April 21, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
A number of canoe builders operated in a small aboriginal community just outside of Quebec City. Names such as Bastien Brothers, Gagnon Brothers, Groslouis, Picard, Faber, Yaho and Big Chief came out of this community now called Wendake (formerly Huron Village or Loretteville). They also produced canoes generically for department stores such as Sears and were referred to as “Huron” canoes. The history of canoe building in the village dates back to the days of the Fur Trade but the more modern wood-canvas canoes were made from the 1920’s until the 1970’s. If you have one of these canoes, it is most likely from the later period – 1960’s or 1970’s.
These canoes were typically of a “rough-and-ready” nature — built quickly with less attention to the fine woodworking “finish” details. As a result they were often referred to ‘in the day’ as “The Poorman’s Chestnut”. This derogitory comment discounted the beautiful lines in these canoes. The hull was flat-bottomed which normally results in a slow-paddling canoe. However, “Huron” canoes also had a ‘soft’ chine. That is to say, the transition from the bottom to the sides of the canoe was very gradual. As a result, when paddling an unloaded ”Huron”, the waterline width was narrow which made for a fast boat. This, combined with substantial rocker in the ends, created a canoe that is quite simply a delight to paddle.
The process of restoring a wood-canvas canoe is very different from that of building one. You use the existing hull to form replacement ribs for any broken ones. As a result, you don’t require the lines for the hull. Most of the dimensions for replacement parts can be taken from existing components. However, depending on the condition of your canoe, you may need the specifications for the odd piece or two. So, here is a restorer’s guide to the “Huron” canoe.
One little note here: I am listing all of the dimensions in inches. I apologize to all of you who are working in metric. The canoes were originally built with imperial measurements, so I find it easier and more accurate to stick with the original measurements.
One more note: The canoes referenced here were built in a period around 1970. Most of them were purchased through the Sears catalogue. They are representative of “Huron” canoes. However, it is not my intention to say that these dimensions will be exactly the same as those in your “Huron”. It will give you a general idea of how these canoes are constructed and how they differ from other major manufacturers. It is my hope that after you read this article, you will be able to differentiate a canoe like this from a Chestnut canoe.
One last note: All of the canoes shown here have been restored for clients. Often they asked me to do things on the canoe that were not in keeping with the original configuration. Therefore, you will see canoes with seats lowered on 6” carriage bolts with hardwood dowel spacers or outfitted with a portage yoke. They are not original, so take note and please excuse the lack of historical accuracy.
Gunwales – “Huron” canoe gunwales consist of three components. The inwale is a rough piece of spruce 7/8” square. For a 15’-6” canoe, the inwales were 14’ long while the 13’-6” canoe had 12’ inwales. The last 6” or so of the inwales at each end are tapered down to ¾” wide to fit into the decks. All of the transverse components (thwarts and seats are attached to the inwales with 10-24 (3/16”) steel machine bolts. All of these attachments are rough looking, so they are covered up with a thin spruce gunwale-cap. The outwales were originally made of spruce as well. I always replace the outwales with hardwood – usually ash or oak. If I am replacing the inwales I use hardwood as well (again ash or oak) and cut them to ¾” wide to reduce the weight of the component while maintaining the overall strength. Consequently, the gunwale cap is also ¾” wide.
Decks – The decks in a “Huron” canoe were built very roughly. They used a slab of birch or maple typically that varied in thickness from ¾” to more than 1”. The stem-top sits flush with the nose of the deck and is held in place with a steel common nail. By the time you start restoring your canoe, the decks are usually rotted along with the stem-top. What is left of the common nail is often sticking out of the rotted nose of the deck. I attach the rebuilt stem-top to the nose of the deck with a 1½” #8 bronze wood screws. The deck extends 18” into the canoe from the end.
Stem-Top – You will rarely if ever have to replace the entire stem. However, I have yet to see an original stem-top that is not partially or completely rotted away. Depending on the amount of wood to be replaced in the stem you may have to pre-bend the wood to fit the original stem-profile.
Keel – If you want to keep the keel as part of the canoe, it is a simple piece to make. Use a piece of hardwood and taper each end roughly to ½” wide. The overall length is about 13’. It will accept the brass stem-band which is ½” wide.
Ribs – The ribs are simple slats 5/16” thick and 1-7/8” wide. The edges are chamfered 10° on both sides with the top cornered rounded off slightly. There are 2” spaces between the ribs.
Planking – Many people worry about the gaps between the planks in a Huron canoe. The original canoe was constructed with ‘green’ wood that subsequently shrunk to create spaces between the planks that can be as much as ¼” wide. This is one of the things that make “Huron” canoes what they are. The spaces do not compromise the overall strength of the canoe, so please maintain the look of the canoe by matching the width of the planking when you replace some of it. Do not try to fill the spaces with anything. It will only result is a mess that some other restorer will have to deal with.
Another aspect of the planking relevant to a restoration is the fact that more than half of the connections between a plank and the ribs were held together with two canoe tacks rather than the three typically used in other canoes such as Peterborough and Chestnut. As a result, the whole canoe tended to flex more. It is common for a restorer to find that most of the tacks in the “Huron” hull have either snapped or worked loose. I routinely take the time to tack every plank to every rib with three canoe tacks and replace all of the loose tacks. It takes a long time to drive 2,500 tacks into the hull with a clobber’s hammer and a clinching iron. However, it creates a very strong hull that is better than the original.
Seats – The seat frames are made of ¾” birch that is 1-3/8” wide. The stern seat is attached directly under the inwales while the bow seat is suspended below the inwale using a spacer on either side. The height of the spacer varies from 1” to 1½”. The forward edge of the bow seat is 49½” from the bow-end of the canoe while the forward edge of the stern seat is 35½” from the stern-end of the canoe. The seat frames are laced with rawhide (also called “babiche”).
Thwarts – The thwarts are made of ¾” birch that is 2¼” wide. They taper from the centre to create handle grips on either side that are 1-3/8” wide. They are attached directly under the inwales with steel 10-24 machine screws. I replace the machine screws in the seats and thwarts with bronze carriage bolts. The stern-quarter thwart is positioned 59” from the stern-end of the canoe while the centre thwart is positioned 93” from both ends.
April 14, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
If you are preparing to restore your wood-canvas canoe – especially in Canada – you are often looking at a canoe built by the Chestnut Canoe Company based in New Brunswick from 1897 to 1978. Of the many models produced over the years, the 16′ Pleasure Canoe was one of their best sellers. It had a variety of names and the hull shape changed as well over the course of eighty years. However, this canoe is most commonly referred to as the Chestnut Pal.
The dimensions of the components that make up the Pal are often the same as those found in many other Chestnut (and Peterborough) canoe models – including the famous Chestnut Prospector. As a result, if you have these dimensions, you can use them to restore about thirty different canoe models. So, here is a restorer’s guide to the Chestnut Pal.
This Chestnut pleasure canoe is from around 1952. The telegraph code was Ajax. It was 16′ LOA and had a 34″ beam.
The 16’ Pleasure Canoe from the Chestnut Canoe Company had a number of incarnations over the years. From the early 1900’s until 1953 it had a 34” beam, its ribs were 1.5” wide and was called the Ajax. Then the beam was widened to 36” and it was called either the Pal (1954 – 1978) or the Deer (1965 – 1978). Through the later years, the ribs were either 1.5” wide or 2-3/8” wide.
One little note here: I am listing all of the dimensions in inches. I apologize to all of you who are working in metric. The canoes were built with imperial measurements originally, so I find it easier and more accurate to stick with this measurement scale.
Inwales –The inwale is a length of ash 15/16” high. It is fashioned to fit the tumblehome present on most Chestnut canoes. Therefore, the top surface is ¾” wide while the bottom width is 7/8”. The last 15” or so at each end is tapered down to about 5/8” wide along the sides of the decks. All of the transverse components (thwarts and seats are attached to the inwales with 10-24 (3/16”) galvanized steel carriage bolts. I replace these with 10-24 silicon-bronze carriage bolts.
Outwales – The outwales are also made of ash. Depending on when the canoe was built, the outwales may have a chamfered edge on the bottom of the outside surface. Water often gets trapped under the outwales and results in rot on the inside surface. Therefore, I usually end up replacing this component. The sheer-line of Chestnut and Peterborough Pleasure Canoes turns up sharply about 18” from the end. As a result, it is necessary to soak, heat and pre-bent new inwales and outwales over custom-built forms to make the ash fit without breaking.
It is also worth noting that both the inwales and outwales were very often made by joining two pieces together with a 9″ scarf joint to create the full length Ash required. Apparently, it was difficult to get full length Ash even in the 1960′s.
Decks – The decks were made of hardwood – usually maple, ash or oak. By the time you start restoring your canoe, the decks are often rotted along with the stem-tops and inwale-ends. They are attached to the inwales with six 2” #8 bronze wood screws. The deck extends about 15” into the canoe from the end.
Stem-Top – You will rarely if ever have to replace the entire stem. However, I rarely see an original stem-top that is not partially or completely rotted away. Because the top 6” or so of the stem is straight, you can usually make the repair without having to pre-bend the wood to fit the original stem-profile.
Keel – If you want to keep the shoe keel as part of the canoe, it is a simple piece to make. Use a piece of hardwood (the original was ash) and taper each end to 3/8” wide. The overall length is about 14’. It will accept the brass stem-band which is 3/8” wide.
Ribs – There were typically two styles of ribs used in Chestnut Pleasure Canoes. Depending on the age and model, the ribs were either “narrow” slats 3/8” thick and 1½” wide or so-called “regular” ribs that were 3/8” thick and 2-3/8” wide.
The edges of the narrow ribs are chamfered 18° on both sides with the top corners rounded off slightly. The edge of the regular rib closest to the centre of the canoe has tapered ends (11° chamfer) while the edge closest to one end of the canoe is chamfered 30°. There are 2” spaces between the regular ribs and 1½″ spaces between the narrow ribs.
Planking – The planking in Chestnut Canoes was made of either Eastern White Cedar or Western Red Cedar.
Seats – The seat frames are made of ¾” hardwood (ash, oak or maple) 1½” wide and hand-caned seats. Both seats are suspended under the inwales with 10-24 carriage bolts and held in position with 5/8” hardwood dowel. The rear stern seat dowels are 1¾” long while the front dowels are ¾” long. All of the bow seat dowels are ¾” long. The forward edge of the bow seat is 58” from the bow-end of the canoe while the forward edge of the stern seat is 38½” from the stern-end of the canoe.
Thwarts – The thwarts are made of ¾” hardwood (ash, oak or maple) that is 2½” wide. They taper from the centre to create handle grips on either side that are 2” wide. They were attached directly under the inwales with galvanized steel 10-24 carriage bolts. The stern-quarter thwart is positioned 67” from the stern-end of the canoe while the centre thwart is positioned 96” from both ends.
April 7, 2013
There has been a huge demand for this article. So I am re-posting it.
If the seats in your canoe are laced with rawhide similar to that in old snowshoes, chances are you own a “Huron” Canoe – the generic name for canoes built in Huron Village (renamed Wendake in 1986) by one of several makers including Bastien Brothers (Big Chief Canoes), Groslouis, Picard and Gagnon Brothers. Although the “babiche” is likely to last longer than the canoe, at some point you may need to re-lace the seat frames.
The seat frames were constructed of birch that is 1-3/8” x 7/8”. The mortise and tenon joints are very rough and loose. Sometimes, the joints are pegged together, but most often the rawhide lacing is the only thing holding the frames together. The bow seat dimensions are 9½” x 15” while the stern seat is 9½” x 11½”. The bow seat requires about 65’ of 3/16” rawhide lace while the stern seat requires about 50’. The lacing is usually shipped in a long tube and is as hard as a rock. It has to be soaked for several hours (I use the bath tub and add a little borax to the water) before it can be used to lace the seats.
I will describe the most commonly used lacing pattern. The stern seat has 36 anchor-points – 9 on each of the 4 frame sides. The bow seat has 44 anchor-points – 11 on each side of the frame. The pattern repeats in sets of 8 strands, so the full stern seat has 4 repetitions of the pattern plus the first 3 strands of a fifth set while the bow seat has 5 repetitions plus the first 3 of a sixth.
The only tool I use is a sharp pocket knife. It trims the lacing and cuts small slits in the ends of pieces for joining. The entire pattern is laced using just a few basic knots and joins. The starting anchor join at 1.1 is made by threading the lace through a small slit in the end of the first lace in the pattern. Throughout the lacing pattern, pull the rawhide firmly but not tight. As the rawhide dries, it becomes very tight.
All of the remaining anchor points are tied using a larks-head knot. To perform this knot, you start by passing the lace over the frame. Wrap around to come up on the “outer” side of the lace and pass over the strand that was just made. Bring the lace back under the frame, then around to finally pass back over the frame and under the lace “bridge” to form the knot. In this case, a picture is worth a thousand words, so use the photo as your guide.
The fourth strand in each repetition of the pattern begins by passing over the horizontal strand and under the diagonal “forward slash” (/) strand. All of the weaving required in the fourth strand follows this pattern.
The fifth strand in each repetition of the pattern passes over the forward slash strands and under the “backslash” (\) strands.
The sixth strand weaves over the backslash strands and under the horizontal strands.
The seventh strand passes over the horizontal strands and under the forward slash strands.
The eighth strand does not have any weaving, but it finishes by passing over both the fourth and the fifth strands at the fifth anchor-point in that repetition of the pattern. It wraps under the strands and then up and over itself before forming the first anchor-point in the next repetition of the pattern. In this photo, you’ll notice that I did not perform the twist at anchor-point 1.5. The nice thing about working with rawhide is that it is very forgiving of small mistakes in the pattern. Once completed, you will be the only one to notice these slight weaving faults.
From now on, the first strand in the pattern weaves over the forward slash strands and under the backslash strands. Then, after forming the second anchor-point in the pattern and before weaving the second strand, stabilize it by passing over both the fifth and seventh strands of the previous set, then come up and over itself. Again, you will notice in this photo that I forgot to perform this twist at anchor-point 1.6. I just chalk it up to experience and by the time I’ve completed the seats, I know what I’m doing. The second strand requires no weaving.
The third strand passes over the backslash strands and under the horizontals. The seat is woven with progressively more and more weaving required as each set of the pattern is performed.
At some point, usually two or three times in a given seat, you come to the end of a piece of rawhide lace. To continue weaving, join the next lace to the previous one. The joins are made by cutting a small slit in each end. The end of the old strand is passed through the slit in the new strand. The entire new strand is then fed through the slit in the end of the old strand to create a secure join. I like to locate the joins so they lie on the underside of the frame.
Once you have completed the entire seat, the last larks-head knot is tied at the final anchor-point and the rawhide is knotted with one or two half-hitches.
Allow the rawhide to dry for a couple of days before finishing the seats with double-boiled linseed oil (thinned 100% with turpentine). Let the oil dry for a couple of weeks. Then, I finish the seats with shellac (thinned 100% with lacquer thinner) and varnish (thinned 12% with paint thinner) just as I do with the rest of the canoe interior.
I have seen a second lacing pattern used in Huron canoe seats. This style uses vertical strands instead of horizontals and employs the larks-head knot on only the top and the bottom struts of the frame. The anchor-points on the sides are just single turns around the frame. The lack of larks-head knots on the sides makes this pattern quicker to perform. It also has one less anchor-point and strand in the overall pattern.
March 17, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
Without a doubt, the most horrible job in the restoration of a wood-canvas canoe is the process of stripping the old varnish from the interior. It is messy, stinky, agonizing work that takes forever and cannot be rushed. Truly, the only positive thing to be said about stripping varnish is that as long as you keep going, the job will end.
However, it is not always necessary to strip the old varnish. If the interior varnish is in good shape – not peeling, cracked or gone altogether – you can simply clean the interior with TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) and rough up the surface of the varnish with fine steel wool. After vacuuming the interior and removing any residual dust and débris with a tack cloth, you are ready to apply new varnish. In my experience, if the varnish is stripped with chemicals, the canvas has to be replaced as well. As a result, one big job leads to another. That is why many people opt for simply cleaning the interior and applying new varnish to whatever is still there.
If, as is often the case, the interior varnish is peeling away, breaking apart or gone completely, the varnish has to come off in order to rebuild the interior finish from the ground up. Sometimes, the varnish is peeling so much that it comes off with a combination of a paint scraper, coarse steel wool and a lot of elbow grease. I have tried sanders and “sandpaper stripping wheels” powered by a variable-speed drill, but soon gave them up when I saw that I was removing just as much wood as varnish.
When it comes right down to it, the best way to remove all of the old varnish (and still have the original ribs and planking left intact) is to apply chemical strippers. I strip the old varnish before removing the old canvas. This way, the chemicals tend to stay inside the canoe. They soak into the old canvas and lift the filler and paint from the canvas, so unless you are extremely careful with the chemicals, you cannot strip the interior varnish without then putting a new canvas on the canoe.
I have heard of some people using a pressure washer to remove the chemicals from the hull once they have done their job. This would work well as long as the nozzle is wide enough to reduce the pressure to avoid ripping the planking apart. One downside I see to removing the chemicals with a pressure washer is that the work is usually done outside, often in your backyard. Consequently, all those nasty chemicals end up on the ground and (probably) in the water-table. At the very least, you succeed in killing the grass in that corner of the backyard.
When stripping varnish, the first step is to protect yourself from all those nasty chemicals. The commercial products usually contain dichloromethane (commonly used as a propellant in aerosol cans) and methanol (wood alcohol). Sometimes toluene (lacquer thinner) rounds out the mix. Besides long sleeves, long pants and an apron or coveralls, be sure to wear gloves (heavy-duty latex/neoprene), a respirator and eye protection. Have lots of water close at hand to wash off any stripper that contacts your skin.
It is essential to maintain a wetted surface when using varnish strippers. It evaporates quickly, so be sure to use lots of this stuff and do the canoe in small sections. I usually divide the job into four quarters of the canoe. Once the stripper has been poured onto a section of the canoe, use a sturdy scrub-brush (natural bristles) to spread the chemicals around and ensure that they get into every corner and let it work on the old varnish for about 20 minutes. When it turns dark brown and becomes thick, you know it is working.
Use a scrub brush and a scraper to remove the stripper.
Any stripper remaining in the canoe can be cleaned out with TSP mixed in a pail of water. Use a scrub brush, a scraper and/or steel wool to ensure that remaining stripper is removed from all of the nooks and crannies. Once the hull interior has dried, I go over the wood again with medium or fine steel wool to remove the last of the TSP and/or chemical stripper residue. Then, vacuum the interior to remove the dust and steel wool fragments to finish the job.
This takes as long as it takes – no short cuts. As with almost everything in life, if you don’t do a good job on the foundation work, it just creates problems later on. As much as I want this job to be done as quickly as possible, there is no way to speed it up. It takes time to do a thorough job. Sometimes, it even has to be done twice.
March 10, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
While repairing your wood-canvas canoe, you may come across some ribs that are perfectly good except for a small portion attached to the inwale. Rather than replacing the ribs, it is possible to repair the rib-tops.
First of all, you need access to a substantial portion of the damaged ribs in order to do the repair. Remove the planking along the sheer line to expose all of the damaged rib tops. Identify each piece of planking as it comes off since you may be able to replace the original pieces once the repairs are completed.
Now, machine new cedar to replace the damaged rib-tops. Sometimes the rib-tops are tapered, so make sure each replacement piece is cut and shaped to match the original wood.
Cut the rotted top off the rib to be repaired. I use a Japanese utility saw with 14 teeth per inch.
Create a scarf angle in the original rib. For a solid scarf joint, the glued surface ought to be at least six times that of the rib thickness. Therefore, ribs 3/8” thick have a scarf angle with a surface area approximately 2¼” long. You can use a rasp to make the scarf. I use a 4” angle grinder that is set up with a 24-grit sandpaper disc. It makes quick work of the job – perhaps too quick, so careful attention and a light touch are needed.
Line up the new wood with the original rib and mark the location of the matching scarf.
Create the matching scarf in the new cedar.
Glue the new wood to the original rib and clamp it in place with spring clamps. I use either a water-proof resorcinol glue (such as Weldwood or Dural) or a polyurethane glue (such as Gorilla Glue). The resorcinol glues are water-based which makes clean-up a breeze. After clamping the new piece in place, wipe away any excess glue with a damp rag. When dry, it sands easily and blends well with the wood. Polyurethane glue sets more quickly, sands easily once cured and creates a very strong bond. I use these two glues interchangeably.
The repaired rib-top is fairly rough at first.
However, a quick sanding evens out the joint and creates a clean repair.
Attach the rib-top to the inwale (I use 7/8” 14-gauge bronze ring nails, copper nails or brass tacks) and trim the rib-top flush with the top edge of the inwale.
When faced with rib-top repairs next to each other, it is easiest to do every second rib-top to avoid clamping difficulties. Therefore, it takes a couple of days to complete all of the repairs.
Reattach the original planking and replace damaged planking with new cedar. Stain the new wood to match wood in the rest of the canoe.
The finished product is strong and solid. Many of the rib-tops repairs extend less than an inch below the inwales, so it was difficult to realize that they had been replaced.
March 5, 2013
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
These days, the world of wood-canvas canoes is very small indeed. It seems strange to think that there may be trade secrets in such an exclusive community. However, just try asking a wood-canvas canoe builder for his or her recipe for canvas filler and be prepared to offer the secret handshake before another word is spoken. Fortunately, the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association has been publishing filler recipes for at least a couple of decades now. Without their help, I would not have been able to restore my first canoe some 18 years ago.
Now, I would like to declare my favourite canvas filler. To my mind, it is the best filler for wood-canvas canoes. It was introduced to me about eighteen months ago by Dave Lanthier of Kamloops, British Columbia. He has been using a latex-based lagging compound to fill the canvas for several years. Dave Bobbi of Shuswap Canoe Works in Tappen, BC (now deceased) taught him the technique. Now, I have been using it for over a year and I am a convert. Long live latex-based filler on wood-canvas canoes!
Dave recommended using either CHIL-SEAL® CP-50A MV1 or BAKOR® 120-09 lagging compounds. These are commercial products used to seal air-duct systems in commercial buildings. These compounds are specifically designed to fill canvas and make it water-proof. They have the added bonus of being fire resistant as well.
I purchase a 5-gallon (20 liter) pail of BAKOR® 120-09 for less than $240CND. Since the pail does about eight canoes, it works out to less than $30/canoe or roughly the same as the traditional oil/silica-based fillers. One of the major advantages to latex-based lagging compound 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.
I use a 6” (15 cm) foam roller to apply the lagging compound directly from the pail. Apply the compound to about a 6’ (2 meter) section of canvas on one side of the canoe.
Once the compound is applied evenly to the canvas, I use a 6” (15 cm) putty knife to remove excess compound and smooth the surface. Dave uses a wallpaper smoother for this. I suppose you can use whatever you have on hand. Apply the compound and smooth it as quickly as good technique allows. 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.
I find that the compound works very much like sheet-rock mudding. The first coat is a base coat, the second coat is a fill coat and the third coat is a smooth or finish coat. A fourth coat can be applied if necessary, but I was very pleased with the results after three. It takes the better part of a full day to complete the filling process. Then, just walk away and let the filler dry 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 compound is sanded smooth 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.
December 17, 2012
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.
December 14, 2012
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.
November 26, 2012
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 29, 2012
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, 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. 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 1:1 ratio has been the mainstay of wood preparation for exterior use for centuries. The mixture soaks into the wood and keeps it supple 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 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 a fine, hard finish. 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). The concentration of shellac in the alcohol is expressed 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 ethanol. 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.
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 and 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 about 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®.