Digging into Dugout History

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

passengers in the hollowed-out canoe while leaving sturdy side walls. Draw a diagonal line from the top of each end to the bottom of the log, marking the tapered bow and stern.

If speed, rather than historical accuracy, is your goal, you can use a chainsaw to rough out the canoe. Traditionalists may choose to use hand tools. A broad ax is best for flattening top and bottom. For chopping out the interior of the canoe, you need a foot adze or a ship-builder's adze. These are like axes with the cutting edge turned sideways.

When hollowing out the log, stand on top near one end. Chop a notch into the wood across the width of the top, leaving a space on each side for the gunwale. Then turn and stand on the opposite side of the notch. Swing the adze so it strikes near where you stood before, 4 to 6 inches from the notch you just created. You should pop out a wood chip about an inch thick with each chop. Follow this vertical working surface to each end of the canoe, and then start over again with a new notch. You will be surprised how fast the work goes if you sharpen the adze periodically with a file.

Smooth the rough surfaces with draw knives and gouging adzes. Drive tapered pegs into the gauge holes, and your canoe is ready for the water.

Cottonwood cracks when it gets dry, so leave your canoe in the water or keep water inside when not in use. The best protection in winter is to sink the canoe in shallow water, using rocks to keep it submerged.

The Basics of Crafting a Dugout Canoe

  1. Remove bark from a log that is no smaller than 10-12 feet long.
  2. Place the log bottom up, and chalk the lines for the top and bottom cuts.
  3. Drill three-fourths inch holes at three inch intervals about two inches deep along the center of the bottom of the log as depth gauge holes.
  4. After the bottom is cut, roll the log over and cut the top of the log.
  5. Mark and cut diagonal lines for the bow and stern.
  6. Chop a notch with an adze the width of the log, leaving space on each side for the gunwales.
  7. Turn and stand opposite of the first cut, using an adze make a second cut 4-6 inches away from the first cut. A wood chip about 1 inch thick should pop out.
    With the adze sunk on second cut, apply pressure downward on the adze handle to pop out chip.
  8. Continue to chip out layers of log until the depth gauge holes are reached.
  9. Using wooden, tapered pegs, fill the depth gauge holes. Cut off excess peg.
  10. The canoe interior can be finished or smoothed with draw knives and gouging adzes.

Cutting Tool Safety

Adzes, axes and draw knifes can inflict serious injury if used carelessly.Wear safety goggles, gloves and steel-toed work boots. Work slowly and with minimum force until you get a feel for the tools. Never work in close quarters with other people, and quit working when you begin to get tired.

Tool Suppliers

You may have trouble finding suitable tools at your local hardware store for dugout canoe building. Several mailorder companies sell foot adzes, gouging adzes, draw knives and other unusual pioneer tools. These include Lehman's of Kidron, Ohio:  (888) 438-5346.

Modern Dugout Fleet

To highlight the Missouri River's economic, recreational and environmental values, Conservation Department workers have created a small fleet of dugout canoes that tour state and county fairs, regional school events and frontier festivals. These replicas of historic canoes range from 12 to 35 feet long.They are accompanied by people in traditional clothing who explain how the canoes were made and the historic role they played. To arrange a visit to your community, call (573) 522-4115, ext. 3256.

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