Northern white cedar is used for many parts of the canoe, most importantly the bimikwaanaatigoon (gunwales), the waaginaag (ribs), the inini-bagoog (manboards), and the waaganaawinzh (stempieces). Cedar is also used for making the sheathing that prevents passengers from placing their feet directly onto the birchbark skin of the boat. Cedar is naturally resistant to rot, and straight grained cedar can be bent exceptionally well after soaking and steaming.
Wayne looks for mature trees that have grown straight (i.e., not twisted) and that do not have side branches (which cause knots) for at least a length of five feet. When a suitable tree is felled, a workable length of trunk is taken and split repeatedly to produce a series of thick rough-cut boards. By splitting the trunk pieces with a hatchet or by hand, Wayne ensures that the grain runs continuously from one end of the board to the other. This continuity of grain will prevent the boards from cracking during the bending process, and over time as they age. Although the boards are initially split by hand, Wayne then uses an electric planer to reduce the width of each board to a workable thickness. Lower quality cedar stock is planed down even thinner to form the sheathing. Traditionally, this process was done using the waagikomaan (crooked knife), which is still an essential tool during many parts of the canoe-building process.
As with the birch, the parts of the cedar that are not used in the boat are left to dry out in the forest. As Wayne says, “The forest is my lumber yard; I can go back to that tree later and harvest the things I need from it at that point, like wood to make my ricing sticks.”
Watch Wayne Valliere and Tim Frandy split a log into a plank
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Wayne using a chainsaw to cut down a mature cedar of requisite size and shape (Photo Credit: Thomas A. DuBois)
Wayne using an ax and sledge hammer to score a straight vertical line across the end of a cedar log cut to the length needed for the canoe’s ribs and sheathing. Driving the axe head into the wood along this line will begin to split the log into two halves (Photo Credit: Colin Connors)
The work of further splitting the log can be completed using a wedge and sledge hammer. Wedges are placed inside the split that develops along the log’s length and is then hammered into the log, causing the crack to widen until finally the log splits in two (Photo Credit: Colin Connors)
The same process of scoring, hammering from the edge, and wedging from the side is used to further split the log into quarters. Note finished rough cut planks behind. By doing the work in the forest, the crew reduces the amount and weight of the wood that must be hauled back to the road and placed in Wayne’s truck. Unwanted pieces, stripped bark, and wood splinters are left to return to the soil. Larger pieces can be returned to for other projects requiring cedar. (Photo Credit: Colin Connors)
Once the log has been cut into quarters and is lighter to handle, the work of further splitting continues by holding the log vertically. A single log quarter can be split into only one or at most a few planks suitable for the canoe’s ribs or sheathing (Photo Credit: Thomas A. DuBois)
The finer work of splitting log sections into rough planks can be done in the forest or at home. Here Wayne and his crew have hauled quartered logs home to be processed into planks behind Wayne’s garage/studio (Photo Credit: Thomas A. DuBois)
Rough cut cedar planks drying behind Wayne’s garage. The planks will eventually be planed down to a width thin enough to allow bending when soaked or steamed (Photo Credit: Thomas A. DuBois)
The thick planks are planed down to the right thickness using an electric planer. Wayne and his crew completed some of this work outside on the Lac du Flambeau reservation, but the rest of the process is being done at the wood studio at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Art Department (Photo Credit: Thomas A. DuBois)
The inini-bagoog (manboards), also of white cedar, are essential structural features of the canoe that also provide a place for expressive statements. They hold the canoe’s gunwales in place and anchor the stempiece of the canoe. Wayne uses the manboards as a place to display his clan identity and to celebrate some of the rich mythic symbolism that pervades traditional Anishinaabe life. In the bow he burns a bear (his own clan, inherited from his father), and in the stern he burns a turtle (the clan of his mother).
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Wayne decorating one of the canoe’s two inini-bagoog with a turtle symbol (Photo Credit: Colin Connors)
Checking the fit and size of the turtle manboard before mounting to the stempiece (Photo Credit: Colin Connors)
Wayne showing one of the canoe’s two inini-bagoog, decorated with a bear paw symbol. The shape of the finished piece explains the name “manboard” (Photo Credit: Colin Connors)
Fitting the soaked and bendable inwale pieces to the manboard. The pieces were tied and stabilized so that the inwale pieces would dry in exactly the right shape (Photo Credit: Thomas A. DuBois)