My Cart

Something from Nothing

Let’s make some recycled art… together!

With Earth Day around the corner on Wednesday, April 22, I wanted this post to focus on one world issue that is often highlighted on Earth Day and has a direct connection with our global waters–trash, especially in our oceans. According to Ocean Conservancy, approximately eight million metric tons of plastic goes into our oceans annually.* This global issue is overwhelming, and can also seem like there isn’t much we can do as individuals. However, if everyone in the world does something small, then all together we can make a big impact. No matter our age, we can at least try to be more conscious of what we’re buying and what we’re doing with waste. That means not littering and preventing that trash from getting into our waterways. Sometimes, that waste can be reused and repurposed into something else, even something like recycled art!

Today, we are going to take (clean) recycled and reusable items that we might have deemed as trash or recycling and turn them into a boat model from our collection. This activity is for everyone of all ages, however, kids might need help from adults to collect and/or cut materials.

Bull Boat size photo
Bull Boat from The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Located in the International Small Craft Center.
Mandan woman paddling in Bull Boat.

At The Mariners’ Museum and Park, we have a vast collection of fascinating and unique boats from around the country and world. One boat we are recreating for this activity is the small, but mighty, Bull Boat. The rounded Bull Boat in our collection is from Fort Berthold Reservation, Elbowoods, North Dakota. This particular boat was constructed ca. 1939 by a person called Crow’s Heart, who was part of the Hidatsa Nation. Traditionally, these temporary, rounded boats were made by women and used for traveling and communication on the Missouri River. As one can surmise from the name, the Bull Boat is covered with the hide of a bison. Plains tribes, including the Hidatsa and the Mandan, would first create a frame from flexible willow saplings, usually in a large bowl shape, then stretch the bison or cowhide over the frame. The boat itself is quite small, only about 3 feet wide, and only needs a single paddle for propulsion.

Here are two ways to make the Bull Boat model. If you don’t have these materials, you can come up with other innovative ways to fashion a boat! For example, you can make this from something else like cardboard cut into the smaller side pieces and tape them together on a circular bottom. Get creative and use your imagination!

Version 1: Plastic container base
Items needed:
-1 Sheet of paper about 1ft X 1ft brown paper
Note: If you have a brown paper bag, that will do as well. You can experiment with other kinds of paper, too, if you don’t have this.
-1 short plastic container bottom (8 oz)
-Small stick OR clothing tag
-Glue/tape or twine/string

Use about a 1 ft X 1 ft piece of brown paper, or a paper bag cut open and flattened. Put 8oz container in the center. Roll edges of the paper toward container and fold over. Tighten as you go so the fold doesn’t undo itself.

Directions with plastic container as your base:
1) Put your brown paper flat on the table. If it’s too large, just fold it down like I did in the photos. The paper should be fairly durable. Thinner paper will likely rip for this process of crimping if you’re not careful.
2) Place your short plastic container bottom in the center of the paper.
Start to roll and crimp the paper toward the center starting at one corner and working your way around.
Make sure to fold the paper over the plastic container edge tightly as you go in the circle.

3) If you have too much paper at the end, just rip or cut off the excess.
The paper should stay around the edges of the plastic container, but if not, you can always tape, glue, or staple the paper to the container.

This is how the “boat” should look. Simple as that!
Imagine… it’s the early 1800s… you’re on the Missouri River in your Bull Boat…

4) Draw a small paddle shape on the cardboard clothing tag. Cut this out and color it in. This is your paddle! You can also find a small stick for a paddle.

Version 2: Bull boat with paper as base
Items needed:
-1 Sheet of paper about 1ft X 1ft brown paper (or brown paper bag)
-Glue/tape or string/twine
-Toothpicks (at least 15 or so)
-Small stick or clothing tag

Building without a plastic base? No problem! Do the same idea of crimping the paper toward the center, but make your own base circle in the middle. You can also tape or glue small sticks or toothpicks in the boat for more of a structure. For the paddle, you can cut a small paddle shape from the clothing tag or find a small stick that looks a bit like a paddle.

Roll in the same way as the other version, except you’re creating your own sides. You can make a small frame from sticks or toothpicks first and then wrap the paper around as well.
The result after rolling.
You can also add in toothpicks after for visuals or just to add more support to the paper. Cut out a cute little paddle from an old clothing tag.

Once you have created your Bull Boat model(s), create a fun scene or a diorama with it. As mentioned before, these boats were used on the Missouri River for communication and travel between villages. What would you want to communicate with others in nearby villages? Take pictures or videos of your Bull Boats and share on our social media pages with #iamamariner and @marinersmuseum.

*George Leonard et al., “Plastics in the Ocean,” Ocean Conservancy, April 16, 2020,

Scroll to Top