WEST DARTMOOR NOTES 2 – The boat that makes a canoe look like the QE2 (also Shednotes 119)

A member of the Shed team recently wrote the following and had it published Tavistock Times 28.5.15. Pix available …

I always wanted a coracle, or something like it – a simple boat you can carry. What I actually wanted, it turns out, is what is known as an unofficial coracle. There is a lot on the internet about them – cockleshells improvised out of whatever cheap materials are to hand. Lots of people make them and even race them, using plastic plumbing pipe instead of bendy sticks and polythene instead of leather.

But to start with, I wanted to go through a traditional coracle building course, and one of my retirement presents to myself was a booking for four of us for a weekend at Lopwell Barn, where the Tavy comes over a weir into its tidal section and begins to get lost in the Tamar, on the edge of Plymouth. Cost was £400 including accommodation if we wanted it and all materials and instruction supplied for a coracle to take away.

Our instructor, Bex, sometimes known as Mrs Rebecca House, gave us a good start by hauling out a template made of an oblong of scaffolding planks with half-inch holes drilled around an oval shape inside it. We had to stick a thin willow pole into each hole and weave willow wands around them, fit a seat across the middle by dropping a plank with four holes over the midships poles, then bend each pole over and shove it into the weaving alongside the one opposite, so you had a basic frame of doubled willow.

There are some useful photos of the process at


or (shorter version of same link)


The second job was to bind the poles where they crossed each other, to pull them together and give structural strength. We did half of it with string before falling for the temptation of a couple of bags of cable ties we happened to have about our persons – much quicker and much stronger, although it created a lot of nubs which needed to be clipped short and turned in and under. Tip up the template, whack the pole ends out of their holes and trim off the surpluses, and you’ve got the frame of the boat. We were quite pleased with the shapeliness of ours, including an accidental but not unwelcome taper towards a sort of prow end.   We probably made it deeper than it should have been. Bex pointed out that a coracle sits on the water, not in it, and therefore is more stable if it is shallow. But we pointed out that this one is going to be asked to carry a fair portion of lard with dodgy knees.

From our first day’s work, we had a nice strong frame with all sorts of potential. Without a seat, we decided, it would make a good portable garden frame – drape it with net or clear plastic as required. Once, apparently, every village had its own willow patch supplying wands for just such needs, plus seating, baskets, hurdles, etcetera. We wondered about trying it as an allotment crop. It’s no problem starting it, said Bex, but it would take a few years to get anything much more than a basketry whip. She buys in from a big Somerset producer.

Round here, you might try split ash or hazel and we have an unresolved discussion on holly as another possibility.

Buying in materials from the Somerset levels and B&Q, Bex reckons on about £40-£50 for a coracle, including willows, thwart plank, calico or canvas hull fabric, bituminous paint and a couple of Elastoplasts for slips with the knife.

Our ancestors used hides for the hull and professional fishermen would nowadays use GRP – glass-reinforced plastic, meaning glass fibre mesh and a two-part plastic painted into it. We wanted something a bit more durable than painted calico and on the Sunday, we decided to postpone putting a skin on the SS Cabletie. But for the practice, we finished preparing another one for painting – just by rough-sewing the fabric onto the woven bulwarks. Then we took another boat prepared earlier by some of Bex’s pupils – school parties, scouts, and anyone else interested – for a lesson on the water. Two of us gave it an extremely tentative two minutes each before deciding that was enough frontiersmanship for one weekend. One of our team said he had learned a new respect for his canoe, which suddenly looked like the QE2 in terms of stability.

The good old Cabletie is now in my garden, pending research and consultation on giving her a skin. Sailcloth is a possibility but unless you had it shaped, there would be a lot of weighty folds in it, difficult to get properly waterproofed.   Same goes for butyl rubber – pondliner – and lashing the edges down without making tears would be a problem? Plastic sheeting, same problem with the hemming. What about layers of old newspaper, well soaked with glue, then tar on top? It would only cost about 50          quid to do it with GRP, from the look of it – probably less if you know a man. But the more you think about it, the more you see the sense in the original solution – hides, which can be stretched, cut and stitched; give a tough finish; and will take wax or paint well. You’d probably get the leather for £50 too. But who’s going to do all that hard stitching? Final decision will be reported here …




We organised the course through The Zone, a charity organising bushcraft and conservation activities for the Plymouth youth service but needing to find other customers to replace income lost in funding cuts. Call 01752 206626 or email jon.white@thezoneplymouth.co.uk/


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