Canoe Building 101: Ken Kocsik and the Harmony of Building Your Own Canoe

April 9, 2010


Henry David Thoreau once said, “Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.” What a splendid sentiment. Hmm…paddling and peace. Peace and paddling. Two words somehow bounded together in the most pleasurable annals of our human instinct and imagination.

What is even perhaps more wondrous about the canoeing is, a fine boat can be built by someone with no experience, provided that one is inclined to move slowly, shrewdly, and pay attention to details.

Madison canoe builder Ken Kocsik knows this drill well. He works and responds in harmony with raw materials, and understands how to get along with the materials – and, through the process, always learns a little more about himself. Through building blocks and careful steps, from premise to careful execution to the final reward, he finds that canoe building is a pattern of living that makes sense.

“Canoe building is a great teacher of life,” says Kocsik, who teaches yearly a two-week cedar-strip boatbuilding course at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. “It’s a way to learn and practice self-harmony, harmony with nature, and with the wood.”

In the garage of his Lake Monona home, a pebble’s toss from the accessible ripples of the waterway which he considers a faithful friend (even during crummy weather), he builds canoes for himself and for others. If you ask him how to start your own canoe project, he will explain the process from start to finish – with artistic exuberance.

“You start by cutting thin cedar planks and learning how to assemble appealing patterns,” says Kocsik. “I suggest that people choose from three cedar-strip boat projects: an 18 ½’ tandem cruiser canoe, a 16’ tripping canoe or a 17’ kayak.”

Cedar-strip boats are lightweight, solid, and quicker to build than most other types of canoes. Kocsik says that a novice can build an 18 ½’ tandem in just six days at a cost of “right around about a $1,000 bucks in materials.”

Kocsik says that anybody who has the time, patience, and interest can build their own canoe. The art of canoe building is the art of bonding progressions, plain and simple bonding, bonding with boat, bonding with nature, or bonding with your co-builders.

“Canoe building is a great individual or great family project,” says Kocsik. “A few days’ or weeks’ work and you end up with something that will result in a lifetime of memories. With each procedure you should feel better and better about what you are doing.”

Cedar-strip building, or woodstrip construction, is the easiest and most accessible for the home canoe builder. Kocsik says that the degree of precision required when woodstripping a canoe is still quite significant, but its precision level is not nearly as complex as what is required for most wood-canvas or bark boats.

Kocsik recommends that all canoe builders start their journey by reading The Stripper’s Guide to Canoe-building by David Hazen.

“Hazen convinces us that a canoe building project can take an amateur about 150 man-hours of work,” says Kocsik. “Not too long considering the final product. He shows that even unlearned builders can produce a boat better than most factory-made boats.”

The built, finished product is a real utilitarian joy, but it is the process, the experimentation, the embarkation, the art form, that Kocsik says he and others often cherish even more. Completed boats not only become a source of pride, but even tangible illustrations of personal identity.

Ultimately, in order to find the peace that paddling can bring, you must buy or build a boat. If you decide to build, Kocsik suggests finding a tutor who writes and speaks in a manner that is easy to understand, at a level that an amateur can follow.

“Read a good book on canoes or talk to someone who loves to share,” says Kocsik “If you talk to the right person or read the right material, you will want to run out to your garage and start building.”

Brian D’Ambrosio is the author of the travelogue A Wee Bit of Wisconsin.