Build Your Own Coracle, Or Small Boat Using Techniques Perfected More Than 2,000 Years Ago

In December of 1977, National Geographic published an articled titled: “The Voyage of the Brendan: Did Irish Monks Discover America?” by Tim Severin. The article talked about the history and the uses of the Irish curragh, a well-known cousin of the smaller coracle.

The British coracle is descended from the bitumen-painted “gaffa” of Iraq, and the hide-covered one-man boats of India and Tibet. Julius Caesar, in writing of his military campaigns in Spain, gives us the first written mention of these ancient boats. In 49 BC, with his communications and supply lines severed by flooding and downed bridges, he directed his men to build wickerwork boats covered with hides – the same kind of boats he had encountered during his raiding days in southwestern Britannia (England).

The coracle, due to its lightweight building materials, tends to ride on the water much like a cork. While its shallow draft makes it a bit unwieldy for the novice to control, it is the perfect choice when fishing in shallow, rocky streams where salmon and other fish abound. When balanced properly with the paddle, a coracle can be carried on your back for miles, its weight seemingly unnoticeable. Try doing that with a fiberglass or aluminum canoe!

Very few changes have been made in the building of coracles in the past 2,000 years, and most of these were regional; probably induced more by what materials were readily at hand than by actual “improvements” to the design. In Ironbridge, along the River Severn, sawn lathes were commonly substituted for the more traditional split ash or willow branches in the lattice framework. Animal hides began to be replaced by flannel cloth coated in tar or pitch around the late 16th century in this same area, when the production of flannel from mountain sheep became something of a local cottage industry.

This in turn was replaced by a rough cotton calico cloth around 1870. While both of these “newer” material required waterproofing, they lessened the average weight of a coracle by some 60 to 70 pounds – a not inconsiderable difference when you realize that it was normal for a fisherman to hoist his coracle onto his back and hike upstream for ten or fifteen miles, before getting into the water and drifting back down with the current as he fished. The instructions that follow are actually for a “River Boyne” type coracle, using willow shoots rather than sawn or split wood, which further lightens the finished craft.

To begin, gather willow shoots with a diameter of 1/4 to 1/2 inch, and dry them for about six months. When you are ready to begin construction, soak the dried willow branches for about a week, so that they can regain the necessary pliability for weaving. (Using green willow shoots is not a good idea, as they will shrink and warp as they dry out.)

While the willow shoots are soaking, draw a long oval – about 4′ wide by 5′ long – on a piece of heavy construction paper. Laying this on a flat patch of ground, make a series of holes in the edge of the paper, 8″ apart, all the way around. Take each willow rib (32 in all) and push it into the ground through a hole. This will give you the necessary template for weaving. To make the gunnels, lay a stick behind each upright rib, and begin weaving them through the ribs in a one-over, one-under pattern. Continue weaving until you have a vertical “wall” about six inches high. At this point, you should have a long ellipse of upright sticks connected by a ring of weaving close to the ground.

Now, the ribs must be bent over into the final shape of the boat. Bend the ribs inward along each side (athwart) first, then those at bow and stern (front and rear). Push the end of each rib into the ground next to its opposite number on the far side. With this done, using a tarred line with a 1/8″ thickness, lash together all joints. The tough, sticky cording is wound in a crisscross fashion, bringing the ribs tightly together and giving the frame its sturdy, flexible nature.

To “train” the ribs into their final shape, place several boards across the framework of the boat, and weight them down with heavy rocks, bricks, cinder-blocks, etc. Leave the weights in place for a week or so, then remove them and gently pry the ribs of the coracle out of the ground. Placing the boat gunnels-down across a pair of sawhorses, you are ready to begin fitting the canvas covering.

With a large piece of heavyweight Number 10 sail-maker’s canvas – or similar material – stretch the canvas tightly over the frame and use metal clamps to secure the edges. Trim off most of the excess material, leaving just enough to fold the edges under into a double hem that will fall even with the top of the gunnel. After adjusting the clamps to get the folds evenly spaced, sew the canvas to the frame using a heavy waxed linen thread, triangular sail-maker’s needles, and a sail-maker’s palm. A pair of pliers may come in handy for pulling the canvas as tightly as possible. For those who are completely clueless in the sewing arena, you can staple the canvas to the edges of the gunnel instead, using stainless steel staples.

As for waterproofing, there are several options available. For the less-adventurous or those with limited time, a bituminous paint of the sort used to seal concrete housing foundations may be a good choice.

For those who find time weighing heavily on their hands, I submit the following waterproofing mixture recipe: For 1 gallon of sealant, combine 43 oz of boiled linseed oil, 21 oz paint thinner, 34 oz porch/deck enamel, 2 oz Japan drier, 6.5 lbs silica, and 2 oz of spar varnish. All of these ingredients should be readily available at a paint or art supply store. (Waterproofing mixture courtesy of www.motherearthnews.com) Also, there is the tried and true, albeit smelly, method of heated tar or pitch.

However, if using the recipe listed herein, apply a thick coating with a paintbrush. Using a spare piece of canvas cloth, rub the sealant firmly into the canvas covering of your coracle. Let it dry for a day or so, then repeat. After both coats have dried thoroughly, apply a couple of coats of an oil-based deck paint.

A simple wooden seat, usually made from a piece of spruce about 1″ thick x 8″-10″ wide was cut to the width of the gunnels and slung across. It was supported by a 2′ high by 2″ thick board notched to fit between the ribs and attached to the underside of the seat by a few wooden dowels.

After a final bit of weaving to cap off the gunnels, you’ll be the proud owner of new coracle, much to the amazement of friends and family!

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