by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

People e-mail regularly asking me to identify their canoe and/or give them an estimate on a restoration.  When I ask them to send me some pictures, I often see a big difference between what people regard as a helpful image and what I require, so here is a little tutorial on the art of photographing a wood-canvas canoe.

1.       A General Picture (3/4 Profile)

The first picture I ask for is a general picture in a three-quarter profile.  It is a view taken from an angle to show both the inside and outside of the canoe.  You are standing off to one side near one end.  The picture shows the decks, seats and thwarts as well as giving a good view of the hull shape.  Many people send me a series of pictures of the bottom of the canoe from every conceivable angle.  Other than the presence or absence of a keel, these pictures do little to help identify it or determine the condition of the canoe.  For identification purposes, along with a picture like the one presented above, it is useful to let me know the overall length from tip to tip as well as the maximum width and depth in the centre of the canoe.  If the canoe has a serial number (often stamped into the stern stem), that information is also useful.  This canoe is 16’ long, 33” wide and 13¼” deep.  I can see two caned seats, a centre thwart, a stern-quarter thwart and two hand thwarts (one at each end near the deck).  From this single picture and the accompanying dimensions, I can identify this canoe as a Chestnut Cruiser (called the Kruger).  If your canoe has a serial number somewhere on the canoe (often on one of the stems), please send me that information as well.

2.       Both Decks (Top View)

Take a picture of each deck from directly above.  Be sure to show the entire area from the tip of the canoe to the base of the deck.  If a hand thwart is present (as illustrated above) include it too.  These pictures help me see the condition of the various components at the ends.  There is almost always some degree of rot in this area.  The decal on this canoe shows it to be a Chestnut Canoe built in Oromocto, NB.  The Chestnut Canoe Company was located in Fredericton, NB from 1897 to 1975.  They moved to Oromocto in the mid-1970′s and stayed there until they went out of business in 1978.  Therefore, this canoe was built in the period between about 1974 and 1978.

3.       Stem-Ends (3/4 Profile)

It helps to have close-ups of the ends taken at an angle off to one side, near the end and slightly above.  In some cases, as in the bow deck above, the damage is obvious.  However, in most cases, it is helpful to remove a few screws from the outwales (and perhaps the stem-band) to reveal the ends more fully.  In this canoe, rot in the stern-end is seen only once the interior surfaces are exposed.

4.       Seats (Above 3/4 Profile)

Take a picture of each seat from above at an angle from one side towards the centre of the canoe.  This view shows the bolts and spacers as well as the seat.  In this canoe, the original 3/16” carriage bolts have been replaced with 1/4″ threaded rod and nuts.  The original cane is in good condition.  Although it is weathered, it could be revitalized with a mixture of boiled linseed oil and turpentine followed by the usual finish of shellac to seal it followed by a number of coats of spar varnish.

5.       Obvious Damage (Above 3/4 Profile)

Any obvious damage should be photographed.  As with most photos of the canoe, take these at an angle (to one side and slightly above).  Having the canoe well lit also helps.  Taking the photos from an angle emphasizes areas of light and shadow.  In this canoe, the broken rib and cracked planking are brought into clear view by the angled light.

All of the pictures are best in a fairly large format but it is not necessary to attach 2MB photos in an email.  As long as the photos are large enough to examine in detail, they will work well.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

A Chestnut Prospector wood-canvas canoe is available “for adoption”.  $4,500 to get it restored to your specifications.  Let me provide some background information on the adoption process as well as the canoe itself.

Chesnut Prospector 01_wm

The Canoe Adoption Program – Since the beginning of Kettle River Canoes in 2003, I wanted to focus entirely on the restoration of wood-canvas canoes.  At the same time, there are people looking to purchase a fully restored canoe.  I wanted to meet this need without having to maintain and store an inventory of restored canoes.  What emerged is the KRC Canoe Adoption Program.  Here is how it works:

  1. I am contacted regularly by people who have an old canoe and can no longer use it. In this case, a man in Vancouver, BC has a 17’ Chestnut Prospector (model name Garry) that was built around 1970. It is his canoe and he will keep it until someone agrees to adopt it.
  2. If you want this canoe, contact me (email: artisan@canoeshop.ca or phone toll free 1-855-KRCANOE (572-2663).
  3. The first step is to transfer ownership of the canoe from the current owner to you. In this case, he is asking for $1,700. The actual buying and selling of the canoe is done by the current owner and you as the “adopting parent”.
  4. Once the ownership has been transferred, KRC is notified and I transport your canoe to the canoe restoration shop in Grand Forks, BC. As the new owner, you pay a transportation fee of $200 to get the canoe into the shop.
  5. Then, KRC has a close look at the canoe to determine exactly what needs to be done in the restoration. You have complete control over this process. The colour of the canoe and any other details are completely up to you. In this case, the full restoration is $2,600 plus taxes. Options such as lowered seats or a Chestnut-style portage yoke are available at additional cost.
  6. There are always several other canoe restoration projects in the shop when your canoe arrives. Therefore, it is impossible for me to give you a time-line for your canoe restoration. All of the work done at KRC is custom-fitted. We cannot work to a deadline.
  7. When the restoration of your canoe begins, I post pictures of the work in a dedicated photo album on the KRC FaceBook page. There, you can follow the progress of the project.

Chestnut Prospector 02_wm

The Chestnut Prospector – The Chestnut Canoe Company was located in New Brunswick and produced more than 150,000 canoes from its start in 1897 until they closed their doors in 1978.  They produced a wide range of canoes to meet every conceivable need.  Without a doubt, the Prospector is the best wilderness tripping canoe ever built.  Most modern canoe manufacturers have a “Prospector” model and they try – with varying degrees of success – to emulate the lines of this canoe.  However, this is the real deal.

Chestnut Prospector 04_wm

The Prospector was designed to transport heavy loads through wild rivers and lakes.  This particular canoe is 17’ long.  It has a 37” beam providing excellent stability; depth of 14½” in the centre; weighs 82 pounds; carries 950 pounds.  The ribs are 2-3/8” wide with 2” spaces between the ribs.  It is fitted with three main thwarts and two hardwood slat seats.  As with all true working canoes built by the Chestnut Canoe Company, the Prospector originally came in a light green colour called “Chestnut Grey”.  That said, the colour of your canoe is entirely up to you.

Chestnut Prospector 03_wm

The hull has an arched bottom and substantial rocker at the ends which allows the canoe to dance through Class 3 rapid rivers.  The Prospector is perfectly designed for rough conditions in wilderness lakes and rivers.  The hull is flared about 4’ from the ends to throw water away from the canoe when it hits big waves.  This is not just a canoe – the Chestnut Prospector is a true classic.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

A Chestnut Bobs Special wood-canvas canoe is available “for adoption”.  $4,500 to get it restored to your specifications.  Let me provide some background information on the adoption process as well as the canoe itself.

Bobs Special 03

The Canoe Adoption Program – Since the beginning of Kettle River Canoes in 2003, I wanted to focus entirely on the restoration of wood-canvas canoes.  At the same time, there are people looking to purchase a fully restored canoe.  I wanted to meet this need without having to maintain and store an inventory of restored canoes.  What emerged is the Canoe Adoption Program.  Here is how it works:

  1. I am contacted regularly by people who have an old canoe and can no longer use it. In this case, a man in Grand Forks, BC has a Chestnut Bobs Special that was built around 1960. It is his canoe and will keep it until someone agrees to adopt it.
  2. If you want this canoe, contact me (email: artisan@canoeshop.ca or phone toll free 1-855-572-2663; 1-855-KRCANOE).
  3. The first step is to transfer ownership of the canoe from the current owner to you. In this case, he is asking for $800. The actual buying and selling of the canoe is done by the current owner and you as the “adopting parent”.
  4. Once the ownership has been transferred, KRC is notified and I transport your canoe to the canoe restoration shop in Grand Forks, BC. Normally, the new owner pays a transportation fee to get the canoe into the shop. However, in this case the canoe is already in Grand Forks, so no transport fee is involved.
  5. Then, KRC has a close look at the canoe to determine exactly what needs to be done in the restoration. You have complete control over this process. The colour of the canoe and any other details are completely up to you. In this case, the full restoration is $3.700 plus taxes. Options such as lowered seats or a Chestnut-style portage yoke are available at additional cost.
  6. There are always several other canoe restoration projects in the shop when your canoe arrives in the shop. Therefore, it is impossible for me to give you a time-line for your canoe restoration. All of the work done at KRC is custom-fitted. We cannot work to a deadline.
  7. When the restoration of your canoe begins, I post pictures of your canoe in a dedicated photo album on the KRC FaceBook page. There, you can follow the progress of the project.

Bobs Special 05

The Chestnut Bobs Special – The Chestnut Canoe Company was located in New Brunswick and produced more than 150,000 canoes from its start in 1897 until they closed their doors in 1978.  They produced a wide range of canoes to meet every conceivable need.  Many people want a versatile, all-purpose canoe that is light-weight.  The Bobs Special is just that canoe.

Bobs Special 02

The Bobs Special is very popular with people who fly fish or just want a stable, easy paddling, light-weight canoe.  It has a 37” beam providing excellent stability; depth of 12½” in the centre; weighs 58 pounds; carries 700 pounds; and is 15′ long.  The ribs are 2-3/8” wide with 1½” spaces between the ribs.

Bobs Special 04

It is fitted with a centre thwart and two hand-woven cane seats.  The Chestnut Bobs Special originally came in two colours – dark green and red.  That said, the colour of your canoe is entirely up to you.

Bobs Special 01

The hull has a shallow-arch bottom and moderate rocker at the ends which results in a canoe that is very easy to paddle – stable yet quick; maneuverable yet forgiving.  The Bobs Special is stable enough to stand up in comfortably, is light enough to load on and off the car with ease and has the carrying capacity for extended canoe trips.  This canoe can handle light rapids but is not a Chestnut Prospector.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

A Chestnut Pal wood-canvas canoe is available “for adoption”.  $4,200 to get it restored to your specifications.  Let me provide some background information on the adoption process as well as the canoe itself.

Chestnut Pal 04

The Canoe Adoption Program – Since the beginning of Kettle River Canoes in 2003, I wanted to focus entirely on the restoration of wood-canvas canoes.  At the same time, there are people looking to purchase a fully restored canoe.  I wanted to meet this need without having to maintain and store an inventory of restored canoes.  What emerged is the Canoe Adoption Program.  Here is how it works:

  1. I am contacted regularly by people who have an old canoe and can no longer use it. In this case, a woman in Vancouver, BC has a Chestnut Pal that she bought new around 1972. It is her canoe and will keep it in Vancouver until someone agrees to adopt it.
  2. If you want this canoe, you contact me (email: artisan@canoeshop.ca or phone toll free 1-855-572-2663; 1-855-KRCANOE).
  3. The first step is to transfer ownership of the canoe from the current owner to you. In this case, she is asking for $1,500. The actual buying and selling of the canoe is done by the current owner and you as the “adopting parent”.
  4. Once the ownership has been transferred, KRC is notified and I transport your canoe to the canoe restoration shop in Grand Forks, BC. You pay $300 to have it transported to the shop.
  5. I then have a close look at the canoe to determine exactly what needs to be done in the restoration. You have complete control over this process. The colour of the canoe and any other details are completely up to you. The full restoration is $2,400 plus taxes. Options such as lowered seats or a Chestnut-style portage yoke are available at additional cost.
  6. There are always several other canoe restoration projects in the shop when your canoe arrives in the shop. Therefore, it is impossible for me to give you a time-line for your canoe restoration. All of the work done at KRC is custom-fitted. We cannot work to a deadline.
  7. When the restoration of your canoe begins, I post pictures of your canoe in a dedicated photo album on the KRC FaceBook page. There, you can follow the progress of the project.

Chestnut Pal 01

The Chestnut Pal – The Chestnut Canoe Company was located in New Brunswick and produced more than 150,000 canoes from its start in 1897 until they closed their doors in 1978.  They produced a wide range of canoes to meet every conceivable need.  The most popular canoe built by Chestnut (even more popular than the iconic Chestnut Prospector) was their 16’ Pleasure Canoe – The Pal.

Chestnut Pal 07

The Pal is the perfect all-purpose canoe – the quintessential “cottage” canoe.  It has a 36” beam providing stability; depth of 12½” in the centre; weighs 72 pounds; carries 750 pounds.  The ribs are 2-3/8” wide with 2” spaces between the ribs.

Hand woven Cane Seat

It is fitted with two thwarts and two hand-woven cane seats.  The Chestnut Pal originally came in two colours – dark green and red.  That said, the colour of your canoe is entirely up to you.

Chestnut Pal 02

The hull has a shallow-arch bottom and moderate rocker at the ends which results in a canoe that is very easy to paddle – stable yet quick; maneuverable yet forgiving.  The Chestnut Pal is equally suited to a quiet paddle on the lake or an extended canoe trip.  It handles Class 2 rapids in rivers with grace and ease.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

A number of canoe builders operated in a small aboriginal community just outside of Quebec City.  Names such as Bastien Brothers, Gagnon Brothers, Groslouis, Picard, Faber, Yaho and Big Chief came out of this community now called Wendake (formerly Huron Village or Loretteville).  They also produced canoes generically for department stores such as Sears and were referred to as “Huron” canoes.  The history of canoe building in the village dates back to the days of the Fur Trade but the more modern wood-canvas canoes were made from the 1920’s until the 1970’s.  If you have one of these canoes, it is most likely from the later period – 1960’s or 1970’s.

These canoes were typically of a “rough-and-ready” nature — built quickly with less attention to the fine woodworking “finish” details.  As a result they were often referred to ‘in the day’ as “The Poorman’s Chestnut”.  This derogitory comment discounted the beautiful lines in these canoes.  The hull was flat-bottomed which normally results in a slow-paddling canoe.  However, “Huron” canoes also had a ‘soft’ chine.  That is to say, the transition from the bottom to the sides of the canoe was very gradual.  As a result, when paddling an unloaded “Huron”, the waterline width was narrow which made for a fast boat.  This, combined with substantial rocker in the ends, created a canoe that is quite simply a delight to paddle.

Huron - blue 01

The process of restoring a wood-canvas canoe is very different from that of building one.  You use the existing hull to form replacement ribs for any broken ones.  As a result, you don’t require the lines for the hull.  Most of the dimensions for replacement parts can be taken from existing components.  However, depending on the condition of your canoe, you may need the specifications for the odd piece or two.  So, here is a restorer’s guide to the “Huron” canoe.

One little note here: I am listing all of the dimensions in inches.  I apologize to all of you who are working in metric.  The canoes were originally built with imperial measurements, so I find it easier and more accurate to stick with the original measurements.

One more note: The canoes referenced here were built in a period around 1970.  Most of them were purchased through the Sears catalogue.  They are representative of “Huron” canoes.  However, it is not my intention to say that these dimensions will be exactly the same as those in your “Huron”.  It will give you a general idea of how these canoes are constructed and how they differ from other major manufacturers.  It is my hope that after you read this article, you will be able to differentiate a canoe like this from a Chestnut canoe.

One last note: All of the canoes shown here have been restored for clients.  Often they asked me to do things on the canoe that were not in keeping with the original configuration.  Therefore, you will see canoes with seats lowered on 6” carriage bolts with hardwood dowel spacers or outfitted with a portage yoke.  They are not original, so take note and please excuse the lack of historical accuracy.

Gunwales – “Huron” canoe gunwales consist of three components.  The inwale is a rough piece of spruce 7/8” square.  For a 15’-6” canoe, the inwales were 14’ long while the 13’-6” canoe had 12’ inwales.  The last 6” or so of the inwales at each end are tapered down to ¾” wide to fit into the decks.  All of the transverse components (thwarts and seats are attached to the inwales with 10-24 (3/16”) steel machine bolts.  All of these attachments are rough looking, so they are covered up with a thin spruce gunwale-cap.  The outwales were originally made of spruce as well.  I always replace the outwales with hardwood – usually ash or oak.  If I am replacing the inwales I use hardwood as well (again ash or oak) and cut them to ¾” wide to reduce the weight of the component while maintaining the overall strength.  Consequently, the gunwale cap is also ¾” wide.

Decks – The decks in a “Huron” canoe were built very roughly.  They used a slab of birch or maple typically that varied in thickness from ¾” to more than 1”.  The stem-top sits flush with the nose of the deck and is held in place with a steel common nail.  By the time you start restoring your canoe, the decks are usually rotted along with the stem-top.  What is left of the common nail is often sticking out of the rotted nose of the deck.  I attach the rebuilt stem-top to the nose of the deck with a 1½” #8 bronze wood screws.  The deck extends 18” into the canoe from the end.

Stem-Top – You will rarely if ever have to replace the entire stem.  However, I have yet to see an original stem-top that is not partially or completely rotted away.  Depending on the amount of wood to be replaced in the stem you may have to pre-bend the wood to fit the original stem-profile.

Huron Canoe Keel 02

Keel – If you want to keep the keel as part of the canoe, it is a simple piece to make.  Use a piece of hardwood and taper each end roughly to ½” wide.  The overall length is about 13’.  It will accept the brass stem-band which is ½” wide.

Ribs – The ribs are simple slats 5/16” thick and 1-7/8” wide.  The edges are chamfered 10° on both sides with the top cornered rounded off slightly.  There are 2” spaces between the ribs.

Planking – Many people worry about the gaps between the planks in a Huron canoe.  The original canoe was constructed with ‘green’ wood that subsequently shrunk to create spaces between the planks that can be as much as ¼” wide.  This is one of the things that make “Huron” canoes what they are.  The spaces do not compromise the overall strength of the canoe, so please maintain the look of the canoe by matching the width of the planking when you replace some of it.  Do not try to fill the spaces with anything.  It will only result is a mess that some other restorer will have to deal with.

Another aspect of the planking relevant to a restoration is the fact that more than half of the connections between a plank and the ribs were held together with two canoe tacks rather than the three typically used in other canoes such as Peterborough and Chestnut.  As a result, the whole canoe tended to flex more.  It is common for a restorer to find that most of the tacks in the “Huron” hull have either snapped or worked loose.  I routinely take the time to tack every plank to every rib with three canoe tacks and replace all of the loose tacks.  It takes a long time to drive 2,500 tacks into the hull with a clobber’s hammer and a clinching iron.  However, it creates a very strong hull that is better than the original.

Seats – The seat frames are made of ¾” birch that is 1-3/8” wide.  The stern seat is attached directly under the inwales while the bow seat is suspended below the inwale using a spacer on either side.  The height of the spacer varies from 1” to 1½”.  The forward edge of the bow seat is 49½” from the bow-end of the canoe while the forward edge of the stern seat is 35½” from the stern-end of the canoe. The seat frames are laced with rawhide (also called “babiche”).

Thwarts – The thwarts are made of ¾” birch that is 2¼” wide.  They taper from the centre to create handle grips on either side that are 1-3/8” wide.  They are attached directly under the inwales with steel 10-24 machine screws.  I replace the machine screws in the seats and thwarts with bronze carriage bolts.  The stern-quarter thwart is positioned 59” from the stern-end of the canoe while the centre thwart is positioned 93” from both ends.Specification Page - Huron 02

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

If you are preparing to restore your wood-canvas canoe – especially in Canada – you are often looking at a canoe built by the Chestnut Canoe Company based in New Brunswick from 1897 to 1978.  Of the many models produced over the years, the 16′ Pleasure Canoe was one of their best sellers.  It had a variety of names and the hull shape changed as well over the course of eighty years.  However, this canoe is most commonly referred to as the Chestnut Pal.

The dimensions of the components that make up the Pal are often the same as those found in many other Chestnut (and Peterborough) canoe models – including the famous Chestnut Prospector.  As a result, if you have these dimensions, you can use them to restore about thirty different canoe models.  So, here is a restorer’s guide to the Chestnut Pal.

Chestnut Ajax circa 1952

This Chestnut pleasure canoe is from around 1952. The telegraph code was Ajax. It was 16′ LOA and had a 34″ beam.

The 16’ Pleasure Canoe from the Chestnut Canoe Company had a number of incarnations over the years.  From the early 1900’s until 1953 it had a 34” beam, its ribs were 1.5” wide and was called the Ajax.  Then the beam was widened to 36” and it was called either the Pal (1954 – 1978) or the Deer (1965 – 1978).  Through the later years, the ribs were either 1.5” wide or 2-3/8” wide.

 One little note here: I am listing all of the dimensions in inches.  I apologize to all of you who are working in metric.  The canoes were built with imperial measurements originally, so I find it easier and more accurate to stick with this measurement scale.

Inwales –The inwale is a length of ash 15/16” high.  It is fashioned to fit the tumblehome present on most Chestnut canoes.  Therefore, the top surface is ¾” wide while the bottom width is 7/8”.  The last 15” or so at each end is tapered down to about 5/8” wide along the sides of the decks.  All of the transverse components (thwarts and seats are attached to the inwales with 10-24 (3/16”) galvanized steel carriage bolts.  I replace these with 10-24 silicon-bronze carriage bolts.

Outwales – The outwales are also made of ash.  Depending on when the canoe was built, the outwales may have a chamfered edge on the bottom of the outside surface.  Water often gets trapped under the outwales and results in rot on the inside surface.  Therefore, I usually end up replacing this component and I make sure I seal all of the surfaces with shellac and varnish before installing the outwales.  The sheer-line of Chestnut and Peterborough Pleasure Canoes turns up sharply about 18” from the end.  As a result, it is necessary to soak, heat and pre-bent new inwales and outwales over custom-built forms to make the ash fit without breaking.

It is also worth noting that both the inwales and outwales were very often made by joining two pieces together with a 9″ scarf joint to create the full length Ash required.  Apparently, it was difficult to get full length Ash even in the 1960′s.

Decks – The decks were made of hardwood – usually maple, ash or oak.  By the time you start restoring your canoe, the decks are often rotted along with the stem-tops and inwale-ends.  They are attached to the inwales with six 2” #8 bronze wood screws.  The deck extends about 15” into the canoe from the end.

Stem-Top – You will rarely if ever have to replace the entire stem.  However, I rarely see an original stem-top that is not partially or completely rotted away.  Because the top 6” or so of the stem is straight, you can usually make the repair without having to pre-bend the wood to fit the original stem-profile.

Keel – If you want to keep the shoe keel as part of the canoe, it is a simple piece to make.  Use a piece of hardwood (the original was ash) and taper each end to 3/8” wide.  The overall length is about 14’.  It will accept the brass stem-band which is 3/8” wide.

Ribs – There were typically two styles of ribs used in Chestnut Pleasure Canoes.  Depending on the age and model, the ribs were either “narrow” slats 3/8” thick and 1½” wide or so-called “regular” ribs that were 3/8” thick and 2-3/8” wide.

The edges of the narrow ribs are chamfered 18° on both sides with the top corners rounded off slightly.  The edge of the regular rib closest to the centre of the canoe has tapered ends (11° chamfer) while the edge closest to one end of the canoe is chamfered about 30°.  The chamfer angles varied over the years, so you will have to use the original ribs in your canoe as templates.  There are 2” spaces between the regular ribs and 1½″ spaces between the narrow ribs.

Planking – The planking in Chestnut Canoes was made of either Eastern White Cedar or Western Red Cedar.  They started out being 5/32″ thick, but were often sanded down from there.  I often have to pass new planking through the thickness planer to match the thickness of the original planks.

Geary 11

Seats – The seat frames are made of ¾” hardwood (ash, oak or maple) 1½” wide and hand-caned seats.  Both seats are suspended under the inwales with 10-24 carriage bolts and held in position with 5/8” hardwood dowel.  The rear stern seat dowels are 1¾” long while the front dowels are ¾” long.  All of the bow seat dowels are ¾” long.  Again, this varied over the years.  When re-installing seats, I tend to use 1¾” spacers for the bow seat.  The stern spacers are then 1¾” and 2¾”.  This adds a noticeable degree of stability to the canoe.  The forward edge of the bow seat is 58” from the bow-end of the canoe while the forward edge of the stern seat is 38½” from the stern-end of the canoe.

Thwarts – The thwarts are made of ¾” hardwood (ash, oak or maple) that is 2½” wide.  They taper from the centre to create handle grips on either side that are 2” wide.  They were attached directly under the inwales with galvanized steel 10-24 carriage bolts.  The stern-quarter thwart is positioned 67” from the stern-end of the canoe while the centre thwart is positioned 96” from both ends.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

repairs 06 SG

Without a doubt, the most horrible job in the restoration of a wood-canvas canoe is the process of stripping the old varnish from the interior.  It is messy, stinky, agonizing work that takes forever and cannot be rushed.  Truly, the only positive thing to be said about stripping varnish is that as long as you keep going, the job will end.

clean 03 CM

However, it is not always necessary to strip the old varnish.  If the interior varnish is in good shape – not peeling, cracked or gone altogether – you can simply clean the interior with TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) and rough up the surface of the varnish with fine steel wool.  After vacuuming the interior and removing any residual dust and débris with a tack cloth, you are ready to apply new varnish.  In my experience, if the varnish is stripped with chemicals, the canvas has to be replaced as well.  As a result, one big job leads to another.  That is why many people opt for simply cleaning the interior and applying new varnish to whatever is still there.

before 12 LCCa

If, as is often the case, the interior varnish is peeling away, breaking apart or gone completely, the varnish has to come off in order to rebuild the interior finish from the ground up.  Sometimes, the varnish is peeling so much that it comes off with a combination of a paint scraper, coarse steel wool and a lot of elbow grease.  I have tried sanders and “sandpaper stripping wheels” powered by a variable-speed drill, but soon gave them up when I saw that I was removing just as much wood as varnish.

strip 02 CL

When it comes right down to it, the best way to remove all of the old varnish (and still have the original ribs and planking left intact) is to apply chemical strippers. I strip the old varnish before removing the old canvas.  This way, the chemicals tend to stay inside the canoe.  They soak into the old canvas and lift the filler and paint from the canvas, so unless you are extremely careful with the chemicals, you cannot strip the interior varnish without then putting a new canvas on the canoe.

I have heard of some people using a pressure washer to remove the chemicals from the hull once they have done their job.  This would work well as long as the nozzle is wide enough to reduce the pressure to avoid ripping the planking apart.  One downside I see to removing the chemicals with a pressure washer is that the work is usually done outside, often in your backyard.  Consequently, all those nasty chemicals end up on the ground and (probably) in the water-table.  At the very least, you succeed in killing the grass in that corner of the backyard.

repairs 03 JK

When stripping varnish, the first step is to protect yourself from all those nasty chemicals.  The commercial products usually contain dichloromethane (commonly used as a propellant in aerosol cans) and methanol (wood alcohol).  Sometimes toluene (lacquer thinner) rounds out the mix.  Besides long sleeves, long pants and an apron or coveralls, be sure to wear gloves (heavy-duty latex/neoprene), a respirator and eye protection.  Have lots of water close at hand to wash off any stripper that contacts your skin.

repairs 03 SG

It is essential to maintain a wetted surface when using varnish strippers.  It evaporates quickly, so be sure to use lots of this stuff and do the canoe in small sections.  I usually divide the job into four quarters of the canoe.  Once the stripper has been poured onto a section of the canoe, use a sturdy scrub-brush (natural bristles) to spread the chemicals around and ensure that they get into every corner and let it work on the old varnish for about 20 minutes.  When it turns dark brown and becomes thick, you know it is working.

strip 02 EL

Use a scrub brush and a scraper to remove the stripper.

repairs 10 SG

Any stripper remaining in the canoe can be cleaned out with TSP mixed in a pail of water.  Use a scrub brush, a scraper and/or steel wool to ensure that remaining stripper is removed from all of the nooks and crannies.  Once the hull interior has dried, I go over the wood again with medium or fine steel wool to remove the last of the TSP and/or chemical stripper residue.  Then, vacuum the interior to remove the dust and steel wool fragments to finish the job.

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This takes as long as it takes – no short cuts.  As with almost everything in life, if you don’t do a good job on the foundation work, it just creates problems later on.  As much as I want this job to be done as quickly as possible, there is no way to speed it up.  It takes time to do a thorough job.  Right now, I am project manager for the restoration of three 30′ C-15 Racing War Canoes from the 1940’s in Penticton, BC.  A crew of six people took five weeks and four times through the canoes with those nasty chemicals to remove all of the old varnish.  They are happy to see the end of that job.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

While repairing your wood-canvas canoe, you may come across some ribs that are perfectly good except for a small portion attached to the inwale.  Rather than replacing the ribs, it is possible to repair the rib-tops.

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First of all, you need access to a substantial portion of the damaged ribs in order to do the repair.  Remove the planking along the sheer line to expose all of the damaged rib-tops.  Identify each piece of planking as it comes off since you may be able to replace the original pieces once the repairs are completed.

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Now, machine new cedar to replace the damaged rib-tops.  Sometimes the rib-tops are tapered, so make sure each replacement piece is cut and shaped to match the original wood.

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Cut the rotted top off the rib to be repaired.  I use a Japanese utility saw with 14 teeth per inch.

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Create a scarf angle in the original rib.  For a solid scarf joint, the glued surface ought to be at least six times that of the rib thickness.  Therefore, ribs 3/8” thick have a scarf angle with a surface area approximately 2¼” long.  You can use a rasp to make the scarf.  I use a 4” angle grinder that is set up with a 24-grit sandpaper disc.  It makes quick work of the job – perhaps too quick, so careful attention and a light touch are needed.

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Line up the new wood with the original rib and mark the location of the matching scarf.

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Create the matching scarf in the new cedar.

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Glue the new wood to the original rib and clamp it in place with spring clamps.  I use either a water-proof resorcinol glue (such as Weldwood or Dural) or a polyurethane glue (such as Gorilla Glue).  The resorcinol glues are water-based which makes clean-up a breeze.  After clamping the new piece in place, wipe away any excess glue with a damp rag.  When dry, it sands easily and blends well with the wood.  Polyurethane glue sets more quickly, sands easily once cured and creates a very strong bond.  Lacquer Thinner is used to clean up polyurethane glues.  I use these two glues interchangeably.

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The repaired rib-top is fairly rough at first.

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However, a quick sanding evens out the joint and creates a clean repair.

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Attach the rib-top to the inwale (I use 7/8” 14-gauge bronze ring nails, copper canoe nails or brass canoe tacks) and trim the rib-top flush with the top edge of the inwale.

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When faced with rib-top repairs next to each other, it is easiest to do every second rib-top to avoid clamping difficulties.  Therefore, it takes a couple of days to complete all of the repairs.

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If most of the rib-tops in your canoe are rotted, it is still possible to repair the ribs rather than replace every rib in the canoe.  Since every rib will be cut, the original sheer-line will be lost.  Therefore, the first step is to establish a reference line for the sheer-line.  Go around the canoe with a carpenter’s pencil and mark a position 5” below the top of each rib.  Where the entire top of the rib has rotted away, skip to the next rib and mark the reference point there.  This will give you enough reference points to create a fair line the full length of the canoe.  Now, tack a spruce batten (approximately ¼” x ¾” x 16’) at the reference points to create a fair reference line.

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As mentioned before, every second rib will be repaired.  Unless you have hundreds of 3” spring clamps, it will take a week or two to splice new wood into every rib.  Once done, mark each new rib-top 5” above the reference line and cut every rib to re-create the original sheer-line of the canoe.

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Reattach the original planking and replace damaged planking with new cedar.  Stain the new wood to match wood in the rest of the canoe.

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The finished product is strong and solid.  Many of the rib-tops repairs extend less than an inch below the inwales, so it was difficult to realize that they had been replaced.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

Unless you live in British Columbia, you have probably never heard of Bill Greenwood or Greenwood canoes.  And if you want to start a fight amongst wood-canvas canoe enthusiasts, just ask them to name the prettiest canoes ever made.  In Maine, you would hear names like Morris, Gerrish and White.  In Ontario, Peterborough canoes are top of the list.  But in British Columbia, people speak about Greenwood canoes in hushed tones and bow down to Bill Greenwood’s exquisite water craft.

There is very little information available about Bill or his canoes.  Whatever I have collected is from people who bought their canoes directly from the builder at his shop as well as some antecdotes from Jim Kinzell, who worked with Bill as an apprentice from 1969 to 1975.  There is also a small biography produced in 1972 as an assignment for a physical education course at a college.  My information is incomplete to say the least and is probably full of errors and omissions.  That said, Bill Greenwood and Greenwood Canoes deserve recognition in the world of wood-canvas canoes.

finished canoe

As I understand it, Bill was born around 1910 and was an active outdoorsman who loved hiking, skiing, canoeing — just about anything that got him outside.  Then in 1934, at the age of 24, he suffered a stroke while hiking in the mountains.  As part of his rehabilitation, Bill decided to learn how to build canoes. He boarded a train in Vancouver, BC and made his way to Old Town, Maine.  He hung around the Old Town Canoe Company shop and absorbed everything he could about canoe building until they realized what he was doing and kicked “the spy” out.  Bill spent some time at other canoe factories including the Peterborough Canoe Company in Ontario before returning to British Columbia and setting up Greenwood Water Craft Company.  The shop location changed a number of times over the years until he estabished a large shop complex on Mitchell Island in Richmond, BC in the late 1960′s.

Not surprisingly, the lines and details of Greenwood Canoes borrow heavily from the “Maine Guide” canoes of Old Town and other builders in Maine.  They all sport wide, flat bottoms and have very little rocker.  The stem profile is heavily recurved and the hulls all contain a lot of tumblehome.  Bill’s 16’ (4.9 meter) canoes did not have a centre thwart, but instead had both bow- and stern-quarter thwarts as was typical of Maine Guide canoes.  And Bill absolutely refused to make a canoe without a keel.  In fact, one of my clients asked Bill to leave the keel off the canoe he was ordering.  Apparently, Bill said something like, “My canoes have keels.”  When my client told Bill that many Chestnut Canoes paddled very well without a keel, Bill said, “If you want a Chestnut Canoe, then buy a Chestnut Canoe.”  My client told me that story while I was preparing the restoration work order on his 17’ (5.2 meter) Chestnut Cruiser.

The workmanship in Greenwood canoes is outstanding.  He used “aircraft quality” Sitka Spruce for the double-tapered ribs.  The wide planking was made of old-growth Western Red Cedar (edge grain).  The stems were White Oak while the rest of the canoe was trimmed in Philippine Mahogany (Luan).  All of the woodwork was flawless – tight planking, graceful lines and elegant detailing.  The one drawback in many Greenwood canoes built in the early 1970’s is the fact that he used steel screws to attach the mahogany outwales.  Apparently, Bill was feuding with one of his suppliers.  He wanted 1.5” (37 mm) #8 brass wood screws in lots of 1,000 while the supplier insisted on selling lots of 10,000.  Bill ordered steel screws from another supplier in lots of 1,000.  I have had to cut that beautiful mahogany into hundreds of tiny pieces because the steel screws had corroded to the point of being fused into the wood.  I’m sure Bill thought he had won the war with his supplier, but it has made the restorer’s job much more difficult 40 years later.

The quality of the workmanship is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that Bill worked almost entirely with one hand.  The stroke affected his left side. Consequently, his left hand was crippled to the point that he had very limited use of it.  My understanding is that he used jigs for almost every step of production.  That and a few very good assistants in the shop (including George Fletcher and Jim Kinzell) made it all work beautifully.

Greenwood Canoes came in lengths from 15’ (4.6 meter) to 18’ (5.5 meter).  He had two basic models – the Pleasure Model (12” – 30 cm – deep) and the large volume Prospector Model (14” – 36 cm – deep).  He built a full range of lengths in both models (as well as a 12′ car-top boat) until 1970.  One client of mine has a beautiful home in North Vancouver overlooking the entire Lower Mainland.  He had ordered a canoe from Bill in 1970 and was expecting a call any day to say that the canoe was ready.  Then, he heard a news report of a large fire on Mitchell Island in Richmond.  He looked out over the valley from his home and saw a big cloud of smoke.  The Greenwood Water Craft shop was engulfed in flames.  The next day, my client went to the site and saw Bill kicking through the ashes that used to be his shop.  He said, “I only had time to grab two canoes – The yellow one over there — that’s yours.”

Bill rebuilt the business with a limited number of moulds and continued building canoes until he sold the business in 1975.  According to Doug Ingram of Red River Canoe and Paddle, the moulds ended up in Cranberry Portage (a small community in Northern Manitoba east of Flin Flon).  Apparently, they were never used again and are now in very poor condition.  Bill died in 1979.  His contribution to the world of wood-canvas canoes is significant here in British Columbia.  People bow their heads in reverence to these stunning works of art.

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by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

A Zen Master and his student were walking together across a bridge when the student asked, “Master, What is Zen?”  Before the student had a chance to react, the Zen Master picked him up and threw him off the bridge into the river below.

Zen is the moment – right here, right now.  Zen Masters have written thousands of books in an attempt to explain the unexplainable.  As the student hurtled through the air towards the water in the river, he was totally consumed in the moment.  No past – No future – Just now.

So, what does this have to do with wooden canoes?  I have found that a successful canoe restoration demands a mind and body that work together in the present moment.  As soon as I rush things, I make mistakes and have to start all over again.  As soon as I think of myself as the expert, I find something I’ve never come across before.  As soon as I think the task is simple, I get bogged down in complex problems.  As soon as I obsess over technical aspects and try to think my way through them, everything grinds to a halt in a mass of frustration.  And the more I try to get out of my head and get back to “the moment”, the worse the frustrations become.

For me, a canoe restoration it is an opportunity to immerse myself in the moment – now and now and now and now.  When I succeed, the hammer drives the tacks straight into the wood – almost by itself.  The hot, steamed wood bends to hug the canoe in a warm embrace.  The work flows and I lose track of time.

However, as soon as I try to take credit for the accomplishment or repeat the masterful actions of the past, everything goes wrong.  I bend a new rib over the canoe only to find that it is upside-down and has to be thrown away.  The air of the shop is filled with my not-so-quiet curses.

In those moments, I endeavor to see the cloud of frustration as a gift.  Sometimes at least, I am able to catch myself and laugh at the situation and – with any luck – laugh at my approach to it.  I take a deep breath and shake my head.  Instead of trying to change the situation, I revel in the fact that I am feeling frustrated.  I practice learning how to stay with the day where nothing seems to be going my way.  When I succeed in taking the day – and myself – for what it is, things tend to turn around.  Paradoxically, as soon as I try to hold onto my feelings of frustration they vanish and the rest of the day tends to flow a little more smoothly.

Perfection is Impossible

When it comes right down to it, you are not working on your old wooden canoe, you are working with it. You and your canoe are active partners in search of a successful conclusion.  You must listen to your canoe and accept its strengths and limitations. There will be times when you want one thing and your canoe simply has something else in mind.  You must be prepared for times when things don’t go as planned.  The fact is, when things work out the first time, it will be the exception rather than the rule.

The minute you try to force the issue, your canoe will remind you who is in charge.  Let your mind wander and your canoe will shake you back to reality.  Think for a moment that you know what you are doing and your canoe will show you otherwise.

Mistakes are the engine of learning and mastery.  Indeed, in order to allow your body to learn anything, you must give it permission to screw up.  However, you are starting down a particularly challenging path.  A friend of mine, a master carpenter with 25 years of experience, ran from the room five hours into a canoe restoration and wished me luck on my crazy adventure.

Your canoe may have been made in a factory as one of thousands in the production line.  However, after four or five decades, it is unique.  The lines are no longer completely fair.  The wood is no longer smooth and even.  Abraham Lincoln said, “Every man over forty is responsible for his own face.”  So too, the life of your canoe is written in every crack and warp in its venerable hull.

I use a lot of photographs to illustrate the techniques I describe in my articles.  Bear in mind, that I have the luxury of selection.  If I were to illustrate the mistakes as well as the successes, the articles would be at least twenty times as long.

My hope is that by presenting some of my successes and alerting you to some of the pitfalls, your canoe restoration will be rewarding, enjoyable and successful.

Bobs Special 08