How to build a sailing canoe

I grew up around sailboats, while my husband, Robin, grew up around canoes. So, I was thrilled when one summer he decided to give our aluminum canoe a set of wings. With a few basic materials and a Saturday of dedicated effort, he outfitted our canoe with a rudder, a sail, and the poles to support it—plus leeboards on the sides, for lateral resistance—all of which can be easily removed. Much to our delight, the canoe was a joy to sail, flying effortlessly across the water on a gentle breeze.

What you’ll need
We used plywood for a few parts, however solid lumber would be easier to seal and provide a more aesthetic finish. Choose non-corroding fasteners (e.g., stainless, bronze, or brass).


  • ½ 4×8 sheet of
    ¾” plywood
  • 1 12′ 2×4
  • 1 8′ 2×6
  • 1 4′ length of 1″ dowling
  • 1 4′ 1×4
  • 50 #8 x 3″ wood screws
  • 16 3⁄8″ x 3″ bolts
  • 1 25-pack of 3⁄8″ wing nuts
  • 2 5″ sections of 3⁄8″ threaded rod
  • 2 2″ framing angles or L-brackets
  • 2 3″ tee hinges and screws
  • Epoxy
  • Wood glue
  • Varnish for finishing

Sailing canoes may have been new to us, but they have a long history in Canada. Though it’s unclear whether sails were being used pre-contact, there’s definite evidence of sailing canoes being used by Indigenous peoples in the 19th century, including an oil painting of a Mi’kmaq birch canoe (circa 1850), which hangs in the National Gallery of Canada. In the Pacific North, some of the first sails used on dugout canoes were made from square mats of woven cedar or split cedar slats, later replaced by cloth spritsails. If you’re looking for an interesting woodworking project and a new way to experience the lake—without having to buy another boa —consider making a drop-in sailing set-up. Assuming you own a canoe, the remaining materials cost only a few hundred dollars.

The canoe

Canoes with a minimum beam of 90 cm and a minimum depth of 35 cm tend to make the best sailers. Anything narrower will likely be too tippy and anything shallower will likely be too wet.

Your canoe must have enough buoyancy, either through integral or securely fastened flotation, to support a swamping, including the sailing rig, gear, and crew. Also, the canoe should float high enough that it can be bailed from the outside before climbing back in. Keep in mind, sailing will put additional strain on your canoe and some models may need stiffening and reinforcement.

The sail and spars   

We were able to repurpose a sail and spars—the poles that carry and support the sail—from a sailing dinghy, which saved hours of work. You may have a spare dinghy rig lying around the cottage, or you can find one by searching Craigslist and Kijiji for common makes such as Optimist, Sabot, or El Toro. 

Your canoe will sail with anything from a bed sheet to a high-tech Kevlar racing sail. The important thing is to choose the appropriate size. Too large a sail area, and you’ll be overpowered and prone to capsizing; too small an area, and you won’t move very quickly.

In Canoe Rig, author Todd E. Bradshaw recommends a 15–25 sq. ft. sail for a 10–12′ canoe, a 25–40 sq. ft. sail for a 12–15′ canoe, and a 40–60 sq. ft. sail for a 15–18′ canoe. Unless you’re an experienced sailor, err on the low side of these ranges, as a smaller sail will be more forgiving. It’s also possible to buy sails and spars new, or to make your own (see “Sourcing the Sails and Spars,” below).

Sourcing the Sails and Spars
It’s possible to buy a canoe sailing package—, a company that specializes in portable sailboats, sells kits for $960 to $1,810—but building your own is very rewarding and often a more affordable option. Sails, spars, and necessary hardware can range from $370 at the low end to about $1,125 at the high end. Wanna give conventional sail-making a try? is a great resource and sells everything you’ll need, including pre-cut sail-making kits.

Mounting frame

  1. Cut a cross brace out of 2×4 so that it spans the width of the canoe and sits on top of the gunwales just forward of the stern deck. Clamp the cross brace to the gunwales (see “Clamping System,” p. 80).
  2. Cut two 2x4s that extend from the cross brace to beyond the stern of the canoe, far enough to accommodate a rudder skeg (see step 4).
  3. Fasten the aft ends of the frame arms together to form a triangle. We beveled the ends of the frame arms so that they would meet at an angle for a cleaner look, though you could connect them with a plywood or a metal plate. Fasten the other two ends to the top outer edges of the cross brace.
  4. Cut a 2×4 or plywood rudder skeg that will run from where the frame arms meet to a point lower down on the stern where it will connect to the stem of your canoe and provide rotational resistance. Attach the skeg to the frame arm with two angle brackets.
  5. Connect the bottom of the skeg to the stem, lower on the stern. We used a bolt with large washers to connect the bottom of the skeg to our canoe’s stern pad-eye. You’ll have to make a notch in the skeg to accommodate the pad-eye. If your canoe doesn’t have a pad-eye, you could install one.

Steering mechanism

Rudder stock

  1.  Find the waterline by placing the canoe in the water with an average expected load.
  2. Cut a rudder stock from 2×4 in so that it extends above the frame arms (allowing clearance for the tiller) and down to just above the waterline of the canoe.
  3. Fasten the stock to the skeg using cabinet hinges, or proper marine pintles and gudgeons if you have them.

Rudder blade

  1. Cut a rudder blade out of plywood. It can be rectangular, oval, or any shape in between. It should be long enough to connect to the rudder stock with a minimum 4″ overlap and extend at least 12″ below the waterline so that it stays submerged when the canoe heels. The surface area of the rudder blade below the waterline should be at least 1 ft2. Our rudder measured 12″-by-16″.
  2. Attach the top of the rudder blade to the bottom of the rudder stock—we used a bolt and a wing nut. If you loosen the wing nut, it will allow the rudder to swivel up when launching and beaching.


  1. Cut a 4′-long tiller (for turning the rudder) from 1″ dowling, and bolt
    it to the top of the rudder stock.

Mast Step

The mast step is what will hold your mast upright. Many canoe sailors replace the bow seat (or thwart just behind it) with one that has a hole for the mast in it and add a bored-out block in the bottom of the canoe to hold the heel of the mast.

It would have been difficult to replace the seat on our aluminum canoe, so Robin opted to build a mast step out of 2×6 lumber.

  1. Cut a cross brace from 2×6 that extends across the gunnels at the location of the mast step, usually just aft of the bow seat.
  2. Cut a square base block for the mast step from 2×6.
  3. Cut a collar block from 2×6 that is 3″ less than the base block to accommodate the sides of the mast step box, and drill a hole slightly larger than the diameter of your mast.
  4. Cut the 2×6 side pieces for the mast step box so that they sit on the base block, sandwiching the collar block, and extend to the underside of the cross brace. Fasten all components.
  5. Cut runners from 1×4 that attach to the bottom of the mast step, tight to the bottom of the canoe. If your canoe has ribs, cut the runners around the ribs. Otherwise, you will need to brace the runners against something solid like a thwart. The runners provide rotational resistance to wind pressure on the mast. Fasten the runners to the mast step sides and base.
  6. Cut another collar block and drill a hole that is slightly larger than the mast diameter and fasten it to the top of the cross brace.
  7. Drill a hole through the cross brace in the same location as the hole for the upper collar block.
  8. Clamp the cross brace to the gunwales (see “Clamping System,” ).


For a canoe to sail upwind or across the wind, you’ll need something to prevent it from slipping sideways in the water. Leeboards are wooden blades mounted on both sides of the hull that extend down into the water and increase the canoe’s lateral resistance. 

  1. Leeboards should be able to rotate in and out of the water for beaching and launching. Wing nuts go on the outside of the leeboard so that you can easily adjust the tension. Cut a 2×4 cross brace to fit just forward of the mid-point of the canoe.
  2. Cut two 6″ 2×4 shoulder pieces for each side of the canoe, and attach them to the cross brace so that the end of the block is flush with the end of the cross brace. Glue and screw to fasten.
  3. Cut two 6″-by-6″ squares of plywood and fasten them to the ends of the cross brace and blocks so that the top of the plywood is flush with the top of the shoulder piece.
  4. Drill a 3/8” hole 1 ½” down from the top of the plywood on both sides of the cross brace.
  5. Epoxy a piece of 5″ threaded rod into each hole so that the threaded portion extends 1 ½” outside the plywood square.
  6. Cut two leeboards from plywood that extend at least 12″ below the waterline and have a minimum of 1.5 ft wetted surface. Ours measure 48″-by-12″ (including the handle).
  7. Drill a hole near the top of the leeboard to accommodate the threaded rod.
  8. Hang the leeboards on the threaded rods and secure them with a wing nut. Tighten the wingnut to keep the leeboard in the water or loosen it to allow the leeboard to swivel up for launching and beaching.
  9. Clamp the cross brace to the gunwales (see “Clamping System,” right).

Clamping system

We wanted to avoid drilling holes in our boat, so Robin opted for a clamping system that uses bolts and wing nuts to clamp 4″-by-4″ plywood squares to the gunwales. 

Outrigger systems

If you’d like to make your sailing canoe more stable and reduce the chance of capsizing, you can add pontoons on both sides of the boat. These can be bought as kits or made from plans. We chose not to add outriggers, but many canoe sailors swear by them. 


Protect your canoe sailing rig by applying a few coats of marine-grade varnish or paint to all wood components.

There’s something inherently joyous and delightful about canoe sailing–our little boat never fails to attract a few curious onlookers! One friend was so enthused that he built a rig of his own, and we now get together for races in the long summer evenings. So, don’t be surprised if you spark a sailing canoe revolution on your lake. 

Fiona McGlynn cruised from Canada to Australia on a 35-foot boat with her husband, Robin. She now lives north of 59 degrees and runs, a website about sailing. 

Sail away