by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

It was Sunday morning, September 14, 2014.  I phoned Peter Ord, curator of the Penticton Museum.  He wanted a C-15 war canoe fully restored and racing in the Steamfest Regatta on Okanagan Lake in Penticton on September 21, 2014.  We had exactly a week to complete the restoration and we were falling behind schedule.  Despite my urgent cries for volunteer help, I had just spent four days working on the project and half of that time, I was working alone.


“The project won’t be done on time without three or four people working on the canoe for four days straight.  It takes two days for a coat of spar varnish to dry.  I was not able to complete the varnishing on Friday because I was working alone when I was assured that volunteers would be there to help.  We can still complete the restoration on time for the Regatta (without a moment to spare), but it will take four people working eight hours a day for four straight days.”

Peter assured me that three people would be there on Monday morning.  As I left our house in Grand Forks at 6:30 am on Monday, I told Christy, my wife, that I would turn right around and come back home if the volunteer help was not there when I arrived in Penticton.  Christy was expecting to see me home again that afternoon.  She had heard about the struggles to get consistent volunteer help ever since the start of the project in February 2014.  The original plan was to have three canoes fully restored and racing in September.  I produced an action plan to achieve that goal.  However, it was dependent on volunteer work crews spending at least twenty hours a week on the project.  Now, with a week to go, we were scrambling to get one canoe ready to race against another that had been restored about fifteen years earlier.  As I made the three-hour drive to Penticton, I was not holding much hope.


Racing C-15 War Canoes is a tradition unique to Canada.  Highly competitive races started on Okanagan Lake in Southern British Columbia in 1905.  Many if not most of the crew members involved in these racing canoes were killed during World War I.  In the 1940’s, after World War II, the racing tradition on Okanagan Lake was revived with the arrival of two C-15 canoes from the Peterborough Canoe Company.  Two more were built by Gordon Jennens at Jenn-Craft Boat Works in Kelowna.  These four canoes were used sporadically over the decades until they were acquired by the Penticton Museum in 2010.  The museum curator, Peter Ord, was at a loss for what to do next.  Enter Mike Elliott and Kettle River Canoes in January 2014.

before 02 P03

The canoes were in various stages of neglect.  Wood was broken and/or rotting, varnish was cracked and peeling.  The original all-wood hulls (constructed using a flush-baton technique) had been covered with fiberglass and polyester resin in the 1970’s.  These canoes are 30 feet long (9 meters), 42 inches wide (1.2 meters) and 19 inches deep (49 cm).  Restoring these canoes would be a massive undertaking for a full-time professional team let alone volunteers working a few of hours a week.


The job began in February with a lot of ripping and tearing to expose the interior.

March 08 2014

Some volunteers dropped out of the project after stripping varnish for five straight weeks.


A group of boys from Penticton High School stuck with the messy, back-braking work.  In early April, they were cleaning the interior with tri-sodium phosphate (TSP) to remove the residual chemicals after all of the old varnish was removed.


They removed the damaged top plank all around two canoes to expose damaged rib-tops.


With time running short, the boys from Pen High focussed their attention on one of the two canoes.  They solidified and repaired all of the rib-tops.


They spliced new White Oak into the original Rock Elm ribs to repair some broken rib-tops.  By this time, it was late May.  A labour dispute between the provincial government and the teacher’s union escalated from rotating strikes to a full-blown strike and lock-out in mid-June.  The main workforce for the canoe restoration effectively disappeared.


Volunteers and staff from the Penticton Museum came onboard throughout the summer to continue the reconstruction and repairs.  Planks of clear Red Cedar were installed with new copper canoe nails.


Specialized joints were cut to overlap on top of ribs to join new sections of planking along the sheer-line of the canoe.  The volunteers did a fantastic job.


As new decks were installed in the bow and stern, and new outwales were attached, the museum staff and volunteers took delight in learning the art of using a drawknife to trim excess planking from the sheer-line.


All of the new woodwork was then shaped and sanded smooth.


The stern deck was installed, shaped and sanded — complete with indentations to form a “bum seat” for the coxswain.


The last of the old fiberglass and polyester resin was removed from the hull exterior.  Unfortunately, the canoe would get new fiberglass and epoxy resin rather than restoring the hull to the original all-wood construction.  That process would have added several months to the time-frame of the project and increase the cost several fold.


All of the new wood was stained to match the original wood.  At first the stained wood looked much different than the original wood.


However, as a mixture of turpentine and double-boiled linseed oil was applied, all of the wood in the canoe became the same colour.  The oil had to dry for a couple of weeks.  This took us into the beginning of September.  We had three weeks to construct a completely new floorboard system, stain that new wood, apply shellac and varnish to the entire interior, apply fiberglass to the exterior, install the floorboards, stem-bands and thwarts and varnish the exterior.  I was more than a little concerned.  Many of the volunteers and museum staff had other commitments. Peter Ord was calling everyone he knew — begging for help on the canoe.  Most everyone he asked said, “No”.


Working from a couple of pictures I got from the Canadian Canoe Museum, I cut, shaped and fitted all of the new components.  With no-one helping, the pace of the work slowed down.


A couple of volunteers helped for a couple of days to complete the construction of the original herring-bone floorboard system.


All of the new wood was stained.  Then, the entire canoe — except for the hull exterior — was shellacked.  I was left to varnish everything by myself.  I was cursing the project and wondering why I agreed to get involved in the first place.


I arrived in Penticton on Monday, September 15 to find three volunteers ready to help finish varnish the canoe.  It remained to be seen whether there would be enough help available to complete the project.


The next day, four of us worked all day to apply the fiberglass and epoxy resin to the exterior of the 30′ hull.


On Wednesday, three of us worked all day to install the floorboard system and thwarts.


Thursday morning, the three of us sanded the hull and installed the stem-bands.


Thursday afternoon, a coat of spar varnish was applied to the hull exterior.  We did it!


On Saturday morning, we applied a coat of carnauba wax to the hull exterior to protect the soft varnish.  The canoe was then loaded onto a trailer and put on display at the Antique Boat Show at the Lakeside Resort in Penticton.  It was the star of the show.


On Sunday, two 30′ C-15 canoes raced in the Steamfest Regatta.  Four crews competed for the historic Robinson Cup.


All’s well that ends well.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

Proper storage of your wood-canvas canoe is essential to its long, rot-free life.  The basic principles of proper storage revolve around creating an environment that is hostile to the growth of the fungi that cause wood to rot.  This means keeping the canoe: a) well off the ground; b) upside-down; protected from rain, snow, etc. and; in an area with lots of air circulation.  Finding a suitable place 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.

Some examples of suitable storage 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).


If you are able to use the services of a steel fabricator, a canoe rack can be constructed from 1″ (25 mm) square tubing.  A single weld to create a right angle is more than strong enough to support a canoe, so there is no need for extra bracing if the rack is made of steel.

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 38” (96 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.

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 (2.5 cm) 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.  If you want your canoe to be able to dodge rocks in a rapid river, choose a canoe with lots of rocker at the ends.

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 “weathervane” – that is, it will orient itself with the lighter end downwind.  As long as the weight of the canoe is slightly 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 (canoes often live on rivers and therefore must be able to move sideways to avoid obstacles).  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.

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?”

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

In Canada, the canoes from the Chestnut Canoe Company set the standard by which all others are measured.  Now, thirty-six years after the company went out of business, they are still held up as classic canoe icons.  So, how can you identify a canoe as a Chestnut and what makes a Prospector a Prospector?

Scott 01

The Chestnut Canoe Company – William and Henry Chestnut started building wood-canvas canoes in 1897.  They bought a canoe in Maine (probably a Gerrish canoe) and made exact copies of it which they then sold out of their father’s furniture business in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  They incorporated the canoe business in 1905 which most historians view the birth date of the company.  However, the 1972 Chestnut Canoe Company catalogue proudly celebrated 75 years in business.  It seems the company viewed its birth as 1897.  Be that as it may, the company grew into the largest canoe manufacturer in Canada and, at their height, were producing in excess of 3,000 canoes/year.  In 1923, Chestnut Canoe Companyand Peterborough Canoe Company (and later Canadian Canoe Company) amalgomated under an umbrella group called Canadian Watercraft Limited.  As a result, the wood-canvas canoes for all three companies were built in Fredericton by Chestnut.  The Peterborough Canoe Company ceased operations in 1961 while the Chestnut Canoe Company continued until it closed in 1978.

Chestnut produced over 50 different canoes in a wide variety of models.  In this article, I will focus on the most common Chestnut canoes — Ogilvy, Cruiser, Bobs Special, Pal and Prospector.

The Chestnut Ogilvy – Although never as popular as the others, fishing guides on the salmon rivers of New Brunswick helped create a working canoe that was unmatched for its purpose.  They needed a river canoe they could stand up in all day long.  They were often poling the canoe upstream through shallow rapids in order to offer the prime fishing spots to wealthy clients.  The canoe had to be stable and tough with a shallow draft so as to avoid many (but not all) of the rocks.  They came in six models that ranged in length from 16’ to 26’ – real, honest working canoes.

The 16’ model had a 36” beam and 13½” depth at the centre.  The ribs were 3” wide, 3/8” thick and had only ½” space between them.  This created what amounted to a double-planked hull.  The rugged nature of the Ogilvy comes with a price in terms of weight.  The 16’ had an average weight of 84 pounds and a carrying capacity of 850 pounds.  It had a flat-bottomed hull, straight sides, full entry lines and modest rocker in the ends.  This made for a canoe that was slow and steady – exactly what was needed when working shallow, rapid rivers.

The Chestnut Cruiser – This canoe was one of the first canoes that Chestnut developed.  It was influenced very heavily by (if not copied directly from) Gerrish, White and Morris canoes built in Maine in the late 1890’s.  The lines are sleek, narrow and graceful – designed to handle rivers with speed and efficiency.  This narrow canoe had an arched bottom, fine-entry lines and generous rocker at the ends.  Therefore, it was not for the novice paddler.  However, in the hands of someone who knew what to do, this canoe was a dream to paddle.

Three models were 16’ 17’ and 18’ long.  The ribs were 2-3/8” wide, 3/8” thick with 2” spaces between the ribs.  The 16’ model had a 34” beam, was 13” deep and weighed 70 pounds.  They were also built with ribs 3” wide, 3/8” thick and ½” spaces between the ribs.  These heavy-duty models were called the Guide Special.  The 16’ model weighed 75 pounds.  Both 16’ models had a carrying capacity of 600 pounds.

The Chestnut Bobs Special – This canoe was one of two lightweight pleasure canoes built by Chestnut.  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 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.

Many outdoor enthusiasts were looking for a lightweight, stable canoe that would allow them to enjoy fly fishing or just a quiet paddle on the lake.  With a 37” beam and 12½” depth at the centre, the Bobs Special was very stable — ideal for those who find a regular canoe too ‘tippy’.  At the same time, it was surprisingly quick and maneuverable in the water.  This was due to the shallow-arch bottom combined with moderate rocker and fine entry lines in the ends.  The ribs were 2-3/8” wide and ¼” thick with 1½” spaces between them.

The Chestnut Pleasure Canoes – It is no accident that Bill Mason used a 16′ Chestnut Pal in most of his films.  It was stable, yet quick; steady, yet agile.  With a 36” beam, 12¾” depth at the centre, weight of 72 pounds and a carrying capacity of 700 pounds, the Pal was as close to being a perfect recreational canoe as you ever hope to get.  It was one of the Chestnut Pleasure Canoes which also came in 14’ and 15’ lengths.  Until 1958, the 16’ Pleasure Canoe had a 34” beam.  Then, the mould was widened.  The economy version of the 16’ pleasure canoe had been called the Pal for several years (from about 1954).  The pleasure canoes came in both narrow and wide versions until about 1960 when the wider versions were adopted exclusively.  Over the years, the ribs of the Pal (as well as the 15’ Chum and the 14’ Playmate) came in two different sizes – either 1½” wide and 3/8” thick with 1½” spaces between ribs or 2-3/8” wide and 3/8” thick with 2” spaces.

The bottom was a shallow-arch hull with tumblehome extending through the entire length of the canoe.  The fine entry lines and moderate rocker make it very easy to paddle.  In his film, “Path of the Paddle: Solo Whitewater”, Bill Mason demonstrated very well that the Pal was not designed for Class 3 rapids.  But, that didn’t stop him from trying.  The Pal was a great general-purpose canoe and was the canoe of choice for many generations of canoeists – even if many of them called it a Chestnut Prospector.

The Chestnut Prospector – This was the real deal – often copied, never matched.  A quick search on the internet produces at least ten modern canoe companies with a “Prospector” in its catalogue.  However, the Chestnut Canoe Company found the winning combination.  With high sides, substantial arch in the bottom and lots of rocker in the full ends, it was designed to transport heavy loads quickly through rapid rivers and large, challenging lakes.  It was essentially a deeper, wider Cruiser and is still regarded as the ultimate wilderness tripping canoe.

They were made in five lengths from 14’ to 18’.  The 16’ model had a 36” beam and a 14½” depth at the centre.  The 16’ model weighed 76 pounds and carried 850 pounds.  It was a fun canoe to paddle solo, but it really came into its own when loaded for an extended trip.  Although there was good tumblehome at the centre, the hull flared about 4’ from the ends in order to throw water away from the canoe while hitting big waves in rapid rivers.  The ribs were 2-3/8” wide, 3/8” thick with 2” spaces between them.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

Frequently, I get an e-mail from someone who is looking to sell their wood-canvas canoe.  Typically, they tell me, “The canoe has been stored under-cover for the last twenty or thirty years and is in excellent shape.  What would be a reasonable price to ask for my canoe?”  Conversely, a person is considering the purchase of an old canoe and wants my opinion on whether or not the asking price is a reasonable one.  In both cases, the best I can do is refer them to what I see on classified ads offering other wood-canvas canoes for sale.

I guess the simplest answer is: “It is worth whatever someone is willing to pay.”  I have a hard time seeing these canoes as commodities.  That is why I am in the business of repairing and restoring wood-canvas canoes.  My clients tend to value their canoe based on a set of criteria far removed from monetary concerns.  That said, wood-canvas canoes are bought and sold.  Most of them are at least thirty years old and range in condition from pristine to ‘ready for the burn pile’.  So, let’s look at the market and what tends to be ‘the going rate’.

Fully restored wood-canvas canoes tend to be listed in classified ads in a range from about $2,500 to $3,500.  Bear in mind that a brand-new Old Town 16′ Guide canoe – made by hand on the original mould – currently sells for $7,600 USD.  Serviceable canoes that need some work tend to be offered somewhere in the neighbourhood of $500 to $1,500.  Canoes requiring a full restoration can be picked up for $50 (or free) to $500.

When people ask for my opinion on a specific canoe, I base my answer on what a professional canoe restoration shop would charge to bring it back to ‘like new’ condition.  Any ‘original canoe in mint condition’ will require a new canvas.  Unfortunately, the original canvas will only last about forty years (Oh, how I long for a return to the days before planned obsolescence).  If the work is done by a professional canoe restorer, you are looking at spending about $1,500 to $2,000 after you have bought the canoe.  If the canoe ‘needs a little work’, be prepared to pay $2,500 to $3,500 for a full restoration.  And if it is a ‘basket-case’, the bill can often far exceed the cost of a brand-new canoe (not unlike the cost of renovating an old house versus building a new one from the ground up).  So, when you see a fully restored canoe listed in a classified ad for $3,500, they are probably just trying to recoup the cost of the restoration.

About ten years ago, I bought an original Greenwood Canoe for $900.  The bulk of the woodwork was in excellent condition and the interior varnish was still in very good condition.  The canvas was original (about forty years old) and although it was not rotting, it needed to be replaced.  Greenwood canoes are well-known to wood-canvas canoe enthusiasts in British Columbia.  Bill Greenwood built canoes in Richmond, BC from 1934 to 1975.  His workmanship was unequalled not to mention all of the Philippine Mahogany used in components such as gunwales, decks and thwarts.  Anyone who knows these canoes bows their head in reverence whenever they speak of Bill Greenwood and his canoes.

In my shop, I brought the canoe back to life.  The original mahogany outwales were shot, so I replaced them with exact copies.  I added a couple of coats of varnish to the woodwork and painted the new canvas the dark green that was typical for Greenwood canoes.

The next spring, I replaced the original slat seats with mahogany-framed hand-woven cane seats in the style of Greenwood canoes.  I removed the bow-quarter thwart, installed a mahogany carrying yoke and moved the stern-quarter thwart to a position halfway between the stern seat and the centre yoke.  I had no intentions of selling this canoe and, at that time, I had not seen a restored canoe sell for more than $2,500.  So, when anyone asked me how much I wanted for it, I told them, “The canoe is all yours for $4,500.”  In 2008, someone fell in love with my canoe and handed me a check.

If you are selling, it is possible to get the price you are looking for.  Just be prepared to wait a long time for that ‘special someone’ to come along.  If you are buying, be prepared to factor in the cost of a full restoration once you have purchased the canoe.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

later catalogue front cover

Of the lesser known canoe manufacturers in Canada, Tremblay Canoes Limited (Les Canots Tremblay Limitée) from St. Félicien, Québec stood out from the crowd.  They were well constructed with Mahogany trim and their sweet lines made for a lovely paddling canoe.

later catalogue page 2

The specifications I present here are for the standard line of canoes produced by Tremblay known collectively as the Chibougamau canoes.  There were six canoes in the Chibougamau line ranging in length from 14’ to 20’.  As in all of my blog articles presenting specifications for canoes, I do not present the lines for the hull.  I am presenting specifications for anyone faced with the restoration of a Tremblay canoe.  As such, it is not a builder’s guide but rather a restorer’s guide.  Most of the dimensions can be taken from existing components in the canoe.

This is the 14' Chibougamau canoe made by Tremblay Canoes and is called the Sioux.

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.

Tremblay Stern

One more note: In the later years of production, Tremblay canoes were known for their use of vinyl impregnated canvas (Verolite).  Although a couple of canoe builders still use this material, I have yet to find a single canoe restorer who will touch the stuff.  The vinyl coating acted as a plastic bag wrapped around the canoe and effectively held water against the hull for extended periods of time.  This lack of ‘breathing’ in the canvas cover resulted in extensive rot through many (if not most) Tremblay canoes that were paddled on a regular basis.

Tremblay Canoe Inwale

Inwales – Tremblay inwales are made of Mahogany with nicely rounded edges.  The ends curve sharply necessitating soaking the wood and heating the wood with hot water.  This facilitates the bend through that section.  I have repaired inwales that were cracked through the bend originally.  Mahogany is temperamental at the best of times.

Tremblay Canoe Outwale

Outwales – The outwales are also Mahogany, but being only 7/16” wide, they do not require heat-bending.  For such a thin outwale, they are surprisingly robust.  The 3/8” rabbet helps keep the piece stable.

Tremblay Canoe Deck

Decks – Tremblay usually made their decks from Birch, but I have seen Mahogany used as well.  They are simple in design but nicely finished.

Tremblay Canoe Stem-Top

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.  The top of the stem-profile is straight thereby making the repair fairly straight-forward.  The end assembly is held together with a 1½” #8 bronze wood screw.

Tremblay Canoe Keel

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 gradually to ½” wide.  It will accept the brass (or copper) stem-band which is ½” wide.

Tremblay Canoe Ribs

Ribs – The ribs are simple slats 3/8” thick and 2-1/8” wide.  The edges are chamfered 10° on both sides with the top cornered rounded off slightly.  There are 1¾” spaces between the ribs.

Tremblay Canoe Planking

Planking – Tremblay did a nice job on the planking.  The boards are usually 2¾” wide and 5/32” thick.

Roy 06

Seats – The seat frames are made of ¾” birch or maple that is 1-1/8” wide.  Both seats are attached to Mahogany braces on either side of the canoe with 1½” #8 bronze wood screws.  The seats are approximately 2” below the inwale.  The body of the seat is laced rawhide done the same way snowshoes were laced.

Tremblay Canoe Thwart

Thwarts – The thwarts are made of 5/8” birch or maple that is 2” wide.  They are simple pieces with no taper.  They are attached directly under the inwales with steel 10-24 bronze carriage bolts.

Tremblay Portage Yoke

Portage Yoke – If present in your canoe, you will appreciate the lovely shape of this yoke.  It is made of Ash 5¾” wide tapering to 2¼” at the ends.  Like most designs that are pleasing to the eye, it is also very comfortable to use.

Tremblay Canoe Hand Thwart

Hand Thwarts – These are used as carrying handles on both ends of the canoe.  They are positioned about 7” back from each deck.  They are made from birch or maple 3/8” thick, 1½” wide and about 13” long with nicely rounded edges.

Specification Page - Tremblay

Here is a specification sheet with most of the components on one page.

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: 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: 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.