Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Carving a Pirogue in Louisiana

Here's a lovely film, ca. 1949, showing the construction of a traditional Louisiana dugout pirogue.

The 14 minute film was shot in 35mm by filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who was working on "The Louisiana Story." To quote the "film facts," Flaherty "was searching for a small boat, or 'pirogue' for his young hero. Flaherty soon became aware that pirogue-making was a disappearing art. Finally, when he found Ebdon Allemon, a Cajun craftsman, he persuaded him to make the pirogue. It may well have been the last pirogue made in Louisiana. This is a record of that event."

Details to note:
  • The cypress they felled was huge in comparison to the boat they built from it. It looks like they had to split and hew off much wood to get the boat down to the proper width.
  • The hull was first hewed to its plan-view shape with the sides perfectly plumb. Then the waterline shape of the flat bottom was scribed, and the angled sides hewed from those lines to the gunwales.
  • The hull was carved to its final shape: it was not "expanded" or widened, as is common practice in some other dugout building cultures, such as in this Siberian example.
  • It appears that a single hole was bored in the hull amidships to monitor the thickness of the bottom. A stick is periodically inserted in the hole to monitor the thickness. This is unlike the process used in Siberia, where plugs of a fixed length are inserted into multiple holes from the outside, and the interior is hollowed until the plugs are revealed.
  • Much care is given to producing thin hull with consistent thickness and a smooth and fair surface. Profiles are lined out carefully. Razor-sharp adzes and axes are used with great care, and are followed by careful use of planes, with one man putting his eye right against the surface of the hull to sight for high spots and directing the other man's use of the plane.
  • Canoes this small are often propelled with a double-bladed paddle, but the single-bladed paddle is used here. Perhaps this is because pirogues are often used in dense vegetation and very narrow channels, where a double-bladed paddle would get hung up?
Note also:
  • at 2:40 a pirogue being paddled rapidly by a man sitting well back in the stern, causing the boat to "porpoise."
  • at 2:48, an interesting oared scow.
  • at 3:00, the ease with which the (single-paddled) pirogue makes its way through dense vegetation
Thanks to the blog FrancoAmerican Gravy for passing this link to us.


  1. Thanks for posting the link. I got a number of useful tidbits out of it. Perhaps the most important was that the very heavy log was turned into a boat that the builder could carry under one arm. Two things contributed to this. One was a relatively thin hull and two was a short length combined with a narrow beam. I have seen several dugouts built by people with no access to traditional dugout specimens and all were too heavy to carry, mostly because the hulls were too thick, usually a minimum of two inches.
    I also noticed that the boats with oars in the periphery of the video were rowed with the rower facing forward. My guess is that the large number of obstacles that boats in this environment had to contend with made good visibility more important than efficiency in rowing. I also thought that there was some resemblance between the superstructures on which to mount the row locks and allow the rower to stand resembled the superstructure on a jangada, though I am sure the two different traditions came by this solution independently.

    1. actually the boats were rowed facing forward because a cajun wants to see where he's going, not where he's been. :)

  2. Wonderful story, grew up in bayou country 1951-1971, my college Nichols State University in Thibodaux, has a pirogue exhibit in it;s library and holds a annual pirogue race on Bayou Lafourche. Oh to glide through the swamp. Now I row the Chesapeake tributaries. Thanks, Merci Beau Coupe