Common Ground 417 Ray Boessel Jr. Birchbark Canoe


My name is Ray Boessle Jr
and I’m from Bigfork, MN. I build birchbark canoes
which I was taught by my wife,
Chrissy I worked 3 years for grandpa who startedPPbusiness back in 1920. Canoeppbusiness been here a long time the canoes
have been even longer.
Originally it wasn’t really a business.
Her grandfather built canoes made some money at it back
in the 1920s and 30s. They were only getting like a dollar a day workingPPin the gravel pit and so heppneeded some extra money when he quit the gravel pit.PPHe was building a canoe and appguy bought it so he kept building it.
Bill was my grandfather and he was famous for building canoes for manyPPyears. Made them for the stateppof Minnesota for museums and stuff. Through all this time there’sPPbeen different people cameppthrough and they would write up articles about him. ppEventually a guy named Charles Kuralt, which most people know
from CBS, he heard about Bill building the canoes. He looked all over and hePPfinally found Bill found outppwhere he was at. He came I think in 1981 or 82.
They were here for a week and they filmed Bill and did all
the camera stuff with that and then Charles Kuralt came in on Friday. He
came in and I thought he was a
game warden. He came in wearing all khaki clothes. I thought
we were in trouble with the
game warden or
something. Ya Know He comes in and introduces
himself to Bill and
everything. He sat down he sat by the riverbank with Bill
and they talked about stuff.
Bill told him how was back here in the old days. They sat and
talked, he came in the house
and he had dinner with Bill and Violet and I got to eat
with them too, the camera crew
and stuff. He was just a real friendly guy. Just like aPPneighbor down the street justppwalked in and said hi ya know. Started talking it wasn’t likePPhe was a famous person orppanything. He’s real common about everything
so it was kinda nice meeting
him. This here is my building table. This is where I
build the canoes and this is
my wife’s grandfather’s. It was Bill Hafeman’s before
I ever used it. He had this table before I was here and it might be asPPold as I am. A lot of thepptools I use the jig and a lot of clamps and tools
that I use are all tools that were my wife’s grandfathers.
The canoe I lay out on this
table here. And you see those cracks in the boards here.PPThat lines up with the sewppseam from the side of the canoe. It’s all sewed
with roots from a Black Spruce
tree. There is no nails or glue in the whole canoe.
So I lay the bark out flat and we sew what we call a blanket first.
Which is 15 pieces sewn
together. There is 3 bottom pieces and there is
6 side pieces on each side. They get sewn together in a blanket. I make the PPend by sewing two piecespptogether flat. on these small platforms that I have down
here by the wall. They have a
crack between the boards same as this
so I can sew two pieces
together. Then I bend bow stems
on these jigs here. This is for a Chippewa or Ojibwe long nosePPand this one down here is forppa indistinct talking Malecite tribe style either
one I can make with this shape
of bow stem This one down here is
Alqonquin old style. So I make different tribal style of canoe by dependingPPon what shape I bend the bowppstem. Then that bow stem gets sewed inside
the canoe inside the end and
shaped the end. After the ends are made
and the blanket is sewn. I have this frame you can see here
that’s shaped like a bottom of
the canoe. So that just shapes the bottom. The form in there
I brace it so it stays
centered on the canoe. So it doesn’t move around. I keep
that brace down I fold the
sides up uses these jigs here on the sides. Thereppis 7 of these jigs on each side of the canoe. Here, here and all the way down
on both sides. And those give
me the depth of my canoe. And also placement so I getPPthe width of the canoe. Therepp36 inches wide in the center and then they taperPPdown to the end. After that Ippclamp the gunwales on the top. That’s the longPPwooden rail on the top of theppcanoe. In the old days they use to mount guns on PPthe top of the boats, like theppships, sailing ships and also on the big canoes,
the North Canoe and the
Montreal Canoe and so the top wall aboard a ship
you just called a gun wall
which got gunwale. or gunnel. And that’s what these
are the top wall of the ship of top wall of a canoe. After gunwalesppare clamped on I do the root bindings here. These root
bindings there is about 70 of those and they hold the gunwales
tight together so the ribs
don’t pop through. This here is a spruce root.
This will hold the whole canoe
together. canoe together. And it’s sewn together with
these roots. It takes about
500 feet of roots to do a canoe this size here.
I’ve got 3 holes underneath the
gunwale. So I just start in the first
hole and I pull the root through and I take the
wide end and I stick that in between
the gunwales and push that down in there. I go through each hole about
3 or 4 times I try to make the binding about the
same width of binding. You think about the natives
never had all these tools. When they made the canoes even like an awl
like this all they had would be
like a deer antler which they would grind
on a stone to make corners and use it for drilling or they would
leave it round if they wanted
to use it enlarging a hole right here. You just go through each one
of these holes until you get
the width of the binding that you need it
to be. The roots aren’t always straight
up and down here you got
kinks. Sew it in there and you work
with it. You get the bindings
as tight as you can get them. Then when the ribs go in there a groove on the inside gunwale that
I make when I make the gunwale. The ribs are just hammered in. When the ribs getPPhammered in between theppgunwales that tightens the roots a little bit more
even. I’m on the last hole That’s as wide as I’m going
to make that binding. I go back through the
first hole to the inside and I just cut it off. So it just makes a little S lock underneath the
gunwale so the root dries in
place and it holds. There is no fancy knots or
anything to it. Every other binding I think there is one here,
there’s a peg. We peg every other one. And the natives used to use
like thorns from a thorn apple
tree. And that would hold it so the inside gunwalePPdoesn’t push up when you putppthe ribs in. After the bindings were all done knockppall this woodwork and framing it all come it. I’ll line it lengthwise with cedarpplining which I have some of over here. This goes lengthwise
inside the canoe. You see from this Cedar log here
the outside layers are lighter that’s a sapwood that’s what I make into a lining.PPThe heartwood is darker whichppis dryer and stiffer and I make that
into the ribs for the canoe. So I get the ribs from the inside of the tree
and the lining from outside
the tree. I get both of them out of one piece of wood then.
These are tools I use here This here is a fro like you
use for making shingles I just beat that in with my
maul. That’s what I use to starting a split. When it’sPPheavier like this I needppsomething with a handle which gives me leverage for
breaking it apart. Then after
it gets down I just use a butcher knife like this here.
You start to split and you
crack it apart. First I’m going to be taking
the bark off and this fresh and it works better when it’s
fresh. That’s just a wooden wedge
that I use here., You see that’s all wet inside that’s the sap on it yet.
First I gotta get the width of the ribs hammering hammering hammering I’ll take the hammer
and wooden wedge There are different kind of wedges
some are oak as some Osage orange
a fella from Indiana gave me I tried those. I just need a wedge
that’s harder then what the cedar is. hammering hammering hammering hammering hammering Now I mark from
the outside of the tree and the sap wood. I’ll split the heart out of it. You split the cedar at the heart is out you always keep your split
in the center and you can
control the split as it goes down. This split this way easier then the grain that did the
other way when I was using the
wedge. Now I just stay in the
center all the time. hammering hammering I don’t run the scroll
all the way down. cause you can see where it makes these in the
wood here. If you did that all
the way down then it would fracture when you try bending the
rib. So you start your split
with your blade. And after you start of the split you pull it apart
by hand. Now this it’s thinner I can just use a butcher knife likePPthis I don’t need the leverageppof the fro. You twist the knife in it. You see I keep my feet against it
so the end doesn’t flop around use your knees and
sometimes use whole body use everything you’re
splitting cedar. The reason we use the heartwood
for the ribs is because it’s drier and stiffer and it holds the shape
of the canoe better. Where the
sapwood is more flexible and
won’t hold it’s shape as well. When you’re splitting like this at times it feels
like your just pushing the split through when you start at the top here.
Like you are pushing the split
right through it. This here would be the thickness of a rib then. ppI have a shave horse here Chrissy’s grandfather use to say that PPeverybody had one of theseppshave horses they made handles for your tools and stuff with
these. It was something
everybody had when they first homesteaded up here. It’s just a
clamp you step down on the
clamp and then this dumb head comes down against
your work and you have both
hands free using your draw knife. We leave the ribs widerppin the center, so it has more strength for holding the shape of the canoe.
We taper on the ends so that will go between the bindings. And there’s a rib.
Wider in the center so it has the strength and narrow on the ends
so it will go between the
bindings. Now I’m down to the sapwood
here, so this here will all be made into the
lining. You have to keep this end from
flipping around or otherwise you lose it. You control aPPsplit as you go down by howppyou bend the wood. See the one on the left here
this side here, I’m bending
harder because it’s a little stronger. You bend the heavyPPside and it keeps the splitppgoing down straight The reason this lining is in the canoePPbecause without the lining inppthe canoe the bark will shrink between the ribs and the
canoe looks like a starved
horse on a the water with all the ribs on the outside.
Which would be drag and slow
the canoe down. You put this lining in
before you put the ribs in and makes the outside shell stay smoother PPand makes the canoe faster onppthe water. The reason we make it as thin as we do is PPbecause when we put in theppcanoe it gets lapped over each other like this. And if youPPhad a thicker piece and theppbark went over there would be a hollow underneath between thePPbark and the lining where thatppwould be too thick. So we split it thinner that way
it keeps itself tighter
against the bark. Makes a stronger shell on the
canoe then. Takes me about 3 hours to get enough
cedar split out for a canoe
the ribs and the lining both.

9 thoughts on “Common Ground 417 Ray Boessel Jr. Birchbark Canoe

  1. Ray! Good to see you. And if you see this note, send me an email ([email protected]). It's been too long! 🙂  Hope you and Kristi are doing well.  Deb and I are still in Hoosierville and enjoying life.  Hope to hear from you before long.  Best.   – les

  2. Great work Ray. I learned a lot from this video. Wish you do an in depth , how video. I'd buy it.

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