Digging into Dugout History

By Jim Low | January 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2004

Depictions of the Corps of Discovery's voyage on the Missouri River typically portray the expedition's keelboat. But did you know the explorers made three-quarters of the trip in dugout canoes? These versatile, easy-to-make cargo carriers were the 18-wheelers of their day.

A dugout canoe is just a log that has been hollowed out. The Corps of Discovery once built three dugout canoes in two days. You can make one, too, although it probably will take you a little longer.

First, find a suitable tree. Your log must be straight and free of limbs or knots that could cause leaks. Almost any species will work, but cottonwoods are preferred. Big cottonwoods are plentiful, and their wood is soft and straight-grained, making it easy to work.

Some of Lewis and Clark's dugouts were more than 30 feet long, but anything longer than 10 feet and broad enough to accommodate your own girth is adequate. Dugouts are heavy, so choose a size that will be manageable when you have to move it.

Make the thickest end of the log the stern of your canoe. To decide which surface of the log goes on the bottom, place the log on a flat surface. Roll the log to check for curvature. Put the outside of any natural curve on the bottom of the finished canoe.

The next step is to flatten the bottom of the canoe. This will allow you to work on the upright log safely. Roll the log onto its top and secure it with blocks on both sides. With a carpenter's chalk line, snap a straight, horizontal line along each side of the log a few inches from the bottom (which is now on top). Cut off the rounded slab of wood above the line.

Before righting your log, drill a series of 3/4-inch holes at 3-foot intervals along the center line of the canoe bottom. These "gauge holes" will allow you to gauge how thick the floor of your canoe is when chopping out the interior. Make the holes as deep as the desired thickness of the canoe floor. For very large canoes, this might be as much as 4 inches. For a 12-footer, 2 inches is enough.

Now, roll the log onto its flat bottom and snap a straight line on each side to mark the top of the gunwales. You want to create a flat surface wide enough to accommodate 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.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler