July 01, 2014

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: The cordage that connects it all

Part 1: Introduction and author bio
Part 2: Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood 
Part 3: Roughing out the hull 
Part 4: Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock 
Part 5: Stitch and glue 
Part 6: Sanding and gluing
Part 7: Outrigger and booms 

Canoe on VW 3
An added beauty of this design is that it all fits on top of my small car. This means you need to lash it together when you arrive at the water, and unlash it to pack it when you leave. And that takes rope. 

Lifeline—that’s a good way to think about cordage generally. Cordage is so fundamental to human activities, it's hard to imagine a world without it. And for the voyaging canoe—both building it and sailing it—rope was absolutely critical. The survival of Polynesians traveling across the Pacific owes as much to rope as to anything else.

Traditional rope of any sort is made of strands of natural fiber, usually plant fiber. Ropes made of animal products are subject to rot, shrinkage in the rain, and other problems. And in Hawai`i there were no large animals anyway besides humans—ew! Plant fibers are of finite length, so the art of rope-making involves binding these fibers together in an overlapping fashion to produce a single strand of the necessary length that will hold together. 

Step one is to identify appropriate plant fibers. You want fibers that are strong, pliable, and durable (that won’t rot easily). The number-one fiber for canoe-lashing throughout the Pacific is coconut fiber. That’s right, coconuts. Now if you’re a temperate-climate reader, a coconut to you is a small, hard, brown ball that you see in the grocery store. Crack it open and the inside is lined with beautiful white flesh. Well, that’s a husked coconut. The outside has already been removed. But it’s this husk that is our focus here.

The coconut husk is made up of fibers that run its length. Pacific Islanders, of course, have identified which varieties of coconut are better for rope-making (longer ones, generally), which ones for drinking, and so forth. But in any case, the fibers are not going to be more than a foot long. And they’re caked with pithy stuff. 

Coconut & Husks 2a-a

Husk close-up 1a-a
Clockwise from left: A partially husked coconut shows the thick, fibrous husk and the nut lodged in the middle. The fibers are intermixed with soft, pithy material that needs to be stripped away for rope-making. Cleaned coconut fibers are ready to be rolled into a strand. 


Coconut fibers clean a

A Refaluwasch (Carolinian) man demonstrates rolling the fibers on his thigh to make a yarn.

So it’s not intuitively obvious that this is good rope-making material. Pacific Islanders learned that if you soak the fibers in fresh or salt water for several weeks, the pithy stuff comes off easily, leaving clean, strong fibers. Now here’s the neat part: These fibers bind very easily to each other, with a little help. All you have to do is roll them together on your thigh, and you get a strand. Keep adding lengths of fiber as you go, and the strand gets longer and longer. 

Once you have enough strands, they can be braided or twisted together to make a rope. And those ropes can be braided or twisted together to make an even larger rope. And so forth and so on. The result is known as coconut sennit or coir, and the best of it is stronger than manila rope. Early Western ships arriving in the Hawaiian Islands would trade for coconut sennit for their ships’ riggings. One of its great advantages is its ability to hold up in salt water, so it’s great for seagoing vessels.


TTPI rope-making a

Top: Refaluwasch men demonstrate twisting yarns into rope at a festival in Palau. Above: Navigator Pedro Yamalmai teachesrope-making to students of Outer Islands High School using exactly the same process. Ulithi, Micronesia; 1972. University of Hawaii at Manoa Library, Trust Territory Photo Archives (N-2703.13). 

How does coconut sennit compare to the natural fiber ropes we use today? Its lightness is an advantage for canoe lashing, as is its durability in water. And it floats!. Most coconut coir rope available today comes from Sri Lanka and is very rough. I bought some on eBay, where it seems to be always available and not expensive, but very poor quality compared to the Pacific Islander samples I have.

According to Marques Hanalei Marzan at the Bishop Museum, twisted rope wasn’t used as often as braided for lashing Hawaiian canoes. And not thin, three-ply sennit as shown in the photos here, but five-, seven-, or nine-ply braid. It would be almost a half an inch in thickness, and flat. And in this case, he says, it was not woven by braiding pre-made strands, but by twisting and braiding the fibers together at the same time.

Once the rope was made, you’d have to clean it up. There would be all those ends of individual fibers poking out. So before you were finished with the process of rope-making, you would have to trim your rope and make it look good. Without scissors.

This kind of braided rope was stronger than twisted rope, and a lot thicker. And the flatter surface wouldn’t be as bulky. The spaces between the rounds of lashing would fit more tightly, whereas a round, twisted rope would leave a lot of space in between the cordage.

P-Harvard Two Ropes a
Two types of Hawaiian braided rope in the collection of the Peabody Museum at Harvard: five-ply in the foreground, three-ply in the background. Photo by RDK Herman, courtesy of the Peabody Museum at Harvard.

I’m told that there are more than 300 known uses for different parts of the coconut plant, and cordage is certainly a major one. Because coconut palms were so important to Pacific Island cultures, they were pretty widely cultivated and available. But there were other fibers that could be used when coconut was not at hand, or not the best choice, or if you were in a pinch and needed something right then. One of these is the bark of the hau tree—the same tree that Hawaiians used for making the boom—‘iako—of their canoes. Peel the bark from the tree, strip the outer bark (which can also be used, in a pinch) from your peelings, rip the inner bark into strips, twist or braid them together, and away you go.

Ukiuki 1 a

To me a less probable source is the native plant ukiuki. The fibrous leaves are maybe 18 inches long. But tough, apparently! You use the entire leaf. It was especially good for house-building.

The real king of Hawaiian fibers is olonā. Olonā is the strongest plant fiber known to humankind and just happens to be a native Hawaiian plant. Olonā cordage is especially good for making fishing lines and nets, for binding two-piece fishhooks, and for making the netting for the great feather cloaks (ahuula) of the Hawaiian chiefs. But since it is not involved in canoe-building, I won't elaborate on it here.

You know how in all those cowboy movies, when someone is tied up, the rescuer goes and simply cuts the rope off? Well, even in 19th-century America, making rope was a time-consuming process. My research suggests that while a machine for twisting yarns into ropes was invented in 1780, machines for twisting fibers into yarns didn’t come about until 1850. So I figure rope was not exactly cheap, and cowboys probably took care of what they had. They would have bothered to untie the man’s hands and save the rope, not cut it off! 

Rope is simply too valuable, and too useful, to waste. And for lashing together a voyaging canoe, you needed an enormous quantity of it, as we will see in the next installment. 

Next: Lashing the booms to the hull

Douglas Herman, NMAI

Doug Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian and a specialist on the cultural knowledge of Hawai'i and the Pacific Islands, is also blogging about the round-the-world voyage of the Holule'a for the Smithsonian.

All photos by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds, unless otherwise credited.

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You have shared such an informative post!!The simplest things of life are the most special that are also made unique and useful. I love the making of Hawaiian braided rope that looks simply stunning and creative. Thanks for sharing!!

the rope which made up from coconut tree is very very strong and cheap in cost, most of Indian villagers use this rope widely

May 14, 2014

Symposium "Looking to the Future: The Life and Legacy of Senator Daniel K. Inouye" Honors a Champion of American Indian Rights and Sovereignty

The Honorable Senator Daniel K. Inouye. Official portrait, 2008. Courtesy of the U.S. Senate

You don't have to be a student of history to know that Washington, D.C., can have short, selective memory. So it's hardly too soon to take a day to remember the remarkable contributions of the Honorable Senator Daniel Inouye (1924–2012) and to talk about how to continue his work on behalf of Native peoples.

On Thursday, May 15, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian is hosting the symposium "Looking to the Future: The Life and Legacy of Senator Daniel K. Inouye." Speakers include John Echohawk, director of the Native American Rights Fund; Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives; and Lionel Bordeaux, president of Sinte Gleska University. The symposium will be webcast live. The complete program and symposium presenters, and a longer biography of Sen. Inouye are available online. To read more about Sen. Inouye's relationship to the National Museum of the American Indian, see "A Warrior Chief among Warriors: Remembering U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye" by Liz Hill (Red Lake Ojibwe), from the Spring 2014 issue of American Indian Magazine.

Daniel Inouye served in the U.S. Congress continuously since Hawaiian achieved statehood in 1959, as congressman from 1959 to 1962, and as senator from 1963 until his death. Throughout his career, he championed the interests of Hawai‘i’s people. He left a lasting imprint on his home state through his efforts to strengthen Hawai‘is infrastructure, diversify its economy, and protect its natural resources. 

The signing of the memorandum of understanding transferring the superb collections of the Museum of American Indian, Heye Foundation (MAI), in New York to the Smithsonian Institution. From left to right: Suzan Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), member of board of trustees, MAI; Roland Force, director MAI; Senator Daniel K. Inouye, chief supporter of legislation to create the National Museum of the American Indian; and Robert McCormick Adams, ninth secretary of the Smithsonian. WAshington, D.C., May 8, 1989. Photo by Laurie Minor-Penland, Smithsonian Institution 

For 35 years, Senator Inouye also served on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, assuming the chairmanship of the committee in 1987, later serving as vice chairman, and securing the committee’s status as a permanent standing committee of the Senate. During his tenure he helped pass landmark legislation affecting almost every aspect of life in Native America, including the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act, the Native Hawaiian Education Act, the National Museum of the American Indian Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Native American Languages Act, the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, and scores of Indian water rights and land claim settlement acts, as well as reauthorizations of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Native American Programs Act, the Indian Education Act, the Indian Finance Act, the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act, Indian provisions of the Energy Security Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, and appropriations for Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian programs. 

For all of these accomplishments and for his sincere dedication to the values of Indian country, the preservation of Native culture and religious freedom, and his genuine respect for the indigenous people of America, the senator is revered throughout Native America. 

The symposium webcast will be archived on the National Museum of the American Indian YouTube channel. We'll post that link as soon as it becomes available. 

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September 26, 2013

Meet Native America: The Honorable Daniel Kahikina Akaka, U.S. Senator for Hawai‘i from 1990 to 2013

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Established in 1989 through an Act of Congress, the National Museum of the American Indian is an institution of living cultures dedicated to advancing knowledge and understanding of the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere, including the Native people of Hawai‛i. The museum is grateful for the ongoing interest and support of the Hawaiian delegation to the U.S. Congress. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

My name is Daniel Kahikina Akaka. In January 2013, I retired from the United States Senate after over 36 years of representing the people of Hawai‘i in Congress. I began my tenure in the House of Representatives in 1977, and was appointed to the Senate in 1990, becoming the first Native Hawaiian to serve in the Senate. In November of that year, I won the special election to the Senate, and would be re-elected to the seat three more times. Throughout my career in the Senate, I served on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and served as its Chairman in the 112th Congress.

Can you share with us your Hawaiian Native name, its English translation and/or a nickname?

My Hawaiian name is Kahikina; literally translated it means "to the east.” I am named after my father. 

The Hon. DanielKahikina Akaka served as U.S. senator for Hawai'i from 1990 to 2013. Official portrait courtesy of the U.S. Senate.

What responsibilities do you have as a national leader and tribal elder?

As a national leader, I have committed myself to a lifelong goal of working to protect the language, culture, and traditions of indigenous peoples. An essential component to this is grooming future leaders to ensure they practice and perpetuate their cultural values, which is why I have dedicated my time in retirement to mentor our future leaders. I hope that in the future all the work I have done in the state of Hawai‘i and in the Congress will help Native Hawaiians achieve self-determination and enable them to establish a governing entity.

Moreover, I hope that our country and world can get to a point where we all implement a good model for indigenous peoples that protects their right to self-determination and preserves their unique cultures and traditions. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your Native community?

My family and upbringing instilled in me a strong foundation and life purpose—to help and serve the people of Hawai‘i. I grew up immersed in Native Hawaiian cultural practices and traditions and took pride in my heritage.

From my exposure to various cultures in the Pacific as I served in the Army during World War II to seeing first-hand the displacement of indigenous peoples throughout the world as I visited various places as a Member of Congress, I came to realize that I needed not only to serve as a leader for the Native Hawaiian community, but moreover to help all indigenous peoples preserve their language, culture, and traditions.

As a member of Congress, I witnessed and learned more about the startling disparities faced by Native Hawaiians and was motivated to identify a way to unite Native Hawaiians and give them the capacity to govern themselves and take care of our people. This continues to be a sincere passion for me, and I firmly believe that when Native Hawaiians are successful in establishing a governing entity they will serve as a model for indigenous groups around the world.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

There are a number of individuals who helped groom and mentor me from my youth through my professional career. My brother, Reverend Abraham Akaka, was one of my first mentors and advocates. I admire and cherish him dearly. I still vividly remember the inspiring conversations I had with him over breakfast. Our discussions were often about faith and spirituality, but I will never forget his encouragement to embrace and understand diversity. He believed that out of diversity arises strength and power. He also advocated for raising the level of Native Hawaiians and encouraged me to do whatever I could to bring our people together.

My wife, Millie, is also my lifelong supporter who made it possible for me to accomplish all that I have in my life.

Two important individuals who specifically helped me get to the U.S. Congress were Hawai‘i Governors John Burns and George Ariyoshi. They both saw in me qualities that they believed were needed in our state and the Native Hawaiian community. They provided me the opportunities to serve various communities throughout the state and pushed me to strive for higher office.

I am extremely grateful to these four individuals for their belief in me and their tireless support.

Are you a descendent of a historical leader? If so, who?

No, I am not aware of any of my ancestors who were historical leaders. 

Where is the Native Hawaiian community located?

Our homeland consists of the islands of Hawai‘i, located in the Pacific Ocean. It is made up of eight major islands and 124 minor islands encompassing 4,112,955 acres.

Where was the Native Hawaiian community originally from?

Hawai‘i was originally settled by voyagers from central and eastern Polynesia who travelled great distances in double-hulled voyaging canoes to arrive in Hawai‘i, perhaps as early as 300 AD. 

Lei Draping 2009 a
SenatorAkaka speaking during the lei-draping ceremony to commemorate King Kamehameha Day. June 7, 2009; the U.S. Capitol Visitors’ Center Emancipation Hall, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Senate.

What is a significant point in history from your community that you would like to share?

On January 16, 1893, at the order of United States Minister to Hawaii John Stevens, a contingent of U.S. Marines from the USS Boston marched through Honolulu to a building located near both the government building and the palace. The next day, local non-Hawaiian revolutionaries seized the government building and demanded that Queen Lili‘uokalani abdicate the monarchy. Minister Stevens immediately recognized the rebels’ provisional government and placed it under the United States’ protection. Since the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, Native Hawaiians have been displaced from our land and our right to self-governance and self-determination.

It took 100 years for the United States to formally acknowledge their role in this event. In 1993 President Bill Clinton signed into law P.L. 103-150, a resolution that I sponsored. This resolution acknowledged the role the United States and its agents played in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and set forward a path towards reconciliation between the United States government and the Native Hawaiian people.

Approximately how many members are in your Native community?

According to the 2010 Census, there are over 500,000 individuals who identify as full or part Native Hawaiian in the United States. Of that number, over 280,000 live in Hawai‘i.

What are the criteria to become a member of the Native Hawaiian community?

Native Hawaiians do not have a governing entity or organic documents that establish the criteria to be a member of such an entity. However, in 2011 the state of Hawai‘i enacted Act 195 to establish a Native Hawaiian Roll Commission. Individuals on the roll will participate in the organization of a Native Hawaiian governing entity. To be on this roll, an individual must be a lineal descendant of the aboriginal people who resided in the Hawaiian Islands prior to 1778, or be eligible for Hawaiian Home Lands or a lineal descendant of a person who is eligible for Hawaiian Home Lands.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

Yes, our language is spoken on our homelands due to the persistence of dedicated professionals in our community who worked tirelessly to ensure our language was preserved. Our language was nearly lost due to a number of significant historical events. First, after the arrival American missionaries, our oral language transitioned to a written language. Later the language was banned in all schools and displaced by English. I experienced first-hand the impact of this ban and was forbidden to speak my native tongue.

In 1984, a movement began to perpetuate our language, and the first Hawaiian language immersion preschool was opened. Hawai‘i is now the only state with a designated Native language, Hawaiian, as one of its two official state languages. Moreover, it is now possible to receive an education in Hawaiian immersion from preschool through a doctoral degree. Hawaiian language content is now available through multiple media sources, such as the Internet, television programs, and websites.

According to the 2006–2008 American Community Survey, 24.8 percent (+/- 1.0) of Hawai‘i’s population speaks a language other than English at home. Of this group, 6.1 percent (+/- 1.1) are Native Hawaiian speakers.

What economic enterprises does your Native community own?

Our community does not own any economic enterprises. However, Native Hawaiians are successful business owners and many participate in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development Program as a means to support the community.

What annual events does the Native Hawaiian community sponsor?

Many different organizations in our community hold different annual events. These can range from annual conferences with government and community officials, to family days, workshops with cultural practitioners, language seminars, and hula festivals.

One of the more prominent and longer-running events is a hula festival called the Merrie Monarch Festival, a week-long event hosted every spring in Hilo on the island of Hawai‘i. Many hālau hula, or hula schools—not just from across the state, but from across the nation and even internationally—participate in hula exhibitions and competitions. Merrie Monarch has received worldwide attention and is noted for its cultural significance and community impact.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Hawai‘i is known worldwide for its natural beauty. Many people are familiar with our sandy beaches and our lush mountains, such as one popularly known as Diamond Head on O‘ahu. However, we also have National Parks that have great cultural significance, such as Haleakalā National Park on Maui, or Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park on the island of Hawai‘i.

Hawai‘i is also home to sites of national historical significance, such as the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument where the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial is located, as well as the Battleship Missouri Memorial and the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park. In addition, ‘Iolani Palace on O‘ahu is the only site in the United States that was used as an official residence by a reigning monarch; it is a National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Another noteworthy place in Hawai‘i is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. While it isn’t an attraction available for visitors, Papahānaumokuākea is the single largest conservation area in the United States and one of the largest ocean sanctuaries in the world. This place speaks to the splendor and uniqueness of my home.

How is your traditional Native community government set up?

Prior to Western contact, our island nation had an organized and stable land tenure system under the stewardship of chiefly rulers. Native Hawaiians evolved a system of self-governance and a highly organized, self-sufficient, subsistent social system based on communal land tenure, with a sophisticated language, culture, and religion. This society was marked by reciprocal obligation and support between the chiefs and people.

In 1810, the Native Hawaiian political, economic, and social structure was unified under a monarchy led by King Kamehameha I. The authority of the king was derived from the gods, and he was a trustee of the land and other natural resources of the islands, which were held communally.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

Native Hawaiians have not reorganized a governing entity since the kingdom was overthrown in 1893. 

How are leaders chosen?

While we have many prominent leaders throughout our communities who are successful because of their strong characters and respect of our culture and traditions, Native Hawaiians do not have a governing entity that is chosen and led by our people.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your Native community?

Foremost, I encourage the youth of my Native community to take pride in the place we call home— Hawai‘i.  Learn, internalize, and appreciate our Native language, culture, traditions, people, and natural environment. We will lose our identity as Hawai‘i if we lose this. Commit yourselves to preserving the identity of Hawai‘i and the identity of indigenous peoples around the world.

As I see it, Hawai‘i is the piko—a navel or center—of the universe. We have so much to offer and we need to do all we can to share what we have with the world. Ultimately, I encourage the youth to give back to people and the world by using all that makes up our special identity as Native Hawaiians. 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

This is something I have said before, but it remains very important to me and the Hawaiian people: If at any time in your life you are given aloha, appreciate it, live it and pass it on, because that's the nature of aloha and that is the spirit of aloha. It means nothing unless you share it.

Mahalo, thank you, for giving me the opportunity to share a little about my community and our people with you.

Thank you. 

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below.  


From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips.

All images used with permission. 


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September 24, 2013

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Outrigger and booms

Part 1: Introduction and author bio
Part 2: Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood 
Part 3: Roughing out the hull 
Part 4: Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock 
Part 5: Stitch and glue 
Part 6: Sanding and gluing 

Bishop Museum Canoe
Alovely Hawaiian canoe on display at the Bishop Museum. Two curved booms attach to the outrigger with simple pegs and lashing.

In their great work Canoes of Oceania, a landmark in research of Pacific Islander canoes, published in 1936, authors A. C. Haddon and James Hornell state that their study began with a particular focus on how different island cultures attached the outriggers to their canoes. Clearly this is a distinguishing feature across Oceania—as characteristic, if not more so, than the shapes of the canoes themselves—and I have seen quite a variety in my own limited travels.

For Hawaiians, it was simple: The booms (‘iako) curve down from the gunwales of the canoe and are pegged, then lashed, directly to a banana-shaped outrigger (ama). But elsewhere, it can get very complicated, and for the Melanesia design that I am building, it’s one of these tricky rigs. But first, we have to get all the parts together and hewn into shape. 

Manu a
Manu extending upward on the back end of the ‘Auhou, NMAI’s Hawaiian canoe. Protruding below it is the notched extension where ropes would have been attached to bring the rough-hewn hull out of the forest.

While koa was the tree of choice for canoe hulls, lighter woods were preferred for the rest of the parts. Koa is a very stiff and dense wood and therefore very, very heavy. Jay Dowsett and Tay Perry, who build and refurbish canoes in Honolulu today, note that in the old days, a lot of those canoe hulls were an inch-and-a-half or two inches thick just to keep them rugged. That also made them very heavy. 

Hawaiian canoes have separate gunwale pieces attached (by stitch and glue) atop the hull, culminating in lovely upright prows and sterns called manu, a hallmark of Hawaiian canoe design. These areas, which are repeatedly struck by the paddles, would be made of ‘ahakea—a fairly light wood, but very stiff. It’s comparable to ash, which is not particularly heavy for its volume, but is also very stiff. ‘Ahakea wood is a dull orange-brown and when rubbed with kukui oil becomes a beautiful dark golden yellow. 

HaoTrees1 a
Hautrees, O‘ahu, Hawai‘i.

For the booms (‘iako) that connect the outrigger to the hull, hau was an excellent choice. A member of the hibiscus family, hau grows in low, tumbling forests of curved limbs. Pick two that have the right curve and you’re set. And the wood is light and peels easily. In fact, the bark makes a decent rope. 

Wiliwili seed a

The outrigger, or ama, would be made of wiliwili. This lovely tall tree produces red seeds, and red being the color of chiefliness, these seeds are equated with the blood of the chiefs. Wiliwili is also very light, which is what you want your float to be. Its purpose, you see, is to float.

Here in the mid-Atlantic area, there’s a dearth of ‘ahakea, hau, and wiliwili.  But, as with ash and ‘ahakea, we can look for trees with comparable qualities. Now I knew more about trees in New England, where I spent a lot of my youth, than I did about the mid-Atlantic. Some of these trees around here are completely unfamiliar to me. And I’m not a woodworker to begin with. And in New England, firewood was the big issue, so I became familiar with wood that split well and burned hot. Period. Now I need to know much more about the qualities of different woods.

Fortunately, in the 21st century, there is the online Wood Database. This excellent free resource is quite extensive (though Hawaiian woods are strangely absent) and gives a great deal of information about the qualities of different woods. Among these, the important ones for me are dry weight, strength, shrinkage, workability, and perishability. I spent a lot of time going back and forth between this website and the State of Maryland’s Maryland Trees database, looking at what types of wood are available in this area.

Lightness, for the ‘iako and the ‘ama, was a problem. The trees that are light are often also highly perishable, or just plain hard to find. Cedar, ash, and white pine aren’t common around my area—at least, not that I could find.

Which brings us to another problem: If you live in the city, where do you find trees to cut? Well, there are four solutions. First, make friends with a logger or arborist who cuts trees for a living. Some of them stock up on the wood they cut, because they or their friends or relatives are woodworkers, too. Second, go directly to large private landowners who have some good-looking trees for your purposes, and see if they will let you cut them. Third is tree falls from storms. I have harvested a few pieces from these. Finally, you can be sneaky. After all, there are a lot of trees in my area—along the sides of highways or in highway medians, or the fringes of parks and streams, and so forth: no-man’s lands, in other words. That doesn’t make cutting trees there legal, and the fines can be up to $1000.

I won’t reveal which option I used, but I will say that the trees that I cut were all, with one exception, standing dead—they were not green anymore, but they weren’t starting to rot, either. Okay, one of them could have been a little fresher. And the type I went for was Virginia pine, not a species with which I was previously familiar.

First I cut a big log for the ama. It was a 40-foot tree, clearly dead in the last season, and with my folding handsaw, felling it was quite a chore. I cut the log longer than it needed to be, just in case. It may have been dead, but it was still mighty heavy. I propped one end on the back of my car roof, atop an old blanket, and slid it up on top of the car.  Two straps, two ropes, and away I went, the happy owner of a beautiful pine log. 

The only problem was that I had not read canoe-building the directions carefully. They say the dry weight of the wood for the ama should be about 26 pounds per cubic foot, and no more than 30. Virginia pine is 32 (oak, by comparison, is 42 or more). Back to the databases for another search. The only readily available local wood with a dry weight under 30 pounds is tulip poplar, which is plentiful, but perishable. So for this, I borrowed a friend and his chainsaw and we cut a live tree (after the appropriate propitiation of its spirit and thanks for its life). This totally green log would become my ama. 

For the booms, however, I went back to Virginia pine: light, reasonably straight, tough, and a bit more water-resistant. The only problem with it, as I quickly found out, is that it’s knotty. That makes shaping it down to size more difficult.

The last wood needed is a series of sticks—four per boom, each about two feet long—that connect the ‘iako to the ama. This is not a Hawaiian design at all, as you will see. Here I lucked out. An area in a nearby streamside park had been cleared around some power lines, and a lot of young trees of the right diameter were already lying there cut. 

The process of turning these raw logs and cut saplings into shaped parts was far more laborious than the making of the hull. At the same time, here is where I really got into canoe carving—using bladed instruments to shape the wood. My primary tools were the drawknife (a blade with two handles, mine an antique), a hammer with large chisel, a plane, and a rasp. 

Tools a
Tools (clockwise from upper left): Drawknife, chisel and hammer, plane, carpenter's rasp. 

Thedrawknife was good for removing bark and roughly taking each log down to the shape and diameter I needed. The hammer and chisel I used to cut out the knots in the Virginia pine and to shape the ends of the ama. The plane helped straighten out uneven areas more finely, and the rasp took care of the minor bumps, knotty areas, and general smoothing. Of course, I finished things off with the miraculous random orbital sander. 

Carving 2 e

Carving 1d
Above: Knots divoted out with hammer and chisel. Right: A boom log after a rough pass with the drawknife.
















Now although the logs for the booms were as straight as I could get them, they still had curves to them. Carving them down to two inches in diameter from around three-and-a-half to four inches—well, yes, it’s a lot of extra work, but it gave me the opportunity to take some of those curves down and make the pieces straighter overall. So after divoting out the knots, I used the drawknife to make the first hard pass, removing the bark and taking off thick strips of wood. Have I mentioned that this took a lot of effort? I wondered if our ancestors had to work this hard, or whether there was some Zen of using this tool that I wasn’t getting. With that in mind, I did get better at it. 

I then used the plane to fine-tune the major work as much as possible, and used the rasp on the ridges and on the lumpy areas around the knots. The two tools worked very well at taking the wood down to a reasonably smooth contour. 

Carving 3 a

Carving 4 a

Carving 5 a
Top: All the carving is done, but the boom still looks pretty rough. Above: Nice and smooth—if not perfectly straight—after sanding. Right:To steady the log while I worked, I set up two bench clamps at the end of my long table and clamped a large C-clamp into them to hold the extended end of the log (cut off afterwards). You can see how much I took off of this log. The carved portion is not centered on the raw end; that was to take out some of the curve. 

Poplar a
Thetulip poplar log for the outrigger, with giant strips of bark peeled off.

The ama (float) was a different story. To begin with, the log was green.  First thing I did was to take the bark off so it would begin to dry better.  Lo and behold, tulip poplar is one of those tree species where the bark just peels right off! What a bonus! 

This log, again, was not perfectly straight. It had a curve on one end that I intended to use for the bow end, but side-to-side it had some issues as well. These too I tried to minimize as I took the log down to its final size.

Mostly this log was to stay pretty round, though flattened a bit on the top. The ends, however, were to be tapered down to points. I decided to do the first end with just the hammer and chisel. By this point I was feeling pretty handy with these tools, and they are not too dissimilar from the adze of old—except that they are two separate pieces and the adze is one combined tool. Using the hammer and chisel, I felt, gave me much more precision and control, and reminded me of stone carvers I had seen in my youth. I felt like an artist at last. 

Artistic as the work might have been, it took a long time and a lot of careful eyeing to get the end of the log into the right shape. So to do the other end, I used a technique suggested in the instructions: Make sawcuts of increasing depth, and then chisel these off. Wow, this took much less time. The wood came off in huge chunks, and in half an hour I had done what took me perhaps two days on the firstend. 

Ama1 a Ama2

Left: Beginning to shape the end of the ama with hammer and chisel.  Note the lovely dark heartwood of the log. Right: Illustration from Wharram’s instructions on how to shape the end of the ama.  I like how they say that using an electric planer is cheating!  I don’t own one anyway. 

Mind you, I was doing this work in Baltimore in July, when it’s 95 degrees outside and often humid. I moved my work to an old picnic table in the shade and spend days shaping this thing, then leaving it in the sun to dry some more. 

In the end, I not only had a log that I can lift—at first, it was so green and full of water I had to drag it—but an outrigger that, after sanding, looks pretty good. It is already showing some cracks, but I’m not worried about that, because now I know about filleting. Next year when the log is totally cured, I'll fill those cracks and waterproof the float. For now, I’m just going to use it as soon as everything else is done. And I am getting into the final stretch. 


Ama3 a

Ama4 a

My picnic table set-up. You can see that the log has some shape issues. I did my best to deal with these. 


Next: Cordage.

—Douglas Herman, NMAI


Comments (3)

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I was thrilled to see the photos on this website,,,, and I want to be a native of America to lead his own country

learn so that we all do not become marginalized

why people of his native country should not be the leader????????? I was so sad

I think the National Museum of the American Indian is the best museum in history.

August 22, 2013

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Sanding and gluing

Part 1: Introduction and author bio
Part 2: Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood 
Part 3: Roughing out the hull 
Part 4: Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock 
Part 5: Stitch and glue 

Kapiolani_Canoe a 
The Kapi`olani Canoe, on display in Na Mea Makamae o Hawai'i—Hawaiian Treasures, an exhibition shown at the National Museum of Natural History in 2004–05. This fishing canoe is the oldest documented Hawaiian canoe still in existence. It was already quite old when Queen Kapio`lani sent it to the Smithsonian in 1888.

Before I get into the gluing part of the stitch-and-glue operation, let’s take a few moments to lavish praise on the underappreciated, glorious art of sanding. If you’ve ever worked with wood at all—and almost everyone has done something at some time—you know that sanding smooths down, cleans up, shapes, and beautifies. Something roughly sawn from a piece of wood magically turns into a work of art. It’s a miracle!

In modern boatbuilding, there’s a saying that the work is 90 percent sanding. Well, that has largely to do with the epoxies and varnishes used, numerous layers of which need to be applied, with sanding between each coat. But it is entirely possible that for Hawaiians of old, sanding was still a very big job. Reason? No sandpaper. So, what do you use?

In the blog entry on tools, I mentioned how lava rock is not all created equal. Depending on the mineral content of the eruption and how fast the lava cooled, there is a wide range of densities and textures of lava rock. As the 19th-century Hawaiian historian David Malo documents, “A great many names were used to distinguish different kinds of rocks.” In fact, Malo designates 53 different types, each with its uses. Of these, the kinds used for smoothing and polishing are identified as a-na, ka-wae-wae, o-ahi or o-la-i, o-i-o, po-hue-hue, and puna. Whether anyone today knows which of these is which, I do not know. 

Polishing Stones 1b
Hawaiian polishing stones in the Peabody-Essex Museum collection. Photo by RDK Herman, courtesy of the Peabody-Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

As you can see from the photo above, there is quite a range of textures and colors among polishing stones, including coral stone as well as basalt. Once again, I first imagine the craftsmen who made these stones—chipping and grinding chunks of rock to make flat-faced disks—and then the craftsmen who used them, grinding away at the surfaces of the canoe to make them smooth. 

Sharkskin was the finest grade of sandpaper available. I do not know whether it was used in canoe-building, but possibly so. I've seen the Kapi‘olani Canoe up close and can attest to its smoothness. Today of course we have a wide range of tools, and the work can be remarkably quick and magical. 




Two Holesa

Behold two holes (above left) drilled for where one of the booms will be lashed to the hull. The hole on the left is freshly drilled; the one on the right has already been sanded. What a difference! Then there are the two mid-braces (right), cut out of a poplar board. A little grinding and sanding and they have lovely curved tops and smooth edges. 

Sanding is transformative. Let us rejoice in it! 


Okay, now back to the stitch-and-glue process. After the pieces of the canoe are all stitched together, the major gluing begins. I am using a marine epoxy system that involves pumping epoxy resin and hardener in prescribed amounts, mixing them well for quite a while, and then applying the mix (also called epoxy) in different ways for different purposes. In this case, the resin-hardener mix is combined with wood flour (powdered sawdust the consistency of flour) into a thick, peanut-butter-like substance. This is carefully spread along the inside of each seam, a process called filleting. (It’s pronounced “FILL-it,” not “fill-A,” easy to remember because that’s what it does: fill it in.) Once the epoxy coating is hard and dry, you sand the surface smooth, then run 3-inch fiberglass tape over the filleted seam and epoxy over that layer. Sand and epoxy again, and you have a smooth, rock-hard, durable seam.

Sampler Inside a

I created a little demonstration piece (right) that shows these stages. Toward the left point is bare wood stitched together with copper wires. Then the same with a coating of epoxy. Then the brown filleting, then the fiberglass over the top, and finally recoated with epoxy. 

Fillets a

Here (above) is the inside of the canoe showing the brown fillets along the seams and also around the mid-brace. I filleted around the ends of the seats also, where they meet the hull. The brown of the filleting does not quite match the color of the wood, but oh well. The important thing is that the canoe holds together when I put it in the water. 

Once the fillets are done, you flip the canoe over and carefully cut off the copper wires as close as possible to the hull. These have served their purpose and aren’t needed any more. (Inside the canoe they are hidden under the fillets.) Then with various sanding tools, you grind the sharp seams where the planks meet into nice smooth, rounded edges. These too get epoxied and fiberglassed (but not filleted; that’s just for the inside). See those stripes at the rounded edges? They are the layers of the marine plywood.

Hull & Tools a

Above you see the hull of the canoe, where the copper wires have been snipped off, and some of my key tools: a rasp, which shaves wood down nicely; a plane, which takes off strips and is best when the wood is straight and level; and the wonderful random-orbital sander. What makes it “random,” I don’t know, but it works really well. 

Below you can see that the hull, which after stitching looked kind of like Frankenstein on a bad day, is smoothed and rounded into something that actually looks like a boat!

Sanded Hull 2a


Sanded Hull 1a









The epoxy and fiberglassing then takes place on the outside, hiding over those stitching holes and giving the whole thing a nice, smooth, glossy finish. Before taking the photo below, I've already put several coats of varnish on the hull, which makes it shiny.

Outside Hull-2a

Banana flower, Samoa. After the plant has produced bananas, the leathery flower continues to bloom for a long time. The sap of the banana tree stains very strongly. Don’t get it on your clothes!

You may be wondering what Hawaiians did to protect the hull, since they didn’t have epoxy and varnish. Apparently there were many types of organic paint (pā‘ele) that Hawaiians mixed. In The Hawaiian Canoe, Tommy Holmes writes that the common ingredients included juices from the buds and twigs of the ‘akoko (a type of Euphorbia), the flowers and buds of the banana, and the red inner bark of the kukui tree. A liquid was obtained by pounding and grinding these; then the liquid was mixed with powdered charcoal (some plants provided the best ash or charcoal for this purpose) before being strained. Applied to the hull of the canoe (but not the gunwales), this painted it black. Quoting Z. P. K. Kalokuokamaile’s 1922 Hawaiian newspaper article on canoe-building, Holmes notes that on some canoes, such as those made for chiefs, hens’ eggs and other herbs were then used to make the hull shiny “so that the images of people could be reflected in the sides of the canoes.”

Similarly Holmes quotes N. B. Emerson as saying that instead of charcoal, sometimes ochre or red earth was used to give the hull a reddish color, especially for chiefs (red being the color of chiefliness)—the “red canoe of the king” (wa‘a ula o ke ali‘i).

It may seem hard to believe that this mix of plant juices, charcoal, and possibly dirt protected the hull, and apparently many Westerners who watched the process were skeptical. But Holmes asserts that the pā‘ele was equal to many of the protective hull paints used today. Certainly many Hawaiian canoes lasted for quite a while. And given the amount of work to make one, that’s a good thing. 

Next: Booms and outrigger

—Douglas Herman, NMAI 

Comments (3)

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Nice post.

Great post! I'm glad I stumbled on to this blog series. I've always wanted to try something like this. What type of marine epoxy system do you use?

Nice post, very interesting. May we take some worlds by translate and image to post in our blog?