August 2019

Reader Built Boat



The Wee Lassie canoe dates back to the early 1880s when canoeist and outdoor writer George Washington Sears, known as Nessmuk, asked John Henry Rushton, a boatbuilder in Canton, New York, to design and build a small lightweight canoe. The result was the WEE LASSIE, an open cedar lapstrake canoe 10′6″ long and 27″ wide. While Sears, a diminutive man at 5′3″ and 103 lbs, also asked Rushton to build an even smaller canoe, SAIRY GAMP, most of us would need something larger. Mac MacCarthy, a century after Rushton, stretched the Wee Lassie to 13′ 6″ by 29″ and called the new design Wee Lassie II.

Photographs by Phil Boyer

Phil completed this skin-on-frame WEE BONNIE, the first of his canoes, in 2006. The maple leaf, emblem of his Canadian homeland, appears on Phil’s boats, often more than once.

Phil Boyer of Napanee, Ontario, started work on a cedar-strip Wee Lassie II in 2005 but only got as far as setting up the molds when he discovered that canoes could be built quite quickly as skin-on-frame boats. He decided to switch techniques while using the same molds. Western red cedar, salvaged from a deck he had demolished, supplied much of the wood he needed. He skinned the frame with ballistic nylon, dyed it green, and waterproofed it with two-part urethane.

In the spring of 2006, Phil’s sister died of cancer, and when he launched the canoe, he christened it in her honor. Her given name was Carol, but Phil had always called her Bonnie. She was born while her father was overseas during World War II and away during the first 1-1/2 years of her life. A Scottish nurse helped with the childrearing during his absence, and whenever she brought the infant Carol to her mother, she’d say, “Here is your wee bonnie.” The name Bonnie stuck and WEE BONNIE is what Phil called all of the modified Wee Lassie II canoes that he built.

This cedar-strip WEE BONNIE, launched in 2007, is the first canoe that Phil started on but the second that he finished. It had to wait while he used its molds for his skin-on-frame adaptation.

In the year following the launch of the first canoe, Phil went back to his original strip-built project. He was pleased with the canoe when he got it afloat, though at 42 lbs, it was heavier than the nylon-skinned version, and he thought he could do better.

Phil’s insulating-foam version of the canoe, built in 2009, weighed 32 lbs. The hull was finished “bright,” letting the light blue color of the foam come through.

In 2009, he decided to build another stripper and make it as light as possible. He substituted 1/2″ slices of foam insulation for the wood strips. The foam was much more delicate than wood and required care to get them to take fair curves between the molds. Even when glued edge to edge, the strips were very flexible and took a light touch to fair. Carbon-Kevlar fabric would have kept the canoe’s finished weight quite low, but Phil spared himself the extra expense and covered the hull inside and out with 6-oz fiberglass and epoxy. This third WEE BONNIE came in at 32 lbs, and Phil was pleased with how well the experimental construction performed.

The 2015 WEE BONNIE, the second of the three skin-on-frame canoes, was skinned with ballistic nylon.

In 2015 Phil built another skin-on-frame canoe, using lighter nylon to save some weight and equipping it with an innovative seat. A few years earlier, while canoe camping with two of his friends on Opalescence Lake in Algonquin Park, his friend Phil was using one of the three WEE BONNIEs and had commented that the portage yoke was a nuisance when not in use and suggested incorporating a yoke in the seat. Phil liked the idea and came up with a seat that pivoted to become a yoke. The new canoe got the latest version of the arrangement; switching it from paddling mode to portage takes just 30 seconds.

Even before the last of his four WEE BONNIE canoes was finished, Phil was thinking about the next boat he’d build, a strip-built solar-powered launch. We’ll hear more from him in the future.

Do you have a boat with an interesting story? Please email us. We’d like to hear about it and share it with other Small Boats Magazine readers.


We welcome your comments about this article. If you’d like to include a photo or a video with your comment, please email the file or link.



    Quick question: What did the skin-on-frame version come in at weight-wise?

  • Andre deBardelaben says:

    The comments that follow are less about the canoes in this article and more about canoes of this type in general. I started my career in small-craft design with solo canoes. That was probably as good a place to learn the fundamentals of displacement hull design as anywhere I can think of. They are inexpensive, quickly built craft that give us immediate, sometimes brutal feedback about our efforts. I’m glad that the author of this piece mentioned just how small George Washington Sears was. I always found it troubling, and baffling, that so many strapping men absolutely lusted after tiny, often jewel-like, true-to-size replicas of his canoes. The canoes that I designed ranged between 13′ and 16′. They covered the size and weight carrying needs of nearly every adult user. I never built any skin-on-frame craft as they didn’t seem practical to me. To me, canoes are about adventure, which means they should be able to withstand being dragged up onto beaches, over downed trees blocking streams, and occasional collisions with rocks. My belief, and apparently one shared by my customers, is that anyone capable of paddling a canoe alone is probably able to handle one weighing between 30 and 45 pounds, both in and out of the water. Building rugged canoes in these sizes, at these weights is easy as long as the builder resists adding pretty, but unnecessary touches, like extended decks, dragon heads and flagpole holders. Though I moved on to other more complex boats, I attribute much of my success with other types of craft to my experiences designing and building canoes. At times when customer demand meant that I couldn’t hold onto the designs for which I’m better known, I usually managed to keep at least one solo canoe around. They were so small and handy that I always found room for one in a corner of the shop. They are still a couple here, and I still love them.

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