Joe Pikul cuts the centerline of his cedar-strip canoe by hand. / The proof is in the paddling, Joe Pikul says. He tests his handmade, cedar-strip canoe in the ponds at Dakota Nature Park. Photos courtesy Joe Pikul
BROOKINGS – "There's a certain lore that was part of canoeing."
It's a lore that still comes with a cedar-strip canoe; it can't be found in a "store-bought” canoe made from almost indestructible non-wood, man-made materials like fiberglass or Kevlar.
Looking to his own cedar-strip, totally-made-by-hand canoe, Brookings craftsman Joe Pikul, 64, said, "These, you have to baby them just a bit."
While cedar-strip canoes are not indestructible, being all-wood they are virtually unsinkable; they have no need for floatation chambers.
Pikul said, "I built this canoe entirely from scratch. I bought the raw materials from (Homestead) Do-it Center." The finished product of his hobby might be considered a very functional piece of artwork, in which form follows function.
His first canoe (he's now at work on No. 2) measures 15 1/2 feet long, weighs about 42 pounds, and has a flat keel.
"When you put that in the water and paddle, it goes like greased lightning," Pikul said. "And it stays on track." It's a one-person canoe.
"I started on that Sept. 1, 2010, and I finished June 25, 2011," he said. "I launched it down at what I call South Park, the old landfill pond." The cedar strips are curved, bent, glued together and attached with temporary staples to the wooden forms that give the hull its shape.
That simple start-to-finish explanation of cedar-strip construction doesn't even hint of the painstaking process that turned out Pikul's first canoe. Behind its total symmetry is work that includes precise measuring, sawing, beveling, shaping and fitting long thin strips of wood (up to 16-feet long, 3/4-inch wide and 1/4-inch thick) that must then be glued and stapled, after which come applications of such things as fiberglass cloth that must be covered with epoxy, three coats of marine laminating resin followed by a "sanding down, and a final six coats of spar varnish."
Pikul explained, "That's not only to make them look pretty, but varnish basically is the sun blocker for wooden canoes."
He added, "If you don't varnish over the top of that and it's exposed to UV radiation for a long period of time, it'll de-laminate – and then you'll have a mess. So you put the varnish down."
With one canoe finished, Pikul has moved on to building the Prospecter 15. "It’s a very deep canoe, a very broad canoe. That enables you to maneuver it rather nicely in fast water."
For a canoeing trip with two people, this would be the one to use: "It's deep; it holds a lot of gear."
Pikul said, "There's a purpose for every canoe; you can't have just one canoe."
Finally, he said, "I wanted a canoe with history. This model dates back to 1926." It was a workhorse of a canoe that moved men and material in and out of the Canadian bush.
'Patience and persistence'
When Pikul explains canoe construction, he makes it sound sort of matter-of-fact. It isn't.
"There's no design that you follow," he said. "These are not kits. Basically this canoe was built around the material that I had. I looked at the colors that I had and said, 'What can I do with these colors so that I can make something attractive?'
"I matched the colors and I tried to match the grain. You don't have any room for error. If you make a mistake on a long piece of wood cut in an angle, you either live with a gap or you scrap it and start over."
Pikul said his friends frequently tell him, "You have more patience than I would ever have." He admits to not having a lot of woodwork- ing skills.
But, he added, "I am persistent in everything that I do. I try to do my best at what I'm doing and it just happens to turn out like this. I guess you'd call it a skill."
Pikul said he envisioned the final form of the canoe "after I started cutting my material." He admitted that he had made a huge error from the start.
He explained, "I was building a crooked canoe. The nose did not line up directly along the keel line. I had to saw those strips off the stem and realign it and then glue it up again. But you'll never know where that happened."
Then laughing heartily, Pikul said, "And I won't show you, either."
He's got about $1,000 in materials in each canoe. He won't consider selling either one.
"They're too close to my heart," he said, again laughing. "I would give a canoe away to a family member or close friend before I tried to sell it."
Pikul is a Massachusetts native. He graduated from high school and joined the Coast Guard in 1966. He met his wife Connie in New Jersey. He had no skills or trade when he got out of the Coast Guard, so he went back to school – in Washington state. He later attended Oregon State University, where he earned a doctorate in soil science.
Pikul has been retired from the Agricultural Research Service, USDA, for about three years:
"That place up there that they call the 'bug lab,' that's where I worked," he said. Prior to coming to Brookings during his 37 years of federal service, he had worked in Oregon and Montana.
Part of childhood
While he made his living working with the soil, he had long had a love for watercraft.
"I grew up with canoes, with the old wood-canvas canoes," he said. Additionally, he worked as a camp counselor for two summers; he taught crafts, canoeing, sailing and riflery.
"Canoes and kids," he added. "I started paddling when I was 12. When I was a teenager, I wanted to build a canoe.
"It took me until I retired from the Agricultural Research Service to actually build a canoe. And that's it out there."
He plans to take his greased-lighting, form-follows-function floatable work of art to a wooden boat show at Grand Marais, Minn., this week.
"I went to a class up there in cedar-strip canoe-making at North House Folk School. I went away pretty enthusiastic and came back and built a canoe."
The folks at North House will get to see how well he learned his lessons.
– Contact John Kubal at firstname.lastname@example.org.