How to Make a Canoe: Easy Steps to Start Your Voyage and Adventure

Beautiful canoe on lakeshore
Mark Foster
Written by Mark Foster

Centuries ago, the use of the canoe was limited to transportation, whether for travel or the transfer of goods. Explorers even made use of the canoes to reach various destinations and discover new places. Now, many adventurers like you can also use a canoe for leisure and recreation. That’s why many people now are learning ways on how to make a canoe and start their new water adventure.

However, can’t you just buy a canoe? It saves time and effort. There’s no more rolling up your sleeves to start working laboriously on building a new one. But the thing is, like many others, you like taking the do-it-yourself approach. You know for yourself that you can finish almost anything as long as you have a free weekend.

Why do people prefer the DIY approach? One reason is that they like making things with their own hands. Also, making something is a form of relaxation itself. You get immersed in the activity and you learn a lot along the way as well. In addition, you also learn what works and what doesn’t (and maybe make a few mistakes) in every hobby or skill you undertake.

Custom built canoe

In your first attempt at building a canoe, you don’t have to go through a lot of mistakes. In this comprehensive guide, you’ll immediately learn what works. You’ll also learn a few things to consider to make sure your canoe will work as expected and be with you whenever you need it.

What is a canoe and what are its best features?

Before you read on and build your DIY canoe, it helps if you know its functions and features. Keep these in mind so your canoe will be of high quality and high performance. This way, you’ll know the context why the materials and the procedures are needed.

How does a canoe work? It’s much the same as a common boat. The difference is that you can tailor your canoe according to the purpose you will use it for. Even if it’s made from simple materials, you can do a lot of customization, and you can also easily repair it after a rough adventure.

Man on viking canoe

It’s also durable because it’s usually made from a strong material. That’s one reason why the Native Americans use the canoe for transportation. Furthermore, building a wooden canoe is easy and straightforward. You can even build your own simple wooden canoe in days or few weekends. As long as you follow the instructions carefully and you keep in mind a few considerations, you can successfully do it yourself.

How to Build a Wooden Canoe: Materials and Procedures

First, what are the materials for building a canoe? Here are the things you need:

  • 4mm marine ply one sheet (for the sides)
  • 6mm marine ply one sheet (for the bottom that’s why this one’s thicker and stronger)
  • Epoxy, fiberglass tape, cable ties (for sealing and securing the structure of the canoe)
  • Paint or varnish (to coat the canoe and serve as an added layer of protection

It’s good to have a bird’s eye view of what you’ll need to do before going into the details. This way, you’re sure that each step goes accordingly and you can figure out the next steps without any help. This also somehow serves as a checklist so you won’t miss anything.

The design of canoes is pretty simple. You just need plywood for the walls (the sides) and another sheet of plywood to cover the bottom (which serves as the “floor”). You join them all together securely. You can then add seats and coat the canoe with varnish or paint to complete the project.

Couple rowing canoe

That’s the principle. It sounds easy but when it comes to the details, a few things can be a bit tricky. You might get the measurement wrong or the whole assembly might just be far from perfect. However, most mistakes can be easily fixed. You can also do it all over again if a fresh start is what you need. The important thing here is to keep safe and plan accordingly. It also helps to pace yourself so you get each step right without doing unnecessary work.

Now for the difficult part, you will learn the details and specific instructions to perform. To make the task easier, it’s good to refer to the Overview mentioned above. This way, you’ll somehow get an idea of how the pieces fit together.

1. Make a plan and draw a mockup

Many other DIY articles start with “List and buy the materials.” However, it’s not the best approach.

It could be more helpful to start with a clear plan and drawing of what you’re trying to make. It’s similar to cooking. You should first know what to cook before rushing to buying the ingredients.

If you have a clear idea of what your canoe should look like and a good drawing, it gets easier to list and buy all the materials. Even if you don’t have the list of materials with you, when you go to the store you can easily enumerate the things you need to buy just by imagining the canoe or looking at the drawing.

It’s also helpful to make a cardboard model of your canoe. This takes a bit more work but it will come in handy later when you’re actually putting things together. This is very helpful especially when you’ve built the cardboard model according to scale. You can work according to the proportions and the finished canoe will look exactly as the cardboard model.

Canoe on docks

To make sure you’ll finish building the canoe – and not just adding it to your wishlist – mark on your calendar when will you start. It’s also motivating to know when you will actually use it. Is it for the holidays? Do you want to surprise your kid?

These seem to be trivial questions. However, many projects get started but only end up taking space in the garage or yard for years (and even decades).

2. Start building the canoe: Join the sides

You should have all the materials and the plan. Next is it’s time to actually start with building the canoe.

Any project can get overwhelming at first especially if you don’t know where to start. Here in this project, the first thing to do is to prepare and join the sides. Few people start with the bottom but this isn’t advisable. That’s because the sides will often dictate what next steps (and how to do them) to do.

You need one sheet of marine ply with this. You will then need to cut it lengthwise. You will stack those two resulting sheets and cut through them again. The resulting width of these plywood sheets (which will be the height of the sides) should be around 3 to 12 inches. It’s already enough for most purposes.

Next is you will stack the two plywood sheets (after cutting, achieving the desired length, and putting a slight slope at the end) on top of the other. You will drill holes through them (at each end) so you can fasten them together with cable ties.

Canoe on backyard

Once you’ve securely fastened the two sheets of plywood, you can lay it with the length of the sheets parallel to the floor. Then, you can pull the sides outward. This serves as the “opening” and dictates the overall shape of the canoe.

The shape should be wide enough to accommodate the user. Whether it’s for you or your child, it’s good to take precise measurements. This way, there will be enough room near the middle and even near the ends.

Up to this point the steps could be a bit abstract and confusing. To get an idea of the overall steps and to easily visualize the building of the canoe, here’s a video to help you (it’s only a guide because you can make modifications according to your preferences and skill level):

3. Make and put a support between the two sides

This serves as the support for the sides so they won’t come together. In addition, this will help you keep the structure steady while you are doing other things on completing the project.

The support can help maintain the width so it becomes easier doing the next steps. You can use plywood to put on the middle. Just make sure that both the middle and the ends are stable and secure while you are putting more details and support on the canoe.

4. Add the gunwales

These are the things you see and touch at the top edge of the sides of boats and canoes. For this project, the gunwales are made of strips of wood. They provide rigidity and some support on the overall frame of the canoe. They also give strength to the structure of the canoe so you will have fewer worries about stability.

Adding the gunwales

This step could be a challenge because of the bent requirement of the canoe and gunwales. It helps if you “pre-bend” (or make some other preparations) the gunwales before attaching them so the task will become easier later. The key thing to remember here is that the gunwales should add rigidity to the sides of the canoe.

5. Add wood sticks between the gunwales

These also provide structural support to the canoe. The wood sticks, which run crosswise on the canoe, can also serve as an added design. One thing to consider, though, is that the space between these sticks should be wide enough so there’s still space for the user. It should not be too narrow so you can easily get on the canoe.

Aside from providing additional structural support, these wood sticks can also be the starting point of the seats about halfway below the top edge of the sides. You can put the wood sticks (with enough space between the consecutive as to make a decent seat). Then you can add and attach “bars” of wood on them (sort of like a ladder but with less space between).

Canoe making workshop

On a simple wooden canoe, you can add up to two seats. You and your child (or your partner) can use and remain comfortable while paddling because of those seats.

6. Add the bottom of the canoe

You can do this before or after adding the wood sticks (which are for structural support). The bottom of the canoe serves as the “floor.” That’s why it should also be sturdy and durable. In addition, it’s the part that is most in contact with water.

To begin, you can lay the bottom part of the unfinished canoe (with only the sides and structural supports) on a plywood sheet (should also be marine ply). Then trace the outline on the plywood and then cut through that.

After that, you can then attach the cut-out plywood to serve as the bottom of your canoe. You can use epoxy or polyester resin to make the bottom sides and the “floor” to come together and stay securely. When performing this step, make sure the area is ventilated so you reduce your risks from volatiles.

Building a canoe

Adhesives and sealants often contain volatile organic chemicals that can harm your health. It’s also ideal that during the whole process (from cutting the plywood up to the coating of the canoe), the area should be well ventilated.

It’s also good to add the resin on the areas joining the two sides of the canoe. This is to seal the areas and prevent water from coming through the joints of the sides.

7. Add the finishing touches

Your simple wooden canoe is almost complete. There’s one more thing needed. You should coat it and make it visually appealing.

It’s not just for making the canoe looking beautiful and stylish. It’s also for protection and increased longevity of the canoe. The coating (paint or varnish) also serves as an added layer of protection. Your canoe is sure to be exposed to water and other elements. They will come through the coating first before they can attack the wood.

Newly built canoe

When it comes to coating the canoe, first make sure all the details are right. Then, you can sand through the surfaces to smoothen the rough edges and make the painting an easier task. This step is actually the easiest because even if you make mistakes, they are easy to fix.

Marvel at your work and test the canoe

After you apply paint or varnish on the canoe (and achieving the desired design), take a look and marvel at your work. Also check if there things you’ve missed or something’s wrong. You can also add more details and support to ensure stability.

Ideally, you should first test the canoe yourself on the waters. This is one of the most important steps because it’s where the rubber meets the road (or in this case, where the canoe meets the water). Take all safety precautions when you test it.

Once on the water, check if there are leaks. Also check the rigidity and stability of the whole canoe. It’s good to have a checklist right before the testing so you won’t miss a thing. Then, you can repair what’s needed and make the canoe safer for yourself and other users.

Front view canoe

After the testing and making sure everything’s perfect, it’s time to use it and enjoy the fruit of your labor. It’s good to stay safe whether it’s for testing or the actual long-term usage. This way, you will get the most out of your canoe and enjoy the activity for years to come (whether you make a new and better canoe or just buy a new one).

Now, you’ve already learned how to build a canoe. Do you have questions or you need clarifications about the project? Do you have things to add so that your fellow readers can build a stronger and higher quality canoe? Please add a comment below.

Mark Foster
Mark Foster

Mark Foster loves to push his limits when it comes to survival in the wilderness. He might go for a 30-days adventure without any food or equipment except for a survival kit and a knife. We should mention that his survival kit has 122 items in it, so he know what he is doing. Mark is working on his book to share with the world all his experience gained during those brave adventures.

  • Greg Abbot

    I love the idea of making a canoe that’s not only for personal use, but also fit to be something of a family heirloom. The whole process is mesmerizing. I don’t think you mentioned this in the article, but I was wondering how large a space your would suggest doing a project like this in? Would a small one car garage be enough?

  • Mark Foster

    You need a large enough area for a canoe project, such as this one. Aside from your machining space, you will need approximately 10 x 20 of level space. Make sure it is also sheltered and dry. You will also need a clear path of around 40′ to make the strips.
    In other words, the larger the space is for you to move about, the better. It would make the project easier to do and faster, too.

  • Adam White

    Hmmm. I’m not sure I’m skilled or have the right set of carpentry skills to create a beautiful canoe but I do like to look at them and I enjoy using them! This would be a great project, though. Doesn’t seem too terribly difficult. I would probably want to have someone help me out with the first one, though. Canoeing is, to me, such a peaceful past time. It’s probably made even better when you make it yourself.

  • Michelle Greer

    I have watched movies where people made canoes and they made it look so easy. I mean, I’m sure it’s not easy and it certainly doesn’t look like something I think I would have the skills to complete, button your opinion-would this be a good started project? Would you need a little more experience in carpentry or wood work to complete your own canoe? Is it something you could learn how to do as you’re doing it?

  • Mark Foster

    Skill is everything, of course. Some people are so good with their hands that they can do any crafts they want. Yet, many people are good collaborators and can easily work well with others. So, this can be a worthy project for a group of friends to make or a family. It is very doable and there are even some step-by-step videos to guide you every step of the way. Most of all, if you are on a tight budget and can’t afford a canoe, this can be a viable option for you.
    You can do it! 😉

  • Mark Foster

    For one, you can customize your canoe to fit your needs. If you can’t make it yourself, try doing it with a group of friends which will make the project proceed faster and easier. Once you all get a hang of it, you can opt to do another one for each one. By that time, I think you’ll all get the hang of it.
    Enjoy and good luck!


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