Building a Cedar-Strip Canoe: Seats, Gunnels, Decks and Yoke

Updated on July 20, 2017
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Jim is a retired software/electrical engineer who enjoys the outdoors. He likes to challenge himself with creative projects at home.

The yoke, decks, seats, inner and outer gunnels can add a fair amount of weight to your canoe. Traditionally they are made from a dense hardwood such as ash and are fairly thick. The yoke, decks and gunnels helps the hull retain its shape give it some stiffness.

Gunnels

On my first canoe I made the outer and inner gunnels out of 7/8” X ¾” cherry. To get pieces long enough I had to scarf joint (a butt joint cut at a sharp angle) two pieces together. The inner gunnel was cut using a router with scuppers which are basically slots in the gunnel next to the hull to allow water to drain when it is turned upside down.

On this canoe—the one I wrote about in Building a Cedar-Strip Canoe: The Basics—I did something different. See the photos below. The outer gunnel was 5/8” X ¾” maple, scarf jointed. A rounded slot about 1/8” deep and 1/4” wide was routed on the back side. The top side of the gunnel was rounded over with a ¼” round over bit and the bottom side with a ¾” round over bit.

The inner gunnel was laminated from 3/8” X 3/4” X 16 ft. yellow pine, ¼” X ¾” maple sections added in the seat and yoke areas for extra support, and ¼” X ¾” X 4” spacers made of cedar and separated by about 3 inches to form the scupper slots. All the wood for the inner gunnel was glued together with thickened epoxy.

Once I clamped the inner gunnels to the hull I found that the areas where I added the maple for support, because the yoke would be attached and seats hung from these areas, were too stiff. The gunnel did not bend to the curve of the hull at the sheer and would have caused flat areas in what should be a continuous curve. I tapered the thicker maple areas and removed some wood from the middle to get the bend back. The inner gunnel runs from stem to stem and the decks to the inside of the right and left gunnel.

Decks

The decks were made from two pieces of ¾’ thick maple glued and doweled together with a 3/8” thick piece of cherry strip in the middle: see the pictures below. The front deck is about 8” long and the rear is about 6”. I laid a piece of cardboard on each end of the hull and traced the outline to get the angle to cut for the decks. I cut finger slots in each deck to form a sort of carry handle, using a 1” forstner bit and some filing and sanding.

Seat Frames and Yoke

The seat frames on my first canoe were quite heavy, ¾” ash with the cross members attached using heavy-duty coated deck screws.

This time I laminated 3/8” thick cedar to 3/8” thick maple (see the photos below). I used a router to cut a slot in each board, into which I laid a length of 1” nylon strapping, sandwiched between the cedar and maple . I thought this would be strong and lightweight. The cross members were solid maple and doweled to the main frames.

The seats were covered with webbing, woven from 1” polypro strapping and stapled to the bottom of the seat frames. I added some Gorilla glue to the stapled areas, then covered the staples with a dab of varnish to give some extra strength. We’ll see how strong these seats will be.

The yoke was cut from a solid piece of ¾” curly maple using the yoke from my first canoe as a template. I made it thinner than previously but added cedar strips to the hand hold areas, top and bottom, on each side of the curved neck recess. The added cedar was shaped using a sureform plane and sander to blend into the maple.

Attaching the Gunnels

The decks are attached with thickened epoxy and screws. The inner gunnel is attached first with thickened epoxy, then clamped (see the pictures below). I drove several ¾” flat head brass screws through the hull into the gunnel for extra strength, or just to make me feel better, not sure which. The outer gunnel was glued and clamped on after the inner was set. I screwed it on also using recessed flat head screws cover with a glued in dowel plug.

Placing the Seats

Now for the seats. First, clamp on the yoke at the proper hull width. The seats are the most difficult to attach. Here is where the old adage “measure twice, cut once” should be taken seriously. They need to be placed at the correct distance forward and aft of center to trim the canoe properly, but paddler’s weight, loading and hull design can affect this placement. I simplified the whole thing, I hope it works.

I know the seat placement in my first canoe was good, so I measured fore and aft of center and added 1 inch, since this hull is almost a foot longer. It is however narrower and asymmetrical, so again we’ll wait and see. The space under the seats should be about 9-1/2” to 10-1/2”. I went for 10.

The first step is to lay the seats on top of the gunnels and measure and mark each side from the tip of the bow or stern to ensure they are square to the hull. I made a jig, which is just a 10 in wide board with a scrap cedar strip (I had plenty) stapled to its edge. I then clamped a straight 1X2 to the gunnels to butt the seat frame against while aligned with the seat placement marks I just made. Underneath the seat at the top of the 10 in wide board I placed two overlapping scrap strips extended to the sides of the hull then clamped together to capture the hull width measurement at the proper seat height. This measurement was transferred to the seat frame.

The angle to cut can be determined by aligning the withtop of the hull strips using a straight edge.

Once all the seat frames were cut to size I drilled holes in the center of the frame markings on the gunnels for the hanger bolts. I then laid the seats on the 10-in wide board jig and measured from the top of the seat frame to the bottom of the inner gunnel for each frame. The distance should be the same on the right and left sides but slightly different front and back. Next I cut spacers (wide-diameter dowel can be used, but I used ¾” square rounded with a router) and drilled clearance holes for the hanger bolts through each. To mark the hole locations on the seat frames I used a long Phillips head screwdriver that barely fit through the holes in the gunnels.

Then I drilled holes in the frames and assembled the seats with the bolts and spacers. It is recommended to use stainless or phosphor bronze carriage bolts, but the zinc plated ¼” X 5” and 6” ones I used are much cheaper. Everything fit nicely.

Mounting the Yoke

I clamped the yoke to the gunnels and hung it from the ceiling to find the center of balance. I mounted the yoke just forward of that so the bow will lift slightly when carried on my shoulders. I used one ¼” x 2” carriage bolt in each side.

The seats should now be removed to prepare for MORE sanding and varnishing.

Questions & Answers

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      • travel_man1971 profile image

        Ireno Alcala 

        6 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

        Wow! It's so intricate and difficult to look at. But with your instruction, I can also duplicate your feat regarding canoe-making.

        Pinned it already! :D

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