Hand Hewn Toboggan

toboggan trip header2I’ve been wanting to make a toboggan by scratch for a few years now. No power tools, no sawmills. Just hand tools – ax, draw knife, crooked knife, and hand plane primarily – and rawhide. My desire to make a toboggan comes from old-timey reasoning: I use one in the winter. So I wandered around, found a big black ash, straight-grained and clear for 12 feet, and a friend and I did just that.

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Finished Toboggan

After felling the tree, we quartered it up on the spot with axes and wedges. With an ax, I then hewed the core out of my two quarters before loading them up – on my old toboggan – to drag them the mile out of the woods. Using the old toboggan to make the new toboggan, and using them both as training for a 120-mile toboggan trip – twelve foot ash planks, wet and hanging off the back, are heavy.

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Hauling rough hewn planks out of the woods

From there on it’s hewing, line chalking, draw shaving, and planing until the planks are about 5/32” thick. Any thicker and your toboggan won’t do what a toboggan should do: slide and dip and flex through the valleys and over the bumps like a snake that missed out on hibernation.

I made a jig for bending the plank toes, rather than using a stump, just cause it is easier and I had access to boards, but it isn’t necessary. One at a time, I ladled boiling water over each plank tip for a couple minutes, then in the jig they went, slowly bent down and clamped to the right curve. Green wood bends beautifully, especially thin wood split and worked with the grain rather than sawn, and the boiling water is just extra insurance to limber up the fibers and make sure the bend goes smoothly. It may not be necessary, but I don’t know and I didn’t want to find out.

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Hewing boards

I have been trying to find information on how native people made toboggans in the old days. How wide, long, number of planks, styles of lashing, etc etc. But I can’t find anything. The Conover’s “Winter Wilderness Companion” has the most information and history, but much of it is for modern builders using modern gear. None of my ethnographic books has any real details. There is a quick look at a toboggan in the film “The Silent Enemy,” made by Canadian Ojibwe in the 1930 depicting their vanishing lifeway, but not enough to actually go on.

“Naskapi,” by Frank Speck, says that the Innu people would always lean their toboggan up at the end of the day in a tree. They would face it south, out of respect for the “Old Man of the North,” the carrier of the cold winter wind.

tob4 smallIt is rare to see a wooden toboggan anymore, now that high density plastic ones have taken over. And almost extinct is the rawhide lashing of old. Nowadays people screw the crossbar on from the bottom, or rivet them, or lash with wire or something synthetic (on my first toboggan, I used high-strength ocean fishing line). So I didn’t know how well it would work, and how long the rawhide would hold up, but of course there’s only one good way to know. Regardless, notches are cut into the bottom of the planking to accept the rawhide and keep it from sticking proud of the surface, lest it should abrade away.

My toboggan ended up being just shy of 10′ long, due to some knots in the tail end of the planks that I didn’t want to deal with, and just over 12” wide, due to som7tobsmalle errors on my part (I was shooting for 13” wide). Assuming I can find the right tree, I would like the next one to be 11′ long and 14” wide – a little longer and more stable – though this one worked beautifully.

Once finished, we walked 120 miles to the sugarbush, pulling our homemade toboggans. They held up with very little wear, and the rawhide underneath shows virtually no sign of weakening. Riven – split – wood is much stronger than sawn wood, as sawing has no regard for the grain, making the planks more prone to splintering. And lashed crossbars have more give and flex to them than screwed or riveted ones, allowing the planks to move a little bit rather than break. Sometimes, the old way is the best way.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Aaron Young

    Hats off Brother ! that sumbitch is Awesome ! a lot of work, always wanted to make one. Whittle on.

  2. John Bird

    Very nice work.

    I have seen (probably 20 years ago) a video documentary of a Cree or Anishnaabe man making a toboggan from a birch (I believe) tree, using just an axe, wedges, knives and a heated awl to “drill” the holes.

    It was a wonderful doc, but I can’t for the life of me remember where or how I came across it, and I haven’t been able to find it again. But I do know one exists.

    I’ll keep looking, and if I come across it, will let you know.

  3. Nate (Post author)

    John,
    I would be very very interested in this documentary! Please let me know if you come up with anything…
    -Nate

  4. John Breiby

    Wonderful job! I’ve always wanted to try making such a toboggan; one of those projects that keep getting pushed aside. I do recall, in trying to research how they were done traditionally, seeing a series of photos of a fellow hewing and carving one out of spruce (or pine?), back in the ’40s or ’50s. At first, this somehow didn’t seem right as I always imagined them to be made of a light hardwood, such as birch or ash. Then a few months ago I watched a You Tube film called “The Happy People,” about Siberian hunters and trappers shown making very wide skis (maybe 6″ to 8″?) out of either spruce or pine. So who knows…. The National Film Board of Canada has an excellent film out called “Cree Hunters of Mistassini” showing people carving snow shovels out of birch, using traditional snowshoes and toboggans, though I don’t recall if it shows them actually making a toboggan. I can only wonder how such thin boards were made before steel tools. Thank you for your excellent toboggan description!

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