March 22, 2015
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. Last year, I coordinated the restoration of a 30′ C-15 Racing War Canoe (circa 1949) for the museum in Penticton, BC. A crew of six people took five weeks and four times through the canoes with those nasty chemicals to remove all of the old varnish. They were happy to see the end of that job.
March 15, 2015
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. Lacquer Thinner is used to clean up polyurethane glues. 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 canoe nails or brass canoe 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.
If most of the rib-tops in your canoe are rotted, it is still possible to repair the ribs rather than replace every rib in the canoe. Since every rib will be cut, the original sheer-line will be lost. Therefore, the first step is to establish a reference line for the sheer-line. Go around the canoe with a carpenter’s pencil and mark a position 5” below the top of each rib. Where the entire top of the rib has rotted away, skip to the next rib and mark the reference point there. This will give you enough reference points to create a fair line the full length of the canoe. Now, tack a spruce batten (approximately ¼” x ¾” x 16’) at the reference points to create a fair reference line.
As mentioned before, every second rib will be repaired. Unless you have hundreds of 3” spring clamps, it will take a week or two to splice new wood into every rib. Once done, mark each new rib-top 5” above the reference line and cut every rib to re-create the original sheer-line of the canoe.
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 9, 2015
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
Unless you live in British Columbia, you have probably never heard of Bill Greenwood or Greenwood canoes. And if you want to start a fight amongst wood-canvas canoe enthusiasts, just ask them to name the prettiest canoes ever made. In Maine, you would hear names like Morris, Gerrish and White. In Ontario, Peterborough canoes are top of the list. But in British Columbia, people speak about Greenwood canoes in hushed tones and bow down to Bill Greenwood’s exquisite water craft.
There is very little information available about Bill or his canoes. Whatever I have collected is from people who bought their canoes directly from the builder at his shop as well as some antecdotes from Jim Kinzell, who worked with Bill as an apprentice from 1969 to 1975. There is also a small biography produced in 1972 as an assignment for a physical education course at a college. My information is incomplete to say the least and is probably full of errors and omissions. That said, Bill Greenwood and Greenwood Canoes deserve recognition in the world of wood-canvas canoes.
As I understand it, Bill was born around 1910 and was an active outdoorsman who loved hiking, skiing, canoeing — just about anything that got him outside. Then in 1934, at the age of 24, he suffered a stroke while hiking in the mountains. As part of his rehabilitation, Bill decided to learn how to build canoes. He boarded a train in Vancouver, BC and made his way to Old Town, Maine. He hung around the Old Town Canoe Company shop and absorbed everything he could about canoe building until they realized what he was doing and kicked “the spy” out. Bill spent some time at other canoe factories including the Peterborough Canoe Company in Ontario before returning to British Columbia and setting up Greenwood Water Craft Company. The shop location changed a number of times over the years until he estabished a large shop complex on Mitchell Island in Richmond, BC in the late 1960′s.
Not surprisingly, the lines and details of Greenwood Canoes borrow heavily from the “Maine Guide” canoes of Old Town and other builders in Maine. They all sport wide, flat bottoms and have very little rocker. The stem profile is heavily recurved and the hulls all contain a lot of tumblehome. Bill’s 16’ (4.9 meter) canoes did not have a centre thwart, but instead had both bow- and stern-quarter thwarts as was typical of Maine Guide canoes. Many of the canoes had bottoms reinforced with half-ribs between the main ribs to create a strong comfortable floor. And Bill absolutely refused to make a canoe without a keel. In fact, one of my clients asked Bill to leave the keel off the canoe he was ordering. Apparently, Bill said something like, “My canoes have keels.” When my client told Bill that many Chestnut Canoes paddled very well without a keel, Bill said, “If you want a Chestnut Canoe, then buy a Chestnut Canoe.” My client told me that story while I was preparing the restoration work order on his 17’ (5.2 meter) Chestnut Cruiser.
The workmanship in Greenwood canoes is outstanding. He used “aircraft quality” Sitka Spruce for the double-tapered ribs. The wide planking was made of old-growth Western Red Cedar (edge grain). The stems (and slat seats) were White Oak while the rest of the canoe was trimmed in Philippine Mahogany (Luan). All of the woodwork was flawless – tight planking, graceful lines and elegant detailing. The one drawback in many Greenwood canoes built in the early 1970’s is the fact that he used steel screws to attach the mahogany outwales. Apparently, Bill was feuding with one of his suppliers. He wanted 1.5” (37 mm) #8 brass wood screws in lots of 1,000 while the supplier insisted on selling lots of 10,000. Bill ordered steel screws from another supplier in lots of 1,000. I have had to cut that beautiful mahogany into hundreds of tiny pieces because the steel screws had corroded to the point of being fused into the wood. I’m sure Bill thought he had won the war with his supplier, but it has made the restorer’s job much more difficult 40 years later.
The quality of the workmanship is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that Bill worked almost entirely with one hand. The stroke affected his left side. Consequently, his left hand was crippled to the point that he had limited use of it. My understanding is that he used jigs for almost every step of production. That and a few very good assistants in the shop (including George Fletcher and Jim Kinzell) made it all work beautifully.
Greenwood Canoes came in lengths from 15’ (4.6 meter) to 18’ (5.5 meter). He had two basic models – the Pleasure Model (12” – 30 cm – deep) and the large volume Prospector Model (14” – 36 cm – deep). He built a full range of lengths in both models (as well as a 12′ car-top boat) until 1970. One client of mine has a beautiful home in North Vancouver overlooking the entire Lower Mainland. He had ordered a canoe from Bill in 1970 and was expecting a call any day to say that the canoe was ready. Then, he heard a news report of a large fire on Mitchell Island in Richmond. He looked out over the valley from his home and saw a big cloud of smoke. The Greenwood Water Craft shop was engulfed in flames. The next day, my client went to the site and saw Bill kicking through the ashes that used to be his shop. He said, “I only had time to grab two canoes – The yellow one over there — that’s yours.”
Bill rebuilt the business with a limited number of moulds and continued building canoes until he sold the business in 1975. According to Doug Ingram of Red River Canoe and Paddle, the moulds ended up in Cranberry Portage (a small community in Northern Manitoba east of Flin Flon). Apparently, they were never used again and are now in very poor condition. Bill died in 1979. His contribution to the world of wood-canvas canoes is significant here in British Columbia. People bow their heads in reverence to these stunning works of art.
February 1, 2015
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
A Zen Master and his student were walking together across a bridge when the student asked, “Master, What is Zen?” Before the student had a chance to react, the Zen Master picked him up and threw him off the bridge into the river below.
Zen is the moment – right here, right now. Zen Masters have written thousands of books in an attempt to explain the unexplainable. As the student hurtled through the air towards the water in the river, he was totally consumed in the moment. No past – No future – Just now.
So, what does this have to do with wooden canoes? I have found that a successful canoe restoration demands a mind and body that work together in the present moment. As soon as I rush things, I make mistakes and have to start all over again. As soon as I think of myself as the expert, I find something I’ve never come across before. As soon as I think the task is simple, I get bogged down in complex problems. As soon as I obsess over technical aspects and try to think my way through them, everything grinds to a halt in a mass of frustration. And the more I try to get out of my head and get back to “the moment”, the worse the frustrations become.
For me, a canoe restoration it is an opportunity to immerse myself in the moment – now and now and now and now. When I succeed, the hammer drives the tacks straight into the wood – almost by itself. The hot, steamed wood bends to hug the canoe in a warm embrace. The work flows and I lose track of time.
However, as soon as I try to take credit for the accomplishment or repeat the masterful actions of the past, everything goes wrong. I bend a new rib over the canoe only to find that it is upside-down and has to be thrown away. The air of the shop is filled with my not-so-quiet curses.
In those moments, I endeavor to see the cloud of frustration as a gift. Sometimes at least, I am able to catch myself and laugh at the situation and – with any luck – laugh at my approach to it. I take a deep breath and shake my head. Instead of trying to change the situation, I revel in the fact that I am feeling frustrated. I practice learning how to stay with the day where nothing seems to be going my way. When I succeed in taking the day – and myself – for what it is, things tend to turn around. Paradoxically, as soon as I try to hold onto my feelings of frustration they vanish and the rest of the day tends to flow a little more smoothly.
Perfection is Impossible
When it comes right down to it, you are not working on your old wooden canoe, you are working with it. You and your canoe are active partners in search of a successful conclusion. You must listen to your canoe and accept its strengths and limitations. There will be times when you want one thing and your canoe simply has something else in mind. You must be prepared for times when things don’t go as planned. The fact is, when things work out the first time, it will be the exception rather than the rule.
The minute you try to force the issue, your canoe will remind you who is in charge. Let your mind wander and your canoe will shake you back to reality. Think for a moment that you know what you are doing and your canoe will show you otherwise.
Mistakes are the engine of learning and mastery. Indeed, in order to allow your body to learn anything, you must give it permission to screw up. However, you are starting down a particularly challenging path. A friend of mine, a master carpenter with 25 years of experience, ran from the room five hours into a canoe restoration and wished me luck on my crazy adventure.
Your canoe may have been made in a factory as one of thousands in the production line. However, after four or five decades, it is unique. The lines are no longer completely fair. The wood is no longer smooth and even. Abraham Lincoln said, “Every man over forty is responsible for his own face.” So too, the life of your canoe is written in every crack and warp in its venerable hull.
I use a lot of photographs to illustrate the techniques I describe in my articles. Bear in mind, that I have the luxury of selection. If I were to illustrate the mistakes as well as the successes, the articles would be at least twenty times as long.
My hope is that by presenting some of my successes and alerting you to some of the pitfalls, your canoe restoration will be rewarding, enjoyable and successful.
January 18, 2015
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
The blogs I do on the specifications of canoe components for various types of canvas-covered canoes seem to be quite popular. Apparently, I am the only one out there taking the time to write about this stuff and share it with others on-line. This time around, I am presenting a restorer’s guide to the Bobs Special from the Chestnut Canoe Company.
This canoe was one of two lightweight pleasure canoes built by Chestnut (the other was an 11’ solo canoe called the Featherweight that weighed about 35 pounds**). 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”, Henry and William 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 Second 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.
If you happen to have a Bobs or have been lucky enough to come across one in need of some TLC, you will notice what a sweet little canoe this is. It paddles like a dream which is surprising for a canoe that is 37” (94 cm) wide. Its bottom has a shallow-arch that reduces the waterline width when paddled with a light load. There is a fair amount of rocker in the ends which adds to its maneuverability. At the same time, it is not difficult to stand up in a Bobs – making it ideal for fly-fishing or general recreational paddling for a less experienced paddler.
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 White Ash or Douglas Fir 15/16” high with the edge grain visible on the top surface. It is fashioned to fit the tumblehome present on most Chestnut canoes. Therefore, the top surface is 9/16” wide while the bottom width is 11/16”. The last 18” or so at each end is tapered down to about ½” wide (top and bottom) along the sides of the decks. All of the transverse components (centre thwart 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.
The gunwales (both inwales and outwales) are pre-bent about 18” from the ends. If you are replacing these components, the wood will have to be soaked, heated and bent onto forms in order to get a proper fit.
Outwales – The outwales are also made of White Ash or Douglas Fir. 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. Prior to installation, I seal the wood on all surfaces with a couple of coats of spar varnish.
Decks – The decks the Bobs Special were made of hardwood – usually maple, ash or oak. Sometimes, they used mahogany to help reduce the overall weight. 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 1¾” #8 bronze wood screws. As with the outwales, I help prevent future rot by sealing the decks on all surfaces with a couple of coats of spar varnish. The deck extends about 18” 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 – The Bob Special had a regular (tapered) keel installed. Use a piece of hardwood (the original was ash) and taper each end to 3/8” wide. The overall length is about 13’. It will accept the brass stem-band which is 3/8” wide.
Ribs – The Bobs Special was constructed with so-called “regular” ribs (2-3/8” wide) that were ¼” thick instead of the normal 3/8”. They create a light-weight canoe but are not as robust as the regular ribs. You will probably encounter several broken ribs in your canoe restoration.
The edges of the ribs are chamfered in most Bobs Specials. Replicate the angles found in your canoe. Often, the edge closest to the centre of the canoe has tapered ends (11° chamfer) while the edge closest to one end of the canoe is chamfered about 25°.
Planking – The planking in Chestnut Canoes was made of either Eastern White Cedar or Western Red Cedar. Although the planks started out at 5/32” thick, you will probably be shaving replacement planks down to match the original planks. Again, this results in a lighter, less robust canoe. You will probablly encounter many broken planks in your canoe.
Seats – The seat frames are made of ¾” ash that is 1½” wide. 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 about 51½” from the bow-end of the canoe while the forward edge of the stern seat is about 39½” from the stern-end of the canoe.
Centre Thwart – The thwart is made of ¾” ash that is 2½” wide. It tapers 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. As with every component in the canoe, I seal the entire thwart with a couple of coats of spar varnish prior to installation and replace the original galvanized steel bolts with silicon bronze bolts.
** If you are interested in owning an 11’ Chestnut Featherweight, give me a call toll free 1-855-KRCANOE (1-855-572-2663) or e-mail me firstname.lastname@example.org . I don’t buy or sell canoes. Instead, I focus on the restoration. For this canoe, you pay the current owner $1,000 to transfer ownership from him to you. Then the canoe comes to KRC for a full restoration costing (in this case) $3,300 plus taxes. Since it is your canoe, you have complete control over all aspects of the restoration (colour, etc).
January 11, 2015
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
For those of you new to this blog and have not heard me on this topic before, 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 work in the natural environment and are part of it. 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.
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.
Many people complement me on the great fiberglass job on my canoes. They are shocked to learn that the canoes are covered with painted canvas.
December 14, 2014
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
Once the canoe has been canvassed, the filler has been applied and the keel and stem-bands have been installed, it is ready for 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.
For all practical purposes, 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 120-grit wet sandpaper between the first and second coats of paint. I then use 220-grit wet sandpaper between the second and third coats and, if necessary, 320-grit wet sandpaper 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. The additional solvent also allows the paint to dry before sags and drips develop. For a canoe, any alkyd enamel works well and provides a tough, flexible finish. Recent changes to federal regulations in Canada make it difficult, if not impossible, to buy oil-based marine enamel. Just go to your local hardware store and pick up a gallon of oil-based “rust paint”. The label will say “For Metal Use Only”. I’m sure they just forgot to include “Canvas-Covered Canoe” in the label. I would gladly use a water-based paint for the canvas, but at this point, oil-based alkyd enamel is the only paint that works.
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. After the section is painted and tipped in two directions, move to the next section. Continue in this way 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 7, 2014
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. It should also be noted that the following is one of many ways to stretch a new canvas onto a canoe. It is the method used in the original canoe factories. 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. Even the smallest amount of dust will show itself as a lump under the stretched 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 150 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 3/4″ (19 mm) 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 this step is absolutely necessary to ensure a smooth surface because I’ve never omitted it. 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?
November 23, 2014
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 on my Kettle River Canoes 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 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. 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 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 every couple of days until the wood can no longer absorb the oil. Then, I 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 tends to turn 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®.
November 16, 2014
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.