History of Canoe Design

The word canoe may originate with Christopher Columbus as he was describing the very efficient boats used by the people he met in what has became the Bahamas. He describes 60′ long dugout boats he calls canoa in his journals. Likely similar boats were in use in other parts of the world as remains of dugouts have been found throughout the world predating the sailing of Columbus to the “new world”. The shape, coming from the shape of a tree bole, is by nature “elemental” and yet it is also “sophisticated”, perhaps defining the most efficient of hull designs.

A variation on the dugout was a boat made from the outer bark of a tree, rather than from the log itself. Various barks have been used, though the bark of the white, or paper, birch has proved the most valuable. Boats made in what is now called North America were brought to a very high level of sophistication to navigate the waters for each particular region where the birch tree  grew. 

When Europeans came to this land they immediately saw the usefulness of these craft and used them in their exploring and missionary work, even commissioning special craft for use in their fur trading. Some Europeans learned to make these canoes, though for the most part they hired the natives, who were highly skilled in their construction. A few Europeans in Maine set about producing canoes that in some ways mirrored the birch bark canoes, but used metal fastenings rather than sewn roots and a canvas cover rather than the bark of the birch tree to keep the boat watertight. Evan Gerrish of Bangor, Maine may well deserve most of the credit in producing  such canoes, and the methods he worked out are largely the methods still employed today. 

The cedar and canvas rib and plank canoes we offer are built the same way Gerrish and a bit later, builders like B.N. Morris and E.M. White used. Some of our designs are based on or have evolved from E.M. White’s designs. Looking at bark canoes built by the Penobscot natives where White lived, it is easy to see where his design inspiration originated. 

Gerrish was building canoes in the late 1870’s and White was in full production by the mid 1880’s. Across the Penobscot River from White’s factory, Old Town Canoe company, a relative late-comer to the enterprise, was in full production by 1905. It was about this time that another family in Canada got interested in developing these type of canoes. All wood canoes, based on local dugout models, were already in full production in Peterborough, Ontario, but the Chestnut family in Fredericton, New Brunswick thought it a good idea to introduce the canvas-covered canoe to the Canadian market. Originally they copied designs from Morris and White and perhaps others, but over time, or maybe after a fire destroyed their factory and canoe forms, they developed new models that were decidedly more practical for their market. While the American market had moved into the Sunday afternoon leisure time at the lake, the Canadian market was still mostly the hunters and fishermen. So, while the American companies were producing elegant looking canoes with exaggerated curves and high bows, Chestnut set out to develop hull shapes that would do what they needed to do without the extra flourishes, keeping the bows out of the wind and keeping the boats lighter. 

When I first started building cedar and canvas canoes in the late 1970’s I was influenced by what I knew: Old Towns and canoes built by an Ely, MN man named Joe Seliga. Interestingly, it seems clear Old Town’s classic profile almost exactly resembles the Ojibwe ricing canoe of Northern Minnesota and Joe Seliga claimed his canoe design was derived from Morris’. As I got involved with the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association and was exposed to canoes of other areas and various designs I felt pulled to the Chestnuts. It has taken me many years to really figure out why. I think it may be an ever-evolving process. 

There is no denying the classic Ojibwe style is artful and the canoes that Morris built are sublime in shape, but the Chestnuts seem to me to be more elemental and I do think it is the elemental quality of the canoe that truly pulls me in. As I have studied the canoe design over the years I have learned things about efficiency and displacement and how the various parts of the hull design contribute to the whole. The primary question is how to get the canoe to move though the water as effortlessly as possible and stay dry in the process. The high ends of the Ojibwe-design Old Town appears to try to keep the water out by simply being taller than the waves, which works ok if the waves are, indeed, shorter, but it does very little to deter the wave. I think this is the first step of the Chestnut design change – make a hull that turns the wave away from the boat so that it doesn’t try to climb up the sides and into the boat. Introducing this in the bow of the canoe will not only help in turning away the wave it will also provide buoyancy to the end, thus forcing the bow to rise when encountering a wave. This slows the boat down, but it keeps it drier. 

It goes on from there. The shape at the bilge can act in a similar way and it is this that creates the “feel” of the boat at rest and describes how it will handle big water. So, through the years as I have developed (and eliminated) hull designs I found I was moving in a similar direction as Chestnut. In fact I copied several of their designs. I still build the Pal and the Prospector from their line and the Saganaga is a direct descendent of their Cruiser. My Ami series, including the Ami and the Mon amie has strong ties to Chestnut designs or at least to that philosophy of hull design. 

And while I was never sure why Joe Seliga said his canoe was based on a Morris canoe I found out when I was asked to repair the canoe that he grew up with, a Morris that had fallen into considerable disrepair. I realized then that this canoe was not only the inspiration for his canoe model but was likely the exact hull shape – except with differences: he lowered the sheer line, changed the stem profile, put more fullness to the ends – all things that this Chestnut philosophy would suggest. So, when a friend, who was familiar with my hull designs, and familiar with canoe design in general had come to visit and was talking with me as a car with a canoe on top came into the driveway, asked if this was one of my canoes, I said “no, it’s a Seliga”, realizing it did look a lot like one of mine. “The Minnesota Connection”, I suggested.