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Return of the Sairy Gamp

In Brief:

This lightweight canoe, made from cedar, is designed to carry over your shoulder, and inspired by the legendary vessel that writer George Washington Sears (aka “Nessmuk”) used for a legendary journey through the Adirondacks before the turn of the century. This is how you make it.


Formerly an engineer in the U.S. Navy, Schade is now a boat builder, boat building teacher and runs the site Guillemot Kayaks.

I’m not sure where I first came across the story of the Sairy Gamp.

Just researching wooden boats over the years, I’ve become aware of what’s been out there. J. Henry Rushton was building lapstreak canoes back in the 1880s and he built one called the Sairy Gamp for a sporting magazine writer named George Washington Sears, who went by the pen name of “Nessmuk.”

This guy toured through the Adirondacks paddling that boat, and I kept it in my mind that you could make a very lightweight boat that’s quite capable. With the modern strip-building technique, I thought, I can make a similar boat and have a little bit more freedom in the shape and make it a little easier to get the paddle in the water.

One of my uncles built boats, so I knew how to do it from a young age. When I graduated from college, I decided I needed a sea kayak but couldn’t afford to buy one, so I sat down on my parents’ living room floor, drew something up, built it, and haven’t looked back. That was ’86. I started selling plans in the early ’90s.

There’s not that much you can build with your own hands where you’re able to actually go someplace in it. You know, making a journey under your own power: that’s cool. But then making a journey under your own power in a boat that you made yourself? That takes it to the next level.

Understanding the technique

For a small canoe, Rushton would have used the traditional lapstreak method, where you’d have wide cedar planks that might be three-inches wide screwed, tacked, or riveted over spruce ribs. With the strip-building technique, which has been around since about the 1950s, you have narrower strips edge-glued together then covered with fiberglass.

The learning curve to construct a strip built boat is substantially less than a more traditional method. I’ve had a lot of customers that never built anything in their lives and somehow got the idea that they were going to build a canoe or kayak and turned out a really beautiful boat without any woodworking skills.

Phase One: A Form

George Washington Sears probably weighed a hundred pounds with wet clothes, so he could go with a very tiny, very lightweight boat. The Sairy Gamp was nine feet and ten pounds and it had a fairly low freeboard, which means the gunnels weren’t that far off the water. Frankly, somebody my size would sink it.

The Nymph is a boat designed for someone like me. It’s ten feet long and weighs 15 pounds. Once you’re ready to start building, the shape, size, and design for the boat get dictated by the cross-sectional building forms, which typically are plywood sections strung along a two-by-four that acts as the backbone. The forms don’t stay in the boat. You’re just temporarily clamping strips of wood to them and once the boat is completed, you pop them off.  You end up with a wooden shell sandwiched between fiberglass.

Phase Two: Wood

I typically use soft woods. My go-to is western red cedar—it’s lightweight and strong—but I’ve used mahogany, and a friend of mine has actually built a whole boat out of ebony. So you do anything between balsa wood and ebony, which basically covers everything. Your choice will have repercussions in the strength and weight and flexibility, so you just have to think about how the boat is going to be used.

Once I have the building form, I take narrow strips of wood—they’re about a quarter-inch thick, three quarter inches wide—and I bend them around that form. You’re using a little handheld block plane to get the strips to fit together, which is a fairly straightforward process. You lay one strip next to the other, and edge glue those strips together. The wood is plenty flexible, and it’s thin and narrow enough that most of the time no steaming is required to get it to bend.

Phase Three: Fiberglass

Once a strip is in position, you temporarily clamp it with a utility staple to the forms. Once the forms are all covered with wood, you pull all the staples out and sand the wood strips smooth. Then it’s time to fiberglass it.

The fiberglassing tends to be the most intimidating part for people because by the time they get to it, they’ve put a fair amount of work into the wood. There’s a perception that fiberglassing is do or die, but it’s not quite as prone to failure as people think it might be.

Fiberglass is exactly what the word suggests: it’s glass fibers woven into a fabric. First you saturate the fiberglass cloth with epoxy resin and then drape it on the wooden shell. You can think of those strains of fiberglass as being tiny little ribs. The planks in the Sairy Gamp would have have been supported by these half-inch-wide ribs every five inches. The strips in the Nymph are supported by strains of fiberglass every sixteenth of an inch. They just look like a really rich, thick coating of varnish, but they serve the same function as the wooden ribs in a more traditional building technique.

Phase Four: The Finish

Once you’ve finished fiberglassing, you add a couple more layers of epoxy just to smooth the fabric texture out, sand that smooth, and put a coat of varnish on it for UV protection. The result is perfectly transparent, most people don’t even understand that there is fiberglass there. That’s the beauty of those tiny little ribs being made of glass.

The Nymph is designed for ponds and small lakes, but people do whitewater in strip built canoes, especially something like a long-distance tour down a river where you’re trying to avoid rocks most of the time. I suspect a lot of people that are buying the custom boats I build are more attracted by the aesthetics and are probably going to be upset by the scratch from hitting a rock. But personally, I use my boats very hard. I don’t baby them at all.