This Guy Built a Canoe from Scratch Inside His Apartment

Woodworking Workshop
This Guy Built a Canoe from Scratch Inside His Apartment

What is stopping you from doing that project that you really want to do? Not enough space? Not enough money? Not enough time? Not enough experience? Not enough zip ties? None of that stopped Joel Watson. For less than $300, he built a beautiful sixteen-foot canoe in a two bedroom apartment. He accomplished the bulk of the build after work and on weekends.

Watson is a self-taught wood worker who began learning the craft when he was 13. Most of his work has been focused on woodturning, though he has built a little bit of everything from furniture, to picture frames, to a cajon. He’s even made an adorable ornamental succulent grow light. This canoe, however, was his first attempt at building a boat.

When Watson began the project, he knew nothing about boat construction and relatively little about boating in general. He decided to build a canoe because he wanted a boating option for when conditions were not ideal for his stand up paddleboard, and because a canoe can be used solo or with a friend. He spent a few months doing research before getting started on the build at the end of July.

Watson decided to use a style of boat construction called stitch and glue, which works pretty much exactly as you would expect. He got plans for a rowboat and then heavily modified the design to be a canoe. After cutting all the pieces of the boat body out of 1/4 inch lauan plywood, he stitched them together with zip ties. Traditionally, stitch and glue boat construction uses copper wire, but Watson found zip ties to be a cheaper option that worked just as well. Good thing too, because the boat design he used required over 300 stitches. That’s a lot of zip ties!

He then used a mixture of epoxy and wood flour (a very fine saw dust) to glue all the joints together.

After removing the zip ties, he applied a second coat of the epoxy paste and sanded. Next, he added fiberglass and epoxy to all of the seams and sanded again. Then, he added some elements that were not in the initial design, including gunwales, internal braces, a yoke, a seat, and buoyancy tanks. Finally, he did one last round of sanding and epoxying, before painting the whole thing with an oil-based exterior protective enamel.

The canoe was completed at the end of September. “Actual build time is a little hard [to estimate]. And to be honest there were days I had no interest in even looking at the canoe. With that in mind, it was a month to a month and a half to complete, working around a 40 hour a week job,” Watson said. He added that the most challenging part of the project was completing it in such a small space. Singlehandedly, he had to constantly transport the partially constructed sixteen-foot canoe back and forth between his apartment and outside to provide the required ventilation.

Somewhat surprisingly, everyone in his apartment complex was super supportive! Admittedly, this might have something to do with the fact that Watson kept noisy work to reasonable hours, but several neighbors complemented him whenever he was working on the project outside. Management even left a supportive note.

Watson put the boat through some pretty rigorous stress testing. “I fully submerged it, or at least as much as the buoyancy tanks would let me, practiced water entries, and paddled right into a concrete retaining wall. I’ve taken it out on a 120 acre lake when the water was both choppy and completely flat,” he says. He has taken it out a handful of times after that, and it seems to be holding up well.

Watson says he will “definitely be making more boats in the future.” He already has some ideas in mind for modifications. In particular, he finds that “it is somewhat difficult to maneuver [the canoe], so increasing the rocker is on the top of the list.” He is also considering adding a keel to help the boat better handle strong wind. He has also discovered, since completing the build, that it would have been better to fill the buoyancy tank with polyurethane foam as opposed to the spray foam he used.

All said and done though, Watson says the woodworking difficulty was pretty low and anyone with enough patience could make a canoe of their own. So, the question is, when are you going to start working on yours?

Be sure to check out more of Watson’s build process.

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Sarah is a freelance writer for the Make: blog. She delights in the intersection of technology, art, and human interaction. Her background includes experience in human computer interaction, DNA sequencing technology, 3D printing, sewing, and large art installations.

View more articles by Sarah Vitak


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