Great Northern Freighter Canoe
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18' Great Northern Freighter Canoe

great-northern-freighter-canoeFor those of you who have dropped by the shop, you know that you can always find at least a couple of boats being built.  We very rarely however build boats for customers.  Most of our builds are either for locals we know or more often than not are given to charities for auctions.  This allows us to keep doing what we love to do (build boats), without having to purchase acres of land to store the boats we have built.

Over the last couple of years we have been asked a number of times to shrink our 20 foot Mi'kMaq freighter canoe to an 18 foot version.  Well for those of you who have lofted boats, you know that there is more to it than to simply open a program, squeeze it down a couple of feet and hit the print button.

We received a call from a man in texas a couple of months ago who not only wanted the 18 foot freighter canoe, but wanted us to build it for him as well.  Now normally we would have said no but there were a few things which aligned to push us in the other direction.  First, our friend in Texas has an issue which keeps him from building the boat himself, though he is certainly capable of using it.  Second, we were just having meetings around here a few days earlier planning on our winter builds, so that shop would be available for the build. Lastly,  we do send out a DVD with the Freighter which covers a good deal of the building project, however it isn't specifically for a freighter canoe and we have been looking for an opportunity to put together some more building instructions for that boat.

great-northern-freighter-canoe-linesLong story short, we will be building an 18' Freighter canoe in the shop this winter set to launch in May of 2014 (or sooner).  We debated filming the project, however we cannot pull together the resources under the time constraints we have to film for 200 hours between now and May.  So what we will do is video segments to post here as well as a full building journal.

If you have questions or just want to chime in, you can ask them in the forum and we will be happy to answer.  I hope you enjoy the journey.

Best Regards,

Jack Battersby


How to Determine my Hull Material for your Freighter Canoe

With most of our boats we simply give a list of suggested materials and people follow them. Materials for a boat like this are very dependent on the supporting components of the boat as well as the intended use of the boat. As originally designed, the 20 foot freighter canoe is to have a series of bulkheads; one at the termination of the deck, and one under each seat. This effectively breaks the hull up into 5 separate sections. With that small amount of exposure, a light weight hull could be achieved using ¼” X ¾” strips and 10 oz e-glass on the inside and outside of the hull with a double layer on the bottom inside and out.
The freighter canoe has proven to be a design that people want to fiddle with. That’s fine, wooden boats should be fiddled with to make them right for you. However, when you fiddle with things like bulkheads on a 20’ long freighter canoe you can get into trouble fast with hull flexing. So, in an effort to not pigeonhole builders into one method of building I am putting a few thoughts out there so that people can make some intelligent decisions and stay out of trouble.

Floor supports serve to stiffen and
segment the bottom of a long boat

Just like an aircraft wing, the outer shell is very dependent on the support structure holding it together. The shell combined with its supporting structure needs to be sufficient to counteract the forces being applied by waves pounding on the hull or the hull riding between waves.

The single most important thing to keep in mind is the bottom needs to be stabilized on a boat of this length and width. That can be done with bulkheads as suggested in the plans or floor supports and planking with the seats tied in with a post at each seat. The freighter canoe in this journal is being built with floor supports and planking. The floor supports support and stiffens the bottom from center up to the 3” waterline. These supports combined with the seat risers, seats and forward deck will stiffen the deck up nicely. It also allows for the free flow of water in the bilge with limber holes in each floor support. The patterns for the floor supports come with the 18’ version of the freighter canoe and the 20’ version will be revised to include these support patterns as well. If you have a previous version of the plans and wish to have these patterns, you can either make them by using the bottom 3” of each station mold starting from the first mold after the transom and stopping at the form just before the bulkhead location under the deck or you can write or call us and we will get them out to you.

While making your decision on whether to use floors or bulkheads consider the difference in height from the floor of the boat to the seat and decide if the reduction in space is acceptable to you.

Toughen the Hull Up.

Before you determine how to skin your hull, you need to determine how you are going to use your boat. Builders tend to like the brightwork of the cedar hull showing through. As long as the internal structure is supported as discussed above, 10 oz e-glass used as outlined in the plans will suffice. 10 oz glass, particularly 2 layers of it will not be as clear as a single layer of 6 oz glass typically used on paddle canoes or kayaks. That said, it is not acceptable to use those lighter weight cloths on a boat of this shape or size. The single layer of 10 oz cloth on the sides of the hull will be clear enough for discriminating builders.
Here in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts, our shores are sandy with very few rocks of any kind and sharp jagged rocks are near nonexistent. I do realize that not everyone lives here though, so here are my suggestions to combat the tougher shores of your area.

Freighter canoe with 7 oz hybrid kevlar/carbon
cloth over 10 oz e-glass will add significant
abrasion resistance and stiffen the hull even
more, but paint will be required.

If you are looking to make your freighter canoe into a work horse to last a lifetime, then you will have to make a couple of accommodations for that. The first decision to make is if painting the hull is an option for you. The boat in this journal will be painted a deep green with trim of Ash and Sapele woods with a Sapele outer transom. The interior of the hull will be left brightwork and the wood will be on full display. Because of this decision, I now have the option to use some more exotic cloths. In this build I am using 10 oz e-glass as in the plans and that is then covered with a hybrid cloth of Kevlar and Carbon fiber. This cloth goes on just like e-glass however it is a very tight weave and the air bubbles need to worked out as you go. This is easily accomplished by using your gloved hand pushing the bubbles out and a fiberglass layup roller.
The upside of using this cloth is a very tough skin which will take the banging of the occasional rock or the beaching of the boat on a less than accommodating shoreline. The downside is it will add a few hundred dollars to the build and of course a little bit of time. However if you are combating the elements it is dollars and time well spent. This cloth Kevlar element is very abrasion resistant and the carbon further stiffens the hull for impacts.

The last suggestion for making your boat tank tough is the actual planking of the hull. If you are creating a real workhorse, and I mean a freighter canoe which will really be put through its paces, used constantly then you can take the above method of using e-glass combined with Kevlar/Carbon and put that over a hull which build from ½” thick planking instead of ¼” planking. I know that natural inclination of a builder is bigger is better, and in fact it is in this case, however consider if you really need this kind of toughness. It will undoubtedly yield a boat that with proper care will last a lifetime, but the boat will be heavier and the cost of the hull will literally double. You may want to consider this type of construction if you plan on using your freighter commercially for fishing excursions or you know you will be regularly be banging off of rocks or taking on high surf or swells. It is defiantly not needed for gentle rivers or flat lakes.

Finally, about a Keel

To add a keel to the hull, use cargo straps an blocks
to epoxy a keel in place.  Add fillets to the sides and
tie it into the hull when dry.

These freighter canoes can be used in a number of different ways. Historically their intended use was on wide easy flowing rivers for excursions or hauling materials up and down the river. As primarily a river boat, they tended to not have keels as that would only serve to make turning on the river more difficult. However I recognize that today’s boaters will likely be using them at least as much on the lake as they will on a river. Our freighter canoes are built to need only 10 to 15 hp engines for operation. We have a customer in Canada with a 20’ freighter and 10 hp ferrying 10 people up the Columbia River with satisfactory results. Older freighter canoes which were built with a completely different type of construction typically using frames, bulkheads, ribs and canvas were considerably heavier which is why you see people using 40 hp engines on them. These boats would tip the scale at over a thousand pounds.

My point in this history lesson and discussing the engine size is to get the point that the only real reason to have a keel on this boat would be a concern over sliding in the turns. For those of you who are inexperienced with this, it is when the bottom of the hull slides along the water in a turn. This is very common on skiffs, hydroplanes and other flat bottom boats. A freighter canoe is not a speed boat and shouldn't be treated like one. 10 to 15 knots should be the goal. You won’t be pulling water skiers, but you will get to where you are going a good clip.
The benefit of not having a keel is greater maneuverability. As already pointed out, river turns will be much easier, and if you like fishing (and who doesn't), you will find getting into the perfect spot and swinging the freighter canoe about much simpler without a keel.

I hope this write up helps in your decisions, but if you still want to go over your options, feel free to contact us and we are happy to go through it with you.


I have found over the years that making all the parts you need just when you need them is not necessarily the best way to work.  So as boring as it may be, before we start putting anything together, we are going to cut and glue a few things first.

Cutting the Canoe Forms for your Freighter Canoe

The forms for this canoe are no different from any other canoe with a couple of exceptions.  They are about 20" wider than a typical canoe, and the transom is framed from hardwood and not a form at all.

Because the body forms are so much larger, there are a couple of things you may want to consider.  First, even if you have that big honking band saw, you may want to consider keeping it powered down for these guys.  I have found it much simpler to use the Saber saw (otherwise known as a jig saw).  There is a right jig-sawway and a wrong way to do that.  First off, all blades are not created equal.  be sure and use a fine cut blade.  It may go a bit slower, but it will be easier to control and will leave a smoother edge.  Second and probably just as important, it is likely you have a switch on the side of your jig saw and if you play with that a bit, you will notice that it will push the blade forward and back at an angle to the cutting surface.  There is a reason for that.  If you flip it so that the blade bottom pushes forward you will find that you have a great deal of control and the cuts are very smooth.  Most people never touch the switch, but give it a try it works well.  You just need to remember to flip it back when you are making quick rough cuts.

All boat plans from us that say them come with patterns come with separate patterns for each station, cradle, floor supports and so forth.  We do not stack patterns and make you trace them.  There is too much room for error when you do that.  That said, it is a simple matter of laying out the patterns on a piece of 1/2" plywood for the body forms use a little spray glue and gently and carefully roll them out.  With patterns this size you may want to enlist the help of a willing soldier.

freighter-canoe-patternsWhen cutting forms, I have always found that cutting just proud of and leaving the line is the way to go.  By doing that you can take the cut form to a bench sander, oscillating sander or use a handheld sander to sand them right down to the line.  That will give you a perfect form every time.  If you have a bench sander it will take about 30 seconds per form to accomplish this.

One area to be particularly careful is the base of the form and the profile height.  Take you time and get this right as it defines the entire profile of the boat.  It isn't hard to get this right, just takes a bit of patience.

freighter-canoe-stemThe stem form is different in that instead of using 1/2" plywood, you will be using 3/4" thick plywood.  This is because your inner and outer stem will be 3/4" thick and it give a good landing surface to make sure you keep your stems straight.  As you can see, we have out stem mounted in a bench vise with the holes cut into it for clamping the inner and outer stems as we glue them up.

That is really all there is to cutting out forms from our patterns.  Remember that we are not launching our boat to the moon.  People get very nervous about it, but if you take your time and just keep it withing about 1/16th of an inch you shouldn't have any issues.  

freighter-canoe-transom-dowelsWith the forms done, we can move onto our transom frame.  Note the word "frame" and not "form".  The transom frame will is a permanent part of the boat and as such care should be taken when choosing wood as you will be looking at it for some time to come.  This boat will have an Ash frame and ultimately have 3/4" Sapele planks on the outside of the transom.  Cutting out the pieces of the transom is virtually the same as the forms in that you use spray glue to glue the pieces down to the frame stock.  I would suggest that where possible you start with a good clean flat side and match up what you can to save you a lot of cutting.  You most definitely want to cut proud of the line and sand back in with these as well.  When all the pieces are cut I use a dowel jig at each union.  I don't do this so much for strength as I do to aligning pieces for glue up.  The transom frame will be glued with thickened epoxy at all the mating surfaces and ultimately have planks on the outside so strength isn't an issue.  Having a couple of dowels at each mating surface does however keep everything aligned nicely.

freighter-canoe-transom-glue-upOnce you have dry fit all of the pieces and you are happy with it, go ahead and mix some epoxy and wood flour together.  Not too much wood flour, just enough to have a bonding agent but not enough to thicken the epoxy.  The DVD details mixing epoxy for gluing.  Also rememeber that clamping for an epoxy glue up is not the same as a yellow glue clamping.  With yellow glue or carpenters glue you try to put a great deal of clamping pressure.  With epoxy you try not to put too much pressure.  Just enough to get everything held in place.  If you clamp too tight it will squeeze out the epoxy and you will have a starved joint.

Before you walk away from your brand new freighter canoe transom frame, be sure and drop a straight edge across it to be sure that the clamps are not bowing the frame.   It needs to be flat all the way across.

I like to try to do as much gluing with epoxy as I can as it is difficult to mix very small batches, so we went ahead and glued up the inner and outer stems at the same time as the transom frame so we wouldn't be throwing away to much of the stuff.

Next we will be going over the building of the strongback, but it is off to the shop right now.  Can't build a boat from my desk chair.


freighter-canoe-transom-jigOne of the great things about being an active boat building shop as well as supplier of plans and patterns is we get a real good sense of what we can supply to our customers which will make the build easier.  One of the things we noticed here was it was far simpler for us to design a jig to hold the transom of the boat on the CAD system than it was to do it in the shop my measurements.  I was skeptical at first that the jig would be accurate enough when we started this, however it has worked flawlessly and we never start a boat that has a transom without one of these jigs.

In days past, it was typical to build a generic support system with an angle to it and you would slide the transom or transom frame up and down and left and right until it aligned to where you needed it to be. Now we take all the measurements on the computer as we loft out the boat and design the jig with full dimensions.  It is basically a platform at the right angle and set at the right position so that all you need to do is set the transom on top of the platform, center it and use either hot glue or temporary screws to hold it to shape.

The plans will have a diagram which looks something like the one that you see here.  with the side profile outlined with full dimensions as well as reference to the cross members needed, where to put them and how wide they need to be.  We give all of the dimensions on the patterns pretty much to check your work, however, these are made the same way that the boat forms are made by gluing them to the base wood and cutting around the lines.  

The materials for these jigs is a good quality, straight piece of 3/4" stock.  We typical use a decent plywood for this.  The spreaders we design so that they can be standard 2 By stock so that you don't have to go looking for something or mill special pieces of wood.  For this jig, a couple of 2 by 6's (or more preciously 1.5" X 3.5") and a 2 by 4 (or get the idea).

The jig needs to be solid and square so that everything aligns.  Typically we use a stapler with 1 1/2" staples to get it together and then sink some 2" screws from the sides into the cross members.

If you cut with care and build it square you will find the jig gets you right to where your transom needs to be.  It has never let us down.  Here are a couple of pictures of a finished jig.

 transom-jig-2 transom-jig 



 Well be needing a place to put all of these forms soon, so next we will get our strongback ready.  Any of you who have seen one of our DVD's have seen us build one of these so I won't get too deep into how they are made.

strongback-framingStrongbacks need to be strong, straight and not susceptible to warping and twisting.  The best thing we have found for this is 3/4" plywood.  The plans for any of our boats have specific measurements for the strongback, so we will avoid those here so that people don't get confused.  Any of you who have built our boats before, know that we make our strongbacks in sections that slide together.  We originally started doing this 20 years ago because we found ourselves throwing out perfectly good strongbacks because they didn't meet the needs of our next project.  So by building the strongback in three sections, you can mix and combine different ends with different centers to come up with different sizes.  They don't last forever this way but they can usually make it though 3 or 4 builds before they are ready for the scrap pile.

Basically a box strongback is just that, a box.  The one depicted here is two 8' sections with a box in the middle of them approximately 4' in length which allows us to slide the ends in and out until we get the desired length.  Be sure you put cross members no less than every 18" to keep the box sturdy.  You can see from the picture on the left where the end of the box meets the center piece.  They are connected by setting 5 or 6 screws through the sides.

strongback-alignmentIf you look closely at the top piece you can see a perfectly straight line down the center.  The tops are just 3/4" plywood a couple of inches wider than your box underneath.  In order to get the line, we put it on a table saw and run a thin kerf blade about 1/16" deep down the center.  If you don't have a table saw, you can use a chalk line, but you will need to borrow someones saw to get the strongback built unless you order a kit from us.  When we ship kits, we ship them in crates that can be used as a strongback.  It takes us a bit longer to make them but customers have found it handy.

If you have the line cut down the center, you will need to align the different sections of the strongback so that it is straight from end to end.  This picture shows a bright pink neon string down the center of the strongback.  We attached one end with a clamp and the other to a screw at the distant end.  Then all you need to do is pull the string tight slightly above the strongback top and align the boards so that the saw line is straight end to end.

Once the top is screwed down, you can mark off your form positions and get the forms ready for mounting.  Before we do that here, we need to glue up our stem pieces.  They have been out of the steamer and bent around the stem for a couple of days so they should be dry enough by now.

There isn't much difference from a standard canoe stem and the freighters other than the size of them.  So if you are using a pipe to steam you will likely need to have it able to sit on horizontal supports as it won't stand up vertically very well.  A simple shelf should to the trick.

Each of our boat building DVD's covers steaming and steam sources, however for those of you who have not seen them, here is  a quick recap.


steamerIn the early days we showed people how to use an electric tea kettle and a piece of pipe to make a simple steamer.  However in the last 15 or 20 years, electric tea kettles have become harder to find and when you do find them, they are not near as inexpensive as they used to be.  As a very able substitute, you can easily find inexpensive wall paper steamers.  In fact, they will hold more water and put out more steam so if you don't already have an electric tea kettle, then the wall paper steamer is the way to go.  The Wagner model shown here is $50 at the local big box store.  You will need to uncouple or cut the steam hose at the business end.  Some models may make you cut it off others allow you to twist it off.  Then you will need to devise a way to insert the end into a pipe or a simple steam box.  This can be done with less than $10 worth of PVC couplings and a little duct tape.  All you are looking to do is insert the hose into the steam chamber and capture the steam.  There are other nuances that go into a steam chamber but that is for another article.

canoe-stemCutting the freighter canoe stem form is no different from cutting any other body form.  Simply glue the paper down and cut around the lines.  In recent years we have been putting two sets of cutting lines on the stem forms.  One set for a form yet to be cut for final height and another dotted line set shown the ultimate cut height for after the inner stem is mounted.  We do this for those of you who are uncomfortable steaming and gluing both the inner and outer stem simultaneously.  However if you are an old hand at it and comfortable doing so, you can go ahead and cut right to the final depth and take care of both at once.  It is helpful to have another set of hands to hold the stem pieces in place while they are being bend around the form.

canoe-stem-glue-upBefore you can bend your stems about your form, you will need to make some holes to clamp them down during the bending and gluing phase.  You will need either a Forstner bit or a paddle bit with about a 1" diameter depending on the size of your clamp ends.  As you can see, I like to put a hole about every 5" to 6"  Not so close so that it makes the form weak, but not so far away that you don't get a good representation of the shape when clamped.  Be sure and have the outside of the hole at least 1 1/2" from the finished edge and don't go too close to the depicted waterline.

Steam bending is the same as the glue up, only without the glue, so I will skip right to the glue up.  Personally I have glued up over a hundred set of canoe stems, so I glue up both the inner and outer stem simultaneously.  Before you begin to glue, you need to tape up all the edges that you want to make sure don't get glued together.  This means along the edge of the stem for sure and if like me you are gluing both the inner and outer stem at the same time you will need to have tape on the top edge of the inner freighter canoe stem as well.

It should be noted, that on this boat we will be putting a keel along the bottom of the boat per the customers request.  We use the same method of doing this as we use for the Whitehall boats and show in the DVD.  This will require you to steam up an extra length of stem piece, and put it aside until it is needed. So you will be steaming 5 pieces, however only gluing 4 (2 inner and 2 outer) stem pieces.

I think it is time to mount the skeleton of our freighter canoe to a strongback next.