Stitch-and-Glue Canoe

Dieter Loibner | Professional BoatBuilder Magazine

Sam Devlin shows off a 1⁄3-scale model of a traditional Salish Sea canoe built from plywood at his shop in Olympia, Washington.

As renowned wooden boat designer and builder Sam Devlin transitions into the calmer waters of his career, he’s handing the reins of Devlin Designing Boatbuilders to his son McKenzie and now presides over the design and build of a craft unlike any of the hundreds of others that came off his drawing board: a tribal canoe with ears, a neck, and a heart instead of merely a bow, a stern, and topsides. Borrowing anatomical terms to describe essential parts provides important context, because tribes regard canoes as more than conveyances for transporting goods and people across water. They consider them living beings and members of the community that fill important roles in a healing process aiming to reconnect with cultural and spiritual traditions.

For millennia, carving dugout canoes from large cedar trunks with hand tools, fire, and steam was labor-intensive and time-consuming. As masters of the craft, who learned from their ancestors, are aging out and dying, the skills are no longer widely taught. Tall, straight, clear cedar logs are hard to find, if they can be sourced at all, and can cost as much as a full-size car. Re-creating traditional canoes in plywood and epoxy became a viable alternative not just for economical reasons, but because it yields seaworthy boats that promise a long service life with proper care. Pioneers who also inspired this particular project include veteran designer John McCallum from Applegate Boatworks (Veneta, Oregon). He has built numerous traditional canoes from plywood and now works with Brian Krehbiel of Agency Creek Expressions (Willamina, Oregon), who manufactures canoes from 21 to 37 (6.4m to 11.28m) for regional tribes including Makah, Quileute, Coquille, Chinook, Grand Ronde, and Kalapuya.

When I recently visited Devlin’s operation near Olympia, Washington, McKenzie Devlin was instructing Brian Perry from the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe and apprentice Nathan Tatro from the Stillaguamish (stulәgwábš, People of the River) in stitch-and-glue construction of a 26 LOA, 21 LWL (7.92m LOA, 6.4m LWL) canoe for six paddlers and one skipper. With the craft still keel-up on the shop floor, the crew was fitting 1⁄2-plywood (13mm) sheer planks and gluing and fastening them to the gunwales before filleting them. They used slow MAS epoxy thickened with wood flour and Cab-O-Sil with a pot life of roughly 30 minutes, enough to make adjustments before a full cure overnight with shop heaters running. Next, they sanded the hull smooth before sheathing it with Dynel fabric in epoxy and taping hull joints with 10-oz/sq-yd (340-g/m2) fiberglass.

Sam Devlin

The canoe features flared topsides, a narrow waterline beam, and a clipper-style bow with hollow sections.

The okoume plywood kit was cut by Brandon Davis at Turn Point Design in Port Townsend, Washington. He also did most of the CAD modeling, was responsible for capturing the flared bow shape by incorporating tortured plywood shaping, and built two scale models. Hull panels are 3⁄8 (10mm), but the bottom is 3⁄4 (19mm) marine ply with balsa core sandwiched between two 3mm-plywood layers, which helps keep the dry hull’s projected weight to about 250 lbs (113 kg). “There was a lot of intuition from years of working with stitch-and-glue that really made this project happen,” Sam Devlin said. “It took some modeling to arrive at the suitable tortured plywood shape.” It was an iterative process for all participants, starting with a small-scale version in CNC-cut 3mm (0.12) plywood panels, which did not easily bend to the desired form, and ending with a fully painted 1⁄3-scale model of the final shape and proportions. “Computers, while helpful, had issues with this project, and the modeling confirms the basic shape and methodology,” Devlin said. The initial design was done in Maxsurf before exporting it to Rhino for final panel development. As the project progressed and artistic finish details became important, the plan was to source yew, a hardwood the tribes often used in canoe construction, for seats, thwarts, and rail guards.

“I’m intimidated by math, but I can see lines” said Perry, a master carver (www.northwestcoastalart.com), when asked about the start of this project. He has been working with the Stillaguamish tribe for the past five years, managing a carving shop. He helped initiate the stitch-and-glue building project after constructing two 36 (11m) Salish-style strip-planked canoes under the mentorship of Duane Pasco. “I made a drawing, lofted it, and gave it to Sam, who worked it into his software and adapted it for stitch-and-glue construction. It’s been on my mind since the first time I saw what John McCallum and Brian Krehbiel were doing in Oregon. I researched, scrolled through Devlin’s website, and watched YouTube videos of the stitch-and-glue building method and reached out to [him].”

Dieter Loibner | Professional BoatBuilder Magazine

McKenzie Devlin (left) and Nathan Tatro, a member of the Stillaguamish tribe, fit the sheer plank before gluing and fastening.

Perry also supplied a small carved model and guided Devlin and Davis through the modeling process, to closely match the shape of a traditional Salish Sea dugout canoe. On the shop floor, the fine entry and hollow bow sections were immediately apparent, resembling clipper ship bows and modern performance sailing dinghies like the Australian 18-Footers (5.48m). While these bows cut through chop, they are tricky to shape from plywood, which Devlin tortured with a Spanish windlass to pull the bow panels inboard and achieve the desired hollow. Perry also observed that the new plywood canoe has harder chines than the traditional dugouts, which were carved with rounder bilges.

“We’ve made river canoes, and we’ve made canoes for the Salish Sea,” observed Sam Barr, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Supervisor of the Stillaguamish Tribe. Having grown up in the San Juan Islands, he’d been around boats and knows about stitch-and-glue’s popularity with amateur builders. “Teen­agers do it and retirees do it. It’s not as physically intensive as building a dugout canoe.” With his track record in stitch-and-glue construction and diverse portfolio of boats, Devlin was a logical choice.

In a comparison of different construction methods, strip-planking was deemed too labor-intensive and required more skill and experience, while custom-built fiberglass canoes didn’t fit the budget. Barr said he was satisfied with the stitch-and-glue method and with the results Devlin and the building crew achieved. “It looks better than a lot of dugouts I’ve seen. They do a great job with transferring what I think are the principles of those lines.”

Dieter Loibner | Professional BoatBuilder Magazine

Brian Perry from the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe sights along the sheer.

Devlin and Davis are open to designing, engineering, and cutting kits for more craft with parts named after human anatomy. “Tribes need more canoes to augment the ones they have,” Devlin said, “so franchising is a way for them to maintain autonomy and still have the canoes necessary for training and use.” Future plans include building an 18 (5.5m) craft for a single paddler and a 36 (11m) version for 12 paddlers plus skipper as tools for master carver Brian Perry and apprentice Nathan Tatro to teach others the building techniques.

Barr said, “Canoes almost disappeared. There weren’t very many left after the federal government was trying to dismantle the longhouse system [and] the communal culture…because they wanted our people to get ‘real’ jobs. So once a design is made, we want it to stay in the hands of tribes, but we like it to be accessible to [other] tribes so it can be a healing kind of partnership if it’s done in a way that’s mutually supportive.”

Devlin Designing Boatbuilders, 2424 Gravelly Beach Loop NW, Olympia, WA 98502 USA, tel. 360–866–0164

Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, 3322 236th St. NE, Arlington, WA 98223 USA, tel. 360–652–7362

—D.L.