Scale Model Birchbark Canoes: Real, Only Small
by Ted Behne

Ted has written several fine articles on birchbark canoes for Wooden Boat Magazine, Wooden Canoe Magazine and others. We are very pleased to feature him this month and in the months to come on the subject of building scale miniature canoes. J.L.

After looking at one my scale-model birchbark canoes, a visitor asked "Do you build REAL canoes too?" I had to think for a second before I answered "My models ARE real canoes, they're just small."

Indeed building scale model birchbark canoes, in the Adney tradition, means using authentic materials and traditional construction processes, the same as with a full-size canoe. The difference, of course, is working with scaled down dimensions for ribs, sheathing, thwarts, gunwales, root lashings, etc. The smaller dimensions must be meticulously accurate or the finished model will not look like a "real" canoe in miniature.

One of the tests for a well made scale model canoe is whether it can be identified as a model when photographed against a neutral background with no size references. All 110 of the 1/5-scale Adney-built models in the Adney Collection of The Mariners' Museum, Newport News, VA, pass the "can-you-tell-it's-a-model" test. They are so accurate in scale and proportion, in fact, that full-size canoes can be made by scaling up the measurements from the models alone.

Adney chose to work in 1/5 scale because he said it was the smallest dimension that could be used without compromising the strength and flexibility of the traditional canoe building materials. I prefer to work in scale, partly because the math is easier to calculate in inches, and partly because I've found that I just can't make 1/5-scale root lashings that are 3/40 of an inch wide. This thread-like size is between 3/32 and 1/64 of an inch wide. How Adney did it remains a mystery, but the evidence that he did is there with all of his models.

As John pointed out in a previous issue in his tips on miniature canoes, making models is a wonderful way to get started with birchbark canoe building. It allows a beginner to learn the traditional process, with a relatively small investment of money, time and materials. The famous Adney book, "The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America" provides both step-by-step instructions and scale drawings of virtually all the tribal types of birchbark canoes once made throughout North America. All a beginner really needs are the book, the basic materials and a desire to learn.

As a starting point, I always make a blow up of a drawing from the Adney book. You'll need a copy shop that makes large-scale blueprints for contractors and architects, using special large-scale copy machines. I ask to increase the size of the Adney drawing until the one-foot scale in the upper left corner measures three inches. The resulting drawing is an exact size "blueprint" of a -scale model. Precise measurements for thwarts, gunwales, ribs, bow profile, etc. can then be taken directly from the drawing with high confidence that the resulting model will be accurate in scale and proportion.

If you've been thinking about building a model, but are afraid it would be too mysterious or difficult, fear not! Take the leap, buy the basic materials from The Canoe Store, select a canoe from the Adney book, make a scale blueprint of it and get started. It's a wonderful winter project. And, as an added incentive, I would be happy to coach anyone through the step-by-step process. No charge. There are many other tips on model making that are radically different from those used in full-size construction. Virtually every step of the model process has some specialized technique that I have learned through trial and error. I will share other tips in future issues of "The Bark Canoe Aficionado."

Next Page

509-327-7902 voice and fax e-mail

Home    Canoes    Classes    Materials    Accessories    News and Stuff   Links   Consignment Canoes