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Meet the Yeungs: Canoe Building as a Family Project

“We kind of do projects,” says Winston Yeung. It’s an understatement considering the sophistication and complexity of the work he’s done with his two young daughters, Rebecca and Kimberly. At the ages of eleven and nine, the girls embarked on a science experiment that led to a weather balloon launch of 78,000 feet and a meeting with then-president Barack Obama at the White House Science Fair. A video about their work, “These Young Sisters Sent a Weather Balloon to Space,” has racked up 2.25 million views on YouTube.

 Not content to rest on their laurels, the girls undertook a tiny home building project next. With a little encouragement from their dad, they eventually set their sights on canoe building. Kimberly, Rebecca, and Winston built themselves a Ranger 15 over the course of about a year and reached out to us when the canoe was complete. We’re always inspired to see exceptionally bright and motivated kids working with their hands, so we asked Winston if he could sit for a short interview. Read on for his thoughts on what inspired this latest project, how he and the girls approached woodstrip canoe building, and what they took away from the experience.

Two young canoebuilders stand beside their materials in a woodshop

[The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length]

BMB: Why the weather balloon project?

WINSTON: There was really no other reason than thinking of something we can work on, something we can do. So every year since they were small we've been doing stuff. Some small things, some big things and the weather balloon one was not meant to become what it became, it was just something that was just our own little family project.

What drew Rebecca and Kimberly to this project?

 They're both fairly geeky, at least for little kids. Rebecca especially has a bit more of a science bent, Kimberly is the one who's more into tinkering and manufacturing and engineering and that kind of stuff. They've got a bit of a Maker kind of background, I guess.

How old were they when they did this?

 The first launch, I think they were nine and eleven.

That was millions of views, right?

Yeah, there was a lot of exposure on that project for sure. I don't even know what the number of views are, you know, we've managed to convince them that that doesn't really matter so much.

A young canoe builder poses with the wood bent stems of a canoe

Focus on the process. Why follow that one with a canoe - or were there projects in between?

Yeah, there were projects in between. So we did three balloon launches, and then we built a tiny house... in Seattle we have this thing to help out on homelessness where this organization helps build small 8x10 sheds, essentially, but they're tiny houses and it helps take one person off the street and they have one place they can call a temporary home. And so the kids helped build that over the summer.

 The canoe was something that I had been talking about with them for a long time. I was born and raised in Vancouver and grew up a Boy Scout, you know, lots of canoeing when I was young. I have always kind of thought about this kind of thing, but wanted to wait because it's not like rough construction like the tiny house where you know, if you have a 1/8 gap it's not too big a deal? With this you have to have some pretty fundamental skills in place so I was kind of waiting until they were old enough and I think this was the right time.

Did you have a woodworking background yourself?

No, actually, the funny thing is I wanted to in high school take shop, but my parents said, ah, it's not an academic course, and so I wasn't able to do that. I only picked it up on my own, and just a little bit, just a few years ago really. I've been handy but not really - I wouldn't call myself a woodworker until fairly recently.

A young canoe builder sands the stems of a early canoe build

How did you find Bear Mountain?

Just Internet searching. I knew I wanted to find a Canadian company just because I'm biased that way. Even though I'm in Seattle, still pretty strong ties and stuff. And I know there's a few wood kit manufacturers out there but clearly Bear Mountain's got an established reputation. I knew it would be a little more in terms of shipping and stuff, but we were okay with that.

How long did it take you guys to build your Ranger?

Funny, Rebecca started tracking the detailed timeline and then sort of gave up halfway through. I think it was a total of about nine months, because we kind of got going in September and then were able to get it done in time for our first trip in the early summer. So yeah, nine or ten months roughly.

A young canoe builder glues cedar strips during the strip planking process

How old were they when they took on the canoe project?

Yeah, just last year so that would be twelve and fourteen.

How'd they like the process?

They both really enjoyed it. Kimberly actually spent more time than Rebecca. Kim's the younger one, Rebecca's starting to get into more homework and that kind of stuff so she helped out when she could. Kimberly was there almost all the time. They both liked the fact that there was a book we could follow with really detailed instructions. They're both kind of built that way where they can sort of... we every year do big Lego sets and they just love going through the instruction books and following the guidelines, like assembling Ikea furniture kind of thing. That was really cool, from a process standpoint. 

Also I think what was unique was this was the first time where we've done any kind of a project where we had any kind of DVD or video type of thing available.

Were you using the Canoecraft Companion Video with Nick Offerman, or the Workshop Series on YouTube?

A little bit of both. We found the one on YouTube but the DVD with Nick Offerman was really detailed. We played those chapters over and over and over again as we were going through it.

A young canoe builder sands the hull of a cedar strip canoe

Was there a favourite part of the process?

Personally, I liked the stripping. That's always fun. I think Kimberly, oddly enough, enjoyed sanding. I was happy to have her do that as much as possible! The other part I really enjoyed was learning how to use a spokeshave. And shaping the outer stems. That was really cool. Never even heard of a spokeshave before this project, let alone used one.

Tricky parts? Any sticking points, or particularly difficult aspects?

I think there were tricky parts throughout. You know, a lot of it was trial and error. I don't think there were any things that we couldn't overcome or figure out. Sometimes we had a little gap in between strips and we'd fill it in. Working with epoxy was new for all of us. We got a pretty awesome system down between the two girls and I in terms of mixing the different paper cups of epoxy and then passing them on. They had this system they came up with - well, actually they learned it from the book - time tapes. So the three of us had this kind of assembly line system going for many of the stages of the project.

Takeaways - either you or the girls. New skills or things that stand out from the process?

Yeah, just like all the projects the real value I find is problem-solving. Okay, this screw is not fitting this particular thing so what do we do about it? Or like in the canoe project, pretty much every stage has some kind of problem that they had to figure out and I really tried as much as possible to have them figure out a solution to whatever they were faced with. So that's one aspect I think really was prevalent with the canoe project because so many stages were new to us: never working with cedar strips, never using a spokeshave, never bent wood, never used fibreglass, never did epoxy. This was all new. 

But the other big takeaway for me is just the time that you spend parenting kids, working on a project together. I am realizing now that I have a very limited window left as they get older. My older one Rebecca is now in high school, and with her workload she does not have the time to work on this kind of family project type stuff. At least not during the school year. So I'm really glad we did it when we did, because that's a pretty small window.

Two girls pose with their recently planked canoe

Everyone's happy with the canoe? The final look, the performance?

Yeah, it's awesome! We aren't experienced enough canoeists to know whether a Freedom would feel better than a Ranger or anything like that, but we've used it half a dozen times taking it out for day paddles around Seattle, and then we had a camping trip that we did and it worked great, beautifully actually. Super happy with it.

Lots of compliments at the put in?

The kids were laughing about that, actually. Because we've taken it out several times, the comments we get... Strangers coming up to talk. At first the kids thought it was a bit weird, and then afterwards after you explain, it's kind of unique right? This tells you how special it is. They got really into describing it and talking to people and explaining the process. They're pretty proud of it.

Close up of a laser-etched canoe deck

Is there a next project?

Possibly, we don't know when. It might be in the summer. The woodworking involved with the canoe has got them both pretty jazzed about trying more woodworking projects and, I don't know, it might be too ambitious... They're talking about, "let's see what it would take to build an acoustic guitar." That might be a little too ambitious for us, but that's the current idea. We'll see whether it actually comes to fruition or not!

I guess with a canoe the main consideration is, "does it float?"

Right, and that was always our goal. Our baseline is, does it float? Right now, the bottom of the hull is all scratched up because when we were camping we took it over some shallower water. But we look at it as scratches of pride. This is something we use, it's not something we hang over the fireplace.

The other thing that was really cool that the girls did was the laser etching. They have a Maker Space at school. We built the decks, butterflied some cherry with strips of mahogany and then they took the two decks to school and there they have a laser etching machine, not a CNC router which is what we were originally thinking, but there they laser etched out one thing on each deck. One thing was the maple leaf, and the second was the Chinese character for our last name, Yeung. Because it's laser etched it worked out beautifully. It's only about 3mm deep but they brought it home, it looked great and then we filled it with coloured epoxy and they chose red of course for the maple leaf, and I thought that was a brilliant idea. That was all them, their idea and their execution.

Want to read more about family canoeing? Check out Scott Price's article on customizing his Redbird for family paddling here.

Paddling the finished cedar strip canoe

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