“Mabel! Mabel! Come and see what Joe has brought. Look at what he has made!”
Papa strived to make the finished product as much a masterpiece as possible. He wanted something symmetrical that would glide easily through the waters. Over the years, he had worked to improve his pattern until now he felt that he had reached his goal. Colonel Day’s exuberant calls to Mabel confirmed Papa’s convictions. He had finally made a perfect canoe. He would use this mold, this pattern for the rest of his life.
Papa made his canoes from cedar and ash. Cedar, a lightweight wood was used for planking, and ash made up the ribs, gunwales and seats.
The only property that Papa owned was the small plot of land around our house. Before he could build a canoe, he would go tramping through the woods, looking for a cedar tree that was tall, straight and hopefully without knots. At the same time he would be keeping an eye out for an ash tree. That, too, had to be a certain size and shape. Once found, Papa would then go to the property owner and ask him to sell the cedar and ash trees. Papa was always told he could have both. Never was any money exchanged.
The cedar would be then chopped down and taken to the mill to be sawed into three-sixteenth inch planks, long, thin, lath-like strips. The ash would be brought home, stripped of its bark, sawed into the desired lengths to be shaped into what would become the ribs and gunwales of the canoe.
Papa worked with very crude tools; a shaving horse, a drawknife, a crooked knife, a hammer and a piece of railroad track rail. Sometimes a flat rock when we worked together.
The shaving horse was a homemade contraption that stood on four legs; usually made from tree parts. Two short legs in front and two longer in the rear. A piece of log, about five feet long, half hewn, so that one side was flat was fastened to these legs. Two holes had been made through which a leather thong was drawn. A rock was tied to the end of the thong. A piece of ash would be placed on this hewn log, held into place by the leather thong and the weight of the rock. The ash would then be shaped as desired with a drawknife.
A drawknife had a ten-inch blade. Handles on both sides of the blade allowed one to shave the wood as the knife was drawn towards one self. When Papa sat at the end of the shaving horse with a drawknife, he could shape the ash as desired.
A crooked knife is used by all Mi’kmaq people, and has many diverse qualities. It is used to make baskets, (the splints, the hoops, the handles). It is used to make axe handles, hammer handles, etc. Any wood product produced by the Mi’kmaq, even canoes.
Papa made his. The blade was usually an old file, which would be placed in hot embers until it was redhot. Then it would be taken out and pounded into the shape desired. It would then be heated one more time and doused into a bucket of cold water. This to allow the blade to be tempered. The handle was made from bird’s eye maple. It would be oiled so that the eyes would show more prominently.
A hammer was the only modern, store-bought tool he used. The piece of rail found along the train tracks was most useful. The brass tacks used to hold the plank to the ribs had to be clinched on the inside of the canoe. The small piece of rail fit properly into one’s hand and it served the purpose well.
By using a drawknife and crooked knife, Papa shaped the ash into ribs of various sizes. His health was such that sometimes it took several days to make the entire set. Soaking the ribs in water gave them the flexibility needed to allow him to bend them (over his knee) into the exact shape he desired. These would then be fastened to the mold or pattern, giving the canoe its skeletal shape.
Brass tacks were used to nail the planks to the ribs.
When the planking was completed, the gunwales nailed into place, a mixture of varnish and plaster of Paris was brushed over the entire outside of the canoe and left to dry. The surface would then be smoothed with sandpaper.
Covering the canoe with canvas was always done on a sunny day. The canoe would be placed upside down on two sawhorses, with the loose canvas draped over the top. The heat from the sun’s rays gave the canvas more resiliency. Pliers would be used to get a firm grip on the canvas to be pulled as taut as possible and nailed to the gunwale.
After the canvas was fastened into place, the top gunwale would be attached, as would the two seats, the middle crossbar and the triangular pieces that fit exactly between the gunwales, fore and aft of the canoe.
The inside of the canoe was varnished. Inch wide pieces of ash covered the canvas seams fore and aft. The final chore would be to paint the canoe … green. Papa always chose green.
Paddles were made from ash or poplar. These too would be varnished.
After all this work, the canoe and paddles sold for forty dollars. In the 1930’s, this was a large amount of money.
Colonel Day’s exuberant exclamations that day so long ago gave Papa a sense of great joy, which he talked about until the end of his days.