Bill Greenwood and his Wood-Canvas Canoes
March 3, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
Unless you live in British Columbia, you have probably never heard of Bill Greenwood and his wood-canvas canoes. And if you want to start a fight amongst wood-canvas canoe enthusiasts, just ask them to name the prettiest canoes ever made. In Maine, you would hear names like Morris, Gerrish and White. In Ontario, Peterborough canoes are top of the list. But in British Columbia, people speak about Greenwood canoes in hushed tones and bow down to Bill Greenwood’s exquisite water craft.
There is very little information available about Bill or his canoes. Whatever I have collected is from people who bought their canoes directly from the builder at his shop as well as some antecdotes from Jim Kinzell, who worked with Bill as an apprentice from 1969 to 1975. Apparently, there was also a small biography produced in 1972 but I have yet to see it in person. My information is incomplete to say the least and is probably full of errors and omissions. That said, Bill Greenwood and Greenwood Canoes deserve recognition in the world of wood-canvas canoes.
From what I can gather, Bill started building canoes in 1934 as part of his rehabilitation from a stroke he suffered at the age of 24. He boarded a train in Vancouver, BC and made his way to Old Town, Maine. He hung around the Old Town Canoe Company shop and absorbed everything he could about canoe building until they realized what he was doing and kicked “the spy” out. Bill spent some time at other canoe factories including the Peterborough Canoe Company in Ontario before returning to British Columbia and setting up Greenwood Water Craft Company. The shop location changed a number of times over the years until he estabished a large shop complex on Mitchell Island in Richmond, BC in the late 1960′s.
Not surprisingly, the lines and details of Greenwood Canoes borrow heavily from the “Maine Guide” canoes of Old Town and other builders in Maine. They all sport wide, flat bottoms and have very little rocker. The stem profile is heavily recurved and the hulls all contain a lot of tumblehome. Bill’s 16’ (4.9 meter) canoes did not have a centre thwart, but instead had both bow- and stern-quarter thwarts as was typical of Maine Guide canoes. And Bill absolutely refused to make a canoe without a keel. In fact, one of my clients asked Bill to leave the keel off the canoe he was ordering. Apparently, Bill said something like, “My canoes have keels.” When my client told Bill that many Chestnut Canoes paddled very well without a keel, Bill said, “If you want a Chestnut Canoe, then buy a Chestnut Canoe.” My client told me that story while I was preparing the restoration work order on his 17’ (5.2 meter) Chestnut Cruiser.
The workmanship in Greenwood canoes is outstanding. He used “aircraft quality” Sitka Spruce for the double-tapered ribs. The wide planking was made of old-growth Western Red Cedar (edge grain). The stems were White Oak while the rest of the canoe was trimmed in Philippine Mahogany (Luan). All of the woodwork was flawless – tight planking, graceful lines and elegant detailing. The one drawback in many Greenwood canoes built in the early 1970’s is the fact that he used steel screws to attach the mahogany outwales. Apparently, Bill was feuding with one of his suppliers. He wanted 1.5” (37 mm) #8 brass wood screws in lots of 1,000 while the supplier insisted on selling lots of 10,000. Bill ordered steel screws from another supplier in lots of 1,000. I have had to cut that beautiful mahogany into hundreds of tiny pieces because the steel screws had corroded to the point of being fused into the wood. I’m sure Bill thought he had won the war with his supplier, but it has made the restorer’s job much more difficult 40 years later.
The quality of the workmanship is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that Bill worked almost entirely with one hand. The stroke he suffered at age 24 affected his left side. Consequently, his left hand was crippled to the point that he had very limited use of it. My understanding is that he used jigs for almost every step of production. That and a few very good assistants in the shop (including George Fletcher and Jim Kinzell) made it all work beautifully.
Greenwood Canoes came in lengths from 15’ (4.6 meter) to 18’ (5.5 meter). He had two basic models – the Pleasure Model (12” – 30 cm – deep) and the large volume Prospector Model (14” – 36 cm – deep). He built a full range of lengths in both models (as well as a 12′ car-top boat) until 1970. One client of mine has a beautiful home in North Vancouver overlooking the entire Lower Mainland. He had ordered a canoe from Bill in 1970 and was expecting a call any day to say that the canoe was ready. Then, he heard a news report of a large fire on Mitchell Island in Richmond. He looked out over the valley from his home and saw a big cloud of smoke. The Greenwood Water Craft shop was engulfed in flames. The next day, my client went to the site and saw Bill kicking through the ashes that used to be his shop. He said, “I only had time to grab two canoes – That’s yours over there.”
Bill rebuilt the business with a limited number of moulds and continued building canoes until he sold the business in 1975. According to Doug Ingram of Red River Canoe and Paddle, the moulds ended up in Cranberry Portage (a small community in Northern Manitoba east of Flin Flon). Apparently, they were never used again and are now in very poor condition. Bill died in 1979. His contribution to the world of wood-canvas canoes is significant here in British Columbia. People bow their heads in reverence to these stunning works of art.