After reading The Winter Wilderness Companion last month I’ve had a hankering to get outdoors and do some snowshoeing…. But I seem to lack the essentials! So I did some research and got myself another book, Building Wooden Snowshoes and Snowshoe Furniture by Gil Gilpatrick. It is a succinct book, but explains the basics of traditional snowshoe making fairly well. I have enough woodworking experience I could have made the frame alright, the info I was really interested in was how to do the lacing to fill it in…. I didn’t know quite where to start! Fortunately, the book focuses on the lacing aspect, unfortunately it seems to neglect a few details on some of the rest of the process. Not to the point that you couldn’t figure it out, he provides excellent pictures, but I feel like a few points could have been spelled out a little better, dimensions specified, lacing amount estimates given, etc. At any rate, I went and made myself a snowshoe form to bend the frames (based off the pictures from Gil’s book) and thought I would share the process I went through to make mine.
I’ve actually wanted to make snowshoes for a few years, it just hasn’t ever risen to the top of the priority list somehow. I really enjoy being out up the mountain and covering territory during the winter, it’s just so peaceful and pure this time of year… I cross country ski and have often wished for equipment that was better suited to some of the hilly/brushy country that we have around here. Snowshoes should fit that ticket!
To begin with I drew a pattern of the snowshoes I wanted to build, I went with a classic, all purpose shoe in what is frequently referred to as the “Maine” or “Michigan” style. Basically, it’s a snowshoe that is designed as a generalist shoe for those conditions where you’re neither in a ton of brush nor in totally open country. I briefly considered making snowshoes that utilize two separate pieces of wood for the frame as they would be easier to source and bend, but I really think the bent frame of this style is too beautiful to pass up. Maybe that will be another project in the future! I can tell this is going to be one of those things I want to make several versions of. . . One thing to keep in mind while drawing the pattern is that you are really drawing the INTERIOR dimensions of the snowshoe, not the exterior. What you’re making here is a form that the actual snowshoe frame will get bent around in order to acquire it’s shape. So if you account for a ¾ inch frame it will really be 1 ½ inches narrower than you want your finished snowshoes to be. There are some patterns at the back of Gilpatrick’s book, but since I didn’t have any way to enlarge them (and the dimensions weren’t specified) I simply measured out the widest part of the snowshoe, put a mark in for total length and then sketched everything else in until it looked ‘right’. To keep your pattern symmetrical fold some paper down the middle and draw half of the snowshoe using the crease as the center line of your pattern and then cut it out. When unfolded this should give you a symmetrical pattern. My pattern ended up being 11 ½ inches wide at the widest and 42 inches long from the tip to tail.
Once I had my pattern cut out I had to go get some materials You’ll end up building an odd sled looking contraption that you’ll clamp the snowshoe frame into in order to get it to hold the appropriate shape. Materials needed? I used a single 10 foot 2×4 for the sides, a couple of scrap pieces as crossbars, and a few pine 1×3’s from home depot as the lattice to go over everything. To begin, cut your 2×4 in half, ie you should have two 5 foot boards now. I used them as is from there but you could easily cut them down further to reduce weight and bulk of your form (I figure I have about 6-8 inches extra on the end of the frame). Once it was cut in two I rounded each end off to give a curve to the end of the snowshoe (2 inches up over 10 inches distance for my curve). Keep in mind that each end of the 2×4 will need to be curved in opposite directions as this form is built so you can bend a frame on both sides of it at once. Hopefully the pictures help clarify. I cut the first one with a bandsaw and then decided to clamp them together and use a router to make the other one match exactly. Great idea except I didn’t have the appropriate router bit so I buggered things up a little. Fortunately this is just to bend the frame and doesn’t need to be fine woodworking! You’ll have a few to perfect the process with…. On my final one I hit upon a process that worked significantly better, clamp the boards together and router it about ¼ inch deep then bandsaw off everything outside of that and use the router to finish cleaning it up. This gave the router much less to go through and worked significantly better. No router? Just bandsaw carefully and call it good. If I was doing this again I would probably skip the router and just use the bandsaw as it really doesn’t need to be that clean looking. Regardless, make the four ends of the 2×4’s have a roughly equal curve.
Once you have the ends curved, secure them together with some bracing in the middle. I used some scrap wood for this and cut them so that the overall form would be 19 inches wide. Now take the pine 1×3’s and cut them all to the same width as your form (19 inches in my case). Screw or nail them to each side of the frame starting at the front of the curve. I screwed mine on and then was unhappy with how they followed the curve…. they were too wide to match it very well. So I pulled them back off the curve, ripped them down the middle and reattached them. This followed the curve much better, I suggest that you utilize some narrower strips for the curved part of the form. You should have a base that looks somewhat like the following picture now.
Now I took the original pattern I drew and traced two copies of it onto some ¾ inch plywood…. I used maple plywood because it’s what I had available as scrap, I definitely wouldn’t use anything that nice if I was buying it specifically for this project! Once it’s traced, cut them out with a bandsaw, jigsaw, scroll saw or whatever you have on hand. Try to keep it pretty close to a 90 degree angle because this will be the form your snowshoe frame actually conforms to. After I had them cut out, I set my table saw to cut almost all the way through (maybe 3/32 shy) and then I cut slots across the toe of the form every 2 inches or so in order to allow them to bend and follow the base form– Actually, I cut mine too shallow initially and then had to recut them so they would bend, thus the ugly ends where the saw marks don’t match (take a look at the pictures below). I probably should have done this while the plywood was still square before cutting out the snowshoe pattern. At any rate, now measure back from the center of the toe on your new plywood pattern about 7 inches in both directions and cut out a notch into both sides. This is to make space for the clamps that secure a metal brace to the back of the wood while you’re bending it so it doesn’t split.
To secure the plywood patterns to the base, I first measured and drew a line across that represented what would be a 2 inch upturn for the toe (a mark to line the front of the toe up with) and marked a center line on it. After that I measured back roughly the length of the pattern and marked a centerline for the tail end as well. Attachment was pretty easy, I started at the toe and lined up the center of the toe with the center line mark and screwed it on while holding it in place. I then bent the plywood back and lined the tail up with the center mark in the rear and secured it with a few more screws. Don’t be stingy with the screws up in the toe portion, make sure it snugs up against the slats and follows the curve well– further back it’s laying flat and you should only need a couple to hold it in place. This was how the book suggested making a form… but in the future I think I would simplify things if I made another one and just use a few wooden crossbars in key locations instead of an entire plywood pattern. It just seems like it would be easier to trace the paper pattern onto the base, take a few scraps in key locations and cut them to length/angle needed and then screw them on. If anyone tries this let me know how it turns out!
Once the inside form is on, you’ll need to find a way to hold the snowshoe frame tight against the form while it’s drying. I elected to secure some scrap plywood blocks in key locations about an inch away from the form so that I can place the snowshoe frame between them and the form and then drive in a wooden wedge to press it tight against the interior form. Gilpatrick uses wooden dowels in his book, but I decided that it seemed easier to just secure some blocks (plus I had the scrap plywood pieces….). I placed them just off the toe, about at the widest point of the snowshoes, halfway back from there to the tail, and then made some special ones (funnel shaped– see the pic) to ensure that the tail end of the snowshoe frames will come together. Make sure you round all the corners off so they don’t dent your snowshoe frame while you’re bending it. Attach something on the toe end that will secure the tip of the snowshoe frame from lifting up while you’re bending it (I used a scrap section of the plywood). After securing the blocks I also laid my original paper pattern back on the form and marked where the braces would go on the snowshoe– then I cut the form off just behind the back one. Lesson for the future, mark these when you originally trace your pattern, it would be much easier that way. Now lets go bend some wood!
UPDATE: After having bent my snowshoe frames on this form (explained in this article here), there are a few things I would change. Actually, mostly just one. The pine slats I used as the latticework to cover the 2×4’s were not strong enough to secure the plywood blocks that were used to wedge the frame against. There was enough pressure exerted in a few key spots while getting the frame to bend that the wedges actually pulled the screws out of the pine…. Use a stronger wood!