Peterborough Canoe Company 1904 skiff half model

In the world of boat building, the classical method of developing a new hull design (i.e. no software) begins with the designer precisely carving a scale model of one-half of the intended shape. The sculpted results can then be studied, evaluated and easily adjusted until the discerning eye is pleased in every possible way with the model’s shape and anticipated performance.

This half model is then sawn into pieces or, more typically, was carved out of an assembled stack of planks. Disassembled, the shape of each horizontal plank (or waterline) is transferred onto another surface to be scaled up full size to develop the patterns or forms for the boat proper. I cannot think of a cleverer or more elegant method of facilitating the dialogue between designer and builder as they come to an understanding about something as complex and curvy as a boat.


Thomas Gordon Canoe Co. building form (CCM Collection)

Unlike most other boat building methods, wooden canoe building typically made use of the building form, akin to a cobbler’s last, over which the many parts of a canoe could be assembled and fastened. Despite the fact that half models also made for attractive wall hangings and tended to survive better than building forms, I have yet to come across a half model that might have been used to develop the shape of one factory-built canoe. This suggests that the proven designs for a canoe company’s offerings existed only on the assembly floor where the canoes were made and not also safely displayed in a scale rendition on office walls. In hindsight, this also carried risk when we consider how many companies caught fire at one time or another and had to start from scratch.

PCC 1921 skiff

Our own collection currently contains only one half model (seen at the beginning of this blog). It is actually a small, simple rendering of a rowing skiff and attributed to the Peterborough Canoe Company. If these companies did not generate half models prior to making their building forms (curious but possible), then why only make one for a double-ended boat that looks an awful lot like a canoe? I reason that this was because Peterborough offered their skiffs (but not canoes) in both cedar strip as well as lapstrake construction. Given that lapstrake all boats cannot be built over the same type of form as the conventional strip boats, perhaps this model was used to produce the patterns for the former.

 You never know who or what might pass through our front doors. Only a few days ago, an older couple dropped by the Museum to offer some items to its collection. Before me were three half models mounted on boards in perfect condition and stamped on the reverse Rice Lake Boat Works (formerly Rice Lake Canoe Company). They are charming forms of a sailing dinghy and two of inboard cruisers/runabouts – and not a model canoe in sight, alas.

Rice Lake Boat Works half models

Rice Lake Motor Canoe (CCM Collection accession no. 977.66.1)

A half model might occasionally emerge from the inversion of this process, whereby a half model is generated from measurements and drawings taken from an existing boat. To mark John Summers’ departure last week from The Canadian Canoe Museum, its staff decided to make for him a half model of one of his favorite canoes from our own collection. At 20” long (scaled one inch to the foot), the model represents a very long and absurdly narrow Rice Lake motor canoe. The canoe, once associated with renowned Canadian artist J.D. Kelly, also features elongated decks, and coaming and was constructed to carry an inboard gas engine. For the basswood and oak model, the metal used for the model’s skeg and rudder was recycled from the heavy brass kickplate of one of the old factory bathroom doors that once swung in the Museum.

Rice Lake Motor Canoe half model

I fully expect to learn that the half model process was an integral process in the development of the hundreds of subtle varieties of wooden canoes manufactured in North America over the past century and a half because there’s no real reason that they shouldn’t have.  Technically, because most canoes are symmetrical in both directions, one might only require “quarter models”! Nonetheless, the apparent lack of surviving examples or images thereof suggests otherwise, and infers that perhaps the companies’ designers went directly from paper to building form. Links to any sightings in the big, wide world would be much appreciated.