How to Make a Canoe [DIY Step-by-Step Tutorial]

If you plan to go out rowing, making your canoe with your bare hands should be top of that list. I’ll show you how to make a canoe in this DIY step-by-step tutorial.

You could always just buy one, it’s true, but where’s the fun in that? As long as you follow every step I detailed below, you have nothing to worry about not doing it right.

I’m gonna start you up right away with the most important things you need to consider, materials, and a step-by-step tutorial, so you can make a plan and get started.

How to Build a Canoe – Materials and Step-by-Step Tutorial

Materials needed:

  • 4mm white cedar or marine ply one sheet (for the sides)
  • 6mm white cedar or 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 is best to make a to do list before going into the details. This way, you’re sure that each step goes accordingly, and you can figure out the next steps easily to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Keep the design of your canoe nearby, cedar/plywood for the walls (the sides) and another sheet of cedar/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.

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 off.

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 ahead, following the steps in the right order.

1. Make a plan and draw a mockup

Start with a clear plan and drawing of what you’re trying to make. You should first know what you’re building, before rushing to buy the materials.

It can be 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.

2. Start building the canoe: Join the sides

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 to do.

  • You need one sheet of white cedar or marine ply.
  • Cut it lengthwise.
  • Stack those two resulting sheets and cut through them again.
  • These sheets should be around 3 to 12 inches.
  • Stack the two sheets on top of the eachother.
  • Drill holes through them (at each end).
  • Fasten them together with cable ties.
  • Lay it with the length of the sheets parallel to the floor.
  • Pull the sides outward. This gives the 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. It needs to be enough room near the middle and near the ends as well.

To get an idea of the overall steps and to visualize the building of the canoe, here’s a video to help you (it’s only a guide as you should make modifications according to your needs):

3. Make and put the 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 to do the next steps. You can use cedar/plywood to put in the middle.

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 to the overall frame of the canoe. They also give strength to the structure of the canoe so you will have fewer worries about stability.

This step could be a challenge because of the bent requirement of the canoe and gunwales. It helps if you “pre-bend” the gunwales before attaching them, they will add rigidity to the sides of the canoe.

5. Add wood sticks between the gunwales

How to make a canoe - DIY step-by-step tutorial

These also provide structural support to the canoe. The wood sticks, which run crosswise on the canoe, can serve as an added design.

The space between these sticks should be wide enough so there’s still room for the user. It should not be too narrow so you can easily get in the canoe.

These wood sticks can also be the starting point of the seats about halfway below the top edge of the sides. You can add and attach “bars” of wood on them (sort of like a ladder but with less space between).

On a simple wooden canoe, you can add up to two seats. They will add more comfort for you and your child (or your partner).

6. Add the bottom of the canoe

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 the most in contact with water. So this is what you should do:

  • Lay the bottom part of the unfinished canoe, only the sides and structural supports, on a white cedar/marine ply sheet.
  • Trace the outline on the plywood
  • Cut through the sheet, following the outline.
  • Attach the cut-out plywood to serve as the bottom of your canoe.
  • Use epoxy or polyester resin to make the bottom sides and the “floor” glued together.
  • Make sure the area is ventilated so you reduce your risks from volatiles.
  • Add resin to 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.

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

7. Add the finishing touches

How to make a canoe - finish it up

Coat it and make it look nice. The paint or varnish will protect and increase longevity of the canoe. Your canoe will be exposed to water and other elements.

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 to make the painting an easier task.

Test the canoe

After you apply paint or varnish on the canoe check if there are things you’ve missed or if you notice something is wrong. You can also add more details and support to ensure stability.

It’s good to have a checklist right before the testing so you won’t miss a thing:

  • Test the canoe yourself on the waters, so not to put others at risk.
  • Take all safety precautions when you test it, no matter how sure you are of your work.
  • Put it on the water to check if there are leaks.
  • Check the rigidity and stability of the whole canoe.
  • Repair what’s needed and make the canoe safer for yourself and other users.

After testing and making sure everything’s perfect, it’s time to use it and enjoy it.

How to make a canoe - test it

If you don’t want to make your own paddles, like I showed you here, you can go buy a pair for your newly made canoe, and these are my recommandations.

Is it easy to build a canoe?

Yes, it’s not hard to make a canoe. As long as your woodworking skills are good, and you have the patience to work on a canoe yourself, your canoe will be ready in no time.

Make sure you have everything you need before starting on it. Like a budget for good materials, a place to build it, easy access to a place to test it, and, of course, free time.

How long does it take to make a canoe?

It takes a little over 150 hours to make your own canoe from scratch. All you need is some skill in working with a table saw or radial arm saw.

You need patience and persistence, for every wooden strip and every area you’ll need to sand, in order for your canoe to be completely finished.

What kind of wood do you use to make a canoe?

You’ll need to use Northern white cedar to make your canoe. This is without question the best wood out there for a DIY canoe.

It is strong, light, flexible, and doesn’t rot easily. No other wood out there can be compared to it. So if you know you’re starting a DIY canoe project, first, make sure you got Northern white cedar.

If your project fails, or you decide you are not cut out for making it yourself, check out the best solo canoes, maybe you find something that suits you better.

Or take a look at our earlier article on how to choose the top fishing canoe for more ideas.

If your DIY canoe ends up as awesome as you expected, after following my step-by-step tutorial on how to do it, I would love for you to share the result with everyone.


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