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

Check out the interview in my posting on YouTube:

02 Grey Canoe 09

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

In Canada, the canoes from the Chestnut Canoe Company set the standard by which all others are measured.  Now, thirty-six years after the company went out of business, they are still held up as classic canoe icons.  So, how can you identify a canoe as a Chestnut and what makes a Prospector a Prospector?

Scott 01

The Chestnut Canoe Company – William and Henry Chestnut started building wood-canvas canoes in 1897.  They bought a canoe in Maine (probably a Gerrish canoe) and made exact copies of it which they then sold out of their father’s furniture business in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  They incorporated the canoe business in 1905 which most historians view the birth date of the company.  However, the 1972 Chestnut Canoe Company catalogue proudly celebrated 75 years in business.  It seems the company viewed its birth as 1897.  Be that as it may, the company grew into the largest canoe manufacturer in Canada and, at their height, were producing in excess of 3,000 canoes/year.  In 1923, Chestnut Canoe Companyand Peterborough Canoe Company (and later Canadian Canoe Company) amalgomated under an umbrella group called Canadian Watercraft Limited.  As a result, the wood-canvas canoes for all three companies were built in Fredericton by Chestnut.  The Peterborough Canoe Company ceased operations in 1961 while the Chestnut Canoe Company continued until it closed in 1978.

Chestnut produced over 50 different canoes in a wide variety of models.  In this article, I will focus on the most common Chestnut canoes — Ogilvy, Cruiser, Bobs Special, Pal and Prospector.

The Chestnut Ogilvy – Although never as popular as the others, fishing guides on the salmon rivers of New Brunswick helped create a working canoe that was unmatched for its purpose.  They needed a river canoe they could stand up in all day long.  They were often poling the canoe upstream through shallow rapids in order to offer the prime fishing spots to wealthy clients.  The canoe had to be stable and tough with a shallow draft so as to avoid many (but not all) of the rocks.  They came in six models that ranged in length from 16’ to 26’ – real, honest working canoes.

The 16’ model had a 36” beam and 13½” depth at the centre.  The ribs were 3” wide, 3/8” thick and had only ½” space between them.  This created what amounted to a double-planked hull.  The rugged nature of the Ogilvy comes with a price in terms of weight.  The 16’ had an average weight of 84 pounds and a carrying capacity of 850 pounds.  It had a flat-bottomed hull, straight sides, full entry lines and modest rocker in the ends.  This made for a canoe that was slow and steady – exactly what was needed when working shallow, rapid rivers.

The Chestnut Cruiser – This canoe was one of the first canoes that Chestnut developed.  It was influenced very heavily by (if not copied directly from) Gerrish, White and Morris canoes built in Maine in the late 1890’s.  The lines are sleek, narrow and graceful – designed to handle rivers with speed and efficiency.  This narrow canoe had an arched bottom, fine-entry lines and generous rocker at the ends.  Therefore, it was not for the novice paddler.  However, in the hands of someone who knew what to do, this canoe was a dream to paddle.

Three models were 16’ 17’ and 18’ long.  The ribs were 2-3/8” wide, 3/8” thick with 2” spaces between the ribs.  The 16’ model had a 34” beam, was 13” deep and weighed 70 pounds.  They were also built with ribs 3” wide, 3/8” thick and ½” spaces between the ribs.  These heavy-duty models were called the Guide Special.  The 16’ model weighed 75 pounds.  Both 16’ models had a carrying capacity of 600 pounds.

The Chestnut Bobs Special – This canoe was one of two lightweight pleasure canoes built by Chestnut.  Before I talk about the canoe, I’d like to clarify the name.  According to Roger MacGregor in his book “When the Chestnut was in Flower”, Harry and Will Chestnut were real history buffs.  The telegraph code for the 15’ 50-Lb. Special was BOBS and made reference to Lord Roberts, a major figure during the Boer War in South Africa. Over the years, as this wide, light-weight canoe became more difficult to keep under the weight limit of 50 lbs (the average weight was 58 pounds while the carrying capacity was 700 pounds), they changed the name.  I have seen a variety of Chestnut catalogues call it “Bob’s Special”, “Bob Special” and “Bobs Special”.  So, feel free to take your pick.

Many outdoor enthusiasts were looking for a lightweight, stable canoe that would allow them to enjoy fly fishing or just a quiet paddle on the lake.  With a 37” beam and 12½” depth at the centre, the Bobs Special was very stable — ideal for those who find a regular canoe too ‘tippy’.  At the same time, it was surprisingly quick and maneuverable in the water.  This was due to the shallow-arch bottom combined with moderate rocker and fine entry lines in the ends.  The ribs were 2-3/8” wide and ¼” thick with 1½” spaces between them.

The Chestnut Pleasure Canoes – It is no accident that Bill Mason used a 16′ Chestnut Pal in most of his films.  It was stable, yet quick; steady, yet agile.  With a 36” beam, 12¾” depth at the centre, weight of 72 pounds and a carrying capacity of 700 pounds, the Pal was as close to being a perfect recreational canoe as you ever hope to get.  It was one of the Chestnut Pleasure Canoes which also came in 14’ and 15’ lengths.  Until 1958, the 16’ Pleasure Canoe had a 34” beam.  Then, the mould was widened.  The economy version of the 16’ pleasure canoe had been called the Pal for several years (from about 1954).  The pleasure canoes came in both narrow and wide versions until about 1960 when the wider versions were adopted exclusively.  Over the years, the ribs of the Pal (as well as the 15’ Chum and the 14’ Playmate) came in two different sizes – either 1½” wide and 3/8” thick with 1½” spaces between ribs or 2-3/8” wide and 3/8” thick with 2” spaces.

The bottom was a shallow-arch hull with tumblehome extending through the entire length of the canoe.  The fine entry lines and moderate rocker make it very easy to paddle.  In his film, “Path of the Paddle: Solo Whitewater”, Bill Mason demonstrated very well that the Pal was not designed for Class 3 rapids.  But, that didn’t stop him from trying.  The Pal was a great general-purpose canoe and was the canoe of choice for many generations of canoeists – even if many of them called it a Chestnut Prospector.

The Chestnut Prospector – This was the real deal – often copied, never matched.  A quick search on the internet produces at least ten modern canoe companies with a “Prospector” in its catalogue.  However, the Chestnut Canoe Company found the winning combination.  With high sides, substantial arch in the bottom and lots of rocker in the full ends, it was designed to transport heavy loads quickly through rapid rivers and large, challenging lakes.  It was essentially a deeper, wider Cruiser and is still regarded as the ultimate wilderness tripping canoe.

They were made in five lengths from 14’ to 18’.  The 16’ model had a 36” beam and a 14½” depth at the centre.  The 16’ model weighed 76 pounds and carried 850 pounds.  It was a fun canoe to paddle solo, but it really came into its own when loaded for an extended trip.  Although there was good tumblehome at the centre, the hull flared about 4’ from the ends in order to throw water away from the canoe while hitting big waves in rapid rivers.  The ribs were 2-3/8” wide, 3/8” thick with 2” spaces between them.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

later catalogue front cover

Of the lesser known canoe manufacturers in Canada, Tremblay Canoes Limited (Les Canots Tremblay Limitée) from St. Félicien, Québec stood out from the crowd.  They were well constructed with Mahogany trim and their sweet lines made for a lovely paddling canoe.

later catalogue page 2

The specifications I present here are for the standard line of canoes produced by Tremblay known collectively as the Chibougamau canoes.  There were six canoes in the Chibougamau line ranging in length from 14’ to 20’.  As in all of my blog articles presenting specifications for canoes, I do not present the lines for the hull.  I am presenting specifications for anyone faced with the restoration of a Tremblay canoe.  As such, it is not a builder’s guide but rather a restorer’s guide.  Most of the dimensions can be taken from existing components in the canoe.

This is the 14' Chibougamau canoe made by Tremblay Canoes and is called the Sioux.

One little note here: I am listing all of the dimensions in inches.  I apologize to all of you who are working in metric.  The canoes were originally built with imperial measurements, so I find it easier and more accurate to stick with the original measurements.

Tremblay Stern

One more note: In the later years of production, Tremblay canoes were known for their use of vinyl impregnated canvas (Verolite).  Although a couple of canoe builders still use this material, I have yet to find a single canoe restorer who will touch the stuff.  The vinyl coating acted as a plastic bag wrapped around the canoe and effectively held water against the hull for extended periods of time.  This lack of ‘breathing’ in the canvas cover resulted in extensive rot through many (if not most) Tremblay canoes that were paddled on a regular basis.

Tremblay Canoe Inwale

Inwales – Tremblay inwales are made of Mahogany with nicely rounded edges.  The ends curve sharply necessitating soaking the wood and heating the wood with hot water.  This facilitates the bend through that section.  I have repaired inwales that were cracked through the bend originally.  Mahogany is temperamental at the best of times.

Tremblay Canoe Outwale

Outwales – The outwales are also Mahogany, but being only 7/16” wide, they do not require heat-bending.  For such a thin outwale, they are surprisingly robust.  The 3/8” rabbet helps keep the piece stable.

Tremblay Canoe Deck

Decks – Tremblay usually made their decks from Birch, but I have seen Mahogany used as well.  They are simple in design but nicely finished.

Tremblay Canoe Stem-Top

Stem-Top – It is unlikely you will ever have to replace the entire stem.  However, I rarely see an original stem-top that is not partially or completely rotted away.  The top of the stem-profile is straight thereby making the repair fairly straight-forward.  The end assembly is held together with a 1½” #8 bronze wood screw.

Tremblay Canoe Keel

Keel – If you want to keep the keel as part of the canoe, it is a simple piece to make.  Use a piece of hardwood and taper each end gradually to ½” wide.  It will accept the brass (or copper) stem-band which is ½” wide.

Tremblay Canoe Ribs

Ribs – The ribs are simple slats 3/8” thick and 2-1/8” wide.  The edges are chamfered 10° on both sides with the top cornered rounded off slightly.  There are 1¾” spaces between the ribs.

Tremblay Canoe Planking

Planking – Tremblay did a nice job on the planking.  The boards are usually 2¾” wide and 5/32” thick.

Roy 06

Seats – The seat frames are made of ¾” birch or maple that is 1-1/8” wide.  Both seats are attached to Mahogany braces on either side of the canoe with 1½” #8 bronze wood screws.  The seats are approximately 2” below the inwale.  The body of the seat is laced rawhide done the same way snowshoes were laced.

Tremblay Canoe Thwart

Thwarts – The thwarts are made of 5/8” birch or maple that is 2” wide.  They are simple pieces with no taper.  They are attached directly under the inwales with steel 10-24 bronze carriage bolts.

Tremblay Portage Yoke

Portage Yoke – If present in your canoe, you will appreciate the lovely shape of this yoke.  It is made of Ash 5¾” wide tapering to 2¼” at the ends.  Like most designs that are pleasing to the eye, it is also very comfortable to use.

Tremblay Canoe Hand Thwart

Hand Thwarts – These are used as carrying handles on both ends of the canoe.  They are positioned about 7” back from each deck.  They are made from birch or maple 3/8” thick, 1½” wide and about 13” long with nicely rounded edges.

Specification Page - Tremblay

Here is a specification sheet with most of the components on one page.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

Shop tool - Ironing board 01

Sometimes, I post pictures of a canoe restoration only to have people ask or comment about the tools they see in the background.  Here are a couple of tools that have generated a lot of interest lately.

Shop Tool - Ironing Board 02

An Old Ironing Board — The next time you are poking around a local yard sale keep your eyes open for an old ironing board.  Back in the day, perhaps in the 1960’s or so, ironing boards were made of steel.  They were strong, sturdy and lasted forever.  They are a fairly common sight at yard sales these days because they are just a little too bulky for the average household.  However, in the canoe shop, they are very handy indeed.  I use them to support a long length of wood as I feed it into the table saw.  I also set one up on either side of the canoe to hold tools and fasteners as I am installing new components such as ribs, planks, etc.  When I’m done, it folds up and stores away easily.  I have three of these in the shop and use them almost every day.

Shop tool - AV trolley 01

An AV Trolley — Not too long ago, television sets and video monitors were built around a cathode-ray-tube (CRT).  Large TV sets were very big and very heavy.  In schools and other public facilities, big TV sets were set up on sturdy steel trolleys so that they could be moved from room to room without too much trouble.  Now, with lighter, thinner flat-screen technology, there is no longer a need for these large steel trolleys.  Most of them are now collecting dust in the back corners of warehouses.  Sometimes, organizations and institutions are more than happy to free up some room in their storage space.  In the canoe shop, they are perfect work companions.  The strong, steel shelves hold all the tools you require at a very comfortable height.  Most of these trolleys have built-in power bars and a long extension cord.  I can plug in a saber-saw and a random-orbital sander and have them ready for action as I rebuild a canoe-end .  They are very easy to move around the shop, thanks to heavy-duty wheels.  They take up room in the shop, but are always in use.

Shop tool - AV trolley 02_sm

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

Frequently, I get an email from someone who is looking to sell their wood-canvas canoe.  Typically, they tell me, “The canoe has been stored under-cover for the last twenty or thirty years and is in excellent shape.  What would be a reasonable price to ask for my canoe?”  Conversely, a person is considering the purchase of an old canoe and wants my opinion on whether or not the asking price is a reasonable one.  In both cases, the best I can do is refer them to what I see on classified ads offering other wood-canvas canoes for sale.

I guess the simplest answer is: “It is worth whatever someone is willing to pay.”  I have a hard time seeing these canoes as commodities.  That is why I am in the business of repairing and restoring wood-canvas canoes.  My clients tend to value their canoe based on a set of criteria far removed from monetary concerns.  That said, wood-canvas canoes are bought and sold.  Most of them are at least thirty years old and range in condition from pristine to ‘ready for the burn pile’.  So, let’s look at the market and what tends to be ‘the going rate’.

Fully restored wood-canvas canoes tend to be listed in classified ads in a range from about $3,000 to $5,000.  Bear in mind that a brand-new Old Town 16′ Guide canoe – made by hand on the original mould – currently sells for $9,000 USD.  Serviceable canoes that need some work tend to be offered somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1,000 to $2,000.  Canoes requiring a full restoration can be picked up for $50 (or free) to $500.

When people ask for my opinion on a specific canoe, I base my answer on what a professional canoe restoration shop would charge to bring it back to ‘like new’ condition.  Any ‘original canoe in mint condition’ will require a new canvas.  Unfortunately, the original canvas will only last about forty years (Oh, how I long for a return to the days before planned obsolescence).  If the work is done by a professional canoe restorer, you are looking at spending about $2,000 to $2,500 after you have bought the canoe.  If the canoe ‘needs a little work’, be prepared to pay $3,000 to $4,000 for a full restoration.  And if it is a ‘basket-case’, the bill can often far exceed the cost of a brand-new canoe (not unlike the cost of renovating an old house versus building a new one from the ground up).  So, when you see a fully restored canoe listed in a classified ad for $4,000, they are probably just trying to recoup the cost of the restoration.

About twelve years ago, I bought an original Greenwood Canoe for $900.  The bulk of the woodwork was in excellent condition and the interior varnish was still in very good condition.  The canvas was original (about forty years old) and although it was not rotting, it needed to be replaced.  Greenwood canoes are well-known to wood-canvas canoe enthusiasts in British Columbia.  Bill Greenwood built canoes in Richmond, BC from 1934 to 1975.  His workmanship was unequalled not to mention all of the Philippine Mahogany used in components such as gunwales, decks and thwarts.  Anyone who knows these canoes bows their head in reverence whenever they speak of Bill Greenwood and his canoes.

In my shop, I brought the canoe back to life.  The original mahogany outwales were shot, so I replaced them with exact copies.  I added a couple of coats of varnish to the woodwork and painted the new canvas the dark green that was typical for Greenwood canoes.

The next spring, I replaced the original slat seats with mahogany-framed hand-woven cane seats in the style of Greenwood canoes.  I removed the bow-quarter thwart, installed a mahogany carrying yoke and moved the stern-quarter thwart to a position halfway between the stern seat and the centre yoke.  I had no intentions of selling this canoe and, at that time, I had not seen a restored canoe sell for more than $2,500.  So, when anyone asked me how much I wanted for it, I told them, “The canoe is all yours for $4,500.”  In 2008, someone fell in love with my canoe and handed me a check.

If you are selling, it is possible to get the price you are looking for.  Just be prepared to wait a long time for that ‘special someone’ to come along.  If you are buying, be prepared to factor in the cost of a full restoration once you have purchased the canoe.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

People email regularly asking me to identify their canoe and/or give them an estimate on a restoration.  When I ask them to send me some pictures, I often see a big difference between what people regard as a helpful image and what I require, so here is a little tutorial on the art of photographing a wood-canvas canoe.

1.       A General Picture (3/4 Profile)

The first picture I ask for is a general picture in a three-quarter profile.  It is a view taken from an angle to show both the inside and outside of the canoe.  You are standing off to one side near one end.  The picture shows the decks, seats and thwarts as well as giving a good view of the hull shape.  Many people send me a series of pictures of the bottom of the canoe from every conceivable angle.  Other than the presence or absence of a keel, these pictures do little to help identify it or determine the condition of the canoe.  For identification purposes, along with a picture like the one presented above, it is useful to let me know the overall length from tip to tip as well as the maximum width and depth in the centre of the canoe.  If the canoe has a serial number (often stamped into the stern stem), that information is also useful.  This canoe is 16’ long, 33” wide and 13¼” deep.  I can see two caned seats, a centre thwart, a stern-quarter thwart and two hand thwarts (one at each end near the deck).  From this single picture and the accompanying dimensions, I can identify this canoe as a Chestnut Cruiser (called the Kruger).

2.       Both Decks (Top View)

Take a picture of each deck from directly above.  Be sure to show the entire area from the tip of the canoe to the base of the deck.  If a hand thwart is present (as illustrated above) include it too.  These pictures help me see the condition of the various components at the ends.  There is almost always some degree of rot in this area.  The decal on this canoe shows it to be a Chestnut Canoe built in Oromocto, NB.  The Chestnut Canoe Company was located in Fredericton, NB from 1897 to 1974.  They moved to Oromocto in the mid-1970′s and stayed there until they went out of business in 1978.  Therefore, this canoe was built in the period between about 1974 and 1978.

3.       Stem-Ends (3/4 Profile)

It helps to have close-ups of the ends taken at an angle off to one side, near the end and slightly above.  In some cases, as in the bow deck above, the damage is obvious.  However, in most cases, it is helpful to remove a few screws from the outwales (and perhaps the stem-band) to reveal the ends more fully.  In this canoe, rot in the stern-end is seen only once the interior surfaces are exposed.

4.       Seats (Above 3/4 Profile)

Take a picture of each seat from above at an angle.  Stand to one side near the centre of the canoe.  This view shows the bolts and spacers as well as the seat.  In this canoe, the original 3/16” carriage bolts have been replaced with 1/4″ threaded rod and nuts.  The original cane is in good condition.  Although it is weathered, it could be revitalized with a mixture of boiled linseed oil and turpentine followed by the usual finish of shellac to seal it followed by a number of coats of spar varnish.  However, in most cases, it is best to re-cane the seats (hand-woven with natural cane — rattan).

08 gunwales

5.        Gunwales and Centre Thwart (Above 3/4 Profile)

The rails along each side of the canoe are called gunwales.  They consist of an inside rail called the inwale and an outside rail called the outwale.  Stand near the bow seat off to one side and take a picture from above that includes a view of the inwale and outwale as well as the centre thwart.  In most cases, it was difficult for the builders to find full-length wood for the gunwale components.  They spliced pieces together by gluing a scarf joint.  Often the glue lets go and needs to be re-glued.  In the final years of the Chestnut Canoe Company, they attached the ribs to the inwale with steel tacks.  Over the years, they corrode causing the entire canoe to come apart.  Most companies assembled their canoes completely before applying paint and varnish.  As a result, the inside surface of the outwale is bare wood and the top-edge of the canvas is raw as well.  If the canoe has been used at all over the years, water collects under the outwales creating a moist environment for the fungi that cause rot.  Often, the canvas rots and begins to fall away from the canoe.  The outwales may look fine on the outside but are often rotting from the inside out.  Most canoe builders used steel carriage bolts to attach the thwarts and seats to the inwales.  Again, the original carriage bolts often look fine until you try to remove them. I replace these with silicon bronze bolts as a matter of course in most restorations.

6.       Obvious Damage (Above 3/4 Profile)

Please photograph any areas with obvious damage.  As with most photos of the canoe, take these at an angle (to one side and slightly above).  Sometimes the canoe is stored away in the back of a shed.  It may be a real hassle to haul the canoe out into the daylight, but please make the effort.  Good lighting is essential for these photos and taking the shots from an angle emphasizes areas of light and shadow.  In this canoe, the broken rib and cracked planking are brought into clear view by the angled light.

All of the pictures are best in a fairly large format (between 500 KB and 1 MB). It is not necessary to overload an email with huge picture files.  As long as the photos are large enough to allow close examination, they will work well.

09 restored

In all of this their is light at the end of the tunnel.  All of the damage can be repaired and all of the rotted components can be replaced.  The restored canoe will be part of the family for many decades to come.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

A number of canoe builders operated in a small aboriginal community just outside of Quebec City.  Names such as Bastien Brothers, Gagnon Brothers, Groslouis, Picard, Faber, Yaho and Big Chief came out of this community now called Wendake (formerly Huron Village or Loretteville).  They also produced canoes generically for department stores such as Sears and were referred to as “Huron” canoes.  The history of canoe building in the village dates back to the days of the Fur Trade but the more modern wood-canvas canoes were made from the 1920’s until the 1970’s.  If you have one of these canoes, it is most likely from the later period – 1960’s or 1970’s.

These canoes were typically of a “rough-and-ready” nature — built quickly with less attention to the fine woodworking “finish” details.  When I was growing up as a kid in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, I heard people refer to these canoes as “The Poorman’s Chestnut”.  This derogitory comment discounted the beautiful lines in these canoes.  The hull was flat-bottomed which normally results in a slow-paddling canoe.  However, “Huron” canoes also had a ‘soft’ chine.  That is to say, the transition from the bottom to the sides of the canoe was very gradual.  As a result, when paddling an unloaded “Huron”, the waterline width was narrow which made for a fast boat.  This, combined with substantial rocker in the ends, created a canoe that is quite simply a delight to paddle.

Huron Canoe 2013 KRC 02_doc

The process of restoring a wood-canvas canoe is very different from that of building one.  You use the existing hull to form replacement ribs for any broken ones.  As a result, you don’t require the lines for the hull.  Most of the dimensions for replacement parts can be taken from existing components.  However, depending on the condition of your canoe, you may need the specifications for the odd piece or two.  So, here is a restorer’s guide to the “Huron” canoe.

One little note here: I am listing all of the dimensions in inches.  I apologize to all of you who are working in metric.  The canoes were originally built with imperial measurements, so I find it easier and more accurate to stick with the original measurements.

One more note: The canoes referenced here were built in a period around 1970.  Most of them were purchased through the Sears catalogue.  They are representative of “Huron” canoes.  However, it is not my intention to say that these dimensions will be exactly the same as those in your “Huron”.  It will give you a general idea of how these canoes are constructed and how they differ from other major manufacturers.  It is my hope that after you read this article, you will be able to differentiate a canoe like this from one built by the Chestnut Canoe Company.

One last note: All of the canoes shown here have been restored for clients.  Often they asked me to do things on the canoe that were not in keeping with the original configuration.  Therefore, you will see canoes with seats lowered on 6” carriage bolts with hardwood dowel spacers or outfitted with a portage yoke.  They are not original, so take note and please excuse the lack of historical accuracy.

Gunwales – “Huron” canoe gunwales consist of three components.  The inwale is a rough piece of spruce 7/8” square.  For a 15’-6” canoe, the inwales were 14’ long while the 13’-6” canoe had 12’ inwales.  The last 6” or so of the inwales at each end are tapered down to ¾” wide to fit into the decks.  All of the transverse components (thwarts and seats are attached to the inwales with 10-24 (3/16”) steel machine bolts.  All of these attachments are rough looking, so they are covered up with a thin spruce gunwale-cap.  The outwales were originally made of spruce as well.  I always replace the outwales with hardwood – usually ash or oak.  If I am replacing the inwales I use hardwood as well (again ash or oak) and cut them to ¾” wide to reduce the weight of the component while maintaining the overall strength.  Consequently, the gunwale cap is also ¾” wide.

Decks – The decks in a “Huron” canoe were built very roughly.  Typically, they used a slab of birch or maple that varied in thickness from ¾” to more than 1”.  The stem-top sits flush with the nose of the deck and is held in place with a steel common nail.  By the time you start restoring your canoe, the decks are usually rotted along with the stem-top.  What is left of the common nail is often sticking out of the rotted nose of the deck.  I attach the rebuilt stem-top to the nose of the new deck with a 1½” #8 bronze wood screws.  The deck extends 18” into the canoe from the end.

Stem-Top – You will rarely if ever have to replace the entire stem.  However, I have yet to see an original stem-top that is not partially or completely rotted away.  Depending on the amount of wood to be replaced in the stem you may have to pre-bend the wood to fit the original stem-profile.

Huron Canoe Keel 02

Keel – If you want to keep the keel as part of the canoe, it is a simple piece to make.  Use a piece of hardwood and taper each end roughly to ½” wide.  The overall length is about 13’.  It will accept the brass stem-band which is ½” wide.

Ribs – The ribs are simple slats 5/16” thick and 1-7/8” wide.  The edges are chamfered 10° on both sides with the top cornered rounded off slightly.  There are 2” spaces between the ribs.

Planking – Many people worry about the gaps between the planks in a “Huron” canoe.  The original canoe was constructed with ‘green’ wood that subsequently shrunk to create spaces between the planks that can be as much as ¼” wide.  This is one of the defining characteristics of “Huron” canoes — so don’t mess with it.  The spaces do not compromise the overall strength of the canoe, so please maintain the look of the canoe by matching the width of the planking when you replace some of it.  Do not try to fill the spaces with anything.  It will only result is a mess that some other restorer will have to deal with.

Another aspect of the planking relevant to a restoration is the fact that more than half of the connections between a plank and the ribs were held together with two canoe tacks rather than the three typically used in other canoes such as Peterborough and Chestnut.  As a result, the hull of a “Huron” canoes tended to flex more than other canoes.  It is common for a restorer to find that most of the tacks in the “Huron” hull have either snapped or worked loose.  I routinely take the time to tack every plank to every rib with three canoe tacks and replace all of the loose tacks.  It takes a long time to drive 2,500 tacks into the hull with a clobber’s hammer and a clinching iron.  However, it creates a very strong hull that is better than the original.

Seats – The seat frames are made of ¾” birch or maple that is 1-3/8” wide.  The stern seat is attached directly under the inwales while the bow seat is suspended below the inwale using a spacer on either side.  The height of the spacer varies from 1” to 1½”.  The forward edge of the bow seat is 49½” from the bow-end of the canoe while the forward edge of the stern seat is 35½” from the stern-end of the canoe. The seat frames are laced with rawhide (also called “babiche”).

Thwarts – The thwarts are made of ¾” birch or maple that is 2¼” wide.  They taper from the centre to create handle grips on either side that are 1-3/8” wide.  They are attached directly under the inwales with steel 10-24 machine screws.  I replace the machine screws in the seats and thwarts with bronze carriage bolts.  The stern-quarter thwart is positioned 59” from the stern-end of the canoe while the centre thwart is positioned 93” from both ends.

Specification Page - Huron 02

Tom Thomson and his grey canoe 01

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

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

Tom Thomson in his grey canoe circa 1914.

Tom Thomson in his grey canoe circa 1914.

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

And Tom Thomson

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


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

16' Chestnut Cruiser circa 1965

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The opening of the show was a success.  Many of the people who attended, purchased tickets for the canoe raffle.  There are only 200 tickets available at $100 each.  Phone 250-442-2211 to purchase tickets.  The draw will take place on October 3, 2015 at 2:00 pm at Gallery 2 in Grand Forks, BC.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

If you are preparing to restore your wood-canvas canoe – especially in Canada – you are often looking at a canoe built by the Chestnut Canoe Company based in New Brunswick from 1897 to 1978.  Of the many models produced over the years, the 16′ Pleasure Canoe was one of their best sellers.  It had a variety of names and the hull shape changed as well over the course of eighty years.  However, this canoe is most commonly referred to as the Chestnut Pal.

The dimensions of the components that make up the Pal are often the same as those found in many other Chestnut (and Peterborough) canoe models – including the famous Chestnut Prospector.  As a result, if you have these dimensions, you can use them to restore about thirty different canoe models.  So, here is a restorer’s guide to the Chestnut Pal.

Chestnut Ajax circa 1952

This Chestnut pleasure canoe is from around 1952. The telegraph code was Ajax. It was 16′ LOA and had a 34″ beam.

The 16’ Pleasure Canoe from the Chestnut Canoe Company had a number of incarnations over the years.  From the early 1900’s until 1953 it had a 34” beam, its ribs were 1.5” wide and was called the Ajax.  Then the beam was widened to 36” and it was called either the Pal (1954 – 1978) or the Deer (1965 – 1978).  Through the later years, the ribs were either 1.5” wide or 2-3/8” wide.

 One little note here: I am listing all of the dimensions in inches.  I apologize to all of you who are working in metric.  The canoes were built with imperial measurements originally, so I find it easier and more accurate to stick with this measurement scale.

Inwales –The inwale is a length of ash 15/16” high.  It is fashioned to fit the tumblehome present on most Chestnut canoes.  Therefore, the top surface is ¾” wide while the bottom width is 7/8”.  The last 15” or so at each end is tapered down to about 5/8” wide along the sides of the decks.  All of the transverse components (thwarts and seats are attached to the inwales with 10-24 (3/16”) galvanized steel carriage bolts.  I replace these with 10-24 silicon-bronze carriage bolts.

Outwales – The outwales are also made of Ash.  Depending on when the canoe was built, the outwales may have a chamfered edge on the bottom of the outside surface.  Water often gets trapped under the outwales and results in rot on the inside surface.  Therefore, I usually end up replacing this component and I make sure I seal all of the surfaces with shellac and varnish before installing the outwales.  The sheer-line of Chestnut and Peterborough Pleasure Canoes turns up sharply about 18” from the end.  As a result, it is necessary to soak, heat and pre-bent new inwales and outwales over custom-built forms to make the ash fit without breaking.

It is also worth noting that both the inwales and outwales were very often made by joining two pieces together with a 9″ scarf joint to create the full length Ash required.  Apparently, it was difficult to get full length Ash even in the 1960′s.

Decks – The decks were made of hardwood – usually maple, ash or oak.  By the time you start restoring your canoe, the decks are often rotted along with the stem-tops and inwale-ends.  They are attached to the inwales with six 2” #8 bronze wood screws.  The deck extends about 15” into the canoe from the end.

Stem-Top – You will rarely if ever have to replace the entire stem.  However, I rarely see an original stem-top that is not partially or completely rotted away.  Because the top 6” or so of the stem is straight, you can usually make the repair without having to pre-bend the wood to fit the original stem-profile.

Keel – If you want to keep the shoe keel as part of the canoe, it is a simple piece to make.  Use a piece of hardwood (the original was ash) and taper each end to 3/8” wide.  The overall length is about 14’.  It will accept the brass stem-band which is 3/8” wide.

Ribs – There were typically two styles of ribs used in Chestnut Pleasure Canoes.  Depending on the age and model, the ribs were either “narrow” slats 3/8” thick and 1½” wide or so-called “regular” ribs that were 3/8” thick and 2-3/8” wide.

The edges of the narrow ribs are chamfered 18° on both sides with the top corners rounded off slightly.  The edge of the regular rib closest to the centre of the canoe has tapered ends (11° chamfer) while the edge closest to one end of the canoe is chamfered about 30°.  The chamfer angles varied over the years, so you will have to use the original ribs in your canoe as templates.  There are 2” spaces between the regular ribs and 1½″ spaces between the narrow ribs.

Planking – The planking in Chestnut Canoes was made of either Eastern White Cedar or Western Red Cedar.  They started out being 5/32″ thick, but were often sanded down from there.  I often have to pass new planking through the thickness planer to match the thickness of the original planks.

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Seats – The seat frames are made of ¾” hardwood (ash, oak or maple) 1½” wide and hand-caned seats.  Both seats are suspended under the inwales with 10-24 carriage bolts and held in position with 5/8” hardwood dowel.  The rear stern seat dowels are 1¾” long while the front dowels are ¾” long.  All of the bow seat dowels are ¾” long.  Again, this varied over the years.  When re-installing seats, I tend to use 1¾” spacers for the bow seat.  The stern spacers are then 1¾” and 2¾”.  This adds a noticeable degree of stability to the canoe.  The forward edge of the bow seat is 58” from the bow-end of the canoe while the forward edge of the stern seat is 38½” from the stern-end of the canoe.

Thwarts – The thwarts are made of ¾” hardwood (ash, oak or maple) that is 2½” wide.  They taper from the centre to create handle grips on either side that are 2” wide.  They were attached directly under the inwales with galvanized steel 10-24 carriage bolts.  The stern-quarter thwart is positioned 67” from the stern-end of the canoe while the centre thwart is positioned 96” from both ends.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

repairs 06 SG

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.

clean 03 CM

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.

before 12 LCCa

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.

strip 02 CL

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.

repairs 03 JK

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.

repairs 03 SG

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.

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Use a scrub brush and a scraper to remove the stripper.

repairs 10 SG

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.

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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.