How to Varnish a Wooden Canoe

November 27, 2016

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
email: artisan@canoeshop.ca

A little research into traditional wood finishing methods shows 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 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 (again, if you leaving original varnish on the interior of the canoe, apply the oil/turpentine mixture to the hull exterior).  The wood in old canoes is very dry and brittle, so lots of oil is required.  I apply a single coat of oil and let it dry for at least a week.

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.  If you are mixing your own shellac from flakes, dissolve them in lacquer thinner alone in order to create a coating that will not become cloudy when it contacts water.

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 at room temperature.  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).  A side note here is that some commercial manufacturers of varnish use the label Varathane® for a mixture of resins dissolved in linseed oil.  Meanwhile, a mixture of resins dissolved in cottonseed oil has been called Urethane®.

If varnish is 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.  Consequently, conventional wisdom states that it is very difficult, verging on impossible, to achieve a smooth, even coat of varnish.  However, there is a simple solution.  Just 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 $48USD) 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 or small pools.  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®.

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All of this (and much more) is described in my book – This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood Canvas Canoe.
If you live in Canada, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the USA, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
Si vous habitez en France, CLIQUEZ ICI acheter le livre.

If you have read the book, please post a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads and/or any other review site.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
email: artisan@canoeshop.ca

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In my last blog article, I put out a request for “fancy” old canoes to restore and document as part of my second book  ̶  This Fancy Old Canoe.  That was three weeks ago.  Since then, I have been contacted by a number of people.  Now, several “fancy” canoes are about to come into the shop.  They are:

1) A 16′ Model B, Type 2 B.N. Morris Canoe circa 1913

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This canoe is fitted with 24″ framed decks. It will be restored to its original condition.

2) A 17′ Willits Canoe circa 1939

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Willits canoes were built in Tacoma, Washington from 1906 to 1963. Only one model of Willits canoe was ever produced  ̶  a 17′ canoe with a double-planked hull.  Transverse planks were fitted in the interior while longitudinal planks were attached to the exterior with 7,000 copper tacks.  A thin layer of cotton muslin soaked in pine tar was stretched over the hull and sandwiched between the two layers of planking in order to create a waterproof vessel.  The result was a truly gorgeous canoe that is very similar to those built by Rice Lake Canoe Company near Cobourg, Ontario (circa 1862 to 1920).

3) A 16′ Longitudinal Strip Canoe circa 1930

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This canoe has yet to arrive in the shop, so I do not know which company built it. Several companies (Peterborough, Lakefield, Strickland, English, Canadian and others) in and around Peterborough, Ontario built these all-wood cedar-strip canoes from the late 1800’s until about 1960.

4) An 18′ Old Town Sponson Canoe circa 1965

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This canoe belongs to a summer camp and was fitted with sponsons  ̶  floatation chambers attached just below the outwales on both sides of the canoe.  It may also have a sailing rig.

********************************

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These canoes, along with a 16′ J.R. Rushton Indian Girl Canoe circa 1905 with closed gunwales, comprise most of the “fancy” features that I plan to document in my second book. The one canoe I would like to restore and do not have lined up yet is a Raised-Batten Wide-Board Canoe.

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This is one of the first types of ‘carpentered’ canoe ever designed. They were one of the all-wood canoes constructed in the Peterborough region of Ontario starting in the 1860’s.  The hull was constructed by first steam-bending ribs onto a solid wood mould and then attaching four wide basswood planks on each side of the canoe.  Most of these canoes were painted although some were varnished.

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If you happen to have one of these canoes and you are able to get it to my shop in Grand Forks, BC, I will restore it for the cost of materials. My main focus is on the opportunity to restore one of these canoes, so the cost to you is entirely negotiable.

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Be sure to get your copy of my book – This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood Canvas Canoe.
If you live in Canada, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the USA, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
Si vous habitez en France, CLIQUEZ ICI acheter le livre.

If you have read the book, please post a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads and/or any other review site.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
Email: artisan@canoeshop.ca

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My first book  ̶  This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood-Canvas Canoe   ̶  has been very well received since its release in April 2016.  Sales have been brisk and all the feedback indicates that it fills a void in the canoe library and provides the information required to bring family heirloom canoes back to life and back to their rightful place as part of the family again.

Chestnut Prospector fully restored

Most of the print reviews for This Old Canoe have been very positive.  The only comments pointing to weaknesses in the book came from professional canoe restorers in the USA.  They noted that This Old Canoe focused on the restoration of “utilitarian” canoes from Canada and failed to address the challenges found in “fancy” canoes from the USA.

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In my own defense, since This Old Canoe is the first book to ever focus entirely on the restoration of wood-canvas canoes, I decided to discuss the process in great detail and give enough specific examples so that people could work on their canoes even if they were not the exact canoes I mentioned.  It also seems a bit premature to put forward “post-graduate” information in a book that is geared towards first-time canoe restorers.

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That said, everyone I have met over the years who has an old wooden canoe views their canoe as the best and most authentic wooden canoe ever built.  Therefore, it only stands to reason that people may feel a little left out if they own an old canoe with details not covered in This Old Canoe  ̶  such as:

1) long-framed decks
2) solid, pre-bent decks
3) extreme curves in the sheer-line at the ends
4) closed gunwales and ribs set into pockets in the inwales
5) sponsons
6) a sailing rig
7) floor boards
8) a fancy paint design on the canvas
9) all-wood construction with no canvas cover
10) seats with hand-woven cane in a pattern not discussed in the book

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Now that I have laid out the fundamentals of canoe restoration in This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood-Canvas Canoe, it only stands to reason that I now begin work on my second book  ̶  This Fancy Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Fancy Antique Canoe.

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This is where I need your help. Since I live and work in British Columbia, Canada, I have limited exposure to canoes with these “fancy” features.  Most of these canoes were built by companies based in the eastern United States (companies such as Old Town, Carleton, Morris, Gerrish, Ruston, Kennebec, Robertson, White and many others).  Other fancy canoes were produced in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s by companies in Ontario such as Peterborough, Canadian, Strickland, Lakefield, Herald and others.  If you have an old canoe with long-framed decks, sponsons, all-wood construction with no canvas cover or any of the other features mentioned above, please contact me (email: artisan@canoeshop.ca).  I would like to be able to restore the canoe and document the process  ̶  just as I did in my first book.  You will have to bring your canoe to my shop in Grand Forks, BC and I will only charge for the cost of materials plus a token amount for my services (far less than the full cost of a regular restoration).  The cost of the restoration will be negotiated between you and me.  I am willing to do the work simply for the opportunity to document the process, so please contact me (phone toll free: 1-855-572-2663).

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A recent example of this assistance came when I presented my request to the Northwest Chapter of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association in September 2016.  I was approached by someone who lived near Seattle, Washington.  He had acquired a 1905 J.H. Ruston Indian Girl canoe with closed gunwales in 2010.

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He was well prepared to bring the canoe back to its original condition but was finding it difficult to get the time required to complete the project. He had acquired plans for all of the missing components and had begun the restoration by removing fiberglass applied in the 1960’s as well as removing all of the old varnish from the interior.

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I will be building custom bending forms for various components.  Also, I am documenting the dimensions of the components in enough detail to allow others to restore a similar canoe.

I look forward to talking to you about your fancy antique canoe.

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Be sure to get your copy of my book – This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood Canvas Canoe.
If you live in Canada, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the USA, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
Si vous habitez en France, CLIQUEZ ICI acheter le livre.

If you have read the book, please post a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads and/or any other review site.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
email: artisan@canoeshop.ca

reinstalling-the-keel

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.

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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.

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All of this (and much more) is described in my book – This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood Canvas Canoe.
If you live in Canada, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the USA, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
Si vous habitez en France, CLIQUEZ ICI acheter le livre.

If you have read the book, please post a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads and/or any other review site.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
email: artisan@canoeshop.ca

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 on the water.  I can still hear my father saying, in no uncertain terms, “The bottom of this canoe touches two things: air and water”.  One of the most convenient support 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.

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All of this (and much more) is described in my book – This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood Canvas Canoe.
If you live in Canada, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the USA, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
Si vous habitez en France, CLIQUEZ ICI acheter le livre.

If you have read the book, please post a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads and/or any other review site.

By Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

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Many fancy canoes have “pretty” end profiles. Canoes such as the Old Town HW, Yankee, Charles River and OTCA models are familiar examples along with those made by Kennebec, B.N. Morris and J.R. Robertson (to name a few) all sport distinctive characteristics. The stems curve back in a semi-circle or extend forward to produce a long “torpedo” shape.  The sheer-line curves to produce high ends in the canoe.  This high sheer-line means that the solid wood in the decks must be bent to follow the curve.  Also, the ends of the inwales and outwales must also be bent to match the sheer-line curve.

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Restoring canoes with high sheer-lines can be very challenging. I replaced the outwales in a Chestnut Indian Maiden.  The extreme bend required to follow the sheer-line necessitated building a custom bending mold for the outwales.

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When forcing such a large bend in outwales, they have a tendency to twist or collapse. To avoid this, prepare a support batten that fits in the outwale rabbet.  Make the bending form wide enough to accommodate both outwale-ends at the same time.  You have an “outwale sandwich” with the support battens in the middle.  The bending form must allow have enough “over-bend” to allow for some “spring-back” when the wood is released from the form.

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Follow the instructions for making and bending outwales that are presented in my book. Soak the wood (usually ash, white oak or mahogany) for three days — this includes the support battens as well as the outwales.  Clamp the outwale sandwich into the curved end of the form.  Then, pour boiling water over the soaked wood and bend the outwale sandwich onto the form.  Firm, steady pressure brings the wood into place on the form.  Allow the wood to dry for about a week before releasing it from the form.

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Attaching new planks to the ends of the canoe requires two people. I had an assistant hold a small axe-head against the ribs on the inside of the canoe at the ends while I hammered the tacks.  The axe-head is an improvised clinching iron that can fit into the narrow ends of the canoe.

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Fit the newly bent outwales onto the canoe and sand them smooth. This makes sure the edges of the outwales fit exactly with the curve of the inwales and decks.  Remove the outwales and apply stain, shellac and varnish as per the instructions in my book.  Once completed, your fancy wood-canvas canoe is a delight to behold.

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Be sure to get your copy of my book – This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood Canvas Canoe.
If you live in Canada, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the USA, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
Si vous habitez en France, CLIQUEZ ICI acheter le livre.

If you have read the book, please post a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads and/or any other review site.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

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Many “fancy” antique wooden canoes have beautiful up-swept sheer-lines at the ends. The curved end profile in many canoes built by canoe companies such as Old Town, Kennebec, Robertson, Monohon, Canadian, Lakefield and Peterborough elicit gasps of admiration from passersby and groans of despair from would-be canoe restorers.  Let’s look at the Model 44 all-wood cedar-strip canoe built by the Peterborough Canoe Company (1879-1961).

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When I started restoring this canoe, it looked fairly good considering that it was 87 years old. However, I had my doubts about the integrity of the decks and suspected to discover some issues there.

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Sure enough, the decks were full of rot and had to be replaced. Each deck was comprised of two pieces of butternut (white walnut).  They were braced together from below by two pieces of hardwood.  The joint between the deck pieces was covered by a cap of white oak and the end grain was covered by a white oak coaming.  When disassembling the deck system, make notes and diagrams of every component and screw.  Make sure you know exactly what every part is and where it fits in the system.  Many of the original screws are impossible to source now, so keep them, clean them and reuse them.

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The original butternut sections were bent to fit the up-turned profile of each end. Sourcing four-quarters (4/4) butternut in boards 8″ (20 cm) wide is a challenge. I was able to locate a supplier in Pennsylvania.  The inside edge of each half of the deck had an 8° angle to create a gentle arch to the entire deck.  The first step in the construction was to cut that angle into the new butternut planks.  It is absolutely essential that the camber be cut before anything else is done.

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Now, build solid wood forms for steam-bending the butternut. Each half of the deck requires both a top and a bottom form of solid wood.  The new wood is soaked and steamed before it is placed between the two halves of the bending form.  The forms are them pressed together and held there until the newly bent wood dries.  To build the forms, transfer the curve of the deck directly from each half of the deck onto ¾” plywood.  Add a bit more curve to the forms (about 1/2″ or 13 mm) to compensate for spring-back in the wood when it is released from the bending press.  Cut the shape of the bending forms from pieces of plywood.  Laminate a number of identical pieces together until you create a solid form that is wide enough to accommodate the new wood.  In this case, I created top and bottom forms for each side of the deck — four components all together — each 7½“ wide.

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Construct a press to hold the bending forms. In this case, I made the press out of 2×6 lumber and used a scissor jack from my car to generate the pressure required in the press.  The top and bottom beams were comprised of three 2×6’s and a piece of ¾” plywood.  The entire press was glued and screwed together for maximum strength.  This system only allowed one half of one deck to be done at a time.  Each piece of new butternut was soaked for two days, steamed for an hour and then placed in the press for two days.  It took almost two weeks to bend all four deck pieces.

Fancy canoe decks 03sm

Once you have the new wood bent and the curve matches the curve in the original deck pieces. Matching the curve in the new deck pieces to the curve in the original decks may take a number of attempts (with adjustments to the curve in the bending forms).  Don’t expect the curves to match the originals after the first attempt.  Once the new wood matches the original curved pieces, draw reference grid lines at 2” (5 cm) intervals onto each piece of the original decks.  Measure the distance from the centre line of the deck piece along each reference line to the outer edge of the deck.  Transfer these measurements onto the new  deck pieces.  Next, cut the outside edge of each piece on a band saw.  In this case, the outside edge was also angled.  It is important to copy that angle from the original deck pieces onto the new wood.  Cut just outside the line to allow for final fitting in the canoe.

Fancy canoe decks 06sm

Assemble the two halves of each deck with the original brace pieces on the underside of each deck.  If the brace pieces are weak, make exact replicas with the originals as templates.  Jointing the two halves of each deck takes a great deal of careful shaping and fitting to create a surface on the underside which is an exact copy of the original. In this case, I ended up making both decks twice.  During my first attempt, I rushed into shaping the top surface of the decks without checking the underside surface against the original deck pieces.  I discovered – too late – that both the top and bottom surfaces of the decks are shaped in very precise and complex ways.

Fancy canoe decks 07sm

With the underside shaped and braced, dry fit the decks into the canoe. In the Model 44 Peterborough, the end of each deck fits into a notch in the inner stem.  Make that notch as the first step in fitting the deck.  In the Model 44 Peterborough, three ribs fit into notches in the underside of each deck on each side.  Line up these notches and cut notches in the new decks using a dovetail saw, a chisel and a mallet.  The final assembly of each deck includes a coaming that covers the end-grain of deck at a precise location in the canoe.  Mark this position and draw the curve of the deck onto the new wood using the original coaming as a template.

Fancy canoe decks 08sm

Cut the curve of the deck on the band saw. In the Model 44 Peterborough, there is an angle to the curved face of the deck which must be copied from the original.

Fancy canoe decks 14sm

While the decks, prepare the deck coaming pieces as well as the deck-caps.  Cut new wood for these pieces and plane them to the thickness of the originals.  Then, build steam-bending forms for the coaming pieces. Next, soak and steam-bend the new wood.  In this case, the original coaming pieces were white oak.  In early (circa 1900) canoes, the coamings and deck-caps were mahogany.  Make sure there is extra height and length in the coaming pieces to ensure that a perfect fit can be achieved in the final assembly.

Fancy canoe decks 09sm

Fit the deck components through a long and painstaking process of shaping and dry-fitting until everything comes together with precision.

Fancy canoe decks 11sm

Now, clamp the deck in place and secure it with the original fasteners.

Fancy canoe decks 12sm

Begin shaping and sanding the top surface of the deck by making a flat surface for the deck-cap that will cover the centre-line joint.

Fancy canoe decks 13sm

Shape and sand the deck into the graceful curves of the canoe. Use a random-orbital sander in progressions from 60-grit sandpaper to 120-grit and then 220-grit.  Wet the top surface of the deck with water to raise the grain of the new wood.  Once dry, use hand-sanding in progressions from 320-grit to 400-grit and finally 600-gir to polish the wood satin smooth.  I complete the sanding by using a piece of paper from a brown-paper bag to get a delicious, glossy finish.  The craft paper in a brown-paper bag is the equivalent of 1200-grit sandpaper.  Next, stain the new wood to match the colour of the original wood in the rest of the canoe.

Fancy canoe decks 16sm

Attach the coaming pieces with 1.25″ (32 mm) #8 silicon-bronze round-head slot wood screws. Attach the deck-cap with ¾” 14-gauge silicon-bronze ring nails or copper canoe nails.

Fancy canoe decks 19sm

The final finishing is the usual process I have described in previous blog articles as well as my book.

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Be sure to get your copy of my book – This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood Canvas Canoe.
If you live in Canada, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the USA, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
Si vous habitez en France, CLIQUEZ ICI acheter le livre.

If you have read the book, please post a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads and/or any other review site.

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 also need to pack a clinching iron (auto-body dolly) in order to clinch the tacks when the time comes to use them.  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.

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All of this (and much more) is described in my book – This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood Canvas Canoe.
If you live in Canada, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the USA, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
Si vous habitez en France, CLIQUEZ ICI acheter le livre.

If you have read the book, please post a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads and/or any other review site.

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
c) protected from rain, snow, etc.
d) 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.

Canoe Storage Rack_sm

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).

Canoe Rack Rollers 01_sm

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.  Protect the gunwales of your canoe by threading a length of 1½” (38 mm) ABS pipe over the steel struts.

Canoe Rack Multiple 01_sm

Canoe Rack Multiple 02_sm

 

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.

Canoe Storage Hardware_sm

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.

Warning:  When storing your canoe (either inside or outside), resist the temptation to wrap it up in a tarp.  Any moisture trapped inside the tarp or developed over extended wet periods will remain there.  As mentioned earlier, this sets up perfect growing conditions for the fungi that cause wood-rot.  If you want your canoe to compost, then wrap it up in a tarp.  Otherwise, make sure there is plenty of air circulation around your canoe.

mockup 02

All of this (and much more) is described in my book – This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood Canvas Canoe.
If you live in Canada, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the USA, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
Si vous habitez en France, CLIQUEZ ICI acheter le livre.

If you have read the book, please post a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads and/or any other review site.

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”(feel more stable when you first get in them) 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” (gets more stable as you add weight to the canoe).  When the Chestnut Prospector 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.

mockup 02

All of this (and much more) is described in my book – This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood Canvas Canoe.
If you live in Canada, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the USA, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE to buy the book.
Si vous habitez en France, CLIQUEZ ICI acheter le livre.