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Too Many Cooks - National Science Week


National Science Week

Start Date

Aug 15, 2020

End Date

Aug 23, 2020


Plimsoll Gallery virtual program

Tasmania’s First Scientists – Investigations into Tasmanian Aboriginal canoe-making

Rex Greeno, model paperbark canoe, 2013, courtesy of the artist. Photo credit:  Rémi ChauvinImage Credit: Rex Greeno, model paperbark canoe, 2013, courtesy of the artist. Photo credit:  Rémi Chauvin

Welcome to Tasmania’s First Scientists – Investigations into Tasmanian Aboriginal canoe-making for National Science Week 2020

We have developed a web-based resource that includes an investigation into the resilience of Indigenous culture in surviving the impact of British invasion. Look deeper into the rich cultural knowledge and science behind Tasmanian Aboriginal canoe-making with a focus on naval architecture and the cultural use of plants.

Insights from Uncle Rex Greeno.

Uncle Rex Greeno is a nationally recognised and experienced canoe builder and artist. Rex shares his insights about his experience of canoe building.

"When I first decided to construct a bark canoe, I found that they were made up of 3 Hulls, each hull was wide in the middle and then tapered at each end. In 1959 I helped to build a fishing boat which was like the canoe’s hulls, wider in the middle and tapered each end to form a bow and a stern section for ease of movement through the water."
"The boat was made out of a template/mould and then planks were fastened to it and each plank was formed in pairs, wide in the middle and tapered at each end with chamfered edges. Timber can be bent on its flat reasonably easily but is very difficult to bend on its edges unless it is steamed."
"I found that to build the canoe I had to make a core which determined the shape of the canoe then layers of bark was shaped similar to the boats planks and then tied by Jute Twine it was like a paper Mache style. The bark is like timber planks it can be bent quite easily one way but is impossible to bend or curve in the other.As I neared the end of the building of the canoe, I had to shape each strip of bark as before and glue it to each hull. Then strips of bark were used to finish of each hull to resemble the canoe. The hulls were then fastened and bound together to complete the canoe. So my shipwright experience certainly helped me to construct the canoe."

RM Greeno

Rex Greeno

Rex Greeno was born on Flinders Island in Bass Strait. His Aboriginal heritage comes from his mother, Dulcie Greeno, a noted shell necklace maker, and his grandfather, Silas Mansell, who taught him mutton-birding, kangaroo and wallaby-snaring, and how to make boats. After retiring from 40 years as a professional fisherman, Greeno used his knowledge of the sea to resurrect the art of traditional canoe construction, which had not been seen in Tasmania since the early 19th century. Greeno taught himself the craft by reading extensively and by experimenting with collecting and processing various raw materials and ways of constructing the canoes.

Photogrammetry of a 3D scan conducted on the model paperbark canoe made by Uncle Rex Greeno

Artwork credit: Rex Greeno, model paperbark canoe, 2013, courtesy of the artist.

3D photogrammetry model: Michael Roach, Senior Lecturer, Life and Physical Sciences, University of Tasmania

Science at home resource and learning materials for younger audiences and families

Things to consider before you start:

  • Buoyancy – Try putting different materials in water before you start making to see if they stay on the surface of the water. The better the objects float the more likely you are to have a canoe that stays on top of the water.
  • Balance – the shape of your canoe will be important. Avoid shapes that are top heavy as they might tip over. Low to the water surface and even on each side will help. Look at the three hull compartments of the Tasmanian Aboriginal canoe. The middle is the largest piece and the two side hulls are smaller but the exact same size as each other making the canoe balanced.
  • Waterproof – Experiment with different materials to see how water resistant they are. Pour a little water over them and see if the water beads off the surface. If the water seeps into the object it is likely to take on too much water and sink.
  • Size – think about how you will float your canoe. If you have a sink it will need to be made out of small materials. If you have a bath, pool or creek you can make them from bigger materials.
Suggested Materials:
  • Try looking around the house for materials that you can recycle into a canoe or raft.
  • Look for items that could provide buoyancy like the reeds that were used in the original canoes or empty plastic bottles. There are lots of ways to tie the elements together like string or wool, grasses or bark. Find waterproof material to wrap around the hull materials you have collected, this was originally done with bark but could also be done with plastics or waxed materials. Below is a suggestion of what you could use:

Traditional materials used are:
  • Paper bark or stringy bark for wrapping the hulls.
  • Grasses formed into rope used to bound canoe together.
  • Marsh reeds/rush.
  • Long sticks used to give the shape of the hulls.

Giving your canoe structure:
  • Sticks
  • Paper clips/wire

Helping your canoe float:
  • Plastic bottles (with lids to stop water getting in)
  • Polystyrene from packaging
  • Buckets
  • Bowls
  • Tin Cans (tape the hole up for extra buoyancy)

Tying your canoe together:
  • Jute twine
  • Bark
  • Wool
  • Glue

Making your canoe waterproof:
  • Recycled plastics from packaging
  • Waxed material

Making and Designing

  • Start with a sketch drawing idea of how you want your canoe to look. Try drawing the canoe from different angles. The idea is to make three hulls that can fit side by side.
  • The main middle hull will carry most of the weight and the two side hulls will keep the canoe from tipping. Originally the canoes are built up in a paper mache style. Start with the bones of the hull. This can be a long stick or similar material that can be shaped upwards at the ends. Then we want to build the inner buoyant material around that.
  • You can bunch together reeds or attach bottles together. Take your inner buoyant material (reeds, bottles/cans etc) and shape them so the three hulls go side by side.
  • Wrap the three hulls together at each end with something strong like bark, glue or rope/ twine.
  • Try to keep the ends of the hulls pointing upwards so they don’t take on water.
  • Wrap the hulls in the most waterproof material you can find.

  • Where is the best section of your canoe to balance objects?
  • How much weight will your canoe carry?
  • What happens when you add waves to your water?

We would love to see your canoes and sketches. Please send us photos to to be included in an online exhibition with Plimsoll Gallery.

This project was produced as part of National Science Week with thanks to the Australian Government’s Inspiring Australia program.

This online resources is presented in conjunction with the Too Many Cooks exhibition and is developed by the Plimsoll Gallery, University of Tasmania’s Fine Art Collection in collaboration with the Office of the Pro Vice Chancellor, Aboriginal Leadership. Research conducted by Dean Greeno and Cassie Sullivan.

With special thanks to Uncle Rex Greeno for sharing his knowledge, expertise and culture and for inspiring this project.

Science at home gallery:

Highlights Gallery