Join us in our quest to experimentally create a fire-wrought dugout canoe using methods practiced since antiquity.  On the last Friday of the month between May and September, we will progress through the process of carefully burning out a dugout canoe, each time trying out new methods and ideas.

...and what is a crackling fire without stories?  Imagine the world of centuries past through firsthand accounts from the travel diary of Henry Schoolcraft: an explorer who spent many months dipping an oar into the legendary waterways of Wisconsin's uncharted frontier.

Whether you come to get your hands dirty or you prefer to simply observe and enjoy the stories, we hope you will join us in experimenting with the ancient art of turning a tree into a watercraft. 

Last Friday of each Month May-Sept.

Canoe burns last

from 6 to 8 pm, weather permitting

(keep an eye on Facebook)

May 28: Getting Started

Peeling bark + wooden wedge experiment + first burn


June 25: Interior Burn

Interior burn + historic char chipping experiment + roving fire experiment

July: Possibly some extra burn be announced

Watch Facebook for details

July 30: Interior Burn

Interior burn + historic fire-starting methods

August: Possibly some extra burn be announced

Watch Facebook for details

Aug.14: Exterior Shaping

*Special Sat. burn during Enduring Skills Workshop*

August 27: Exterior Shaping

Interior burn + fire-shaping bow and stern

Sept.: Possibly some extra burn be announced

Watch Facebook for details


September 24: Wrapping Up

Final Burn (hopefully!) + finishing experimentation

FREE EVENT thanks to a grant from the Antiquarian Society of Wisconsin in memory of "Cissy" Bryson

Adults and teens (accompanied by responsible adult) only

Dugout Canoe Diary

Rediscovering a Lost Skill

With the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, iron tools drastically changed how dugout canoes were made.  By the era of the Agency House (early 1830s), the ancient way of making canoes out of logs was a distant memory.  The adze and hatchet marks on canoes made from that time forward contrast with pre-Columbian specimens which exhibit charring and few, if any identifiable, tool marks.  How did Indigenous peoples make canoes with the tool kits we find through archaeology? The quest for the answer to how canoes were made with fire rather than iron tools has led researchers to the archives in search of the narratives of the earliest explorers, and then out to the woods to test theories using fire and stone, bone, and shell tools which are discovered through archaeology. Our project is indebted to earlier researchers, but is an ongoing process of experimentation in which we are excited to be involved.

Project Preparation: Feb / March

Dugout canoe construction is a massive undertaking. Literally. The tree needs to big enough to sit in. As can be imagined, that takes an awfully big log. The trunk must also be straight and have few low branches since every branch will leave a knot which could leak. Our log is from an ash tree and is about 12.5 feet long and 22 inches in diameter which is on the small end of the spectrum, but is similar in size to known examples. This tree was killed by beetles and has been standing dead for over a year. It sounds a little hollow, which could be good (or not), but we won't know until the top is split off. Wood species used in dugouts vary by region, but the use of hardwoods is well documented in the upper Midwest.

May 8: Preparation Continued

After being moved into location, the top third of the log was cut off (thanks to the assistance of site volunteer Fred Galley).  Due to the presence of some stubborn knots, it was determined that using modern technology rather than splitting the top off using wedges would be the safest route to preparing the log for the start of the project.  Traditional splitting methods, however, will be the object of experimentation (on supplementary pieces of wood) during our inaugural burn.

May 28: Getting Started

We had a successful first burn. After discussing the history of dugout canoes and how research has led to hypotheses about their ancient methods of construction, the log's bark was peeled and we experimented with splitting techniques. The burn was started with historic flint and steel methods. Participants constructed swabs from sticks and strips of cloth which were used to keep the fire from burning to the edges of the log.  The first burn created a good basis from which to continue our work. During this first burn, an experiment was set up in which appx. one-third of the burning surface was pre-treated with linseed oil to replicate an early explorer's description of coating the surface with a combustible liquid (pine tar).  Initial results show no perceivable difference, but measurements will be taken after the char has been chipped away.  The last Friday in June, we will be experimenting with various ancient methods of char chipping as well as trying out the roving-fire method which allows burning and scraping to be done simultaneously. We'll also be trying out our char cloth which we made in the coals of the fire.  Unfortunately our bark char material combusted in the process (photo of flame erupting from tin at right)

June 25: Char Chipping and Burn

#2 with Roving Fire

Our second burn involved a couple new experiments.  First, the charred layer from the first burn needed to be removed so that the evening's burn would be eating into fresh wood.  An array of experimental tools based on early descriptions and what is found through archaeology were recreated including a sandstone adze, a sandstone axe, a granite scraper, two flint adzes, and a variety of clamshell scrapers.

What was immediately apparent was the fact that "char chipping" might not be the most accurate word to describe the process.  What archaeologists call stone adzes in this application are not used as adzes at all.  Rather, a scraping technique with all the experimental tools was much more efficient.  Clamshells chipped while in use, as did the flint adzes, but the stone tools remained relatively unaffected, particularly the granite example.  The consideration that shells are readily replaceable with far less energy than making stone tools (which take hours of labor intensive grinding, or knapping to produce) correlates with early explorers' descriptions of the process which indicate a reliance on shell tools.

The other experiment of the evening involved moving the fire from one side of the log to the other, allowing char scraping to occur in real time.  This offered the chance to scrape off multiple burn layers in one night's work.  Last month's char layer was approximately 0.25" to 0.5" in depth. The layers produced by two scrapings tonight totaled approximately the same depth.  Thus, "roving" the fire from side to side is most effective if repeated multiple (3+) times in a day's work.  By way of update, last week's linseed oil treatment appears to have made little difference when compared with the char layer of untreated areas.

July 30: Third Burn and Historic Fire Starting Methods

Coming soon!

Stories of Wisconsin: Dugout Canoe Project