Building a canoe - noe, nowey

Canoes were constructed of a single sheet of bark tied together at the ends with vines. Bark used to make the canoes came from several trees. However, the specific names of the trees were not recorded in the historical literature.

The bark from Grey or Swamp She-oak, Casuarina glauca, Bangalay, Eucalyptus botryoides, and stringybarks such as Eucalyptus agglomerata and Eucalyptus acmeniodies was probably used.

To remove the bark from trees, ground-edged hatchets, stone wedges and wooden 'mallets' were used. The first step was to cut the bark to outline a sheet to the shape and size needed for the canoe. Wedges were inserted beneath the bark at the sides, and then the bark was left on the tree in this state for some time before the sheet was fully removed. To remove sheets of bark from sections of the trunk that were well above ground level, an old branch leant against the tree was used as a ladder, or a series of notches were cut into the trunk as foot-holds which enabled men to climb up the tree.

Once the bark was removed, it was softened by heating with fire, and the ends were bunched together and tied using a strong vine (possibly Running Postman, Kennedia prostrata, as used on the New South Wales south coast.

Damaged or leaking canoes were patched with resin from grass trees, Xanthorrhoea species, and sometimes with the leaves of the Cabbage Tree Palm, Livistonia australis.

Paperbark Melaleuca species may also have been used as a patch as at Lake Macquarie, some 100 km to the north of Sydney. Here the patch was sewn on with thread using a sharpened kangaroo leg bone as an awl to pierce holes in the bark hull. The end of the thread was hardened in a fire, so it could be used like a needle. Finally, molten resin was smeared over the holes and stitches.

In August 1788, Governor Phillip commented that it was the season in which Aboriginal people make their new canoes, suggesting that bark for new canoes was commonly cut in winter.

'Canoes were as small as 8 feet long and others twice that length - the canoe is made of the bark taken off a large tree of the length they want to make the canoe which is gather'd up at each end and secured by a lashing of strong vine'

Lieutenant William Bradley, 1786-1792


Dr Val Attenbrow , Principal Research Scientist
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