Make a Wannigan
Photos by Rob Brown; Illustration by James Provost
The school I worked at for 30 years gave me a retirement present of all the materials needed to build a cedar strip canoe and three days with Jack Hurley, a master canoe builder in Dwight, ON. While working on the project, Jack showed me the wannigan he was making, and I loved it. They harken back to a time when the canoe was a crucial form of transportation in Canada. Wannigans stored supplies as paddlers crossed lakes, rivers and portages, but they also make great coffee tables. The techniques involved in building them were very similar to those used in constructing the canoe.
Build the Form
A solid form is constructed of 3/4″ plywood, strips of 1″ hardwood and 2 x 6 pine or spruce. The shape of the cross section of the form resembles the cross section of a canoe at amidships. Too much tumblehome will cause difficulties later when removing the wannigan from the form, so straight sides are recommended. Cut four identical 13-1/2″ x 27″ plywood rectangles in this shape then draw and cut a radius on the two bottom corners. Fasten a 2 x 6 near each arc for added strength. These are shaped to fit the plywood pieces with a bandsaw then a flush trim router bit. Two of these assemblies form the outsides of the form and two are fastened inside for added rigidity. Using 1″x1″ x 16-1/2″ long hardwood strips, build the form starting at the centerline on the bottom. Starting is tricky, but by working on a flat surface and using a straight edge to work against, you can keep the four plywood pieces aligned. The more care taken to make sure it’s symmetrical and square, the better the final result will be. Use 1-1/2″ long screws to fasten the strips to the plywood pieces. Countersink the heads so the outside of the form is smooth.
Joining the first few hardwood strips is fairly easy, since there are no angles cut into their edges, as the surface they are to be joined to is flat. When it comes to the curved section angle, the 1 x 1s on the jointer or table saw make the joint between the pieces tight. Continue all the way around to the top of the plywood. Screw two slightly longer pieces of 1 x 1 hardwood across the top of the form. They will support the wannigan sides during construction.
Finally, fasten four lengths of 20-gauge 2″ wide galvanized steel bands, equally spaced, around the form. These bands will curl the canoe tacks over when you apply the ribs. They’re fastened with screws at either end of the form. It may be easiest to approach a sheet metal shop to get the steel bands.
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You Have Successfully
In Fine Form – The form is ready for action, complete with four galvanized steel bands. Cheap materials are perfect, as long as the form turns out to be structurally strong.
Constructing the Wannigan Sides
The sides are made by laminating clear white cedar with the option of inserting western red cedar for contrast. Pieces that are typically 3/4″ thick by 2″ wide are used to make each side. A pattern needs to be made that is 3/16″ larger than the side of the form. To make this pattern measure the overall width and height of the form, then add 3/16″ to both ends and one side. Cut the pattern to this exact dimension. Next, place the rectangular pattern against the side of the form, butted up against the extra long 1 x 1 hardwood strips on the bottom of the form. As accurately as possible, trace the curve onto the pattern, continuing the 3/16″ overhang on the curved sections. Rough cut it on the bandsaw, then sand to the line with an edge or disk sander.
Cut the two solid sides so they finish the exact same length and width as the pattern. Then use the pattern to trace the two curved areas onto the solid wood sides. Cut the arcs on a bandsaw, making sure the edges are smooth and even. Leave the line on and fine-tune with a sander, if necessary. Using a router, with a 3/16″ deep rabbeting bit, rout a rabbet around the inner edge of each side.
Prepare the planking from clear cedar that is 3/16″ thick and about 2″ wide. Clamp the two sides to the form, with the rabbits on the inside, and fasten the planking across the form, between the two sides, cutting them to fit tightly in the groove. I use a pneumatic nailer with 3/4″ brads to attach the ends of the planks to the sides, starting from the center and working towards each end. The final row of planking will finish beyond the level of the side, and will be cut to size later.
Four ribs are prepared by selecting straight-grained clear cedar that is long enough to go around the planking and extending another inch or so. These are finished to 5/16″ thickness and 2-1/4″ wide. The two center ribs are rounded over with a 1/4″ round-over bit, while the two outer ribs are just rounded over on the inner edge. Soak the ribs overnight in a water bath, and then heat the water in the morning to soften them for bending. A steam box would serve the same purpose.
Starting from the center of the rib, nail the square edge of the warm rib into the side of the wannigan using 1-1/4″ bronze ring nails – just a few nails for now to help keep the rib steady. Use the ring nails at the outside edge of the rib, as they will have good holding strength when they are hammered into the 3/4″ wide solid sides. Smaller brass canoe tacks are hammered into the other side of the outer rib and into the planking. The ends of the brass canoe tacks will be turned over by the metal strips on the form as you go. Make sure that the edge of the rib is flush with the side as you go. Clamp the ends of the ribs to the form to hold them in place as you continue nailing. Repeat the process with the other outside rib. Nail the center ribs (two rounded edges) only with canoe tacks. Allow everything to sit overnight to relieve the strain on the bent ribs. The following day remove the clamps and take the wannigan off the form.
Hot Stuff – By soaking the ribs in hot water the thin cedar strips become quite flexible.
Two Types of Nails – First, drive long copper ring nails through the outside half of two outside ribs. These nails will be held by the solid wood sides. Then add shorter canoe tacks to the other side of the outside ribs, and the two centre ribs, securing them to the planking.
Helping Hand – With the center of the ribs nailed to the flat section of the wannigan, apply clamps to the ribs, drawing their ends tight.
Turnover – The galvanized steel bands automatically bend the tips of the canoe tacks over as you hammer them home, creating an additional mechanical fastener.
Prepare two “inwales” and two “outwales” out of hardwood. I have used black cherry, birds-eye maple or spalted maple, which add to the character of the piece. These are typically 1-1/2″ wide and 3/4″ thick. Round over any edges that will be grasped when the wannigan is finished. The inwale is made to fit exactly between the two sides, with the top flush with the top edge of the sides. It is fastened in place with two screws through the sides into the ends of the hardwood. The holes in the sides must be drilled out so they can be plugged later. The outwale is cut the overall width of the wannigan. It’s clamped in place, sandwiching the planking and ribs between the inner and outer pieces. Care should be taken to make sure that the top surface of the inner gunwale is at the same height as the outer. Drill holes from the inside of the inwale through the ribs, into the outwale, so when these screws are tightened they draw the inner and outer pieces together. Again, these holes will be drilled out so they can be plugged. The edges of the planking and the ends of the ribs should be proud of the inner and outer gunwales now. Cut most of the waste off with a hand saw, then use a sander to finish the edge cleanly. Plug all the screw holes.
Clamp Overnight – Leave the clamps on overnight to help keep the bent ribs in place while they dry. (Photo by Alex McCubbin)
Important Area – Take extra care to keep the corner where the outside ribs, top planking and sides come together nice and tight. (Photo by Alex McCubbin)
Two feet are made by rounding over two pieces of cedar 3/4″ x 3/4″ the same length as the overall width of the wannigan. These are fastened through the ribs using brass screws and brass washers, much the same as a keel is attached to a canoe.
Two Feet to Stand On – Turn the wannigan over and add two strips of wood that will act as feet. (Photo by Alex McCubbin)
The top is constructed of 3/4″ clear cedar laminated in the same fashion as the sides. It is the same width as the Wannigan and long enough to just cover the inwales to allow the top of the planking, ribs and outwales to show. Two 3/4″ x 3/4″ straps are fastened to the underside of the top using screws (holes to be plugged) so the top stays centered over the wannigan.
Top it All Off – Once the boards for the top have been laminated, add a cleat under the top to help position it over the wannigan. Four small cleats in each corner would also work. (Photo by Alex McCubbin)
Sand all surfaces and clean everything with a tack cloth. Use a top quality, high-gloss canoe varnish to finish the piece.
Nice Contrast – After everything is assembled, and a few coats of finish have been applied, the different wood tones will be more obvious. They add a traditional, hand-crafted look to this historical piece.
After 40 years of teaching high school chemistry Alex is now enjoying woodworking, travelling by plane, canoe and automobile. His four-year-old grandson (also Alex) wants to start building wannigans as well.
Tips, Techniques and Three Great Plans