Building the frame with milled wood or rods

Applying strakes and cockpit

The traditional method of making a boat with hazel or willow is to place the rods in the ground in the shape of the boat, with the ribs spaced 5-6 inches apart. The boat is constructed upside down as the gunwale is woven with willow or hazel rods at ground level. Once the weaving is complete, the ribs are folded over, then the stringers are bent over the top of the ribs. The boat is tied like this to form a basket shape and heavy weights are placed on top to hold it in shape and keep the bottom flat. After one week, the boat is dug up and may be covered with a skin.

Hazelwood is everywhere in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Not only are there thousands of acres of domestic hazel orchards, but volunteer hazel bushes are ubiquitous.  I have learned to spot long, straight hazel rods from a distance. For this reason, Ii’s better not to follow too close behind me when I’m driving. Most wood is harvest in winter when the leaves have fallen off and the trees are dormant. The wood is seasoned for a few weeks and maintains it’s flexibility for several months.


Shrinking, coloring and waterproofing the skin

Hazelwood Harvest

Boats may also be constructed on wooden frames called strong backs and specific wooden forms to be sure the builder makes a uniform boat. The rods and milled wood can be steamed and bent to desired shapes for the frame and gunwhale (pronounced "gunnel").

The skin may be leather hides sewn together, tar and canvas, or ballistic nylon. Other eco-friendly fabrics may also be available. These days I use ballistic nylon, which is kept cool and wet while stretching and attaching it to the wooden frame. The fabric is then ironed or dried with a heat gun to encourage shrinkage.

Building the frame with rods

I use urethane or polyurethane to waterproof the fabric.  Some builders use exterior latex house paint.  New eco-friendly technologies are being developed in this area, too.

Boat Building Process

Applying the skin

Strakes, also known as stringers, are attached along the length of the boat to add more strength to the frame. They are fastened with ties and screws. For kayaks, the cockpit frame is made from by steaming and bending milled wood around a cockpit form.