boatbuilding and the waiting for the epoxy to go off, I think, were no toooooo unhappy with the balance. After all … how much Grenache (local, fresh, semi fermented wine with a hole in the stopper) can a man drink and how many Chateaux are there to visit.
The final ingredient for the building was some real timber. We ended up buying three slices out of a log – with bark on the outside to rip down ourselves. The pine was a bit of a find. It was Pinus Pinaster – often used for big maritime structures including Columbus’ ships as he headed out into the world to name most of what he found “India”.
Our navigation was to be more straightforward. Or at least we thought so at this stage!
We had brought glass tape, extra epoxy, wood flour and other things from our different countries. We are very glad that Shawn did not get caught with 2 1lb bags of wood flour in his luggage. Would have been interesting to see the cop split the back and rub some of the “substance” on his gums or give a drug dog a sneezing fit. In the end they didn’t ask or apparently notice. They must have though Shawn bought his talcum powder in bulk or something.
So we pressured ourselves into doing a nice job than probably necessary.
After buying the ply for three canoes the penny dropped that we really needed TWO not THREE because Shawn and I could share one. So we had bought more ply than necessary. Gift to Brian for being the bestest host.
The upshot was that the four using the canoes actually spent much less than hiring canoes. But that doesn’t count the yards of baguette, kilos of fromage, litres of Bernache, dozens of croissant and pain au chocolate, vegies and meat we consumed during the building time.
But the food was fabulous and just kept on coming – mostly thanks to Brian.
I suppose I can quickly segue to our accommodations while building. We were staying in a Gite (like a holiday rental) by the Cher river – an old and charming lock keepers cottage.
We even had a lock and a wooden “Pin Weir” outside to prove it. Little did we know we would start to know about the local sailing and towing barges intimately in the next couple of weeks. Between all of us it was very cheap. In fact … everything local was pretty cheap.
Fast Building the Quick Canoes – Plywood boats held together with Gaffer Tape.
I was going to talk about building … there is so much fun stuff to talk about, but I will just put another pic here of another of the meals while we were building.
But also we had to mill the timber – rip a straight edge by marking a straight line and trying to stick to it .. then ripping the boards and thicknessing them.
We had lots help from Rachel and Maia who were just fabulous the whole time … helpful, bright and cheery. Great people! Rachel is saying … why do you guys make so much mess!?
Marking out Plywood
So to the building … the marking out was pretty straightforward. We had worked out that each boat would come out of two of the extra big sheets of gaboon plywood. We moved the boats to up one end on the double sheet required for their length and accepted the butt strap would be asymmetrical – towards one end of the boat. We had Paul Helbert, our most experienced canoeist, have a look to make sure nothing silly would happen with knees and feet.
We didn’t see a single void at any time when we were cutting sheets .. the ply was immaculate apart from a slightly furry grain on the faces.
We cut it out and planed to shape. Time to join up the ply
I always stipulate butt straps in my designs because they are so fast and easy and much tidier than the alternatives. And like many things that some get precious about – nobody notices them once the boat is built. This is not good advice if you are building a clinker canoe – scarf joins there please.
The really big advantage of butt straps for this project was it would save a heap of time over any other joint. They are a one hit process – cut them and glue them on. Also we were able to make up a dummy butt strap for the other side of the join, cover it with brown packaging tape and temporarily screw through the lot. This way we could handle the panels immediately and start assembling them without waiting for the glue to dry. I had tried this on my self build Quick Canoe I put together in Duck Flat in Australia in a total of about 12 hours and it worked fine.
So were were able to go straight on to the hull assembly.
Duct taping the plywood hull together – faster and easier than stitch and glue with wire
(Caveat – the method doesn’t suit a lot of different boats and the Quick Canoe is specially designed with relatively slack panels).
This went really well, particularly with the number of hand we had.
First you take the two side panels and duct tape the ends together.
Then you fit the spacers at the sheer to keep the top edge of the boat the right distance apart.
Whack the bottom on top of the upturned boat
Progressively tape it together from the middle working towards the ends evenly.
Then run duct tape the length of the join.
Finally you have something that is surprisingly structurally stable. Enough to be carried around to the back storage area.
So why do it this way?
- It is fast and simple and eliminates many of the processes involved in copper wiring or cable tying the hull together.
- It leaves the inside of the boat completely clean. No stitches intrude so the glass taping or epoxy filleting can be one uninterrupted flow.
The gunwales are clamped in place to make sure the boat has the right shape.
Concerned about serious knocks on the way down the river we decided to do a mini fillet and glass tape over the top. If needing to save time for smooth water travelling I would eliminate the fillet, but we were balancing the time cost with the chance of a serious knock. I wish I had been braver and eliminated this step, but I’ve mostly build sailing boats and we dont have fastish rivers in Oz. Well we do, but they are seasonal – either dry or hellfire or too far away. I just couldn’t imagine the loads and had no experience .. so I think we may have overdone it.
The Glassing Debate – Fiberglass necessary on a wooden boat travelling shallow rivers with occasional rapids
In reality … no. Both boats came up on rocks a few times including the most spectacular when Shawn and I completely mismanaged the rapid under the bridge at Tours (newbies) and ended up going backwards at speed to pile up on some large rocks. No damage.
At the end both boats (Paul and Sharon’s much fewer) had obviously gone over rocks – they looked used, but the epoxy wasn’t broken or worn away anywhere. Some hollows were compressed into the timber at the worst scratches but the boats survived completely intact.
But … going back to our debate … we decided not to glass just to save time – that was the biggest factor. But gee the boats were nice and light as a result. Don’t let anyone tell you that glass “adds negligible weight”. Selected plywood is so much less dense than glass that the glass ALWAYS adds way more weight than anyone expects compared to the usual back of envelope calculations. In any rate we have found that very light glass gives as much protection to light boats as heavier glass.
Canoe Woodwork – make gunwales, inwales, seats, decks and keel and paddles
This is all relatively straightforward when you look at it, but it is a very substantial part of the building process in terms of time
We kindof broke up into teams at this point. Brian and Shawn doing seats and paddles – Brian used real woodwork methods like tenons to turn the wardrobe rods we bought into rather nice paddles. Paul did seat locations with Shawn and end decks. Seats were by Albert and … Shawn. I made myself useful from time to time. We all did gunwales, inwales and keel.
Peter Lord from Sweden had a seat to finish for his own Skin on Frame Canoe.
The gunwales and inwales are a bit of a pain. The inwales can’t be put in place until the gunwales are done – we didn’t have any screws that could be permanent and stay holding the gunwales to the ply. So the inwales have to wait. Then the end decks have to wait because they glue to the inwales. Seats were a pain too because of the amount of fabrication.
We simplified the supports for the seats – just sitting the seat on the ledge rather than cutting a rebate. That saved a bit. The seats had a single screw through their end into the seat supports.
Coating the plywood Quick Canoe hulls with epoxy
In one way we were looking OK with time by this point, but in another way we would really be stuck if the epoxy did not cure as we hoped. There were just too many epoxy processes and the wet and cold weather was holding us up.
If the weather had been more kind we would have finished a day earlier .. maybe two because we lost time trying to make sure that some parts wouldn’t fall apart while other processes were gone on with.
I had a similar problem with the Quick Canoe I built in Australia. I went the cheap way and used one of the modified PVC exterior glues and then we had cold and rainy weather. That water based glue just wouldn’t dry. It wept out of the seams. But not too bad because Duck Flat has about a million clamps – so I just put more pressure on it. Not what you want to do with epoxy!
So .. we decided on epoxy because looking at the wet cold weather we knew that convenient water based paints would never dry in the conditions. Whereas we knew that with enough warmth the epoxy would be OK.
So the plan was two coats inside and two outside. And seats before they went in.
One problem is we had no epoxy rollers … so we used sqeegees made out of ply offcuts to distribute the epoxy and then disposable brushed to smooth out the marks left by the sqeegees.
Then Peter Lord (I think) came up with a brilliant idea. If it was someone else’s idea … then they are brilliant too – I will add your name in this spot – It really was XXXX XXXXXXX a good chap).
He suggested adding Graphite to the epoxy for the bottom of the boat. Now I think there is a lot of very doubtful stuff talked about graphite in epoxy
- It is not low drag because a layer of water molecules is always carried along by the hull … so there is no “rubbing” between the water and the hull because of no relative movement, so that is a flawed argument.
- It is not extra tough. I’ve used it enough on centrecases and for filling the gaps if faux teak decks to know it sands pretty easy
- It is said that it can help you get off a rock easier – this is possible, but on this trip I didn’t notice anything different from the other wooden canoes and other boats I have had. The boat got stuck plenty. Or at least Shawn and my boat did! I would love to see some tests someone has done to prove this by pulling weights across epoxy without paint, epoxy with paint and epoxy with graphite added to see what happened.
But the reasons for using the graphite were just brilliant.
- It would make the hulls HOTTER – they would warm up more in the weak sun and help all the epoxy glue and coating cure. It worked brilliantly!
- The thicker epoxy would allow us to get away with one coat. We really could have added more graphite! Sorry Albert and Peter for putting the stop to it – should have listened!
- It would protect the outside epoxy from UV breakdown. Not a problem on a weeklong trip.
There was one other benefit we all really liked. The epoxy graphite ended up really black and a bit rough because of raised grain. BUT it looked just the same as all the traditional boats which are sealed with some bituminous product. This was really great – and it contrasted with the clear finished interiors. Really Really nice feeling – the boats just looked AT HOME on the Loire as the local Futreau have the same colour scheme.
What we thought of building two wooden canoes in a week.
I hope the others will add their comments.
The boats definitely took too long. But on the other hand we were very happy with the appearance and most learned a bunch of new skills.
The duct tape assembly is a real time saver both for that section and the following work.
Watch to see how your idea of the job changes as you proceed!
And I was so happy to be there with such a great bunch. We all had our moments (I will hang my head about Amboise) but we all forgave and forgot and got on with fixing the little issues that came up. Everyone’s hearts were in the right place.
Maybe some more discussion about types of accommodation and also realising that with a bit of planning groups could split off and do their own thing for an hour or three. Peter went to see some spectacular gardens when the rest just wanted to continue down the main river.
Make sure everyone has enough to eat ON EACH BOAT.
Huge thanks to the Anderson family. Valerie, Brian’s wife, is a composites engineer with a demanding job and was kind and generous and interested to a fault. Their kids, Rachel and Maia were wonderful. Whether it was cleaning up after all our planing down the timber or just cheering us up with games at different times. Beth, Brian’s mum was over from the USA, and she mucked in helping with food, shopping and general organisation.
They made that building week seem like a week in France despite most of us spending way too much time inside a shed.
Shortly I will put up the travel pics.
And the slide show on Flickr is below and remember if you liked the article click “+1” at the top of the article.