Sunday, April 8, 2012

Authentic Fiberglass Birchbark Canoes

Of course the title of this post is meant as a malapropism, but John Lindman of the Bark Canoe Store comes as close as anyone to making an "authentic" birchbark canoe out of fiberglass.

Lindman is well-known as a skilled builder of real birchbark canoes, of which he's built a variety of styles.  But as anyone who has ever looked into owning a real birchbark canoe quickly finds, the craft are expensive. Lindman's least expensive grade runs $345 per linear foot, and I know of at least one bark canoe builder who charges $1,000 per foot. Furthermore, they're not the easiest boats to maintain, and they don't fare well in dry climates like the U.S. Southwest.

Because of these drawbacks, there is a small but apparently worthwhile market for canoes that look like birchbarks but are made from modern composites. (We're not talking here about the products of some canoe makers who take a standard canoe hull and just paint the outside to look vaguely like birchbark. These are generally laughable, since they invariably show the wrong side of the "bark" facing out.) This would include at least three sub-groups: i)  folks who simply want something that looks credibly like an authentic, old-time artifact but either can't afford one or can't be troubled with the practical liabilities of owning the real thing; ii) historical reenactors; and iii) producers of movies, historic documentaries, and public events.

One of Lindman's "hybrid"-construction Algonquin replica canoes
Lindman serves these markets with a range of fiberglass replicas in three grades. The bottom of the line is built like a conventional fiberglass canoe, with lines that replicate Algonquin and Ojibwa types. Gunwales are real wood, lashed with plastic imitation split root. Next up is an infusion-molded version of the same designs, with internal ribs. In infusion molding, the fiberglass or other fabric is laid up dry on the mold. It is then covered with a plastic sheet which is hooked up to a vacuum pump. As the pump draws air out from beneath the sheet, liquid resin -- in Lindman's case, vinylester resin -- is drawn in by the vacuum. The result is consistent wet-out of the fabric without any excess resin to add weight. Lindman's website says the ribs are made of "core material," but since various materials may be used as cores in composite boatbuilding, this is ambiguous. Both the economy and the infusion-molded canoes are available fully assembled or as kits with the hulls complete and components that must be finished and assembled by the customer.

The third and most costly of the fiberglass replica canoes is a hybrid, using a fiberglass outer hull and cedar sheathing and ribs, and real split-root lashings, as in a real birchbark canoe.

All three versions are properly painted to represent the dark brown inside surface of the bark facing out, with seams between bark panels and at gores sealed with pitch. They really do look quite authentic -- good enough for use in movies and reenactments -- and I suspect they consistently fool folks who have never seen a real birchbark canoe.

Lindman publishes an occasional e-newsletter with news about bark canoes and his shop's doings. Subscribe here.


  1. Until a few years ago, I had a Sportspal "simulated birch bark" canoe made out of aluminum. It had crooked thwarts, ribs and skin all out of aluminum, and was painted to look like bark. The foam interior and sponsons negated any look of true authenticity, but it suggested a birch bark canoe from a distance.

    Sportspals are still made:

  2. Better than nothing and the feel on the water, which is what counts, will be similar. My fibreglass dinghy has simulated clinker planking and you get the slap of the waves as it would be on the original.

    I wish someone would do a repro of a logboat, easier to move and no maintenance! Years ago there was a discussion about the possibility of copying logboats in fibreglass for ease of display etc.

    I once considered making a "logboat" from ply planks with faux built end pieces or even sections of tree trunks carved to shape, much like a three piece canoe.

    Rounding out seams with epoxy putty would aid realism and this is, I believe, the technique used by the Applegate Boatworks in their repro NW canoes.