Last summer Jacob, my grandson, and I decided to make a Welsh coracle, a small boat of ancient design, traditionally made of willow branches and animal hide. We searched out directions for making it, our favorite being Francis Galton's 1860 book The Art of Travel, in which he says in step 3: "Kill two bullocks and skin them" , with no details on that operation. (We found newer, less grisly alternatives for the boat's skin in The Whole Earth Catalog and in several YouTubes.) Above is Jacob seeing if the boat would float in shallow water in a small river near my house.
Above is a page from our notebook. We first spent a lot of time finding sufficient willow to make the boat. My friend Maggie Cheney told me about a friend of hers' pond that had willow trees growing along the banks, so we went out there with Maggie one evening last summer and trimmed around 30 long branches and brought them to my house. We peeled all the willow and saved the bark to make willow paper, then stood the branches up to dry. Later in the summer we had to soak the branches to make them flexible. They were so long that we improvised a trough for soaking by lining the ditch in front of my house with a big piece of plastic and filling it with water. After a couple of weeks the branches were flexible.
We stuck the ends of the branches in the ground in an oval shape and wove a large basket as shown in the first notebook on the right side of the page. After the basket was secured with tarred twine at the joinings, we made a seat out of ash wood and lashed it into place. Then last week we covered the boat frame with heavy canvas, as shown above. We sewed it in place and then painted it with roofing tar to waterproof it. Two coats seemed to do the job. So then we set out for the river with the little boat tied to the roof of my VW. The river is walking distance, but the boat was a little awkward for us to carry down a hill and along a road, so we drove.
When we got to the river we had to carry the boat down a trail until we found a good place to put it in. Then came the big moment of seeing if it was waterproof and if it floated, and finally, if it could hold us, and most importantly, if we could balance in it. The above photo shows Jacob enjoying the boat.