Weaving a Canoe

Through the first lockdown I was keen to get on the river, but held back by my canoe being too large for me to get to the water without help. So, I looked to the resources around me and decided to build my own. The following blog is the story of the making of ‘Basket Case’, my first home-made canoe. Please note, that this is a very rough and ready canoe, quick to construct with minimal tools. For a work of art, please see Adam’s wood and canvas canoe.

Circular boats, made of a woven basket-like frame and covered by skins or pitch, are a global phenomenon used through much of historic times and most likely into the far reaches of prehistory. Canoe shaped boats of a similar construction have been recorded from Russia to North America, with the waterproof covering comprising a range of materials from barks to seal-skin. 

Catlin’s 19th century painting of Mandan skin boats (A Great Plains First Nation People) (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2079926)
Russian Baidara (skin) boat drawing Levashov 1768-1769 (Russian Naval Archives, St. Petersburg)

Frame building materials readily available in the UK include hazel and, especially in my native Somerset, willow. These can be harvested year-round, although only a small number of rods should be removed from each tree outside of the winter, to protect the tree’s vigour. I collected fresh hazel and used last winter’s willow. This had been coppiced in the winter, dried for storage and needed to be rehydrated to be flexible for weaving. 

Building materials

I used my existing canoe as a mould for one end of the new canoe. The supple, fresh hazel rods were bent over the mould and stuck into the ground.

Creating a mould.

It was worth preparing holes for the ends for the hazel (stone acting as mallet!) 

Preparing holes.

With the giant, orange canoe out of the way, the rest of the new canoe shape was marked out onto the ground. I aimed to reduce the canoe length from 16 to 14 feet. I then continued to add bent hazel ribs.

Marking out.

The ribs all in place, it was time to weave the gunwale. By now, my locked down neighbours were showing a keen interest.

Ribs complete.

Logs were placed under the willow weaving, to give contours to the gunwale. I found that this was not strictly necessary, as it was possible to slide the gunwale up and down the hazel to get it in the right location before adding the cover.

Adding contours to the gunwale.

A closer look at the willow gunwale. Note my assistant inspecting progress. I used a three-rod whale weave on the gunwale, in order to maximise strength.

Three-rod whale.

Hazel thwarts (crossbars) were attached with willow to brace the canoe sides and offer seating/carrying handles.

Hazel thwarts.

I wove extra willow at each end of the canoe to improve the strength.


Hazel was then woven along the canoe body longitudinally and diagonally.

Finally, I wove extra willow along the floor of the canoe in the midsections where I would be sitting/ kneeling, in order to give support to my weight. I neglected to take a picture at this stage, but you can see the floor in the photo below. The weaving stage took around 10 hours.

Floor support.

The structure of the boat in place, it was then time to add a waterproof cover and go for a test paddle… 

My intention is to cover the final canoe in painted canvas. However, before going to too much expense, I wanted to make sure the boat moved well through the water. For the test paddling, I used an old camping groundsheet as a cover. This was held in place by tying the groundsheet along the gunwale, with a few large metal clips at the bow and stern. 

The canoe did well in tests. I was able to sit or kneel to paddle, while maintaining a course. The canoe was not stable enough to sit up on the thwarts. I felt the vessel was fine for a paddle on still water, but I would not trust it’s long-term strength or stability for use on flowing water. Also, I am wary of the potential for snagging clothing on the hazel in the event of a capsize. I am therefore saving the canvas and paint for a new, improved design. The canvas will also cover the inside of the final canoe, to prevent snagging.  

A woven boat is quick and easy to make and only needs the basic tools you are likely to be carrying on camping or bushcraft trips (knife, folding saw). If you are also carrying a tarp, you are prepared for making yourself a little vessel. It was lots of fun and it felt satisfying to build a boat similar to one used by our ancestors. 

Bibliography and further reading 

Adney and Chapelle, 1964 The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America https://www.gutenberg.org/files/50828/50828-h/50828-h.htm 

Fitzhugh and Luukkanen, 2019 The Indigenous Watercraft of Northern Eurasia. Vestnik of Saint Petersburg University. History, http://vestnik.spbu.ru/html19/s02/s02v2/06.pdf  

McGrail, S. 2006 Ancient Boats and Ships 




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