Harvest Festival 2012 – Boat builders

Bending ribs for a canoe!

(As ever, the following dialogues have been paraphrased from memory, as faithfully as possible to the actual quotes, but they are not actual quotes.)

At the Harvest Festival, I spoke to a multigenerational family who builds boats— Dick Christie, senior builder; his daughter Susan Christie, who’s been building boats for 2-3 years*; and his granddaughter Laura (Susan’s niece), who’s had a year or two of boat-building experience under her belt. Everything is crafted by hand: the paddles, for example, are planed with a custom-designed tool (Laura let me try it, and I was terrible at it).

She's actually just releasing it from the vice, to bring it inside the tent; it started drizzling and they didn't want the unfinished wood to get wet.

“Of course, this could all be done with power tools,” grinned Ms. Christie, “but where’s the fun in that?”

As part of their Harvest Festival demonstration, they tucked some long strips of wood into a long steamer box, and waited for the wood to soften enough to be bent into ribs for building a hypothetical new canoe. (Anecdotally, the steamer box doubles as a lobster cooker, if you have a lobster handy.)

Waitin' for ribs to cook.

“You know what,” said Mr. Christie, “I have a friend who’s from Canada, so he had me to build a canoe for him out of white birch**. I’d never worked with white birch before. It wouldn’t bend! I was breaking 85% of the ribs. You know what I did?”


“Fabric softener.”

I stared at him blankly.

“Add fabric softener to the box, when you’re steaming the ribs— I went from breaking 85% of the ribs to using 85%. Wonderful stuff. I don’t know how much softener you’re supposed to use, but I do my best guess and it seems to work all right.”

Carefully extracting a rib from the steam-box.

Finally, the ribs were deemed sufficiently steamed. Mr. Christie slipped on some work gloves, and his daughter handed him a pair of pliers. He flipped open the end of the box and extracted a long slender twig.

Go go go! You've only got 20 seconds!

There’s only a 20-second window to remove the rib from its steam-box and clamp it into place before it becomes too stiff to bend anymore, so you need to work quickly.

The first rib snapped anyway. The second one went smoothly, though.

Bending a canoe rib!

If you don’t already have a finished boat to bend ribs around, you can just build the rest of the canoe and add the ribs last, as Mr. Christie did when he built this particular canoe in 1994.


* Ms. Christie learned boat-building from her father, but remotely. She lives near Philadelphia, while Mr. Christie is all the way up in Wayne, NJ. While she was learning, she visited her father once a month (a two-hour drive each way, if traffic is clear); he critiqued the work she’d done over the past month, and gave her a new assignment to complete over the next month before her next visit. This continued for a full year. What a way to learn a craft! I think it’s pretty amazing.


** My memory is faulty, and the wood may not have been “white birch.” I’m going with it because (a) I’m pretty sure the wood we discussed was something “white,” and (b) “American white birch” is also known as “canoe birch.” I also have no idea what the connection is between being Canadian and needing your canoe to be built from a particular kind of wood.

2 Comments to “Harvest Festival 2012 – Boat builders”

  1. Fabric softner?!? Amazing things you can learn from the web and reading blogs!

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