February 9, 2014
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.
January 19, 2014
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
For those of you new to this blog and have not heard me on this topic, let me be as clear as I can be: To anyone thinking about applying fiberglass to a wood-canvas canoe, I say, “DON’T DO IT!” To anyone wanting to remove fiberglass from a wood-canvas canoe, the short answer is: HEAT.
Wood-canvas canoes are a product of a by-gone era; a time before planned obsolescence when things were built with the long term interests of the consumer in mind. The whole idea of building a canoe with wood and canvas was to have a vessel that lives and breathes. These canoes are part of the natural environment they work in. They are held together with tacks and screws – no glue. The wood flexes and moves with the water around it. When part of the canoe breaks or rots, it can be repaired or replaced with comparative ease because it is designed to be taken apart.
It has been about forty years since these canoes were the standard in the marketplace. Not only has the technology of wooden canoe repair faded into obscurity, but the mindset of both manufacturers and consumers has also changed. Synthetic materials are now generally seen as better – easier, tougher and longer lasting. The consumer has been convinced that the new materials can improve that which is outdated or at least maintain it quickly and easily.
In the fall of 2002, I was building my business plan for Kettle River Canoes through programs delivered by the local branch of the Community Futures Development Corporation here in British Columbia. As part of the program, they assigned me a marketing consultant to assist with my plans. The consultant asked me about the “turn-around time” for the products and services offered by my proposed company. When I told him that the canvas usually lasts about thirty years (over forty years if well-cared for), I thought his heart was going to stop. I then explained to him that once a new canvas is stretched onto the canoe and filled, the filler has to dry for a month before the canvas can be painted. At this point, he just shook his head in disbelief, “That just doesn’t make sense from a business perspective. Why don’t you just cover the canoe with fiberglass? You could have the job done in a day.”
When it comes right down to it, wooden canoes and fiberglass just don’t mix. Since the ribs and planking are held together with tacks, they flex and move naturally. Over the years, the tacks tend to work loose and eventually have to be either re-clinched or replaced. Conversely, fiberglass resin is rigid. Once applied, it tends to resist any movement. The combination of a flexible hull and a rigid outside layer results in cracked or delaminated resin. The tacks can also wear against the resin from the inside to the point where they come right through the resin. It can take as little as ten months or as much as ten years. At some point though, the fiberglass has to come off. And it is then that the real problem with fiberglass on a wood canoe comes to light. All of that synthetic resin has to be removed. It is a long, painstaking process that usually has you cursing the person that put the stuff on in the first place. The moral of the story is: Avoid applying fiberglass to the hull of a wood-canvas canoe. Learn how to re-canvas the canoe or find a professional to do it for you.
This leads us into the next question: How do you remove fiberglass from a wood-canvas canoe? All you require is a professional-grade heat-gun, a 2” putty knife, a pair of pliers, safety equipment (work gloves, safety glasses and a respirator mask) and lots of patience. The first step is to move the canoe into a well ventilated work space – preferably outdoors. Then start at an edge of the canoe and apply heat to the resin.
At this point it is important to note that fiberglass resins come in two basic types – polyester and epoxy. Polyester resins were the first to be developed. If your canoe had fiberglass applied to it in the 1970’s or earlier, you can bet that polyester resins were used. They tend to become brittle and deteriorate rapidly, so if the fiberglass on your canoe is delaminating it is most likely that you are dealing with a polyester resin. Fortunately, this makes the removal of the fiberglass relatively quick and easy. In many cases, the cloth can be ripped off by hand with very little need for heat. When I say rip, please be gentle. If you get carried away and pull at the fiberglass cloth too rapidly, you could end up tearing sizeable chunks of planking off the canoe as well (I speak from first-hand experience).
Epoxy resins hit the market in a big way in the 1980’s and are the standard today. They are applied by first mixing a hardener with a resin in a two-part formula. What results is a strong, tough plastic that bonds very well to wood. Unfortunately, this means that the removal process is arduous and painstaking.
As mentioned earlier, start at an edge of the canoe and apply heat to the resin. If you are dealing with epoxy resin, you will probably have to apply the heat for several minutes before the cloth begins to respond to your attempts to lift it with the putty knife. At some point, it does let go and the fiberglass cloth can be separated from the canoe. Then move a few centimeters and continue the process. Again, polyester resins let go fairly quickly. You will find that large sheets of cloth come off in fairly short order. I usually grab the cloth with a pair of pliers rather than with my hand. Even with work gloves on, the pliers prevent nasty encounters with heat and/or sharp edges of fiberglass (again, this is the voice of experience talking). If you are dealing with epoxy resin, be prepared to settle into hours of tedious work as the cloth is lifted one square centimeter at a time. It took me 17 hours to remove the fiberglass cloth from one 16’ Chestnut Pal. There was a double layer of fiberglass cloth on the bottom of the canoe.
Once you are back to the bare wood, the restoration is like that of any other wood-canvas canoe. So, enjoy the pleasures of life in the slow lane, stay away from fiberglass and celebrate the fact that you have a wood-canvas canoe.
Many people complement me on the great fiberglass job on my canoes. They are shocked to learn that the canoes are covered with painted canvas.
January 12, 2014
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
The blogs I do on the specifications of canoe components for various types of canvas-covered canoes seem to be quite popular. Apparently, I am the only one out there taking the time to write about this stuff and share it with others on-line. This time around, I am presenting a restorer’s guide to the Bobs Special from the Chestnut Canoe Company.
This canoe was one of two lightweight pleasure canoes built by Chestnut (the other was an 11’ solo canoe called the Featherweight that weighed about 35 pounds**). Before I talk about the canoe, I’d like to clarify the name. According to Roger MacGregor in his book “When the Chestnut was in Flower”, Harry and Will Chestnut were real history buffs. The telegraph code for the 15’ 50-Lb. Special was BOBS and made reference to Lord Roberts, a major figure during the Second Boer War in South Africa. Over the years, as this wide, light-weight canoe became more difficult to keep under the weight limit of 50 lbs (the average weight was 58 pounds while the carrying capacity was 700 pounds), they changed the name. I have seen a variety of Chestnut catalogues call it Bob’s Special, Bob Special and Bobs Special. So, feel free to take your pick.
If you happen to have a Bobs or have been lucky enough to come across one in need of some TLC, you will notice what a sweet little canoe this is. It paddles like a dream which is surprising for a canoe that is 37” (94 cm) wide. Its bottom has a shallow-arch that reduces the waterline width when paddled with a light load. There is a fair amount of rocker in the ends which adds to its maneuverability. At the same time, it is not difficult to stand up in a Bobs – making it ideal for fly-fishing or general recreational paddling for a less experienced paddler.
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 White Ash or Douglas Fir 15/16” high with the edge grain visible on the top surface. It is fashioned to fit the tumblehome present on most Chestnut canoes. Therefore, the top surface is 9/16” wide while the bottom width is 11/16”. The last 18” or so at each end is tapered down to about ½” wide (top and bottom) along the sides of the decks. All of the transverse components (centre thwart 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.
The gunwales (both inwales and outwales) are pre-bent about 18” from the ends. If you are replacing these components, the wood will have to be soaked, heated and bent onto forms in order to get a proper fit.
Outwales – The outwales are also made of White Ash or Douglas Fir. 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. Prior to installation, I seal the wood on all surfaces with a couple of coats of spar varnish.
Decks – The decks the Bobs Special were made of hardwood – usually maple, ash or oak. Sometimes, they used mahogany to help reduce the overall weight. 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 1¾” #8 bronze wood screws. As with the outwales, I help prevent future rot by sealing the decks on all surfaces with a couple of coats of spar varnish. The deck extends about 18” 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 – The Bob Special had a regular keel installed. Use a piece of hardwood (the original was ash) and taper each end to 3/8” wide. The overall length is about 13’. It will accept the brass stem-band which is 3/8” wide.
Ribs – The Bobs Special was constructed with so-called “regular” ribs (2-3/8” wide) that were ¼” thick instead of the normal 3/8”. They create a light-weight canoe but are not as robust as the regular ribs. You will probably encounter several broken ribs in your canoe restoration.
The edges of the ribs are chamfered in most Bobs Specials. Replicate the angles found in your canoe. Often, the edge 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 25°.
Planking – The planking in Chestnut Canoes was made of either Eastern White Cedar or Western Red Cedar. Although the planks started out at 5/32” thick, you will probably be shaving replacement planks down to match the original planks. Again, this results in a lighter, less robust canoe. You will probablly encounter many broken planks in your canoe.
Seats – The seat frames are made of ¾” ash that is 1½” wide. 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. The forward edge of the bow seat is about 51½” from the bow-end of the canoe while the forward edge of the stern seat is about 39½” from the stern-end of the canoe.
Centre Thwart – The thwart is made of ¾” ash that is 2½” wide. It tapers 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. As with every component in the canoe, I seal the entire thwart with a couple of coats of spar varnish prior to installation.
** If you are interested in owning an 11’ Chestnut Featherweight, give me a call toll free 1-855-KRCANOE (1-855-572-2663) or e-mail me firstname.lastname@example.org . I don’t buy or sell canoes. Instead, I focus on the restoration. For this canoe, you pay the current owner $1,000 to transfer ownership from him to you. Then the canoe comes to KRC for a full restoration costing (in this case) $2,900 plus taxes. Since it is your canoe, you have complete control over all aspects of the restoration (colour, etc).
December 1, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
Once the canoe has been canvassed and the filler has been applied and is ready for the next step, it is time to apply the paint. Here are five secrets for a professional paint job:
Tip #1 – Paint First, Then Assemble – Fifty years ago, the canoe builders in the factories were in production mode. To save time and space, they installed the outwales before applying varnish and paint. However, this caused two problems in the years to follow. First, the canvas under the outwales is not protected with paint. Second, the inside surface of the outwales is bare, unprotected wood. Over years of use, water can become trapped under the outwales. This moist environment can be ideal for growing the fungi that cause rot.
Two things can happen: a) the canvas can rot under the outwales causing the canvas to detach from the canoe and; b) the outwales can rot from the inside out.
To avoid these problems, paint the canvas and varnish the outwales (being sure to seal all of the surfaces) before the outwales are installed. Some builders go so far as to apply varnish along the cut edge of canvas before the outwales are installed.
Tip #2 – Sanding, Sanding and More Sanding – Generally speaking, the more you sand, the smoother the final finish. Also, the more meticulous you are about sanding, the better the end results. Before starting to paint the filled canvas, sand the filler with 120-grit sandpaper. I use a random-orbital sander for this job.
Any tacks in the canoe hull that are not flush to the hull will show up as you sand. It is essential to stop sanding immediately and re-clinch the tack to avoid creating a nice, round, tack-sized hole in the canvas.
In all practical terms, oil-based alkyd enamel paint is essentially heavily pigmented varnish. Both are handled in exactly the same way except that while the surface of varnish is scratched with steel-wool between coats, the paint surface is scratched with wet sandpaper. I use 220-grit wet sandpaper between the first and second coats of paint. I then use 320-grit wet sandpaper between the second and third coats and, if necessary, between the third and fourth coats. As always, be sure to clean the surfaces well before applying the finish. Remove sanding dust with a brush or vacuum. Then, clean remaining dust with a tack cloth.
Tip #3 – A Little Thinner – Some articles about oil-based paints and varnishes would have you believe that avoiding streaks and bubbles in the final finish is one of life’s great challenges. In fact, there is no great mystery to it. Thin the paint (or varnish) about 12% with mineral spirits (paint thinner) before using it. The thinned paint will self-level once it is applied and dries before sags and drips develop. For a canoe, any alkyd enamel works well. Most of these are known as oil-based “rust paint” and provide a tough, flexible finish.
Tip #4 – Tip It, Then Leave It – As with any paint, you must maintain a “wet edge” while applying it to a large surface. Therefore, it is important to work in small sections of the canoe. Apply the paint quickly and vigorously to get complete coverage. Don’t worry about streaks or bubbles. Just make sure the paint covers the area without using too much. I use a high-quality natural bristle brush to apply the first and second coats.
I use a disposable foam brush to apply the third (and, if necessary, the fourth) coat of paint. Once you have paint applied to a small section of the canoe, hold the brush at a 45° angle to the surface and lightly touch the brush to the wet surface. Move the brush quickly over the surface to “tip” the finish. Do this first vertically from top to bottom and then horizontally. If you are applying varnish, tip the finish across the grain first and then with the grain. After the section is painted and tipped in two directions, move to the next section until you have done the entire canoe. Check to make sure there is no excess paint dripping anywhere – especially at the ends. Then, go away and leave it alone for 48 hours.
Tip #5 – Protect Your Work – Are we done yet? Well, that depends on whether or not you want to protect that beautiful new finish. Once I have applied the final coat of paint and allowed it to dry for two days, I apply a coat of carnauba wax (pronounced car-NOO-bah) obtained at the local auto supply shop.
Follow the directions and use lots of muscle (or a good buffing wheel). If you’ve never tried it, waxing the canoe is worth it just for the experience of shooting effortlessly through the water. It’s like waxing a surfboard – the results are amazing. Also, the paint is protected from minor scuffs and scratches. Any oil-based finish takes several months to cure completely, so the wax helps protect it in the early months of use.
November 30, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
Once you have the canvas stretched on to your canoe, it is time for applying the canvas filler. I have received many e-mails from people looking for a way to fill the canvas without having to wait a month or three for it to dry.
Kettle River Canoes now has the perfect canvas filler. It is a Waterborne Latex Canvas Filler. One gallon (3.8 liters) is enough to do three coats on a regular-sized canoe (up to 18 feet long). This filler is specifically designed to water-proof canvas. It contained fungicides to help prevent rot in the canvas. Also, it is fire-resistant.
One of the major advantages to latex-based canvas filler is that it is water-based. There are no nasty volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) to contend with. Clean-up is accomplished with nothing more than a bucket of water. Most importantly (for anyone trying to restore a couple of dozen canoes in a year), where traditional oil-based fillers take about 30 days to dry before paint can be applied, the drying time for latex-based filler is about 30 hours.
Start by getting a base coat on the canvas. Use a 6” (15 cm) foam roller to apply the filler to the canvas. Work on one small area (about 6’ or two meters) at a time and proceed around the canoe until the first coat is applied. By the time you are finished the first coat, the second coat can be applied and again to finish the job with three coats to give a smooth finish to the canoe.
Once the filler is applied with the foam roller, use a 6” (15 cm) putty knife to remove excess compound and smooth the surface. Use only 3” of the 6” scraper to remove excess filler. This will prevent the filler from escaping around the edge of the filler to form a rough edge. If an edge remains, use your hand to smooth the surface. This must be done immediately as the filler dries very quickly. You want to be able to smooth the compound before it sets up — we are talking about a matter of minutes, so there is no time to fuss and fret. Get it on, remove the excess along with any obvious ridges of filler on the canvas and move onto the next section. It is important to maintain a wet edge as you apply the compound from one section to the next, so keep moving. By the time you have worked your way around the entire canoe, it is time for the next coat.
It takes the better part of a full day to complete the filling process. Then, just walk away and let the filler cure for a couple of days. Many people respond to my account of this process with: “There must be a catch. It can’t be that easy.” Well, if there is a catch, I haven’t found it. It really is that easy.
Once dry, the latex canvas filler is sanded very lightly (and quickly) with 120-grit sandpaper. I find it behaves very much like the traditional oil-based fillers from here on out. I install the brass stem-bands the same day as the sanding and begin painting the canvas (with alkyd enamel thinned 12% with mineral spirits) the following day. It sure beats having to wait a month for the oil-based filler to dry.
To purchase this Waterborne Latex Canvas Filler – $100/gallon.
Phone Kettle River Canoes toll free 1-855-KRCANOE (1-855-572-2663).
We accept VISA and MasterCard.
November 29, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
At first glance, stretching the canvas onto the canoe appears to be very tricky – and you would be right. It is a complex process that requires a lot of time and effort just to get set up. Once completed, you have a skill that you will probably never use again.
Start by checking the hull one last time. Re-clinch tacks that are raised above the hull as you run your hands over the outside of the canoe. Any new planking still raised above the rest of the hull is sanded smooth. Brush the hull and make sure there is no debris left behind to get trapped between the hull and the canvas.
Now, let’s talk about canvas. I normally use #10 untreated artist canvas weighing 14.5 ounces per square yard. Canvas 72” wide will work for most canoes. Large canoes, such as freighters, often require canvas that is 96” wide. Since I purchase canvas in 100-yard rolls, I have the advantage of being able to set up the roll on a rack. This allows me to pull the required length directly over the upside-down canoe. There must be enough canvas to extend about 18” (45 cm) past each end of the canoe. This means a minimum of 19’ (5.8 meters) of canvas for a 16’ (4.9 meters) canoe.
Secure the canvas to the inwales with spring clamps before turning the canoe right-side-up. With the canoe sitting in its canvas envelope, make sure the ends of the canvas are even before attaching the canvas clamps and securing them to the wall and the come-along.
With everything in place, remove the cradles and make sure the canoe is sitting squarely in the centre of the canvas envelope.
If you started stretching the canvas now, the canoe would pop right out of the envelope. To keep it in place, use two-2×4’s as vertical struts wedged between the ceiling and the canoe. My shop is an old warehouse with thick fir planks in the ceiling. Other locations would require re-enforcements in the ceiling. Protect the bottom of the canoe with 2’ (60 cm) lengths of 2×6. The bottom end of each vertical strut is set up slightly further away from the come-along than the top end. As tension is applied, the bottom end of each strut is pulled closer to the come-along bringing them closer to plumb. Another option is to weight down the canoe. I’ve used a number of 5-gallon pails filled with sand to push the canoe into the envelope as the canvas is stretched lengthwise.
With the canoe pressed firmly into the canvas envelope, crank the come-along a number of times to take up the slack. Then, make sure that all of the clamps and struts are secure. The last thing you want is for something to let go under all that tension. Use a utility knife to cut straight down from the top edge of the canvas in line with the end of the canoe. Stop about 4” (10 cm) from the sheer-line of the canoe.
Use a large “clothes-pin” to hold the sides of the envelope close together at each end of the canoe. These clothes-pins can be no more than two lengths of hardwood (2’ x 1” x ½” – 60 cm x 25 mm x 13 mm) clamped together at the top with a C-clamp. If you want to get serious about it, you can make proper one-piece units reinforced at the top with a ¼” bolt, washers and a wing-nut.
A pair of canvas pliers will be used to stretch the canvas along the sides of the canoe at the sheer-line. They work best when there is about 3” (8 cm) of canvas extending above the top of the inwales all the way around the canoe. So, put a new blade in your utility knife and trim the canvas.
In my first attempts, I trimmed the canvas down to about 6” above the sheer line and then carefully trimmed away more canvas as I worked around the canoe with the canvas stretchers. With over 100 canoes under my belt, I trim it to the desired height by eye in one quick step. However, don’t cut too close to the top of the inwales. There must be enough canvas to grab with the pliers, so take your time.
Once the canvas is trimmed all the way around the canoe, the come-along is cranked until the canvas is stretched tightly around the canoe. The amount of tension required varies with each canoe. Tap the canvas at the end closest to the come-along. When it rings like a tenor drum, start to attach the canvas along the sides.
Starting at the centre of the canoe, pull the canvas tight with canvas pliers. To do this, rest the jaws of the pliers on the top of the inwale and grab the canvas. Pull the pliers and hook the large “fulcrum” of the pliers over the inside corner of the inwale. Rock the pliers to about a 45° angle and secure the canvas at the top of the planking with a 1” (25 mm) brass tack. For a long time, I used ½” (13 mm) Monel staples and a staple gun. In my opinion, the tacks do a better job.
Start by securing the canvas at four rib-tops on both sides of the canoe near the centre. Sags in the canvas between the tacks indicate insufficient lengthwise tension in the canvas. If more tension is required, remove three of the four tacks on one side and crank the come-along a number of “clicks”. Re-tack the canvas and check to see if the sags are gone. If not, repeat the process with more “clicks” in the come-along. There is a “feel” developed in terms of the amount of tension needed for each canoe. If it is your first time, just keep an eye on the sags between the tacks. When they disappear, the tension is right.
Once the canvas is sitting tight against the hull between the tacks, attach the canvas at three or four more rib-tops on both sides of the canoe. Work from the centre towards both ends. As with most things in a canoe restoration, your first attempts involve a lot of trial-and-error (with an emphasis on error). It is all part of the learning process.
Once the canvas is attached to every rib-top, release the tension from the come-along and remove the struts. Support the canoe with the cradles and cut the canvas away from the clamps being sure to leave at least 6” (15 cm) extending past each end of the canoe.
To close the ends of the canvas around each stem, turn the canoe upside-down and raise one end to a comfortable working height. This is done by supporting it on top of the cradle with a scrap length of 2×4. Crease the canvas at the centre-line and cut along the crease from the point where the stem turns away from the canvas at the bottom of the canoe. This creates two flaps of canvas – one on each side. Each flap is trimmed to leave about 3” (8 cm) of canvas extending past the stem profile. Again, care must be taken to avoid cutting the canvas too close to the canoe. There must be enough material to grab with the canvas pliers.
The end of the canvas is closed around the stem by stretching and tacking one flap around the stem, trimming away the excess canvas and then doing the same on the other side. Start by stretching the canvas at the point where the stem turns up from the bottom. Lever the pliers along the stem and pull the canvas tight along the centre-line of the canoe. Secure the canvas to the stem with 3 or 4 tacks spaced about 1” (2.5 cm) apart. I use short tacks to attach the ends of the canvas to the canoe stem (about 5/8” or 16mm). Next, move to the stem-top and use the pliers to stretch the canvas flap. Make sure the canvas along the sheer line is sag-free and secure it along the stem with 3 or 4 tacks spaced about 1” (25 mm) apart. I alternate from top to bottom working towards the middle of the stem until the entire flap is tight and securely fastened. Now, trim any excess canvas along the open side of the canoe stem.
The second flap is stretched, tacked and trimmed the same way as the first. As each flap is secured to the stem, check to ensure the canvas is stretched smooth with no sags, creases or puckers. You may have to fuss a bit with the tension of the canvas along the sheer line near the end of the canoe in order to create a tight fit at the bottom of the stem. The length of the cut along the centerline of the canvas may also have to be extended ever so slightly to remove any puckers. All this varies with the shape of the stem profile. Your canoe may be straight-forward or may require some fussing. As long as you stretch the canvas well both where the stem curves away from the bottom and at the stem-top, you ought to avoid any major difficulties.
Once both ends are closed and trimmed, support the canoe on top of the both cradles and get out the propane torch. Before the filler is applied, the canvas knap must be removed. Knap is the fuzzy balls of cotton extending above the weave. This fuzz is burned away with a torch. The only trick here is to keep the torch moving. I’m not sure if it is absolutely necessary to ensure a smooth surface because I’ve never omitted this step. You can certainly experiment and see if the finish is rougher without singeing the knap. Meanwhile, I’ll stick with the traditional methods.
As you work the torch over the canvas, keep an eye open for any thread-ends that may ignite as you pass close to the edges. Make sure these are extinguished. Otherwise, the thread will continue to burn like a wick along its full length and cut the canvas in two. I was able to catch a burning thread before it did irreparable damage.
So, there it is. Unless a wayward tack has become trapped between the canvas and the canoe, it is ready to be filled. You will find the learning curve a little steep. Just remember to breathe and smile. Are we having fun yet?
October 30, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
A little research into traditional wood finishing methods will tell you that there were three basic steps to finishing the interior of the canoe – Oil, Shellac, Varnish. That said, I get a lot of e-mails and comments on my Facebook page asking me about this. It appears that much of the knowledge about finishing has been lost over the years or clouded by conflicting information.
Note: Oil, Shellac and Varnish are applied to bare wood. If you are not stripping the old finish from the interior of your canoe and simply want to add a coat of varnish to the existing interior finish, start by cleaning the varnished surface with TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) mixed in water. Rinse the interior with clean water and let it dry. Then, use fine steel wool to scratch the surface of the old varnish and make sure that all dust and debris is removed. Now, the old varnish is ready for an application of new varnish.
MYTH #1: Applying Linseed Oil first to bare wood will hamper the adhesion of other finishes. Linseed Oil is the basis of all interior finishing in canoes. I must add that I am referring to “Double Boiled” Linseed Oil. The name is rather misleading since the oil is not boiled but rather contains a variety of drying agents (Japan Drier is often used). Raw Linseed Oil takes years to dry. This is useful when you want a compound to remain flexible for years (i.e. Marine Bedding Compound such as Dolphinite).
A mixture of Boiled Linseed Oil and Turpentine – usually in a ratio of two parts oil to one part turpentine has been the mainstay of wood preparation for exterior use for centuries. The mixture soaks into the wood and keeps it supple and strong for decades. It also prevents water from soaking into the wood thereby helping to prevent rot. I apply a coat of the oil/turpentine mix to the entire canoe every couple of days until the wood can no longer absorb the oil. Then, let the oil dry for a couple of weeks. The wood in old canoes is very dry and brittle, so lots of oil is required. For new wood, I apply a single coat of oil and let it dry for at least a week before applying shellac.
MYTH #2: Varnish will not stick to Shellac. Shellac is fundamental to hard finishes on wood. It creates a superb base for varnish and seals the wood in order for the varnish to ‘build’ properly. It is easy to apply, dries in an hour or two, and polishes quickly with extra-fine steel wool. Back in the days when woodworkers made their own varnish, shellac was added to heated linseed oil to create the varnish. Shellac is made from resins exuded by the female Lac beetle in India. The resin is refined and dried in the form of flakes that range in colour from almost clear, through various shades of amber to dark orange. The shellac flakes are sold typically in one-pound bags which are then dissolved in denatured alcohol (Ethanol mixed with a little Methanol to prevent people from drinking it. Methanol — also known as Methyl Hydrate can also be used on its own to dissolve the shellac flakes). The concentration of shellac in the alcohol is referred to as the ‘cut’. I normally buy pre-mixed shellac at the hardware store which is normally a ‘four-pound cut’ – four pounds of shellac flakes dissolved in one gallon of alcohol. This is a rather thick mix. Most woodworkers prefer a two-pound cut. I dilute the pre-mixed shellac with lacquer thinner (a cocktail of volatile organic solvents usually including Acetone, Toluene, Xylene and Methyl Ethyl Keytone) in a 1:1 ratio. Normally, shellac dissolved in alcohol is anhydrous and tends to turn cloudy white when in contact with water – not a good thing for canoes. The addition of lacquer thinner prevents that from happening and gives me a nice two-pound cut to work with. In fact, shellac dissolved in lacquer thinner (primarily acetone) is called lacquer.
Myth #3: Varnish is difficult to apply. Traditionally, varnish is made by dissolving gums or resins (such as shellac, rosin, mastic, Amber, Copal and Damar) in heated oil (such as linseed oil or cotton-seed oil) and thinned with turpentine (distilled pine sap). These days, most commercially manufactured varnishes contain petroleum-based alkyd polymer resins in oil thinned with mineral spirits (petroleum-based solvent). If used straight from the can, the high concentration of solids (alkyd resins) makes it almost impossible to apply without ending up with sags, drips, streaks or bubbles in the finish. There is a simple solution – thin the varnish about 12% with mineral spirits (paint thinner). Some top-quality varnishes come with a higher concentration of solids and therefore require a little more thinning. In any case, once thinned, the solvent allows the varnish to flow more easily which means that it will self-level to create a smooth surface. The solvent also allows the varnish to dry faster thereby eliminating sags in the finish.
Before applying varnish, prepare the surface of the shellac base-coat or previous coat of varnish by scratching the surface with fine steel wool. Too much rubbing will remove the previous coat, so quick and light is the key. The scratches give the varnish something to hold onto. Otherwise, the varnish will dry and then peel off.
Vacuum the surface thoroughly to remove dust and debris. Then, go over the surface quickly with a tack-cloth to remove any remaining dust.
The interior of a wood-canvas canoe is irregular with lots of gaps and uneven surfaces. Use a bristle brush to enable you to get the varnish into all the little nooks and crannies. I use a 2” (55mm) natural bristle brush. It is a relatively major investment (currently costing about $50) and well worth it when called into service on a regular basis. I used one brush on more than 100 canoes over a period of about eight years. I finally had to retire it because the bristles had worn down to less than half their original length.
Set up your canoe in a well-lit space with good ventilation and away from direct sunlight. Load the brush with varnish and shake off the excess. Apply the varnish quickly and vigorously making sure that it gets into all of the corners. Work on a short section of the canoe. Then, look at the surface from an angle with light reflecting to reveal any areas that were missed. Apply enough varnish to achieve full coverage while at the same spreading it thin enough to avoid drips. Don’t worry about streaks or bubbles. If the varnish is thinned properly, it will spread evenly and bubbles will disappear in a few minutes. Once you have full coverage, ‘tip’ the surface by touching it lightly and quickly with the brush bristle tips. It is best to tip the surface first across the grain of the wood and then with the grain. However, it is difficult to tip in both directions in the canoe interior, so I usually just tip in one direction following the grain of the ribs. The varnish is both applied and tipped very quickly. Then, move over to the next section of the canoe. Always maintain a ‘wet edge’ as you apply varnish to the full length of the canoe. Work in small sections to make sure that the varnish in that section is still wet when varnish is applied to the next section. That way, the entire surface will be smooth. Once done, go away and leave the canoe in a well-ventilated, dust-free space for 48 hours. I normally apply two coats of shellac and three coats of varnish.
Clean your natural bristle brush in three stages. First, clean it with mineral spirits or turpentine. Then, clean it with lacquer thinner. Finally, clean the brush with a heavy duty cleaner such as Lestoil®.
August 31, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
Proper storage of your wood-canvas canoe is essential to its long, rot-free life. Finding a suitable place to store it is one question. The other is how to store your canoe. I’m sure there are as many ways to store a canoe as there are canoes. Let’s look at a few.
As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the fungi that cause wood rot can only grow in warm, damp environments. Therefore, it is best to store your canoe:
1) Upside-down; 2) Well off the ground; 3) In a cool, dry space away from rain, snow and ice; 4) With lots of air circulation.
Some examples of suitable spaces include:
1) Carport; 2) Covered Porch; 3) Unheated Garage; 4) Lean-To Shelter (against a building).
It can be a challenge to find a suitable location. However, once you have identified a spot, the next step is to develop a storage method. I will describe three possible systems. From them, you ought to be able to come up with something that works for you.
1. A Basic Rack – Does your space have a solid wall on one side? Is there enough room away from the wall to allow access into the space? If so, simply build and install two large racks about 7’ (2 meters) apart. The example illustrated here is made from spruce 2×4’s. The joints are glued and screwed to ensure a sturdy structure. The top edges of the rack can be rounded and/or padded to protect the gunwales of the canoe. Make sure the racks are secured well to the wall (with lag-bolts or through bolts and washers).
2. A Roller System – Is your space is long and narrow? Is it awkward or impossible to access the space from the side? In this case, it may be possible to feed the canoe into the space from one end. For this situation, install two support racks about 7’ (2 meters) apart. Each support rack is a length of standard 1” (25 mm) steel pipe at least 40” (one meter) long threaded through a length of 1½” (38 mm) ABS pipe at least 36” (90 cm) long. Install each steel pipe securely at the desired height. The ABS pipe acts as a roller and makes it easy to store the canoe in and remove it from a confined space.
3. A Hoist System – Is it possible or desirable to get your canoe up out of the way above everything else? If so, try using a system of ropes and pulleys to hoist your canoe up and away. Support the canoe with a length of rope wrapped around each end. Tie a permanent loop in both ends of the ropes. Use a carabiner to clip the ends of each rope together to create a support loop for each end of the canoe. Then rig a length of ¼” (7 mm) braided rope (I use multi-filament polyethylene – MFP – rope) through a series of pulleys as illustrated above and install a cleat to secure the free-end of the rope.
August 31, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
If there is an area of controversy in the world of wood-canvas canoes, the question of the keel would be it.
Historically, canoes (and kayaks for that matter) never had keels. Edwin Tappen Adney documented hundreds of indigenous water craft throughout North America in the early part of the 1900’s. His meticulous notes, drawings and scale models are presented in the book “Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America”. It was compiled and edited by Howard Chappelle after Adney’s death. The canoes and skin boats range from small hunting boats around 11’ (3.35 meters) in length to large cargo vessels over 36’ (11 meters) long. None of these vessels had a keel.
As people of European ancestry came in contact with canoes through the 1800’s and tried to build them, they tended to approach the task of boat building from a European perspective. For them, building a boat begins with a keel. The rest of the vessel is built around it. As canoes became a commodity for the general public, canoe builders also had to appeal to a market that didn’t trust a boat unless it had a keel. Many people unfamiliar with canoes feel unstable in them and have trouble travelling in a straight line. As a result, most canoes sold in the better part of the 20th century were equipped with a keel. However, it is interesting to note that true working canoes built at the same time (such as the Chestnut Prospector, Cruiser and Ogilvy) were usually keel-free.
The Chestnut Ogilvy was designed to be stable. The wide, flat bottom allows a person to stand up in it all day long. A true working river boat, it never had a keel.
To look at it from a design perspective, the stability of a canoe is determined by the hull shape. Wider canoes – 36” (90 cm) or more – with flat bottoms tend to have greater “initial stability” than narrow canoes – 34” (85 cm) or less – with arched bottoms. What is gained in stability with a wide, flat bottom is lost in hull speed and vice versa (what is gained in hull speed with a narrow, arched bottom is lost in stability). Attaching a strip of wood an inch high to the bottom of a canoe does little to affect stability one way or the other.
The Chestnut Prospector was designed to dance around rocks in rapid rivers. Although it has a more rounded bottom than the Ogilvy, the tumblehome and high sides in the centre of the canoe gives it very good “secondary” stability. This means when it is tipped over on one side, it becomes stable in that position. Also, the waterline width increases as more weight is loaded into the canoe. Greater width at the water-line equals more stability.
Tracking – the tendency of a canoe to travel in a straight line – is determined by its length. The longer the waterline length, the better the canoe tracks in the water. Note here that I refer specifically to the waterline length rather than the canoe’s length overall. The hull of a Chestnut Prospector lifts dramatically at the ends. As a result, an unloaded 16’ (4.9 meters) canoe will only be about 14’ (4.2 meters) long at the waterline. What is gained in maneuverability in a shorter waterline length is lost in tracking and vice versa (what is lost in maneuverability in a longer waterline length is gained in tracking). If you are simply looking for a canoe that will travel in a straight line, get a long canoe – 17’ (5.2 meters) or more – with no rocker.
Functionally speaking, most canoes are designed to navigate rivers. The rivers of northern Canada present the traveler with many challenges – chief among them; rapids filled with large rocks. The Chestnut Pal was equipped with a “shoe” keel. At 3/8″ (9 mm) high and 2¼” (57 mm) wide, it provided protection to the bottom without interfering with the canoe’s ability to sideslip past rocks in rapid rivers.
In lakes, many people complain that a canoe without a keel will be blown around by the wind. Again, it comes back to learning how to handle the canoe. When travelling on a large lake with the wind in your face, the canoe must be loaded with a majority of the weight in the forward half of the canoe. It will always tend to “weather-vein” – that is, it will orient itself with the lighter end downwind. As long as the weight of the canoe is upwind, the canoe will track easily into the wind.
Speaking as a canoe restorer, I wince slightly whenever I finish preparing a beautifully watertight canvas cover and then proceed to drill a dozen or more holes straight down the centerline of the canoe. I solve the watertight issue by using a top quality marine bedding compound to set the keel. Eventually, the bedding compound dries out and/or the keel is jarred by one too many encounters with rocks in rivers. When the seal is broken, the canoe begins to leak. It is difficult, if not impossible, to remove the keel without damaging the canvas. Therefore, when the canoe starts to leak, it is usually time to for a new canvas.
If the question of keels in canoes were strictly one of form and function, there would not be a discussion – a canoe is better off without a keel. You only have to look at any modern Royalex or Kevlar canoe on the market. None of the canoes built today have keels – and rightly so. However, in the world of wood-canvas canoes, there is more to consider. Many people have grown up with their canoe. It is part of their life and part of their family. Their canoe has had a keel for fifty years, so it seems only natural that it stays that way. In this context I say, “Fair enough.” It turns out that wood-canvas canoes are more than form and function. They must be seen in the context of family history and tradition. For this reason, I have no problem re-installing a keel in a wood-canvas canoe.
August 31, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
One aspect of canoe restoration that seems to confound many people is the process of bending wood. It is puzzling, and sometimes terrifying, until you know what is happening in the wood itself.
Wood fibres are made up of countless cells that have a tough exterior wall made of cellulose which cannot be bent or stretched. Therefore, when a piece of wood bends, it is the space between the cells that is either compressed or lengthened. A compound called lignin holds the wood fibres together. When it becomes hot (close to the boiling point of water – about 200°F or about 93°C), it is liquefied thus allowing the cells in the wood fibres to move. The cells on the inside of a curve are forced closer together while the cells along the outside of the curve are pulled further apart. When the wood cools, the lignin solidifies again to hold the new shape.
To bring the internal temperature of the wood to 93°C, two things are required: Water and heat. Heat is used to heat water molecules in the wood. They heat the lignin which then liquefies and allows the wood to bend.
Normally, there is not enough water in the wood to heat the lignin effectively. So, the first step in the wood-bending process is to raise the moisture content of the wood. This is achieved by soaking the wood long enough to saturate the wood. The time required depends on the wood species and the thickness of the piece. I don’t bother measuring the moisture content. Instead, I just go on experience. For example, a piece of Red Cedar rib stock 3/8” thick requires about 2 to 3 days of soaking time while a piece of White Ash stem stock 7/8” thick requires about 6 to 7 days. A piece of Red Cedar planking stock 5/32” thick requires less than one hour of soaking time.
Once the wood has been soaked, the wood is heated with steam or near-boiling water. The amount of heat required depends on the thickness of the wood. The Red Cedar rib stock is steamed for about 45 minutes while the White Ash stem stock is steamed for about 65 minutes. Meanwhile, the Red Cedar planking stock requires about15 minutes of steam. Too little heat and the wood will break, too much and the fibres are cooked and start to break down. The over-cooked wood then crumples on the inside curve when bent.
A key element in this process is the steam generation itself. It takes a lot of steam to create the heat required to liquefy the lignin. I use a 2 gallon (8 litre) pot over a propane stove.
My steam box (inside dimensions – 12” high by 12” wide by 7’ long) sits directly above it (balanced horizontally) with a firm seal made of plywood rings.
Each piece of wood in the box must have lots of air around it to allow the steam to heat each piece evenly. A series dowels creates a number of shelves in the box.
In the “old days” many of the canoe factories were heated with large boiler systems. These boilers were also set up to deliver steam into large steam chambers for wood bending. In many cases, the steam could be held under about 5 psi pressure in these chambers. These “pressure cookers” could reduce the amount of time required to soak as well as heat the wood quite considerably – about 6 hours soaking instead of 48 and about 15 minutes steaming instead of 45.
With the heated wood pliable and ready to bend, it is removed from the steam box and bent into shape immediately. The “working time” is about one minute. If the bending can be achieved in the first 30 seconds, that is ideal.
When I am bending a thicker piece of wood (more than ½ inch thick), I use a thin strip of hardwood – usually ash – as a backing strip for the work. It helps keep the integrity of the piece while it is bending. Make sure your wood is as close to perfectly straight grain as possible. If the grain slants, the outer edge of the wood grain will “run out” and it is more likely that the wood will split or break when bent.
Once the wood is bent into the desired shape, it is important to keep it in the form for at least 3 days. This allows the wood to dry and thereby retain its new shape. When I am bending stems, I let the stock dry for at least a week to reduce the amount of “spring-back” in the piece.
Sometimes, you must construct and use custom forms for the specific bend required. One example are the gunwales of the Chestnut or Peterborough Pleasure canoes. A quick look at the sheer line reveals a sharp curve about 18” from the stem-end at each end of the canoe. This bend is too sharp to be done when the new wood is dry. It must be bent prior to installation. To do this, you need custom forms for the job. I’m sure there are as many types of steam-bending forms as there are canoe builders. Here is the system I use.
I take the shape of the form directly from the original outwale and transfer it on to a piece of ¾” plywood that is 8”x24”. For four bending forms, I use eight pieces of 8”x24” plywood. Although the outwale is ¾” wide, the form is 1½” wide. The extra width makes it easier to work quickly when bending the hot wood. The curve in the form must be greater than the final curve desired. Compensate for a certain amount of “spring-back” in the new wood once it has been bent and dried. By adding about 2” more curve over the 18” of outwale than in the final curve required. Cut the first piece of plywood and use it as a template for the other seven pieces.
Cut strips of ¾” plywood 2½” wide. These will be the braces for the holding points along the length of the form. For the outwale forms, I use three holding points. In this series of photos, I numbered the stations starting with the first is at the end of the form that is 8” wide. The third is at the end of the curve in the form while the second is placed 18” from the third holding point. The second point is where most of the curve in the outwale occurs.
Each holding point will consist of a dowel and wedge system held in the braces. A ¾” hardwood dowel is placed in a 7/8” hole in each set of braces. The dowel is located so that the outwale (1-1/8” high) can fit between the top of the form and the dowel. There must also be enough room to allow a hardwood wedge to fit between the outwale and the dowel. Each brace piece extends at least 3¼” beyond the top edge of the form. The centre point for a 7/8” hole is placed about 1-7/8” above the top of the form. Attach each of the braces on one side of the bending form at their intended locations using 2” deck screws.
Now, flip the form over and place the braces in their intended positions. Insert the dowel into the holes and make sure that the dowel fits properly. It should fit easily into the holes on each side of the form and be located with enough space to accommodate the outwale and the wedge.
Cut the new outwales as exact copies of the originals. You will need four pieces to create two outwales. Determine which pieces will fit together to form each outwale and then mark the ends to identify them for bending. Soak all four ends for about 72 hours. I use a piece of 4” ABS pipe 7’ long as my soaking tube.
When ready to bend, remove one of the outwale pieces and lock it into the form at location #3 with the dowel and wedge. Pour boiling water over the outwale between the braces #2 and #3. Immediately, bend the outwale on to the form until you can lock it into place at brace #2 with a dowel and wedge. Repeat the heating and bending process between braces #2 and #1. The entire process is very quick. The dowel and wedge system allows this to happen with a minimum of delay.
Once all four outwale pieces are bent, set them aside to dry. The results vary with each piece of wood. Some hold the bend with very little “spring-back” while other pieces straighten out a fair bit. In any case, the wood can be adjusted easily to fit the canoe.
For new stems, I bend the stock (7/8″ thick by 2″ wide) first and then slice it on the table saw to make two stems that are then shaped to fit the canoe. It is all a bit complicated with lots of trial and error along the way.
At times like this, I think back to my years training to become a Fencing Master. My mentor was Zbigniew Skrudlik, who had trained the Polish Olympic Men’s Foil Team to 2 gold medals at the 1972 Games in Munich. As I was struggling for months to learn a particularly subtle and elegant action, I complained about my troubles in mastering something so difficult. He replied, “If it was easy, then everybody would be doing it. And if you can only do what everyone else can do, where is the advantage in that?”