Building Rebecca’s canoe

By Molly Priddy of the Flathead Beacon

As many artists and craftspeople learn, sometimes completing a project is driven less by inspiration than by dedication. Rebecca Brown, a teenager in Conrad, understands this lesson on now that she has finished a five-year project to build a cedar canoe.

When Rebecca and her dad, Daniel Brown, visited Lakeside’s annual Big Sky Antique and Classic Boat Show in 2009, she was impressed with the work and quality evident in the cedar canoes on display there.”I was just walking around, and seeing how pretty they all were, you could see the craftsmenship that went into them it was just so cool and inspiring,” Rebecca said last week.

The Browns live in Conrad but come to Flathead every summer to visit the kids’ grandparents. When she got back to Conrad and Utterback Middle School, where her dad is the woodshop teacher, she began to ponder what she wanted to tackle for her eighth-grade woodworking project.

It should be noted that when Rebecca takes on a project, she goes all in. When she was 13, she found a 1979 baby blue Corvette on Craigslist and decided she needed to have it.

She went to work making money, including setting up an espresso bar every Friday at the junior high school. And with a little help from her grandma, she bought the Corvette and the loan from grandma paid off in a year.

“She owned it free and clear by the time she was 14 and didn’t have her driver’s license,” Daniel said.

So when Rebecca decided she wanted to build a cedar canoe for her woodworking project, her family knew she meant it. She started with research, eventually settling on a design for a 16-foot boat, and used engineering software to change the design specifications to her liking.

The process of building the canoe started with the strong back, which holds the canoe throughout its construction, and followed up with the canoe forms. She built the boat with homespun strips, which are solid pieces of cedar that run from one end of the canoe to the other, without joints.

“They are so thin and cedar’s such a pliable wood that we could bend the strips around the forms,” Rebecca said.

With the forms finished, Rebecca and Dan took a break to wait on more cedar from the lumberyard. But life happened, and soon it was summer. Through all four years of high school, Rebecca held down three part-time jobs, and worked on the canoe when she had the time.

Rebecca decided her canoe would not have staples holding the pieces of cedar in place during construction, because that method leaves holes behind. So she designed a clamping system to keep everything in place, but that also meant only working on up to four strips a day.

When all the strips were finally in place, she began the arduous sanding process, which, given her work schedule and heavy academic load, took about a year to finish. Finally, she was ready to fiberglass the canoe, and it took another summer to finish sanding down the glassy surface.

By the end of her senior year, the canoe was ready to be lifted off the forms and turned right side up for the first time. Rebecca went to work sanding the canoes interior, followed up with fiberglass and adding gunwales and in whales.

Then came the decks, seats and thwart, followed by finish sanding and varnishing the canoe until 4 a.m. the night before her high school graduation.

Rebecca, now nearly 18, presented the canoe during her graduation party, and intends to take it on its maiden voyage in Lake Blaine with grandparents on July 5.

“She had originally said she was going to sell it to help pay for college, but I said no that’d be like selling your firstborn,” her father said.

In the fall, Rebecca will head to Montana State University to study engineering, either in the mechanical or civil fields. She graduated with 3.89 GPA and was awarded an honors scholarship at MSU.

She’s also working on getting her pilot’s license, and, of course, restoring the Corvette.

“That is one we’re taking more slowly,” Rebecca said. “The deal was I couldn’t work on the Corvette until the canoe was done.”

Her canoe will also be on display at this summer’s Big Sky Antique and Classic Boat show in Lakeside.

With all the work invested in the canoe, neither Rebecca nor Daniel are worried it won’t float. She put in the hours and hard work to make sure she would reach her goal.

“She’s a pretty amazing girl, I’ll tell you,” Daniel said.


Editor’s note.  This story originated in the Flat Head Beacon July 2. It is reprinted in the I-O with the permission of the newspaper.