Outdoor enthusiast and Shawano resident Ben Thomas recently finished making a dugout canoe almost exclusively using hand tools. Thomas, 35, said a chainsaw was used to down the tree used in the project, but the rest was done by hand. “No power tools were used because I wanted to do this first one entirely by hand just to see that I could do it,” Thomas said. “I even carved my paddle from a maple log. The canoe log was a yellow popple. For my next one I’ll allow myself to use chain saws to accelerate the process, so instead of it taking me 100 hours to complete it may only take me 50.
“I’ve always enjoyed anything that has to do with the outdoors,” Thomas said. “When I was a child I would make wigwams and camp out in them. I’d always wanted to make a dugout canoe but I lacked the means to get a big enough log and axes to do that. But my friend, who now owns Mike’s Tree and Outdoor Service, found a residential log in Mountain, Wis., and delivered it to my house.”
Thomas had originally planned to carve a 17-foot canoe from the log. “It actually bowed the trailer when we put it on because it weighed so much so we had to cut it down,” Thomas said. “The finished length of the canoe ended up being 12.5 feet after losing some length due to shrinkage and carving.
“I used 100 percent pine tar which would have been traditional for this area as well as Siberia in Russia,” Thomas said. “They would have made theirs and pitched them with pine tar as well. When you do it with pine tar you have to do it with a torch and burn it in. It’s a really fascinating thing, so the heat helps fuse it into the pores of the wood. By pine pitching it you’re actually sealing it and making it last nearly forever.”
The recent severe storms that rolled through northeast Wisconsin may have made it easier for Thomas to find more logs to continue building canoes. “I’ve put in an order to find me another log and the tornado weather that went through the Townsend area may have provided it for me,” Thomas said.
Thomas has plans to continue with his canoe building endeavors. “I also plan on making a bark canoe at some point as well,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t have to be birch bark because I might settle for elm or even a spruce. It would be nice if it were birchbark because I think they’re prettier.”
Thomas says he hopes his project might motivate others to try something similar. “I’m hoping that my efforts on carving this will inspire others to try it because if you research how to do this there is minimal information available,” Thomas said. “There aren’t a lot of people in American carving canoes anymore and I do hope that my efforts will inspire someone else to go for it. I don’t want this to become a lost art because there are many things that have been lost to history and this isn’t one of them that should be.
“When you get into the dugout canoe you really feel one with nature, especially if you’re the one who carved it,” Thomas said. “It’s very enriching to your life and it feels good.”