by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

A little research into traditional wood finishing methods will tell you that, for over a hundred years, 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 asking me about this.  It appears that much of the knowledge about finishing wood for outdoor use 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 and simply want to add a coat of varnish to the existing interior finish, start by cleaning the varnished surface with TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) mixed in water.  Rinse the interior with clean water and let it dry.  Then, use fine steel wool to scratch the surface of the old varnish and make sure that all dust and debris is removed.  With the varnished wood properly prepared, it is ready for the application of new varnish as described below.

MYTH #1: Applying Linseed Oil first to bare wood will hamper the adhesion of other finishes. Linseed Oil is the basis of all interior finishing in canoes.  I must add that I am referring to “Double Boiled” Linseed Oil.  The name is rather misleading since the oil is not boiled but rather contains a variety of drying agents (Japan Drier is often used).  Raw Linseed Oil takes years to dry.  This is useful when you want a compound to remain flexible for years (i.e. Marine Bedding Compound such as Dolphinite).

A mixture of Boiled Linseed Oil and Turpentine – usually in a ratio of two parts oil to one part turpentine has been the mainstay of wood preparation for exterior use for centuries.  The mixture soaks into the wood and keeps it supple and strong for decades.  It also prevents water from soaking into the wood thereby helping to prevent rot.  I apply a coat of the oil/turpentine mix to the entire canoe and let the oil dry for a couple of weeks.  The wood in old canoes is very dry and brittle, so lots of oil is required.  For new wood, I apply a single coat of oil and let it dry for at least a week before applying shellac.

MYTH #2: Varnish will not stick to Shellac.  Shellac is fundamental to hard finishes on wood.  It creates a superb base for varnish and seals the wood in order for the varnish to ‘build’ properly.  It is easy to apply, dries in an hour or two, and polishes quickly with extra-fine steel wool.  Back in the days when woodworkers made their own varnish, shellac (as well as other gums and resins) was added to heated linseed oil to create the varnish.  Shellac is made from resins exuded by the female Lac beetle in India.  The resin is refined and dried in the form of flakes that range in colour from almost clear, through various shades of amber to dark orange (almost brown).  The shellac flakes are sold typically in one-pound bags which are then dissolved in denatured alcohol (Ethanol mixed with a little methanol to prevent people from drinking it. Methanol — also known as methyl hydrate can also be used on its own to dissolve the shellac flakes).  The concentration of shellac in the alcohol is referred to as the ‘cut’.  I normally buy pre-mixed shellac at the hardware store which is typically a ‘four-pound cut’ – four pounds of shellac flakes dissolved in one gallon of alcohol.  This is a rather thick mix.  Most woodworkers prefer a two-pound cut.  I dilute the pre-mixed shellac with lacquer thinner (a cocktail of volatile organic solvents usually including acetone, toluene, xylene and methyl ethyl keytone) in a 1:1 ratio.  Normally, shellac dissolved in alcohol is anhydrous and turns cloudy white when it comes in contact with water – not a good thing for canoes.  The addition of lacquer thinner prevents that from happening and gives me a nice two-pound cut to work with.  In fact, shellac dissolved in lacquer thinner (primarily acetone) is often called lacquer.

Apply shellac with a natural bristle brush.  This stuff dries almost immediately, so application is fast and indelicate.  Apply lots of shellac to a small area to ensure full coverage with one brush stroke.  Shellac is more slopped on than painted on.  Once applied, do not go over an area again — one sloppy brush stroke and move over to the next small area.  It is important to maintain a wet edge as you move down the length of the canoe, so speed is the key. Allow the shellac to dry for a couple of hours.  Then use extra-fine steel wool to polish the surface and create small scratches in the shellac.  Remove, any dust and debris and you are ready to apply varnish.

Myth #3: Varnish is difficult to apply.  Traditionally, varnish is made by dissolving gums or resins (such as shellac, rosin, mastic, amber, copal and damar) in heated oil (such as linseed oil or cotton-seed oil) and thinned with turpentine (distilled pine sap).  These days, most commercially manufactured varnishes contain petroleum-based alkyd polymer resins in oil thinned with mineral spirits (petroleum-based solvent).  If used straight from the can, the high concentration of solids (alkyd resins) makes it almost impossible to apply without ending up with sags, drips, streaks or bubbles in the finish.  There is a simple solution – thin the varnish about 12% with mineral spirits (paint thinner).  Some top-quality varnishes come with a higher concentration of solids and therefore require a little more thinning.  In any case, once thinned, the solvent allows the varnish to flow more easily which means that it will self-level to create a smooth surface.  The solvent also allows the varnish to dry faster thereby eliminating sags in the finish.

Before applying varnish, prepare the surface of the shellac base-coat or previous coat of varnish by scratching the surface with fine steel wool.  Too much rubbing will remove the previous coat, so quick and light is the key.  The scratches give the varnish something to hold onto.  Otherwise, the varnish will dry and then peel off.

Vacuum the surface thoroughly to remove dust and debris.  Then, go over the surface quickly with a tack-cloth to remove any remaining dust.

The interior of a wood-canvas canoe is irregular with lots of gaps and uneven surfaces.  Use a natural bristle brush to get the varnish into all the little nooks and crannies.  I use a 2” (55mm) brush.  It is a relatively major investment (currently costing about $45USD) and well worth it when called into service on a regular basis.  I used one brush on more than 100 canoes over a period of about eight years.  I finally had to retire it because the bristles had worn down to less than half their original length.

Set up your canoe in a well-lit space with good ventilation, away from direct sunlight.  Pour about two inches (5 cm) of thinned varnish into a clean, empty one gallon (4 litre) paint can.  Load the brush with varnish and rap the brush against the sides of the can to shake off excess varnish.  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 work lights set up at an opposite angle 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®.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

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Ted Fogg, curator at Gallery 2 in Grand Forks, BC, created an exhibit called “Tom Thomson and the grey canoe”.  The exhibit focused on the vital role that Tom Thomson’s canoe played in the development of his art and by extension Canadian art in general.  Tom Thomson painted a landscape that could only be accessed by canoe.  His art showed us a Canada as seen from a canoe.

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The centrepiece of the exhibit at Gallery 2 was a 16′ Chestnut Cruiser restored by Kettle River Canoes.  The canoe, built in 1965, is similar to the canoe paddled by Tom Thomson.  Tom Thomson painted his canoe a distinctive “dove grey” colour of his own creation in order to identify the canoe as his.  Ted Fogg and I made our best guess at replicating that colour.

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The canoe was raffled off as a fundraiser for the gallery. Two hundred tickets were available to win this canoe as well as two hand-carved paddles — a $7,000 value.  The draw took place on October 3, 2015.  The canoe was won by Melanie Lloyd-Lewis from West Vancouver , BC.  She and her family picked up the canoe on November 14, 2015.  She saw the exhibit and met both myself and Ted Fogg.

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Melanie has a deep connection to wood-canvas canoes and Chestnut canoes in particular.  She grew up in Ontario and paddled her grandfather’s 14′ wood-canvas canoe on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park — the heart of Tom Thomson country.

1968 Volkswagen Westfalia

Currently, she is having a 1968 Volkswagen Westfalia restored.  She plans to load the canoe onto it next year and take her two sons for a canoe trip in Algonquin Park.  The Tom Thomson canoe will return once more to its rightful place on Canoe Lake.  Happy Paddling, Melanie.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

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Speaking strictly in terms of form and function, canoes and keels don’t belong together.  However, wood-canvas canoes that have been in the family for decades must also be seen in the context of family history and tradition.  Many were built with a keel installed and that is the way the owner wants it to remain.  For this reason, I have no problem re-installing a keel in a wood-canvas canoe.

Most keels were removed at the beginning of the restoration project and are being re-installed.  Therefore, the first step is to clean it and remove old paint and bedding compound.  This is usually a two-step process.  I start with an angle grinder set up with a 24-grit sanding disk.  This cuts through the worst of the old material and gets down to the original wood.  Care must be taken in order to remove only the old paint and bedding compound.  Finish the job with a random-orbital sander set up with 80-grit sandpaper.  This removes any marks made by the grinder and creates a smooth surface for new bedding compound and paint.

Having just spent a lot of time and effort creating a waterproof canvas cover, it seems a little strange to then poke a dozen or more holes through the bottom of the canoe.  It is essential, therefore, to use a bedding compound that seals the keel to the canoe, creates a waterproof barrier and stays flexible for decades.

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Having tried a variety of products, I have returned to the old school.  Dolphinite 2005N Natural Bedding Compound is a linseed oil-based compound with the consistency of peanut butter.  It is the same as the bedding compounds used a century ago.  Unlike more modern compounds (such as 3M 5200 or Interlux 214) it stays flexible for the life of the canvas (several decades), seals well, accepts paint well and yet allows the keel to be removed from the canvas if necessary some years down the line.

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Most canoes use 1” (25 mm) #6 flat head silicon bronze screws combined with brass finish washers.  Begin by driving one screw into each end of the canoe.  Turn the canoe on its edge to allow access to the bottom of the canoe inside and out at the same time.  This is where it is useful to have the canoe set up on two canoe cradles.

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With one screw at each end, move to the outside of the canoe and line up each screw with the original holes in the keel.  Use a permanent-ink marker to show the position of the keel on the canvas.  Then mark the location of the screw where it comes through the canvas and mark the location of the screw hole on the side of the keel to facilitate attachment later.

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Apply bedding compound generously to the keel with a putty knife.  Any excess will be cleaned up later. For now, it is more important to ensure a good seal along the entire length of the keel.  Then, open the original screw-holes at each end to make it easier to find them.

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Not everyone has my “wingspan” – 79” (200 cm) from finger-tip to finger-tip – so not everyone can hold the keel in place with one hand and drive the screw with the other at the same time.  Installing a keel is normally a two-person job.  Get someone to line up the original holes in the keel with the screws coming through on the outside of the canoe while you drive the screws from the inside.  Sometimes, the original holes in the keel have been stripped.  In this case, use larger diameter 1” (25 mm) #8 screws to secure the keel.  If the keel has warped a little, you may need 1¼” (32 mm) screws to draw it tight to the canoe.  In this situation, especially with Chestnut and Peterborough shoe keels (3/8” thick), the screws may go right through the keel and poke out on the outer surface.  That will be dealt with later.

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Once both ends are attached, check to make sure that the keel is properly lined up with the centre of the canoe.  Once aligned, drive the rest of the screws along its full length.  Usually, it is necessary to apply some pressure on the keel in order for the screws to catch properly.  Sometimes, I need to get under seats to drive the screws.  This is where a flexible drill extension comes in very handy. Most of the time however, I have removed the seats to refinish or re-cane them, so access to all of the screw-holes along the canoe’s centre-line is not a problem.

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Remove excess bedding compound from the edges of the keel and apply more to areas that are not completely sealed.  Remove any bedding compound stuck to the canvas using medium steel wool soaked in lacquer thinner.

Use a file to take care of any screw-tips poking through the keel.  Finally, let the bedding compound cure for a few days before applying paint.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

Once you’ve got your canoe out of the shed for the season, you’ll need some way of supporting it off the ground when it is not in the water.  I can still hear my father saying, in no uncertain terms, “This canoe touches air and water, nothing else”.  One of the most convenient systems is a pair of canoe cradles.

They are quick and simple to build and can be stored easily when not in use.  They are also essential tools when repairing or refurbishing your canoe.

For the cradles I build, each one consists of two vertical struts, two base struts, two horizontal brace struts, two sling clamps and a cradle sling.  All you need to build a pair of cradles are:

  • 4 – 8’ 2×4’s (spruce) to make the struts;
  • A bunch of 2½” deck screws to hold the whole thing together and;
  • 2 strips of material 3½” wide for the slings (I use pieces of carpet or scraps of canvas leftover from a canoe project).  I have seen some people use 3/8” rope for the slings.

As far as dimensions are concerned, I find a stable design that still holds the canoe off the ground at a comfortable height have vertical and horizontal struts that are 28” long.  The base struts are 24” long and are oriented parallel to the centre-line of the canoe to create stable “feet” for the cradle.  The sling material is about 50” long.  The clamps are just scrap pieces used to hold the sling material to the vertical struts.  These can be about 6” long – whatever you end up with.

To build a cradle, start by creating the two sides.  They each consist of a base strut attached to the end of a vertical strut to form a T-shape.

Next, the 28” bottom brace strut is attached between the two sides and the 28” upper brace strut is positioned somewhere in the middle of the vertical strut.

I take a minute to round-off the inside corners of the vertical struts.  Otherwise, the sling material wears out quickly and has to be replaced frequently.  I use an angle grinder to round the corners, but the same job can be done with a rasp and a little elbow-grease.

Construction of the cradle is completed by attaching the sling by means of the clamps.  The whole process takes the better part of an hour for both cradles.  If you want to pretty them up a bit, the struts can be rounded off and sanded smooth.

Any cradles that are going to spend a lot of time outside are finished with an opaque oil-based stain to protect the wood.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

Tom Thomson and his grey canoe 01

In 2014, Ted Fogg, curator of Gallery 2 in Grand Forks, BC, walked across the street from his office at the art gallery and entered my workshop at Kettle River Canoes.  He was planning an exhibit called “Tom Thomson and the grey canoe”.  He was looking for an old wreck of a canoe hull he could paint grey and use as part of the display in the show.  I shrugged and said, “What if KRC restores a 16′ Chestnut Cruiser (the same make and model of canoe that Tom Thomson owned).  Not only will it be a highlight of the show, but you could then raffle it off as a fundraiser for the gallery.”

Ted thought that was a great idea.  “When can you get started on the restoration?”  I smiled and said, “As soon as a 16′ Chestnut Cruiser turns up.”  The only difficulty was that in the course of eleven years in business — restoring over 150 canoes — I had never seen a 16′ Chestnut Cruiser available ‘for adoption’ from someone who could no longer keep it.

Tom Thomson in his grey canoe circa 1914.

Tom Thomson was an artist and fishing guide who lived and worked in Algonquin Park.  He began as a graphic artist in the early 1900’s.  In 1912, he started to paint images of the landscape north of Toronto in Algonquin Park and Georgian Bay.  He died under mysterious circumstances in 1917 — accidental drowning?  murder? — on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park at the age of 40.  In the course of those five years, Tom Thomson established a style of painting that was uniquely Canadian.

And Tom Thomson

He introduced his friends to that landscape — Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, J.E.H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris, Fred Varley, Franklin Carmichael and Frank Johnston.  They formed ‘The Group of Seven’ in 1920.


Tom Thomson’s canoe, a 16′ Chestnut Cruiser (more precisely a heavy-duty version called the Guide Special), was fundamental to the art produced by the painter.  Tom painted the canoe a colour of his own creation that Arthur Lismer described as “Dove Grey” to make it easily recognizable as his.  He used it to venture deep into the wilderness.  Many of his paintings are images as seen from his canoe.

16' Chestnut Cruiser circa 1965

In January 2015, I was ready to begin the canoe restoration for the art gallery show — scheduled to open in May.  The only problem was that I didn’t have a canoe.  Then, a client contacted me to say that things had changed in his life and he was no longer able to proceed with the restoration of his canoe which he had already delivered to my shop.  “Please keep the canoe and find it a good home.”  It was a 16′ Chestnut Cruiser.

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The canoe was built around 1965 and had seen better days.  There were 15 broken ribs.  About 45′ of planking would be replaced.  The ends (as is usually the case) were rotted and needed to be repaired and rebuilt.  The seats had to be re-caned and new Ash outwales would replace the rotted originals.  I also carved a pair of one-piece Ash paddles to compliment the canoe.  It would take every minute of the four months we had, to complete the restoration in time for the opening of the show on May 9, 2015.

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Mike Elliott delivering a fully restored Chestnut Cruiser wood-canvas canoe to Gallery 2 in Grand Forks, BC for the opening of the exhibit 'Tom Thomson and the grey canoe' on May 9, 2015.

I completed the restoration late in the afternoon on May 6, took photos of it on the water the next morning and delivered the canoe to the gallery that afternoon — May 7, 2015.

Ted Fogg, curator at Gallery 2 in Grand Forks, BC (left) with Mike Elliott, canoe restoration artisan (right) at the opening of the exhibit 'Tom Thomson and the grey canoe' on May 9, 2015.

This fully restored 16' Chestnut Cruiser wood-canvas canoe (valued at $7,000) will be raffled off on October 3, 2015 at 2:00 pm. Only 200 tickets are available at $100 each. Phone 250-442-2211 for tickets.

This 16′ Chestnut Cruiser was won by Melanie Lloyd-Lewis from West Vancouver, BC.  She grew up in Ontario and has paddled Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park in a canvas-covered canoe.  Melanie was on-line looking for information about Chestnut canoes when she came across my blog article about the canoe restoration and raffle.  She is looking forward to many adventures in her “new” Chestnut canoe.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

18' Chestnut Prospector Vee-Stern

As I was completing the restoration of an 18′ Chestnut Prospector Vee-Stern canoe for a client, he asked me to create a wood-canvas canoe field repair kit. He lives in Whitehorse and plans to use the canoe on hunting trips in the Yukon. A few basic supplies along with a hammer, a screwdriver and the ubiquitous roll of duct tape are all you need to hold your canoe together until you get out of the bush and back to civilization.

The kit fits into a small food container (900 ml or 30.4 fluid ounces) and consists of the following items:

  • a piece of #10 (14.5 ounce) canvas 12″x12″ (30 cm x 30 cm)
  • 10′ (3 meters) of 3/16″ rawhide lacing (babiche)
  • a tube of waterproof glue
  • 30 – 3/4″ (19 mm) brass canoe tacks
  • 20 – 3/4″ (19 mm) silicon bronze 14-gauge ring nails
  • 12 – 1″ #8 silicon bronze flat-head square-drive wood screws
  • a small container of alkyd enamel paint

Canvas Canoe Field Repair Kit

You could also pack a clinching iron (auto-body dolly) but I don’t see the need when a river rock will do the trick just as well. Most of the supplies are self-explanatory except for the babiche. It is very useful for lashing a broken thwart back together or holding a make-shift thwart (tree branch) in place. Soak the babiche for a few hours, do your lashing and wait a few hours for it to dry. The babiche will tighten and hold anything without fail.

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 is one challenge.  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).

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, 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 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 polypropylene – 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.

I was interviewed by Sheryl MacKay for her show on CBC Radio 1 called “North-by-Northwest”.  We talked about the exhibit at Gallery 2 in Grand Forks, BC called “Tom Thomson and the grey canoe”.  I restored a 16′ Chestnut Cruiser for the show ($7,000 value).  It will be raffled off on October 3, 2015 at 2:00 pm.  Only 200 tickets are available at $100 each.

Check out the interview in my posting on YouTube:

02 Grey Canoe 09

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?

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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.