Gil Gilpatrick is a man who knows his way around a snowshoe.
He taught himself how to build snowshoes more than 30 years ago when couldn’t find anyone to teach him. He built a steamer and a frame and kept bending wood until he got it right. When he’d finally mastered that part of the process, he got an old snowshoe and spent many hours sitting in front of the wood stove lacing and relacing the webbing on the shoe. He took copious notes while he worked, and that collection of notes became his first “Building Snowshoes” book.
Gil went on to teach students how to make snowshoes for many years through the Outdoor Resources program at the Skowhegan (Maine) Regional Vocational Center. You can absolutely hear Gil’s patient voice as a teacher and his affection the process of building snowshoes as you read through his book.
I’m pretty sure that I could do the lacing on a set of Ojibway style snowshoes. After all, the instructions in the new edition of Gil’s book, “Building Snowshoes and Snowshoe Furniture,” are clear and easy to follow. There are lots of big pictures that break the lacing process down in to simple step-by-step diagrams. Everything else, from selecting the right wood to building a frame to bend it on, to assembling the binding, is described in thorough detail.
Gil’s book opens with a brief history of the snowshoe, a high level overview of the materials used in snowshoes, and a little bit about how he came to write his book. He then goes in to describe snowshoe building techniques, punctuating the text with anecdotes about how he’s learned what materials are best, which shoes are better in specific conditions, and useful tips to help you build the best possible snowshoe.
According to Gil, the hardest part about building a snowshoe isn’t the lacing, like I thought it would be. Gil says that lacing IS difficult, but “after you have done it a few times and then it is just repetition. The hardest part in the building process is the wood bending. Not hard if all goes well, but there are places where the wood likes to split and those places need special care. Learning to choose one’s wood helps to cut down on the problems with bending, but sometimes what looks like a perfectly good piece turns out not to be.” There are lots of tips in the book about how to select your material, and, to help you avoid pitfalls, what materials to avoid.
Gil’s book sat on my coffee table for a few weeks, the subject of raised eyebrows from many of my friends. They’d thumb through it, make a few funny cracks (“Hey, are you planning on having some time on your hands?!”) and then, when they saw the picture of the snowshoe rocker, they’d get all quiet. (“Man, that’s a handsome rocker!” they’d say, while I smirked at them.) Gil admits that the rocker, a good-looking piece of furniture with snowshoe webbing on the seat and back, is his favorite project.
The second section of the book adapts the techniques used in snowshoe construction to build that rocker and a few other attractive projects. Gil says he’s got snowshoe-style furniture at his home that’s 25 years old and shows no sign of wear and tear. He’s confident that his furniture has a good long life to it and that if you follow his instructions carefully, your furniture will live just as long, and doubtless be the envy of your guests.
Gil lives in a log home in rural Maine where he estimates he’s got half a dozen pair of snowshoes and a sunroom furnished entirely with his own snowshoe furniture. You can learn more about Gil (and buy a copy of his book) on his Web site at http://www.gilgilpatrick.com.
**Gil’s tips for storing your traditional snowshoes
Most people are going to store their snowshoes in a garage or barn where they will be subject to changes in temperature and humidity. Most snowshoes nowadays have an upturned tip that will tend to straighten out with time. Unlike the rest of the bent frame, there is nothing to prevent them from doing this. Put the snowshoes together bottom to bottom. Clamp them there and wedge an appropriate length stick between the tips to keep them apart.
(On page 71 of Gil’s book there is a photo of my snowshoes stored as described above with easily made clamps.)
The snowshoes should be stored in a dry place. If they are laced with rawhide (bibiche) this is especially important. Snowshoes laced with rawhide must be stored so that rodents cannot reach them. Shoes laced with nylon or Neoprene don’t require quite as much care as only the wooden frame has to be considered.
A coat of good quality exterior polyurethane on areas that show wear is about all the maintenance necessary before storage unless worn or broken lacing calls for more.