Chinook people built canoes for a variety of purposes. Small canoes between ten and twenty feet long were the most prevalent and people used them for short trips and to haul small loads. Archaeologist Ken Ames refers to these small craft as the “Volkswagens” of the Northwest Coast. Relatively simple to build and inexpensive in terms of the labor they required, a single community could own and maintain many dozens of them.

Western Red Cedar | image credit: Evan Leeson

British Columbia, Washington and Oregon are in the heart of Western Red Cedar country. Coastal Indians prized this lightweight soft wood for its workability and durability. Thujaplicin, a natural oil in the wood inhibits rot and bug infestation, and cedar is easily split.

Chinook people utilized the cedar tree for many things; they used cedar planks for their homes, pounded and wove cedar bark into water-resistant capes and hats, shredded it for baby diapers, and used cedar roots for baskets. The usefulness of cedar cannot be understated and Chinookan culture would not be the same without it.

Chinook people built canoes out of cedar logs they cut, found as drift logs, or salvaged from the massive old growth forests that pepper the Oregon and Washington coastline. Builders carefully applied fire before they used stone and wood tools to hollow out a log. Then, carvers placed hot rocks and a small amount of water in the recess of the log, creating steam that softened the wood. This process made the wood more malleable and easier to work, so that carvers could stretch and pull the softened log into the proper shape.

Brothers Gary (left) and Leroy Johnson steam the traditionally constructed canoe built by Tony Johnson for Fort Clatsop

As canoe carver Tony Johnson explains: “Builders shaped canoes from the outside first. All of the finished, but unsteamed lines were completed before hollowing. Then the hull was drilled and pegged with cedar depth pegs. Hollowing from the inside continued until those pegs were reached. This established a very thin and finely crafted hull. Carvers chiseled down “troughs” in the top of the canoe that were sometimes aided by burning. The material between these “troughs” were split out allowing the carver to go deeper and closer to the finished thickness.

Once the inside was finished, water was added to the bottom of the canoe. Hot rocks were placed into this water to soften the sides and ultimately spread them. This took the carved shape with flat parallel sides to the graceful shear line seen in a finished canoe. This was a complicated and time consuming process. Chinookans and their neighbors were expert steamers and shaped and bent many traditional items and implements. Even some unsteamed items such as carved wood bowls and spoons were carved to appear as if they were steamed.

Carving a canoe could take a single carver several months or a team of carvers as much as a month. A canoe carver would typically abstain from many things and followed strict taboos from start to finish.”

Hot rocks and water creating steam that softens the wood

It could take weeks of dedicated labor to produce a water-worthy vessel. A finished ocean-going canoe would be burnished by fire to blacken the exterior while the interior would be painted red with naturally found red ochre pigments mixed with sea mammal oil (or other binding agents). A carver would attach decoratively carved pieces to the stern and prow of the canoe. While beautiful, these additions had a function, described by Chinook carver Tony Johnson: “it really is meant to cut a trailing wave and to provide the lift that you need to pop up on top of a trailing wave. And the bow has forms attached to it. It’s a long protruding bow that again is the same thing. It’s about cutting, cutting into the water.”

Contemporary carvers follow many of the same steps their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. When Tony Johnson described building a canoe in 2002, he said “some of these logs want to become canoes, but I don’t think they want to become museum pieces, so this will be a living canoe for us. We have to follow all the old rules as to how we take care of it, so that it’ll take good care of us out on the water.” [quoted from]