How to Make a Dugout Canoe


By any chance, do you want to work on a quirky project for this coming year? Or maybe, you are looking for a hobby that’ll require you to break some good sweat? If yes, this is your time to build a dugout canoe. Yes! A dugout canoe! This may sound ridiculous for many. One might even ask, “Why?!” Well, it’s pretty cool to tell other people that you made a dugout canoe by yourself (or with some of your close friends for extra hands). Not to mention that the building process is an excellent work experience. Just imagine – a dugout canoe! Now, that’ll be a good share.

Name and History

The dugout canoe is also referred to as logboat or monoxylon (the Greek word “mono” literally means single, while “xylon” means tree). Germans call this boat einbaum (which translates to “one tree”).

A dugout canoe is basically a kind of boat crafted from a hollowed trunk. Archaeologists consider dugout canoe as the oldest crafted boats in the world. In fact, some of them are dated as early as 10,000 to 8,000 years ago (this was during the shift from Mesolithic to Neolithic period). Its oldest model was found in the Netherlands. It is called Pesse canoe and is currently housed in Drents Museum. Pesse is actually the name of the village where the first dugout canoe was accidentally unearthed. A crane operator who was preparing the ground initially thought of it as a tree trunk buried below the surface. That is discovery and dumb luck right there!

Some scholars, however, challenge the authenticity of Pesse canoe, saying that it was too small to sail. They surmised that Pesse canoe might simply just be an animal feeder. Now, that’s a pity. But a couple of centuries after the life of Pesse canoe, other dugout emerged from different parts of Africa, America, Asia, and Europe. Some scholars believe that the series of appearances during this period indicate peoples’ desire to maximize the gathering of vital aquatic resources. Interestingly, the culture of dugout canoe-making is very much alive until this very day! It is still considered as the main water transport in many societies. For many adventurous souls, making and using dugout canoe connect them to a deeper sense of history and culture.

How to make a dugout canoe?

As the name suggests, this boat is made by hollowing and shaping a strong piece of log. It is usually pointed at both ends for better mobility, although designs greatly vary depending on cultural preferences. Making a dugout canoe has become easier through time due to the improvement of woodcraft technology. Chainsaw, ax, hatchet, adze, drawknife, and other log-carving tools are fairly available in our local hardware. In the past, canoe makers heavily relied on crude stone and metal tools to shape the sides and hollow the middle. Talk about dedication.

So, here’s a step-by-step process that you can follow when making a dugout canoe:

  • Draw your dream canoe.

    You can’t simply purchase a log, hollow its inside, and wing it. Always remember that a good plan usually produces a good result. In this case, you start with a canoe design. Know the dimensions – the length and width, the depth of hollow, the preferred type of log, even the color. If you want to integrate indigenous designs, you can google for ideas online.(Tip: Try searching Haida cedar canoe, Estonian dugout canoe called habjaas, Queensland’s seafaring dugout)

    You also would want to make smaller models based on your design. This is important for you to visualize your design in 3D (with the proper scaling, of course).

  • Acquire a log.

    After a couple of dry runs, it is time for you to acquire a log that fits your envisioned model. Big sawmills and lumber companies are an excellent source for this. You can also look for Tree Services in your area (though it would be more tricky given the transportation cost and other additional work) or you can ask for some help to cut down your own tree. A fresh log is perfect for this project simply because it carves easier compared to dry old logs.

  • Clean the log and do the design outline.

    When your log is already set up, you can now remove the bark with your sharpened drawknife. After removing the bark, draw an outline around the log based on your design and miniature model. Many craftsmen use tar-dipped pegs in making lines that will be shaved later. Make sure that the dimensions of your outline are symmetrical. Remember that these outlines will define your next steps.

  • Shape the canoe.

    By this time, all the excess parts will be removed. Many start this by shaving the top portion of the log with a chainsaw (you can also use a manual crosscut saw if you want a more rustic vibe, though it is obviously more laborious). The side section will then follow. You’ll want to gradually shape the side-sections with your axe and adze. You will then shape both ends with your saw and axe. When the shaping of all sections is done, you can give your wood final touches using your drawknife. Make sure that the tools are constantly sharp for better results.

    Always remember to follow the outline for you to have a continued visualization.

  • Do the center of your canoe.

    After shaping the end- and side-sections, you can start hollowing the center of the log. Since you already shaved its top portion, you now need to carefully split and shave its core/middle. You need to use your adze and axe for this. The right balance of depth and thinness in hollowing is highly required. You really do not want to have a very heavy canoe due to thick unshaved parts. Nor a canoe with splits and holes because of too much hollowing.

    The hollowed center will be polished mainly by adze. Some people smoke the hollowed portion for several hours in order to improve or alter its shape (though this is optional). Afterwards, you can place some designs and colors of your preference.

And voila! You now have a self-made dugout canoe.

For further canoe designs, you can also visit Northmen’s video titled The Birth of a Dugout Canoe to have a feel on the traditional canoe culture mixed with modern woodwork techniques.