Ojibwa snow shoes – an overview of manufacture.

As alluded to in the previous Conover-inspired winter moccasins article this blog aims to look at the general process taken to produce a set of hand made snow shoes. The key text for this project which helped to provide guidance on form building and most especially getting to grips with the filling of the snow shoe with nylon cord was Gil Gilpatrick’s ‘Building Snow Shoes’ (ISBN-13: 978-1565234857).

The first task in producing snow shoes of this particular design (carefully crafted for long term use as opposed to other more emergency based shoes such as the Roycroft snow shoe) is hewing out the four lengths of green Ash. These green wood staves measured around 60″ and each was thinned in the areas where any significant bend was to take place after being steamed.

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Stop cuts with the axe after squaring off stave from Ash stock.

A decision was taken to work the Ash green and steam the frames as soon as possible so as to cash in on the inherent moisture content of the live wood. Where this is not possible soaking the staves for around 24 – 48 hours will help soften the wood and make it more compatible to steaming.

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Lower stave reduced with axe and ready for final shaping with the knife.

In this example I soaked the staves on top of using green wood to take a belt and braces approach to prevent fractures during steam bending. The dimensions given in Gilpatricks’ concise instructions for snow shoe frames are to square staves out at 13/16ths of an inch before reducing those areas which will need to bend down to about half an inch.

This is repeated four times in the case of Ojibwa style frames as each shoe is comprised of two staves joined at top and bottom. Other snow shoes such as the Maine pattern requires a much longer single stave per shoe which is much more acutely bent round the toe area, back on itself and fixed at the heel.

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Each set of two staves will be joined toe and heel after steam bending.

With any hand made project undertaken in bushcraft, one of the really engaging things about the process is you are free to take personal responsibility or not for each step of the manufacture. For example we knew time constraints were tight on making these shoes and so where it would have been fantastic to fill these wooden frames with traditional home prepared babiche (raw hide) lacing we settled for the much faster and conveniently purchased nylon cordage.

The steam bending and form building were a different story however and time was taken to build a steam box and a snow shoe form for bending the steamed staves onto once they were nice and pliable. So its that familiar wilderness skills story: making a tool, to make a tool, to make a tool.

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Home made wooden steamer box (wrapped in clingfilm to hold steam) – using wallpaper steamer.

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 Snow shoe form – staves are clamped around the shape seen here using wooden wedges and g clamps.

As well as bending the staves around the oval type shape pictured above the forms other job is to force both staves up through a gentle curve at the toe of the snow shoe by around 2 inches – this prevents the snow shoes diving under the snow and potentially snagging branches etc whilst walking.

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 Detail of form creating upturned toes of snow shoe frames.

The closest experience to trying to persuade part of a tree to bend round a form in a very specific way is attempting to get one of those pop up tents back in its bag after use. In other words its really helpful to have an extra set of hands to help push, pull, hold, hammer and wedge the scolding hot staves onto the form. Gil likes to help your shredded nerves at the uncertain steam bending stage by explaining you have a leisurely two minutes to get the staves out of the steam box and onto the form before they begin to stiffen up.

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Frame installed on form and held with temporary cross pieces , wedges and clamps.

All the guidance needed for making your own snow shoe form is clearly set out in Building Snow Shoes and once you have the idea you can adapt the method to virtually any shape/ design of shoe you like. The really clever thing about this particular style of form is it is double sided – you can get all the bending done in one sitting and then leave the frames to set ideally over a few days.

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Frames removed from form and hung to dry – note the vertical timber keeping leverage on toe upturn.

The next stage of the build is one of the more complex parts unless your workshop is fitted with pillar drills and routers you need to get to grips with the chisel for making four mortise and tenon joints per shoe for the Ash cross pieces to fit between. These joints have to be as exact as possible for the shoes to have good strength as no glue is used in this process and the cross pieces are simply pressure fitted and then held secure by the constricting action of the snow shoe lacing.

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Creating mortise and tenon for cross pieces.

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 Cross pieces mortise into the frame around 1/4 of an inch each side.

As with the process of moccasin making there are plenty of opportunities (okay, mistakes) where you can improvise solutions such as including a triangular reinforcement at the toe of the shoe where because of a rushed attempt to load frames onto forms there was not enough timber for the frames to run parallel at the toe and so no bolt could be installed without it being visible. The triangle and dowel shown below retained the natural look of the shoe but created a super strong union of the frame.

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Gluing a dowel through both frame halves and re enforcement triangle of wood.

Once all the cross pieces and re-enforcements had been installed the frames were sanded before taking indoors to begin the daunting prospect of filling the frames with 100’s of feet of nylon cordage. Handy tools to have for this stage are a metal clamp to help maintain tension on the knots and give your hands a break every now and then. A netting needle is useful initially to load the very long lengths of cord onto so that you are not pausing to take up 100’s of feet of slack each time you tie a knot. As the cord is consumed, the process of filling the needle becomes less necessary and eventually will be impossible to use (depending on its size) as you cannot fit it through the gaps between your knots and weaving.

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Starting to fill a frame in the centre section using bought supply of nylon cordage.

Cody Lundin has a rating of cordage strength called ‘rip your head off strong’ and I would certainly grade nylon in the same category – ideal for the job it wont absorb much water (negligible amounts after varnishing) and it is very abrasion resistant. Added to this you can join sections of nylon cord together by setting it on fire – hard not to love the stuff really. You will need to be familiar with a handful of knots (jam knott, larks foot and tensioning knot) for the filling process but none of them take long to master and you will have mastered them after filling a snow shoe I guarantee.

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Installing master cord and main ties in centre section.

The master cord of a snow  shoe (thick cord above running left-right) is essentially the point at which your foot will pivot over and let your toes poke down out the bottom of the shoe allowing you to walk completely unhindered with such long devices tied to your feet – this action also provides extra grip when ascending slopes. The main ties (pictured above right hand side joining master cord to front cross piece) help to tension the master cord and fill the areas either side of where your foot will swivel through the shoe.

It has to be said without physical instruction on a course or the very clear details provided by a text book such as Gil’s you would stand little chance of filling a snow shoe for the first time without accidentally inventing some new kind of monster knot. All you have to do is VERY carefully follow the step by step photos to recreate the filling process for the Maine snow shoe – as these were Ojibwa shoes a little improvising of knot spacing and placement had to be carried out.

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Carrying on from master cord into the filling weave pattern.

The knots pictured along both sides of the frame are re threaded larks foot knots (or girth knots). Placing the shoe between two workshop trestle tables or chairs is useful for working easily on the filling process.

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Detail of how weaving pattern starts to fill centre section.

The areas directly in front of and behind the front and rear cross pieces are filled with a similar weaving pattern however you do not tie knots around the frame here as they would most likely slip out of place as the frames are more curved in these sections. Instead holes are drilled around the frame and internal thin lacing is installed for the filling nylon to be tied into.

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Beginning to fill the toe section.

Once you get a feel for the weaving pattern and how it builds to fill an area you soon develop a routine and certain over then under rules become clear and mistakes become less common. Eventually you will have filled the 2 centre sections and all 4 toe and heel sections of the Ojibwa snow shoes.

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A complete pair of Ojibwa snow shoes ready for some varnish.

Ideally the shoes should be varnished 2 or three times to protect the wood, increase durability of cordage and help reduce water absorption. With half a day until the flight the shoes were varnished up and packaged for the trip still tacky!

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Stepping into the Indian hitch.

The feeling of making and not just trying but relying on home made equipment is a feeling written about time and again by outdoor enthusiasts the world over. This feeling was a daily pleasure for us as we received double the amount of initial snow during our 9 day trip. The shoes kept us afloat on top of very fine powdery snow which would have swallowed us up to the knees without them.

Added to this the ‘float’ or compact snow trail left behind a person walking in snow shoes increased the ease of pulling the two fully laden toboggans containing all our equipment for the trip. The lamp wick hitch mentioned and pictured above deserves its own blog suffice to say it performed excellently and with minimal adjustment once tied.

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Adam Logan,

Senior Instructor.