Building a pirogue

Keywords: building a pirogue
Description: Small boat ownership has lots of benefits. It gets you out on the water, surrounds you with nature and allows you to distance yourself from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Better yet, build

Small boat ownership has lots of benefits. It gets you out on the water, surrounds you with nature and allows you to distance yourself from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Better yet, build the boat yourself and you’ll not only save lots of money, but also enjoy the psychological and therapeutic benefits of building something with your own hands. And, oh yes… did I mention it’s also the most economical way to own a boat?

Building a small boat is not rocket science. But, many would-be hobbyists often assume that because a boat carries passengers over water, it must be designed and built to perfection—otherwise jeopardizing its occupants’ safety. To a degree of course, this a valid concern; but not to the extent most imagine. Small boats generally are used only on protected, relatively calm waters—small lakes and rivers—usually not far from shore. In addition, modern life vests available today are compact and comfortable, providing an added measure of safety and peace of mind.

Beyond the safety issue, the next concern usually is: “Am I capable of building a small boat… do I have the skills and tools required?” The short answer is if you’re the kind of person who can’t turn a screw without help (or worse yet, doesn’t even own a screwdriver), then probably not. Of course, with determination, anything is possible; however, if this description fits you, it’s probably best to tackle the project under the supervision of a friend or relative who owns a few basic tools and is comfortable showing you how to use them. Thankfully, many would-be small boat builders already have the required skill and tools. Depending on type of small boat built, tools required can be as simple as hand saws, electric drill, hammer and screwdriver. Hand sanding devices (either manual or electric) are also needed, as is a measuring tape and possibly a few small wood clamps. It’s safe to say anyone who’s either taken a shop class in high school or tackled small around-the-house repair projects shouldn’t have problem, particularly if fairly adept at reading and following simple instructions.

For ease of construction and low cost, the most popular types of small wooden boats are canoes, kayaks and pirogues (pronounced: pee-row). All of these are well-suited for use on protected waters. In addition, the pirogue can maneuver in extremely shallow water inaccessible by other designs. Though narrow and not quite as stable as larger, wider width boats, all three have the distinct advantage of being lighter and more portable (can be car-topped easily). Canoes and kayaks, because of their highly curved hull forms, generally require the use of multiple jigs (temporary or permanent forms) which must be built first, to allow many thin planks or strips of wood to be bent around them, giving the hull its shape. Additionally, these will require a fair amount of filling and sanding to fill in and smooth out the long seams between strips. The pirouge, on the other hand, is relatively simple: basically a flat single-piece bottom attached to two side panels which have been joined at the ends and flexed (bowed) to form the two pointed ends of the boat (see photo above). This ingeniously simple craft is native to Louisiana and has been built and used extensively by Cajun hunters and fishermen there for well over a hundred years. Essentially, if you can build a box, you can build a pirogue.

For the novice builder, by far, the most common material used for boat building is plywood. Widely available and relatively inexpensive, it is very workable. Depending on type of boat chosen, you’ll also need a few solid pieces of wood (pine, cedar, cypress) for fashioning ribs, top rails and chines. These hull reinforcements are fastened to the inside of the hull bottom and sides with glue, small nails or screws. Some designs call for a technique called “stitch and glue,” requiring the drilling of many holes along the edges of sides and bottom to be joined. Small loops of wire are then inserted and twisted together to bind or “stitch” the parts together until long strips of fiberglass cloth soaked with epoxy resin are applied and laid along the joint to “glue” it in place. After the resin has hardened, the wire is then removed which leaves small cosmetic holes needing to be filled and sanded. Though this method has its advantages, extra expense and labor is required, fiberglass/resin being costly and a bit messy to work with. Though any of the three boat types/construction methods makes for a good first boat-building project, a pirouge, due to its simple components, is by far the easiest. There’s a reason Cajuns, who are resourceful, practical and frugal, have built and used them for years.

Whichever style you choose, building a small boat will be one of the most personally satisfying and memorable experiences of your life. Involve your family and multiply the benefits exponentially: Building a small boat with your kids or grandchildren is without a doubt one of the best bonding projects on the planet. To a child there’s something magic about the idea of building a small boat and watching it come together, imagining and anticipating fun times on the water yet to come. Just be sure to take lots of pictures during the building and launching process. Guaranteed, these will be some of the most treasured and memorable photos in your family album.

Many relatively inexpensive building plans are available online for the above types of boats. A good one for building a pirogue is The cost is $19.95.

Photogallery Building a pirogue:

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