Northwest Coast canoes are usually made by a specialist canoe carver, with one or more assistants. Traditionalally, this master canoe maker required a spiritual helper, as did those undertaking any major task in the boat’s construction. These men were subject to a number of constraints such as not combing their hair during construction to avoid splitting at the ends of the canoe, and ideally remaining celibate so the timber would not rot. In total, it would take three men about two months to complete a 25-foot (7.6m) canoe.
The tree selected for a canoe is chosen not only for its size, but also for its straight, even growth and its proximity to water. Canoes are fashioned from a single cedar log and, depending on its taper and length, it is split into either two or three huge wooden blocks. As a tree’s wood is always lighter on its south side, it must be split in an east-west direction in order to avoid a list in the finished boat. The log for a large canoe requires a butt end of at least 6-feet (1.8m).
Once a tree is felled, its entire top section with any lateral branches is cut off, and the bark and sapwood from the remaining log is removed. From this, the canoe blanks are cut into a V-shape at each end, and then both ends are adzed to a point, and the wood from the north side of the log is roughly split out in between using wedges and a hand maul.
This creates an approximate canoe shape, whose width (beam) would ideally be twice its depth.The cut log for the canoe is then turned over and adzed to shape into a rough finish on the outside in the forest. Keeping the butt end for the bow, the log is shaped to ensure that it is symmetrical end-to-end. At this point the partially completed canoe can be left in the forest for the winter to allow the wood to cure and mature.
The following spring, the unfinished canoe blank is to be turned over and the inside roughly hollowed out. First, several deep holes need to be chiseled out of the interior and the wood between to be split out with wedges and a maul. The interior of the hull can then be contoured and thinned using a large adze.
To ensure an even thickness of the canoe hull, two methods would also be used. In the case of a master canoe carver, he could usually judge the thickness of the hull by eye using the thickness of one, two, or three fingers as a guide. In the other case, the canoe maker would drill holes through the roughly hollowed hull and insert Yellow Cedar pegs of a measured length. He would then carve away the inner surface of the hull at the holes until he reached the measured pegs, then cut vertical grooves between them. Finally, the wood between these grooves would be split and carved out using a small adze and curved knife, leaving a slender sided hull of even thickness. Once the canoe was lightened in this way, during the winter months when snow was on the ground, the hull would be skidded out of the forest to the nearest river or beach, and then be towed back to the village beach or carving shed for finishing.