Traditional Hide Coracles

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Dreadhead

Bushcrafter through and through
I have built leather boats in the past (see previous blog posts), but have always fancied making a traditional coracle (a wicker frame boat covered with skin). This spring, several conversations with others craftsfolk and the Scottish Crannog Centre culminated in a coracle building project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund to tie in with the Crannog museum to explore early Scottish peoples navigation and trade, and how some of the museum artefacts could have been brought to the Crannog.

Craftsmen are often seen as isolated or solitary figures, but traditional craft always form a cycle with craftspeople overlapping, usually around a community working together. I was blessed to work on this project with Peter Ananin of the Woodland Tannery and Jane Wilkinson of Special Branch Baskets. With a tanner, a leatherworker, and a basket weaver, we had the makings of a solid coracle building team.


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The Scottish Crannog Centre is on Loch Tay with a full scale Crannog replica. A crannog is a type of dwelling built on an artificial island over water, found throughout Scotland and Ireland from the bronze age to the ironage, though many were reused right up until the 18th century. The centres museum has various groundbreaking arefacts from various Crannog sites in Scotland which include the earliest textile fragment found in Scotland, and a lyre bridge which could be the oldest found in Europe. This has led to questions regarding whether some of these artifacts such as the lyre bridge are indigenous, or imported. if they were important, how would they have reached the Crannog? larger vessels such as log boats would most likely bring trade goods in from the coast, but small coracles would have been in wide use for everyday tasks and trading smaller items that a Crannog would need.

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On the way to the Crannog Peter and I came across a road kill deer. After a brief ceremony to give it a last meal we prepared the animal so that it did not go to waste. The meat and organs provided food for us and many others over the weekend, the skin and bones we donated to the centre to be turned into bellows and tools, and Peter kept the stomach to tan. We use the animal in order to honour it, rather than let it's sacrifice go to waste.



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And so on to the coracles. We didnt get a chance to snap any images of making the frames, but they were woven from local Willow under Janes expert eye with solid hardwood plank seats. We wanted to experiment with different methods and styles so the two coracle frames were different regional types, one large and round which was more of a two person vessel, and a smaller oblong style. The lashings on the frames were done with modern cordage as we didnt have the rawhide ready to hand, but once they were finished we were able to take them down to where we had the rawhide and relash them with rawhide cut from a deerskin. Once this dried it tightened up creating incredibly strong lashings.



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Many hands make light work!

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Once the frame was lashed with rawhide, it was time to cover it with hide. The hides had been defleshed and soaked in a lyme solution for two weeks to remove the hair. We had tied the skins in the Loch overnight to keep them supple and stretchy. It was now time to bring them back out the water, and get to work!

TBC
 

Dreadhead

Bushcrafter through and through
Peter dragging hides from the Loch.
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For the large frame we used a cowskin, large enough to cover it with one whole skin. This was especially hard graft to tension the skin (over 10mm thick) over the frame and lash it in place with rawhide.
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The cowskin was lashed to the frame using rawhide strips cut from a deerskin, the same as the frame lashings.
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The most relaxing tea break on the job!
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Propping up the coracle when finished allows us to trim any excess flesh left on the hide, dry it out in the sun, and also by looking at how much light comes through we can see any potential weak spots.
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Dreadhead

Bushcrafter through and through
With a couple of days of graft, we had a complete coracle! It was time for a paddl to celebrate!
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It's such an amazing feeling paddling a hide boat, feeling the water pressure through the skin with your feet, skimming over the water with the sun shining through. We could have paddled out there for hours!
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Jane paddling the two man coracle like a champion.
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Dreadhead

Bushcrafter through and through
After such a successful result with the first coracle, we changed our style with the second, instead using only deerskins which needed stitched together with sinew. We had also collected local birch bark in order to distil our own tar to seal the stitching.


Here I am cutting rawhide lace for lashing whilst Peter cooks up bark tanning solution and smokes our meat.
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Birch bark being packed into the burner
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We compressed the bark as much as we could and sealed the burner airtight with sand. with an even heat around the drum, the bark needs to heat without igniting so that the oils leach out into the bottom pipe. Once the oil is collected it can be reduced down into tar.
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Dreadhead

Bushcrafter through and through
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After several days work we had a fully finished coracle, and one half finished coracle that we will come back to finish soon. Our tar making experiment worked, so when we finish the second coracle we will continue with that process to tar the seams too.

All in all we had a fantastic weekend sharing and learning together, and what a joy to all be out paddling! To be continued... :)

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baggins

Full Member
Apr 20, 2005
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Coventry (and up trees)
Fabulous! They really do look great. And you all look like you had an amazing time building them. And what and lovely place to do it.
I've only done coracles covered in tar coated canvas and i must say i had more fun building them than trying to paddle (or tipping, lol). Fingers crossed the tar does its job on the second one. Thanks for sharing.
 

Robson Valley

Full Member
Nov 24, 2014
8,370
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McBride, BC
The hide stitching: Is there one style of stitch more waterproof to begin with than any other?
Thank you for taking the time to illustrate the build.
 

John Fenna

Lifetime Member & Maker
Oct 7, 2006
21,782
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Pembrokeshire
traitional-coracle-fisherman-on-the-teifi-river-at-cardigan-ceredigion-C5YJHA.jpg Great stuff!
They still use coracles on our local river - Tivy in West Wales - and I have been taught how to paddle them.
They generally have Ash and Hazel woodwork covered in bitumen tar soaked cotton and are solo boats paddled one handed with a sculling draw over the flat front.
There is one for sale (pretty ropy condition in the local Antiques Center ... I was tempted for a second....
Tivy coracle
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Broch

Full Member
Jan 18, 2009
3,346
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Mid Wales
That's a great write-up Hamish, thanks.

I had a go at building a hazel coracle last summer (hazel being the predominant material in this area of Wales) - I cheated and used a tarp for the skin but the purpose was to see if I could build a useable vessel from the materials available to me. The style I based mine on used a lower, second, board beneath the seat and sitting on the hazel floor with a couple of thick hazel 'legs' between them - this stopped any bending in the seat pulling the gunwales in.

I'd love to have a go at something bigger on the lines of a Currach :)
 

mousey

Bushcrafter (boy, I've got a lot to say!)
Jun 15, 2010
2,210
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NE Scotland
Must admit I didn't read it all, but the pictures were awesome. Looks like a fantastic project.

I've been toying with making a kayak using a skin [tarp] on frame construction.
 

SaraR

Full Member
Mar 25, 2017
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Ceredigion
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After several days work we had a fully finished coracle, and one half finished coracle that we will come back to finish soon. Our tar making experiment worked, so when we finish the second coracle we will continue with that process to tar the seams too.

All in all we had a fantastic weekend sharing and learning together, and what a joy to all be out paddling! To be continued... :)

SMLXL
Very interesting! Thanks for sharing and all the photos.
 

Robson Valley

Full Member
Nov 24, 2014
8,370
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McBride, BC
I'd like to learn the paddling strokes needed for control of a coracle.
Didn't those boats ever have anything like a keel?

You will find full-sized Inuit kayak to examine in the University of British Columbia, Museum of Anthropology.
As well, you can search the online collection using UBC/MOA and following their links.
 

Dreadhead

Bushcrafter through and through
Continued...

It's now June and we have been back to the Crannog to finish off the second coracle we were making with deerskins instead of cowhide. We resoaked the skins overnight, then set back to getting them stitched together over the frame.



























Meanwhile Jason takes the previously finished coracle out for a paddle!
 

Dreadhead

Bushcrafter through and through
Voila! another finished coracle. It floated straight away, though there was some leakage through the seams as they need tarred.





our two finished coracles.







The coracle being hung up to dry so that we can tar the seams later.

Stay tuned for more coracle adventures!
 
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Janne

Guest
Feb 10, 2016
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Grand Cayman, Norway, Sweden
That guy that sailed a large coracle ( to Iceland?) some decades ago, how did he water proof his vessel?
Was it with a mix of fat and wax or something?
I read the book decades ago. Called Brendan something.