I’ve always loved being outdoors exploring…. and have always been somewhat limited during the winter months. Not to say that I didn’t do things outside, but it primarily revolved around snow forts, sledding and the like. Not quite the freedom of wandering for hours away from home that summer presented. Snow is what kept me back (and perhaps the lack of warm clothing as well, it’s amazing how much I’ve learned about staying warm over the last two decades!), I had no ability to stay aloft in the feet of snow which blanketed the mountains and so kept me meandering the drier foothills instead.
In later years I acquired a pair of cross country skis, and have loved the greater freedom to enjoy the winter that they gave me. However, here in northern Utah we have steep terrain that is oft ill suited for skiing, in addition, I did not get a pair of truly backcountry skis which I most assuredly need for the powdery snow we have here. Hence the desire for snowshoes– better in deep powder and hilly terrain, and hopefully easier to make.
My desire for a pair of snowshoes has existed for years, my desire to MAKE a pair of snowshoes has ebbed and waned over that time. I always like making things, but sometimes I resort to coveting the modern outdoor gear instead….. I am, at heart, a gear nut! This has been tempered both by my monetary restraints and, in the case of snowshoes, the lackluster impression that the modern specimens have imparted upon me on the few occasions I used them. For example, 3 years ago I went snowshoeing for the afternoon with my friend Ryan, he had just received a pair for Christmas and was anxious to try them out, I had borrowed a pair from another friend (rated for someone 30 lbs heavier than me incidentally). We were out snowshoeing for a good 4 hours or so– and made it 1 mile. Total. Out and back. Keep in mind Ryan is the friend that I go do things with when feeling like I need an epic adventure– we’ve done 37+ mile day hikes, climbed many a ridiculous peak, and moved to Alaska. At that at that point I was also training for an ultramarathon and would be considered by the majority of people to be in phenomenal shape. Our issue was not ability… it was gear. Even wearing snowshoes we were sinking up to our hips in fresh powder with every step. Sometimes deeper. We spent more time struggling to get out of each hole than we did making forward progress. Which I intuitively sense should not be the case– if snowshoes were that ineffectual would people have continued making and using them over the centuries? Logically, the time investment wouldn’t be worth it if they weren’t more beneficial than that.
And then I read The Winter Wilderness Companion late last year and got overtaken by the drive to spend more time out in the winter practicing traditional woodsmanship and relying on gear I have made and can maintain/repair. More especially, I got re-attuned to the idea that modern equipment does not always necessarily represent an improvement on traditional gear. Snowshoes in particular. Having years of experience guiding and conducting snowshoe excursions in Canada and the N.E. United States, the authors flatly reject the idea that modern snowshoes compare to traditional counterparts (as well as many other varieties of equipment), and contend that traditional snowshoes are lighter, quieter, and work better in deep snow than modern snowshoes do. Which I quickly grasped as a glimmer of hope that I could have snowshoes that actually allowed me to be mobile!
Making snowshoes is a fantastic example of skills and abilities I want to revive– a generally forgotten folk craft that provides genuine useful benefit to the life of whomever makes them. So I decided to make some. In the previous article I discussed how to make the form you use to bend your snowshoes to shape (using Gil Gilpatricks’ book as a basis). Here I will continue the process and discuss making the actual traditional snowshoe frame.
Ash is the the traditional wood used for snowshoes– anyone know the reason why? I don’t. Part of it must be that it is strong, bends well, and grows commonly over much of the northern U.S. and Canada. That could also be said for several other hardwoods though. At any rate, I used ash simply because that’s the traditional material I’m sure that you could use many other hardwoods as long as you chose boards with straight grain. I used lumber because, quite frankly, it’s easier to get. I have no objection to harvesting my own wood, but it seemed illogical to cut a tree for such a small amount of wood. Besides, hardwoods are not common where I live. When selecting your lumber get the board with straightest grain you can find and no knots– you will be subjecting it to a dramatic bend and don’t want it to break on you. You’ll need a 10 foot long board.
Once you have selected your lumber rip it to 7/8 wide strips and and plane them down to 3/4×3/4. Or slightly larger (Gilpatrick says 13/16ths, I went a little small on accident….. and decided to just finish them at ¾). Mark a centerline. Now lets make a pattern to help mark out where we are going to reduce material! Take a scrap piece of wood that’s half the length of your frame strips and reduce it to the same dimensions of the frame material. You’ll want to thin both ends of your pattern on opposite sides to make it easier to bend without splitting the wood. One end will need to be 5/16ths of an inch thick for 2 ½ inches before gracefully curving up to full thickness 12 inches from the end. 32 inches from that same end you’ll begin drawing a nice smooth curve that reduces the board thickness down to ½ inch over the remainder of it’s length. As noted, the reduction should be on opposite sides of the board so that it looks almost like a shallow “S”. Now you need to reduce the pattern to follow those curves– I used a bandsaw. If you don’t have a bandsaw you could use a drawknife, rasp, sureform, jigsaw or whatever. Just make sure you keep it square to the sides and with a nice even curve. Now take your pattern and lay it with the 5/16ths end on the centerline of your snowshoe frames, flush up the edges and then clamp it down so it doesn’t move. Trace it. Now flip it end for end (keeping the 5/16ths end on centerline) and repeat. Do this for both frames and then reduce them like you did the pattern– Your frames will need to be smoother, however, so sand them thoroughly after to remove tool marks. While you’re at it, break the edges down so they aren’t as sharp, this will make them less likely to pull apart while steam bending. The main frame is now ready!
Now you need to find a way to boil them (wood softens and becomes flexible when boiled– thus allowing you to bend it). This stymied me for awhile…. How do you go about boiling something that is 10 feet long? Not wanting to spend the amount needed for a steel pipe that was both large and long enough I went wandering home depot… And found a 10 foot steel rain gutter downspout for about $10. Not perfect, but it worked! I blocked the end with a sponge and then shrink-wrapped the end (duct tape would be a good option as well). Admittedly, it leaked and I had to replenish the water as I went, but this will get you by if you don’t want to spend much. I set the bottom end of the downspout over a borrowed double burner camp stove and propped the other end up on a bucket to keep it on an angle. Put your frame strips in and turn the stove on high and let it simmer for a couple hours (checking the water level occasionally). I left mine in for about 3 hours– but it wasn’t constantly boiling as I ran out of propane at one point without realizing it.
While your snowshoe frames are boiling, you need to get the rest of your setup ready. You’ll need your snowshoe form, some scrap wood wedges, a hammer, potholders, 2 metal strips to back your frame with while bending and a few clamps (I used small vice grip style pliers). The metal strips don’t need to be much, you use them on the outside of what will become the toe section of your snowshoes while bending to help prevent the wood from coming apart there. I used a couple of 16 inch long perforated steel strips at home depot for just over one dollar apiece (look by their small metal section), they were meant to be strapping/supports for something I don’t recall at the moment. Mark a centerline on them as well.
Ready? You’ll need to work quickly, wood cools fast enough that the thicker sections will be difficult to bend if you dawdle. Pull one of the strips out of the boiler, set it on your frame clamp the metal strip to the outside edge of the toe section with the center lines matching up. Using your hands to bend the frame at the center and then hook it over the toe of the frame. Moving quickly bend each end back and down, fitting them inside the blocks of wood you secured outside the frame. You will need to give tips a sharper bend with your hands in order to fit them between the blocks at the heel end– it is especially difficult to bend and fit the second one it. Sometime in this process you’ll need to use the hammer and a scrap block of wood to pound the toe up flush with your frame, I waited a little too long and it cooled down to the point I couldn’t quite get it in all the way. Now, working from the toe back on each side, pound a wood wedge between the frame and your securing blocks (hopefully the pictures make sense of this) thereby pressing your frame tight against the interior form. Simple enough right? Now take the clamps off the toe area, flip your form over and repeat. You’ll need to leave your frame to dry in place so that it keeps its shape, give it a few days before taking it off the form.
Sometime during the drying period you need to make yourself a few crossbars for your snowshoes, make them 3/8 of an inch thick and 1 ½ wide. Front crossbars are easy to determine the length of; if, for example, you are making a pair of 13×48 snowshoes the dimension inside the frame at the widest point would be 13 minus 1 ½ (because each frame is ¾ wide) or 11 ½. However, you will want to mortise each of the crossbars into the frame ¼ inch to secure them in place, so you would want to make a 12 inch long crossbar. Do your own math following this example if you’re making a different size of snowshoe. I decided to put a curve in mine (this is for aesthetics only, you can leave yours as a straight bar if you want) and so created a shallow curve that started one inch from the ends and maxed out at ¾ inch in the center. Doing this will obviously mean you need a wider board to begin with as you still want them to finish as 1 ½ inch wide crossbars. For the length of the rear crossbar I just measured the width of the form where I had cut it across at the back and then added ½ inch to allow for the mortise into each side– it came out to be about 6 3/4 inches. Since it’s shorter you won’t want to curve it as much, once again starting one inch in from the ends draw a curve that peaks at 3/8 of an inch off of straight. You now need to cut them out, using whatever method you used to thin the frame at the toe and heel areas remove wood down to the lines you just drew then sand it completely smooth (I used a belt sander on the outside curve, the inside curve was a little more difficult and required me to wrap a dowel in sandpaper).
When the snowshoe frame is dry mark the locations where the crossbars will be (you did put these marks on the form right?) and remove it from the form. If you have any places where the grain split and started to lift up now is your chance to repair those, smear a little wood glue under the splinter where it is coming up and clamp it down. I had two areas the grain was separating but nothing serious. After the glue dries it’s time to make the mortises for your crossbars. You already marked where they will go right? Using these marks, delineate a rectangle that’s 3/8 wide by 1 3/8 long (your crossbars are 1 ½, but you’ll shave down the end a little to make a snug fit). I centered my mortises in the frame. I then used a 5/16 drill bit to make a few ¼ deep holes along the mortise location, making sure I stayed within the lines, and used a chisel to square the sides up and clean out the bottom. Repeat and keep them at about the same depth– you’re aiming for ¼ inch deep.
Once your frames are mortised decide which crossbars will go where and which side will be facing up. Mark them accordingly then begin shaving down the end of your crossbar to fit. I measured and marked 1 3/8 on the end of the crossbar and then used a pocket knife to shave the end down until it was close to that line. After it was close I just fitted them by trial and error and kept shaving more off until they were snug but I could squeeze them into place. I took all the material off on the side that faced the center of the snowshoe (rear of the front crossbar, and front of the rear one). Once they are snugly sliding into the mortise it’s time to adjust the fit: insert the front crossbar into one mortise and then squeeze the tail portion together while fitting the crossbar into the other side. When you have them both in, hold the snowshoe at arms length and visually check to see if the crossbar looks square to the overall shape– if not, adjust the tail of the frame past one another until it does. Now take a pencil and trace a line along the inside of the frame onto the crossbar. Take it out and you’ll see that since your snowshoe is round the line will not be even. Ie, it will slant from ¼ inch on one side to barely on the crossbar at the other side. Cut the end of the crossbar along that line so that it is now angled to match the angle of the inside of the mortise. Repeat until it seats evenly down along the length of the mortise on both sides (this may require you to shave a little more off the side with your knife as it will change the fit). Towards the end I also realized that it was no longer hitting on the end of the crosspiece, my issue was that the mortise was going into the frame at a 90 degree angle while the crossbar would not be, so I adjusted the inside of my mortise so the end was slanted and allowed the crossbar to slide in better. Once you have the front one in and fitting well, do the same thing for the rear crossbar. Congratulations, your snowshoes are ready to assemble!
Holding your snowshoes together at the rear, make sure the crosspieces both look square to the overall shape and then clamp the tail ends together. Now measure back and mark the overall length of the snowshoe (48 inches in my case, adjust as necessary). I also marked where the frames were initially supposed to come together, about 42 inches from the toe. Now layout and mark where you want to secure the tails of the frame together. I think I went 1 ½ inches in from each of those previous two marks. Drill a hole and bolt or rivet the snowshoe together. I originally used ¼ inch bolts…. but I think I will swap them out for rivets– either that or countersink them, I don’t want to have the bolt head and nut out where they can catch on things. They look pretty sweet don’t they??
Once the frames are officially together, it’s time to drill some holes in them….. for the lacing. Using a 1/8 inch bit, you need to drill 4 holes in the rear crossbar (on the side towards the tail) and 5 holes in the front crossbar (side towards the toe section). I centered mine 3/8 of an inch back from the edge and put the two holes to the outside at 1 inch in from the frame, then evenly spaced the other holes over the remaining distance. After you have the holes drilled in the crossbars you’ll need to mark and drill the ones in the frame around the toe and heel sections. In the front section I measured and marked 1 inch up from the crossbars on each side, then determined and marked the center point on the toe. After that, I once again even spaced three more marks down each side between the center of the toe and the mark near the crossbar. For the tail/heel section I once again marked 1 inch back from the crossbar and then added 3 more holes evenly spaced going back…. I don’t know that it matters where they end in particular, I just laid a ruler across and made a mark for the furthest back line. Once you have everything marked out, go through and drill one hole on either side of that line in such a way that it will look like they’re set on a line that is on a 45 degree angle to the frame. I set mine ¼ inch down/up from the top and bottom of the frame. Pictures will make this more explanatory, basically you need two holes so you can go out one and in the other while lacing. Once you get these holes drilled your frames are all set to lace!
Lacing a Traditional Snowshoe
A written description of how to lace the frames would be confusing and difficult to follow…. I’ll post a link to a video showing how to do it. A brief written description follows though to help you interpret what is going on in the video. If that still doesn’t make sense, you can find step by step photos in Building Wooden Snowshoes and Snowshoe Furniture by Gil Gilpatrick, which is where I learned how to do it. First, using nylon cord (I believe mine was called gardening cord in the local hardware store, about 1/16 in diameter) tie off on one side of the front crossbar. Melt the end so it cant come undone. Now go in the closest of the two holes you have just up the frame, out and back in the other. When you have it back in loop behind the string where it enters the first hole and pull tight as you continue on (this will cross them/twist them). Now go in the closest hole on the next set up the frame, out and back in the other. Do this all the way around the toe section. When you get to the other crossbar go down the hole, back up on the inside of the crosspiece and through the loop you just made. Do this across the crossbar and tie off in the corner you started at. Once again, melt the end to keep it in place. Do the same thing with the heel section. Now you are ready for the actual lacing, I used ¼ inch flat nylon, you could use something wider or even go with a round nylon cord if you wanted (round would be easier in that you wouldn’t have to worry about it keeping it flat while working). You’ll need a couple of netting shuttles: I made mine from 3/16 thick maple scrap, the big one to hold more lace for the main part of the snowshoe is 10 inches long by 1 1/8 wide, the smaller one for toe/heel sections is 8 inches long by 5/8 wide.
Wind about 25 feet onto the smaller shuttle for the toe section, tie onto the nylon cord you edged it with in the left corner by the crossbar (assuming you’re looking at it from the top), melt the end per usual. Go from there to the other corner, around the edging, twist and up to the center of the toe. Around the edging, twist and back down to the original corner going UNDER the lacing you originally started. You will then go around edging, twist and continue in the same pattern (going to different point on the edging though). The most basic thing you need to remember is that you go over the first set of lacing you cross (everything going that way), and under the second. As you finish up three parallel triangles in the toe area you’ll wrap around the bottom lace and edging and go up to the left weaving through the laces instead of following towards the right again. Here you go around the edging, twist and go across to the other side. Edging, twist and weave down to the bottom. Diagonal up to the left side, weave horizontally across and go under the edging and twist. Now take that back down to the bottom left side again. Keep that pattern going until the weave is completely filled in. One thing to keep in mind is that while you are going around the edging at the crossbar on the left side you also go around the bottom lace, while the ones to the right of center just go around the edging cord– that ensures that you will alternate every other in the weave and keep the pattern.
For the heel section you’ll need about 12 feet of lacing material. Once again, sit with the tail pointing away from you and tie on to the edging at the lower left corner. Follow the same pattern– across to other corner, up to top, down to starting corner. This time when you go to the upper left partway into your second triangle you’ll weave across to the other side and then bring it down. Basic pattern is that you go from the edging on the left side of the crossbar diagonally up and left to the edging on the lower part of the frame, horizontally across, diagonally down to the left (so both sides match), diagonally up to the top left, horizontally across, and then steep diagonal back to the left side of the crossbar. Once again, over the first lacing and under the second.
The main section is more difficult to explain then the other two. Hopefully the video shows enough detail! Fill up the larger lacing shuttle with however much lace it will hold. Make marks on the frame 3 ½ inches back from the front crossbar and then add another 9 going down the side of the frame spacing them one inch apart. Tie on at the first mark, make 3 loops back and forth between those first two marks, this will be your master cord to pivot your foot on. Now wrap around the master cord and take the lace down from the top left and around the center of the rear crossbar then back up to the right. When you get to the master cord go around it, and then back to the frame just below it where you will tie on at the second mark. You will make a general upside down triangle pattern as you continue this pattern until you have 4 diagonal laces on each side and 4 horizontal upper ones (not counting the master cord). Now take the lace down normally, but after you come up to the master cord and then down to the right side of the frame to tie on at the next mark you will come horizontally across to the corresponding mark on the left side of the frame. Then up to master, steep down to right side of rear crossbar, short diagonal up to right, horizontal across to left frame. From here it gets confusing to explain. You are sort of making three separate triangles that all interweave. Check out the video. You’ll finish up with 7 ties onto the rear cross bar, 10 to each side of the frame, and 6 between the master cord and front crossbar (with a space in the middle to allow your foot to pivot through there). Hopefully those notes help explain some of what is going on in the video!