Monocoque Wood-fiber Boatbuilding (ie. How To Make a Paper Canoe!)

12 Dec
A paper boat built by the Free Seas collective in Brooklyn, NY (Photo credit: Free Seas/Mare Liberum)

The first paper boats were built by George and Elisha Waters of Troy, NY in the 1860’s, an idea born after George made himself a paper-mache mask for a fancy dress party. By the 1870’s the Waters’ paper boats were the weapon of choice for serious rowing racers due to their relatively great strength and light weight vs. the standard cedar construction of the day. Call it the carbon-fiber of the 1870’s. There were expedition models too, including one which a man named Natty Bishop famously rowed and sailed from Troy to the Cedar Keys in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a great article from Duckworks about this, worth reading in full. As a fan of homebuilt boats, paper-mache and fancy dress parties this story hit a chord with me. Then, recently I ran into someone who works with the West-coast based Cardboard Institute of Technology and talked to a friend who is building his own paper boat and I’m all fired up on them again. As soon as I can find the time, I think I’ll build one.

From Duckworks

I’ve been doing some research and been a bit surprised how difficult it is to find information on the topic. Given how many cardboard/paper/DIY-built boat races there are I would have thought there would be more. Of course I’ve found a few links, posted below, but I would love to hear in the comments if anyone has experience or information to share.

Aside from the paddle-till-it-sinks variety of just for fun cardboard boats most paper boats are built from a mold, which usually means an existing canoe covered in a plastic drop cloth. On materials there seems to be a rough consensus that kraft/butcher paper is the best readily-available paper but there are varying opinions out there about the best glue, whether to finish with a coat of epoxy, and how to paint or varnish your vessel. For the construction itself I read about two primary techniques, the difference being in how much the paper construction is relied upon for strength and stiffness. The simplest approach is to ‘lay up’ twelve or more layers of paper over your chosen mold and then add gunwales and breasthooks, plus maybe a couple other odds and ends. At the other end of the spectrum is this boat designed by the Free Seas collective in Brooklyn, NY, which is an elegant and strong canoe built with significant internal wooden structures including ribs, a keelson of sorts and gunwales and rubrails. I had the good fortune to see one of these boats in the water when sailing through NYC and I can attest to the elegance of their construction. It looked tough, too!

Oddly enough paper boat building is now, once again, an experimental field with what appears to be growing interest. Of course it’s unlikely to ever hit the mass market like it did in the 19th century but as a technique for the home boatbuilder it would seem to offer a lot of advantages in cost, simplicity, and the relatively eco-and-child-friendly materials used. Certainly it’s the only laminated construction which uses a majority of non-toxic glues! Who knows, maybe we’ll see more and more of these around?

Further reading:

This article was syndicated from Safe At Harbour But Meant For The Sea: DIY Sailing with Paul Calder


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*. Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive. For more information, please see our Comments Policy.

More from the AIM Marine Group