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Dearest Gypsy

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Published on: Jan. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

I don't know when I saw my first wood strip canoe, but one that captivated me graced the dock of a ranger station in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park. The sun glistened off her as I paddled up, and I knew that she was the most beautiful canoe I'd ever seen. I have since seen several others, but none prettier than that Canadian boat.

I don't remember when I made up my mind to build a strip canoe. I bought a couple of "how to" books. Then, one recent winter, I "screwed my courage to the sticking point," and built "Gypsy."

I designed her hull shape for fishing stability, paddling efficiency and light cargo loads. Building a plywood form was the first step. I could picture her flowing lines as I sighted down the keel line of the plywood forms. Then the task was to bend the wood strips along those lines.

Bending them, glueing their edges together and anchoring them to the plywood forms, I soon learned how much, or how little, stress narrow, basswood strips could take... "Oops, not that much! Oh, well. Now which is the next best looking strip?"

Building a wood strip canoe is simple-in theory at least-and straight-forward. From a sheet of stout plywood, cut patterns (forms) of the hull's cross section at various distances along its length, then mount them upside-down on a frame of 2-by-6s. The first wood strips are tacked or stapled to the bottom of the forms, and they will be the top of your boat when it's finished.

Then staple the next strips to the previous ones, and so on up the forms. Fitting the last few strips together at the bottom is a bit challenging, but just think of it as a giant jigsaw puzzle, and you get to cut your own pieces to fit! Glue between strips is the only thing holding the hull intact when the staples are removed, so I was generous with glue, using nearly a gallon of the stuff for a 16-foot boat.

Then the staples are removed, the gaps between strips are filled, and the hull is scraped and sanded smooth. Two layers of fiberglass on the outside hold the hull together. Then it can be taken off the forms, turned upside down, scraped and sanded, and a single layer of fiberglass can be added to the inside. After that, all that's left is finish work: decks, seats, gunwales and varnishing.

After I had scraped, smoothed, sanded and brushed the hull to her final form, my wife, Connie, and I spent a pleasant evening "fiberglassing" her. We started after supper and by 10 p.m. Connie, a teacher who needs her sleep, headed off toward bed. It was several hours later before I joined her, but I was smiling.

The paper-white basswood strips had darkened to brushed gold under the fiberglass and though it took two more layers of resin to make the cloth completely disappear, the boat was gorgeous already. She was soon glass smooth as well as glass covered. After the outside was finished, I took her off the plywood forms, turned her over and finished the inside in exactly the same manner.

The whole project was fun, but the most fun was making the gunwales, decks and seat. I had used three dark cherry strips among the basswood in the hull, "racing stripes" my friend Ted called them, so I assembled a seat frame of cherry, and wove the seat of plastic caning.

The gunwales are 1/4-inch thick strips of sweetgum. Two strips are laminated together for the inwales, three for the outwales. These I glued and clamped on either side of the hull like a basswood/sweetgum sandwich, then screwed them together with brass hardware.

Front and rear decks are sweetgum also, inserted inside the inwale, clamped, glued and screwed into place. After hanging the seat from the inwales, more shaping, sanding and brushing preceded several coats of spar varnish for protection from the sun and water. Finally, I had a finished canoe.

As I donned my life jacket, a small crowd gathered for her first launch and "sea trials." One local sage advised getting pictures of the finished boat before launching, just in case I ended up bobbing around in the water like a fishing cork surrounded by a drifting flotilla of basswood strips. I crossed my fingers and launched, and danged if she didn't float-and in one piece.

Every custom-built canoe has unique handling characteristics, and the more I fish from Gypsy, the more she becomes an extension of myself on the water. I wish my family was as responsive and easy to handle, but you can't have everything. We have caught a bunch of fish together on our neighborhood lake and will catch many more, but the ultimate test will be her first trip to the Canadian wilderness in Quetico. That trip will be hard on equipment, but I have no doubts that Gypsy will come through with flying colors.

Knowing that I would be asked, I kept track of the 158 hours and $700 I spent building Gypsy. My goal was to build a solo boat that weighed less than 65 pounds. At the official weigh-in she tipped the scales at a mere 58 pounds.

Would I part with her? You bet; anything I have is for sale for the right price. Besides, I want to build a Kevlar canoe, shoot for a 35-pounder. But what are my 158 hours worth? For this labor of love probably more than anyone is willing to pay.

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