Getting My Canoe Ready for ‘Glass

When we left off I was nearing the end of stripping my canoe. I only had a few pieces left, but of course the details always take the most time.

My canoe with all the strips in place, ready for shaping and sanding.
Here’s what my canoe looked like right after I put the last strip in place.

Day Eight: The Final Strips

Working from the keel line out now, the strips went in very easily. By design, I didn’t have to bend them much at all. The challenge became cutting the pieces to just the right length to fit them against the strips already on the canoe. As I worked my way down to the edge of the “football” shape that makes the bottom of the canoe, the fitting was less about cutting to the right length and more about matching an arc between two pieces of cedar.

I think this was the third-to-last strip on the starboard side. I carefully shaped the joint on each end and manually shaved a bead on the arced cut.
The last strip was barely more than a sliver a couple feet long.
Here’s the last piece going in on the port side.

The penultimate strip on each side was almost all arc. The last strip ended up being only about a quarter inch wide at its thickest point, working down to nothing at each end.

I was pleased to see the symmetry in what I did. The final strips on the port and starboard matched in shape and size almost exactly. A few final straps to pull everything together while the glue set overnight, and then I could get into some serious sanding.

Days Nine to Twelve

Sanding was a big job. The soft wood made the work relatively easy, at least. This is when I got to work over any rough spots (literally and figuratively) to make sure everything was nice and smooth.

Remembering some minor fails

I chose cedar that was more-or-less solid but definitely not clear. This was part availability and part cost. And part of me saw the wood and thought it would look really cool. For the most part the knots were not a big issue, but it was something I had to think about a few times. First, when we were cutting the strips, a dozen or so of them broke before we even got them through the milling process. Although the wood looked tight on the outside, when we cut it thin enough some of the knots went all the way through at a fatal angle.

Remarkably, I only had one strip snap while I was placing it on the canoe. I had enough extra strips, so I just grabbed another.

Of course, I also did some planning to make sure that as I was laying strips I didn’t have any big knots right next to each other.

At one spot, the joint between two strips … didn’t quite work. While things were curing overnight one night, apparently a local density variance caused an uneven warping of the wood. Well, see for yourself.

One knot was a little less solid than it should have. It developed a minor crack which made for a sharper-than-ideal warp in the strip at one point. The result was a gap and one strip pushing out from the other.

I was worried that if I tried to sand it smooth I’d sand all the way through one or both of the strips. So I laminated an extra piece of wood in there before I sanded it smooth.

One other strip developed a small crack as I was bending it into position. I don’t know if this was a weakness in the wood or just a weakness in my technique.

Either way, in this case I just put a little extra glue and a strap across the problem area. It turned out fine.

Shaping the stems

Since I laminated the outer stems onto the hull of the canoe, there was a lot of shaping that needed to be done still. But it was not especially complicated. I used a saw, and angle grinder, and then my random orbital sander until the stems matched the shape of the hull.

Filling gaps and holes

Finally, I pulled out whatever fasteners I used while installing the stems, and I sanded everything smooth. It was at about this point that I mixed up my first batch of West System epoxy to fill some holes and gaps.

A little bit of epoxy filler to make sure the hull is solid
It helps to have a solid surface before I lay ‘glass on it. I wouldn’t want the resin to drip through the cracks.

Epoxy with a bit of sawdust and cellulose filler made a nice paste to fill any cracks or holes left from poor craftsmanship or fasteners.

After a final sanding, the last step was to move the boat into a nearby tent in an attempt to keep the bugs and dirt off of it while I worked with the fiberglass and resin.

My canoe all ready for fiberglass

Pauline Gourlay, 1919-2020

Pauline Gourlay died on October 14, 2020 in Dearborn, Michigan at the age of 100. She was born Pelagia Bogush in Detroit on November 8, 1919 to John Bogush and Paraskievia Labaz Bogush. She was the fifth of six children, and she died as the last remaining sibling. In a family that immigrated to the United States before World War I from a part of Europe that is now in western Ukraine, she was like most first-generation immigrants in that she aspired to be as American as possible and had little interest in her Ukrainian background. As a child growing up during the Great Depression, she became hard working, frugal, and dismissive of things she saw as luxuries.

She earned a B.S. degree from Wayne State University and worked as a medical technologist. She married Stewart Gourlay in 1944, becoming a stay-at-home mom to raise her three children. After that she returned to the medical workforce, eventually retiring from her final job as a teaching technologist in the bacteriology lab at Henry Ford Hospital.

Pauline had many friends and was very helpful and generous to her family. After retirement, she and Stewart moved to Dearborn, where they became active members of the Dearborn Congregational Church.  Prior to that, the family attended Westminster Presbyterian Church of Detroit, where she developed a love for the church’s children’s summer camp, Camp Westminster on Higgins Lake. Her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have attended camp there and continue to actively support that ministry today.

Pauline has always valued education, stressing the importance to her children.  During retirement, Pauline and Stewart enjoyed traveling, and participated in several Elderhostel trips, which they enjoyed because of the educational opportunity they offered.  As an artistic outlet, she enjoyed creating colorful leaded-glass window scenes and lamps. After Stewart’s death she chose to move to Henry Ford Village Senior Living Community, where she lived the rest of her years. There she was known as an excellent Scrabble player, and she continued to play Scrabble with her friends even after her dementia limited her in most other ways. Her body gradually gave out and she died peacefully.

She is survived by her three children, John (Kathie) Gourlay, Bill (Ann) Gourlay, and Nancy (John) Morrison, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be postponed until next year. Donations in Pauline’s memory may be made to Camp Westminster on Higgins Lake, at 17567 Hubbell Ave, Detroit MI 48235.

Obituary (


Stripping My Canoe

Day Three

To be honest I’ve lost track of the days, but think of them as phases and a gauge of how long things took.

The inner stems dried and cured overnight, then I installed them (form and all) onto the strongback. I used a saber saw and an angle grinder to shape the stems into kind of a triangular profile. The goal is that the stems will act as the anchor point for the ends of the strips, coming next.

Inner stem with a crack in one ply being repaired
One piece cracked as I was trying to bend it, so as I was shaping it I added some glue and a clamp to keep it together.
Notice the rounded corners on the inside of the stem. I briefly took it off the form to do this shaping and sanding because I knew it would be harder to get at this piece after I put the strips on.
Detail of the fore inner stem
I shaped the inner stems into kind of a triangular profile so that the strips will lay against them at each end.
Detail of the fore inner stem where it will meet the keel line
It was a little hard to visualize exactly the shape the stem should be near the water line, so I saved some of this shaping for later.
I installed a screw at each end of each stem. I wanted to minimize holes since they will be visible from the inside of the finished canoe, but I found that the stem was not sitting tight against the form after I removed the clamps. As soon as I got enough strips in place to stabilize the stems, I removed these screws so they would not get stuck in the finished canoe.

With the stems shaped, I was finally ready to start stripping. I got the first strip on each side before the end of the day. I also have a temporary strip straight along the keel line to help me ensure that the forms stay square.

The forms have notches marking the top edge of the canoe (the bottom here, since it’s upside down. I installed the first strip about 1/4″ below this line to give myself some wiggle room. After the rails are on I can plane this top strip flush with the rail.

First strip

Day Four

The first few strips went on relatively easily, but none of them simply fell into place. I don’t want to glue the strips to the forms, because the whole shell needs to pop off the forms after I get all the strips on. So the first strip doesn’t have any glue except at the stems. In between, I needed to hold it in place somehow. Mac suggested using small nails, with the heads sticking out so I can easily pull them later. That worked for the most part, but I added clamps in a couple spots where the the nails wanted to pull out.

The next few strips each got glued to the previous, and they were not hard to position. The bead and cove joins were very nice to keep the glue even and to make it obvious when the joints were lined up. I thought I’d develop a rhythm and be able to add strips one after the other, but rhythm was definitely not the right word. Each strip seemed to bring some new and unique challenges.

The first few strips held in place while the glue sets
I tried to avoid using staples to hold the strips in place to minimize holes I’d have to fill later, but sometimes they were the best option.
Clamps, staples, and elastic cords holding strips in place.
Clamps were invaluable. Elastic cords were helpful too.
Clamps, staples, and elastic cords holding strips in place
Spring clamps were useful at the ends of the strips and to help keep one aligned with the next in between the form pieces.

As you can see, I tried a number of different methods to hold the strips in place. I did not expect the strips to require so much support in between the form pieces, even though I was warned by multiple builders. The challenge on these first strips was to keep them tight against the forms while simultaneously applying pressure down to hold each strip against the previous. I was impatient so I didn’t want to wait for the glue on one strip to set before adding the next, but I was limited by the number of clamps I had.

For the first few strips, I used staples to hold the strips in place at the forms. A scrap of bead and cove was a great way to hold a strip in place without putting holes in it. The elastic cord helped pull the joints tight while spring clamps or these fancy larger clamps with plastic feet helped keep the strips aligned with each other.

Whether clamping or tying strips together, I tried to keep from damaging the exposed cove edge by putting a scrap piece in between. In hindsight, a bit of 1/4″ dowel would have been a great way to do this. One builder suggested installing the bead edge on this side, specifically to clamp against without damaging it, but I liked having the cove up to hold a nice bead of glue without it running all over the place.

A note on design choices

This is my first canoe so I didn’t try to do anything super fancy. But I thought about it. There are a few options on how to lay the strips. What I did was simply start at the rail and work my way toward the keel. Some builders prefer to start at or near the water line, then work in both directions. You might prefer one look over another, depending on the overall shape of your hull, how much rocker your boat will have (that is how much higher the rail is at the bow and stern than in the middle), and what you want your feature strip to look like (if any).

I did not try to do a fancy feature strip, but I thought about it. I figured the third strip would be particularly visible, so I selected strips with the most interesting grain pattern to go in this location.

Days Five and Six

For the first few strips, a strap around the curve of the hull did not help much …
… but as I rounded toward the bottom, it became very handy.

There was no routine to find when installing strips. Each one was being bent and curved in a slightly different way, so it required different techniques to hold it in place. Once I started to round the curve toward the bottom, things got tricky enough that I almost had to do one strip at a time simply because I needed so much equipment to hold the one strip in place that I couldn’t get the next strip in there at all.

These strips were some of the hardest to shape because of the extreme twist combined with a bend against its width.

Also, at about this point, I revisited the shape of the inner stems to make sure that the strips were making good contact against the angled face of the stems.

Things slowed down a bit here as I spent a lot of time waiting around for glue to dry. It gave me some time to think about what I might do differently next time.

Notes for future builds

I prepared myself for stripping by watching a bunch of videos and reading what I could find. even so there were a few things that I learned through the process.

  • One design decision I made early on may or may not have been a good one. Most builders use cedar strips about 5/8″ to 3/4″ wide. I went a little wider. My strips are just over an inch wide. This saved a ton of time preparing the strips: ripping, planing, and routing. But when it came to putting them on the forms, I had to fight a lot to get them into position. (See the section on fails, below.). In the end, I think it might have been a tossup whether or not I saved any time. The wider strips do create a unique appearance, though, which you may or may not appreciate.
  • I had plenty of clamps on hand, which were important. I eventually found that ratchet straps were a great thing too. Next time I’d try using those earlier to see if they could be useful. However, they were especially important once I started getting some roundness to the hull.
I needed to hold the strips down against the forms (right), and simultaneously against the previous strip (left).
  • Maybe because of my wider strips, I found myself fighting even when using staples to hold the strips in place. The staples kept pulling out. So… longer staples? Using a scrap above the strip, I could have screwed it into the form. I didn’t try that, but it could have held better. Really, though, I desired a specialized tool. I discovered that vice grips were almost perfect for this. I could clamp the vice grips onto the form in such a way as to get some leverage and push the strip against the previous. Now, if only my vice grips had some sort of plate to simultaneously hold the strip down against the form, it would be perfect. If I were to do multiple canoes, I would definitely get a dozen or so vice grips with plates welded on the sides.
Laying the last few full length strips involved quite a bit of wrestling (the one sport I was any good at in grade school). I soaked a few of the strips so they would be easier to bend and twist.
A spring clamp keeps another clamp from slipping.
Nice to have these long clamps. Down-pressure against the forms helped hold the right twist in the strips.
A couple stubborn spots required multiple clamps on top of each other. Straps in between forms applied just the right tension to give the strips a consistent shape.

Day Seven

When I got all the more-or-less full length strips on the canoe, I paused. This was a good place to switch strip patterns. I had originally imagined following the same pattern all the way to the keel line, but once I found how much wrestling I had to do to get my wide strips in place I decided to save myself the hassle and lay the bottom strips straight along the length of the boat.

This was also a good time to figure out how to install the outer stems.

All the full-length strips were in place, and it was time to shift gears.

The outer stem was a little tricky for two reasons. One, I intended to form it on the boat. Second, while it starts at the bow and stern on the butt end of the strips, it ends up at the keel line embedded in between the strips.

I cut and sanded the ends fair.
Outer stem laminated in place
I glued the outer stem in place one ply at a time.
Outer stem being glued in place
Strapped in for an overnight curing.

Some builders form the outer stem at the same time as they form the inner stem. I didn’t, and I think the whole project was easier this way. First, this would mean I’d have to do it before I started stripping. That would have required a lot more planning, it would have required having cherry (not just cedar) on hand at the start, and it would have meant I couldn’t start stripping for another couple days. Additionally, forming the outer stem on the body of the canoe made it much easier to see that everything would fit right.

Mac’s plans suggested that I could form the outer stem later, so that’s what I did. Mac also suggests the possibility of not using an outer stem at all, and instead simply cutting the cedar strips to come to a point at the bow and stern, then rounding them into a nice shape. I considered this for a few minutes, but I didn’t like the idea.

First, it was much easier to run the strips long and not have to worry about a finished joint at the same time as I was worrying about bending and gluing the strips to each other. Second, I like the idea of a hardwood stem that arguably will provide some more strength. While I don’t intend to ram anything with my little canoe, if I do bump something in the water you know it will be against this surface. So I might as well make it strong.

After cutting and sanding the ends of the strips fair at the bow and stern, I got out a chisel and cut a channel in between the strips as they approach the keel line. I installed the cherry plies of the outer stems one piece at a time to make sure I was getting a good fit. When they were all in place and smeared with glue, I put as many straps and clamps in place as I could to let them cure overnight.

Finally, I removed the temporary strip along the keel line and put in place a pair of strips to be the final “keel” of the boat. I was careful to get them as straight as possible, and I was pretty pleased with the resulting shape. My boat does not have an actual keel, but the center comes to a subtle yet pointed vee that I hope will provide good tracking in the water.

Outer stems and center strips in place

New Project: Building a Canoe

After finishing the launch of my podcast and my book, I felt like I could relax for a bit. It was almost a month before school starts, and I was feeling pretty good. Then a voice in my head said, “Hey! You have free time! Let’s do stuff!” So I thought about what I might like to do.

It didn’t take long for me to remember that I had had dreams of building a wooden canoe. I thought that was the kind of dream that would never actually happen, at least not until retirement, but apparently I was wrong. It’s happening!

Yesterday I ordered a set of plans and bought some wood. Today I spent the afternoon with a friend who has some fabulous woodworking tools and we started slicing up some wood into strips.

The plans are from a place called Feather Canoes. I’m building a small canoe designed for one person to paddle with a double-paddle, like a kayak. I’m hoping that this boat will be more stable and more substantial than a kayak, but it’s about the same length as your average kayak. It will be about eleven feet long. The design was created by the late Mac McCarthy who built lots of these and perfected the design to his tastes. The design is called “Wee Lassie” and is based on a historic boat designed by another great canoebuilder, J. Henry Rushton, who popularized the lightweight DIY style that is the cedar strip canoe.

Day One

As soon as the plans arrived, I traced and cut the forms. I assembled a strongback earlier (a rigid horizontal platform which will hold the forms), so it was an easy job putting these pieces together.

Picture showing forms laid out on OSB, in preparation for cutting.
I traced the shapes for the forms on my OSB. The plans called for two sheets of half-inch board, but I managed to fit everything on one.
picture showing forms assembled
After cutting out the pieces, I mounted them on my strongback with screws. This will be the platform where the majority of my canoe build will take place. Note, though, that none of this material will end up in the finished canoe.

Day Two

One of the first things I had to do, before I could start stripping, was to bend the inner stems. These will effectively be the anchor points for the strips at the bow and stern.

I cut some cedar strips a little longer than I needed and soaked them overnight. First thing in the morning I added some hot water just to help a bit.
It took three hands and all but one of my clamps, but I got the pieces bent around the bow and stern forms to create the shape for the inner stems.
I let the pieces dry for half the day, then I pulled them apart, added glue, and clamped them back together. I let the glue cure overnight.

Building the inner stems worked, but if I had it to do again I would have used thinner strips. Because we were using a table saw, we could only set the fence so close to the blade. We created 3/16″ strips for this purpose. 1/8″ would have been better. And maybe I could have used a band saw to get a tighter cut. Because of the thicker wood, I got a crack at one point which I repaired later.

Next post: stripping the canoe!


A boycott of one

I try to be a conscientious shopper. I know that my little bit of capital doesn’t make a company rich, but I also know that I’m not the only person out there who cares where their money goes. Together we most certainly can get the attention of businesses and let them know that we want our money to be going to something good, not something evil.

So, I thought I’d make a list of companies I try to avoid. I am not saying you should avoid the same companies automatically, but I would definitely encourage you to make your own list or at least think about where your money is going. I’m also inviting you to start a conversation with me. Let me know what companies you think should or should not be on my list.

Companies I avoid:

  • Goya (added July 17, 2020)
    This used to be a food distributor I liked because they have interesting and seemingly authentic food. But I just found out that their CEO thinks that Trump is doing good things for the country. In his defense, he also said that he prays for Trump, which always sounds like a good idea to me, but the fact that this brand thrives on a community that has been consistently mistreated and abused by Trump makes it very troubling that the company supports the very same person. On this one, I’m with Julián.
  • Facebook (added June, 2020)
    At best, the company is guilty of serious indifference in the face of civil rights concerns. And depending on your perspective, it could be far worse.
  • McDonalds (added June, 2020)
    They fired my friend because of his criminal background, despite the fact that he was a good worker whom they had been promoting, they knew about the background when they hired him (maybe they forgot?), and the crime had no bearing on his job duties. Boo. Also they use prison labor.
  • Amazon (added 2019)
    I have mixed feelings about Amazon. They don’t have the best business practices, and they could treat their workers a lot better. On the other hand, they are leading the way on some issues, and they are just so darn convenient. Because of their business practices that abuse and strengthen their monopoly position in online retail, I prefer to buy things elsewhere. However, knowing that they are but a retailer, and if I’m buying a good product from a good manufacturer, I won’t sweat it if I can’t easily get it somewhere else. After all, Amazon only gets a small portion of my money anyway.
  • Walmart (since the beginning)
    Terrible business practices. Really bad. Basically criminal. No respect for communities. And they use prison labor.

I’ll try to keep this list up to date as more information comes in. And please, send me your comments!


First post at Unspeakable Vice

I just posted the first episode (well, the 0th episode) of The Unspeakable Vice Podcast. Check it out!


The Unspeakable Vice Podcast is in development!

So it’s official. I’m launching a podcast, and it’s called Unspeakable Vice. In it we are going to talk about the difficulties we have talking about sex. In other words, we’ll be talking about talking about sex.

I just created a website for the podcast, so bookmark it and follow me on social media so that you’ll know as soon as the first episode is out!


Recent Projects

So far during this time of relative isolation, I have been working on my book. Last week I finished my first draft and submitted it to a publisher for review. This might be an anticlimactic milestone, but it is a milestone nonetheless. It feels like I accomplished something significant.

I’ll give you more information as I get it.

Next project: figure out how to start a podcast!