by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

This Old Canoe Front_sm

This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood-Canvas Canoe will be launched in April 2016.  It is a step-by-step guide through the process of transforming an old, forgotten canoe into a cherished, classic heirloom.  Where other DIY canoe books concentrate mostly, if not entirely, on building wooden canoes, Mike Elliott focuses solely on the challenges faced by the canoe restorer.

Bobs Special specs

This Old Canoe provides information and techniques useful to anyone wanting to know about these old wooden canoes.  Besides people wishing to restore an old canoe, those who are building cedar-epoxy “stripper” canoes using lines taken from old canoe designs (such as Chestnut and Peterborough canoes) will be able to make their new canoe look the same as the original wood-canvas canoes.

Cane seats_sm

This Old Canoe is the only resource available with specific information about some of the classic old canoes.  This includes:

  • paint formulations for iconic Chestnut and Peterborough canoe canvas colours (red, dark forest green and light green)
  • plans for the Chestnut canoe portage yoke
  • component specifications for Maine Guide canoes
  • component specifications for Chestnut and Peterborough canoes
  • component specifications for Tremblay canoes
  • component specifications for “Huron” canoes
  • how to lace rawhide “babiche” seats
  • how to weave natural cane “rattan” seats
  • how to steam-bend wood

Canoe restoration story

Besides all of the technical information, Mike includes a number of stories about old wooden canoes, their people and the restorations that brought them back together again. These stories help put a human face on the process of canoe restoration and gives you hope that almost any canoe is repairable when you follow the directions in the book.

This Old Canoe book specifications:

  • 8.5″ x 11″ paperback
  • 192 pages
  • more than 300 photographs
  • more than 70 plans and illustrations
  • $24.95 USD ($34.95 CAD)

If you would like to reserve a signed copy of This Old Canoe, send an email request to

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 information is also included in my book This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood-Canvas Canoe which will be launched in April 2016.  If you would like to reserve a signed copy, send an email request to

Bobs Special 06

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.

Grey Owl standing in a Bobs

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.

Bobs Special 08

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.

Chestnut Bobs Special Inwale


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.

prebent outwales

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 for 3 days, heated by pouring boiling water over them and bent onto custom-built forms in order to get a proper fit.

Chestnut Bobs Special Outwale


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 of the originals because they assembled the canoe first and then applied paint and varnish.  Consequently, the inside surfaces of the outwales are bare wood.  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.  Unlike the original builders, I do all of the painting and varnishing first and then assemble the canoe.

Chestnut Bobs Special Deck


Decks – The decks the Bobs Special were made of hardwood – usually maple, white ash or white 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.

Chestnut Stem-Top


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.

Chestnut Bobs Special Keel


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.

Chestnut Lightweight Rib


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°.

Chestnut Canoe Planking

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, oak or maple 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.

Chestnut Canoe Thwart

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 .  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).

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.  As long as there are people who know how to restore canvas-covered canoes, they will live forever.

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 several months or several decades, but at some point the canoe needs to be repaired and the fiberglass has to come off.  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).


Once all of the fiberglass cloth is removed, return to the canoe hull with the heat gun and a putty knife.  Apply heat to any patches of resin still stuck to the wood.  Then, scrape the resin off.  Be prepared to settle into hours of tedious work.  It typically takes 15 to 20 hours to remove the fiberglass cloth and resin from a 16′ 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.

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.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood-Canvas Canoe will be launched in April 2016. If you would like to reserve a signed copy, send me an email request:

This Old Canoe Front_sm

Here is the introduction that explains the approach of the book as well as its structure and content.

introduction 01_sm

From This . . .

introduction 02_sm

To This . . .


There is something special about wood-canvas canoes. Indeed, if you are reading this book, you are doing so because you probably grew up in canvas-covered canoes.  You paddled them at summer camps; your grandfather taught you how to fish in them; your family shared wilderness adventures made possible by your faithful, old canoe.  It is part of the family.  The connection is hard to put into words but is as strong as any other family relationship.

These canoes have an elegance born in nature and are shaped by the elements that surround them. They are as beautiful as they are functional. They seem to move and breathe as part of the environment – part of you.  However, in the latter part of the 20th century, aluminum and fiberglass canoes flooded the market along with their low-cost production methods.  They pushed their labour-intensive canvas-covered cousins into obscurity.  But family ties are strong.  When a wood-canvas canoe becomes old and battered, it is carefully tucked away in the back of a shed or in the rafters of a barn.  For whatever reason, most people who own wood-canvas canoes are loathe to part with them.  What strikes me is that they were designed, from the outset, to be repaired and restored to their former glory.

Unfortunately, the methods and skills required for canoe restoration are from a by-gone age. In the pages that follow, my goal is not only to help you restore your canoe, but to help preserve the skills that make it possible.  This book provides the specific knowledge and techniques required to transform your old, rotten, forgotten canoe into a treasured family heirloom that can bring delight to you and others for decades to come.

Built to be Rebuilt

Your wood-canvas canoe is held together (almost exclusively) with tacks, screws and bolts. In fact, many have no glue in them at all.  Consequently, any component that rots or breaks can be repaired or replaced.  Once you understand the basic principles governing the behavior of wood and canvas, you will be able to rebuild your canoe.

Many years ago, my friend Richard Reid and I crawled under the back deck of his home in Christina Lake, BC to retrieve his canoe. He had not looked at it for almost 20 years and had no plans to use it again.  My wife, Christy, looked at it doubtfully once we had it out on the lawn.  Moss had grown a couple of inches thick and was hanging off the gunwales.  Mice had chewed away the rawhide lacing in the seats as well as the better part of a couple of ribs.  “Do you know how to fix it?” she asked.  I smiled at her.  We both knew that my woodworking skills were limited to say the least.  In this, my first canoe restoration, I followed the adage: “When there is a will, there is a way”.  At the time, the only power tools I owned were a variable speed drill and a random-orbital sander.  As it turns out, the main advantage I had was the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing.  All I knew for certain was that I wanted to bring this canoe back to life.

As my experience grew from weekend hobby to full-time business, I have collected more power tools and a wide assortment of specialized jigs and forms. Even so, there is one thing that is required above all else.  It ensures the success of a restoration.  Without it, you are doomed before you begin.  A little Zen story will illustrate my point.

introduction 05_sm

Zen in the Art of Canoe Restoration

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 wood-canvas 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 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 accept the experience for what it is.  When I succeed in truly embracing it – and myself – just the way it is right now, 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.

introduction 04_sm

Perfection is Impossible

When it comes right down to it, you are not working on your old wood-canvas 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 experience, ran from the room a few 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 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 this book. Bear in mind that I have the luxury of selection.  If I were to illustrate the mistakes as well as the successes, this book would be a twenty volume set.

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.

introduction 06_sm

How To Use This Book

Rebuilding an old canoe is a completely different enterprise from that of building a brand new one and requires an altogether different mindset. This book is set up in a step-wise manner to help you through the entire process. The chapters are arranged in the same order you would follow in the actual restoration.  The key to success is to pull your old canoe out of the shed and get to work.  This book is meant to be used in the shop as you work on your canoe.  Feel free to write notes in the margins.  Indeed, I have provided a few pages at the back of the book for your own notes about canoe restoration procedures.

This book presents one approach to the restoration of wood-canvas canoes. I’m sure you have other ideas that work better than those discussed here.  My hope is that this book provides you with a good foundation for further refinements to the process.

Chapter 1 discusses the equipment and materials required to do your project as well as a basic understanding of the wood-canvas canoe. Chapter 2 takes you through the process of assessing your canoe and planning the restoration.  The restoration begins in Chapter 3 by exploring how to take your canoe apart.   Chapter 4 starts the process of rebuilding your canoe by making or repairing the inwales, outwales, stems and decks.  This work often involves bending wood, so that process is described in this chapter as well  The hull is restored in Chapter 5 by making or repairing ribs and planks.  Seats and thwarts are discussed in Chapter 6.  Chapter 7 explains how to replace the old canvas with a new one.  Then, the canvas is filled, so I discuss some options for that.  The chapter ends with a discussion of some alternatives to canvas.  The process of making and installing a new keel and stem-bands is explored in Chapter 8.  Paint and varnish are applied in Chapter 9 followed by the final assembly and finishing details in Chapter 10.

A canoe is not fully restored until you are able to transport it safely, store it correctly and deal with minor mishaps when they occur. All of this is presented in Chapter 11.  Chapter 12 provides technical dimensions for a variety of specific canoes that are each representative of many other makes and models.  The book concludes with a list of resources to help make your canoe restoration a success.

The Devil is in the Details

Wood-canvas canoes are constructed with time-honoured methods and materials. However, “the devil is in the details” and it is those details that I explore in this book. Enjoy.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

For those of you who have been following this blog for a while, the launch of my book on wood-canvas canoe restoration is a much anticipated event. I began this blog with the idea of, at some point, putting all of the how-to information together as a book.  That time has arrived and it is with great excitement that I announce that This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood-Canvas Canoe will be launched in April 2016.

There will be many events, presentations, articles, reviews and interviews throughout the spring and summer of 2016. For now, I present to you the preface of the book.  It explains how this book came about and puts it in the context of my life in the world of wood-canvas canoes.  I hope you enjoy it.

If you would like to reserve a copy of the book, please send an email request to

book launch announcement Dec 27 2015

This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood-Canvas Canoe


When I was a kid, my father worked for the Canadian government as a forest entomologist (He would always refer to himself as “a real bugger”). Our whole family spent a few summers at forest research stations in north-western Ontario.  That is where my father infused us with a love of canoes and canoeing.  Over the course of those summers, he and I would hop into a wood-canvas canoe.  He took me out on the lake and taught me how to paddle.  He had grown up in Peterborough, Ontario and raced cedar strip canoes in the 1930’s.  My memories of those summers in northern Ontario include waking up to the sound of warblers singing in the black spruce trees, swimming in the freezing water of those lakes until my lips turned blue and watching the sunset over the lake from my position in the middle of a canvas-covered canoe.

About 36 years later, I had my head positioned inside an old 14’ “Huron” canoe — my first restoration project — as I cleaned and scraped the old wood. It was given to me by Richard Reid, a professional artist living in the southern interior of British Columbia.  I happened to look up and had a view of the canoe from the centre looking towards the bow.  Memories came flooding back to me.  This was what I saw when I was six years old — the same ribs, the same seats, the same canoe.  I checked with my father.  He was a skilled carpenter and knew those old canoes inside-out.  Sure enough, the canoes we used at the research stations were 14’ “Huron” canoes.

In my late teens, I became involved in elite-level sport and immersed myself in that — for me at least — neurotic, self-absorbed world. For the next twenty years I competed as both an athlete and a coach on national and international stages.  In this environment, I gave little thought to life outside of the gymnasium.  Then, I met Christy Luke in 1993 and soon decided to build a new life with her in Grand Forks, British Columbia.  Yes, I had to look it up too.  It was there that I decided to “get a life” and return to some of the things that brought me joy when I was a kid.

The next summer, as we looked out at the spectacular view from Chateau Lake Louise near Banff, Alberta, I turned to Christy and announced, “I am going to build a canoe and paddle it on this lake.” A few weeks later, Christy bought me a copy of Ted Moore’s Canoecraft: An Illustrated Guide to Fine Woodstrip Construction.

At this point, I should mention that I have dyslexia. It can take me up to an hour to read a page in a book.  I find the prospect of reading anything to be daunting, unless I am reading something that interests me.  I also require some previous background in the topic.  Without a context for the words on the page, they are incomprehensible to me.  Fortunately, as I started into Canoecraft, I found that Ted Moores included lots of pictures as well as some background information about the original cedar strip canoes.  This harkened back to the stories my father told me about racing those canoes in Peterborough.

I poured over the book and soon approached my co-worker Barry Pratt with an idea. We were working with a group of boys who were having a rough time making sense of themselves and their place in the world.  One thing I learned during my life in sport was that our worst personal demons can be conquered when there is a something worthwhile at the end of the road.

Barry and I asked the boys if they would like to go on a canoe trip. They were thrilled, but their enthusiasm waned when we told them they were going to build the canoes first.  They were sure that the project would never happen and, if it did, the canoes would be ugly and sink to the bottom of the lake.  They asked us if we had ever built canoes before.  We held up our copy of Canoecraft and said, “No, but we have a book.”  The boys were convinced that the project was doomed.

Five months later, as the boys paddled the finished canoes toward a campsite on Christina Lake in British Columbia, a big power boat cruised up. The men in the boat complimented us on the beautiful canoes.  The boys straightened up a little.  Was that a sense of pride I saw?  Was there even the glimmer of self-esteem shining through?  The boys replied, “Thanks, we built them.”

The boys donated the canoes to a local summer camp and became minor celebrities for a time. People around town started to refer to me as “The Canoe Guy”.  It was then that Richard Reid gave me his old canoe.  When Christy asked me if I had ever restored a canoe before, I said, “No, but I have a book.”

This time, it was a copy of The Wood & Canvas Canoe: A Complete Guide to its History, Construction and Maintenance by Jerry Stelmok and Rollin Thurlow.  They devoted one chapter to canoe restoration.  It was enough to get me started and once friends-of-friends found out that I knew how to do it, I restored half-a-dozen canoes in as many years.

When I am learning something, it helps me to write about it. Fortunately, the type of dyslexia I am dealing with does not present too many problems when I am writing.  In fact, I find it easier to read something when I am the one who wrote it.  It also helps if I teach others while I am learning.

I helped write coaching manuals as I studied to become a professional coach. So, as I learned to restore old canoes, I kept detailed notes with a view to writing a canoe restoration manual some day.  Although Stelmok and Thurlow’s book was helpful, many of the situations I encountered were not addressed.  By the time I started Kettle River Canoes in 2003, I had a notebook full of information that was not available in any book.  The first thing I did to market my business was to post articles about canoe restoration on my website.  I gave detailed instructions on some of the key aspects of the restoration process.  Barry, who had many years of experience in business and advertising, was appalled by my generosity.  For him, I was giving away my business.  He asked me why I wasn’t giving away my tools too.  For me, I was learning my craft and if I could help others learn at the same time, it was an added bonus.  Once a coach, always a coach.

I started writing a blog about wood-canvas canoe restoration in 2009. My niece, Kristen Luke, was launching her business as a marketing consultant specializing in social media.  She needed someone to practise on, so I was it.  What astonished Kristen was the fact that I did everything she told me to do.  The result is here in the following pages. This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood-Canvas Canoe contains a lot of the information I shared in the blog as well as other descriptions, illustrations and photographs not published anywhere else.  When Barry asks me if I am going to share all of my canoe restoration secrets, I will say, “Yes, I have a book.”

Mike Elliott, Grand Forks, British Columbia

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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:

Kolesnik 05

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.

canvas 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.

outwale 11 DL

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.

lagging 14

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.

raised tack

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.

wet sanding 02

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.

first coat

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.

carnauba wax

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.

canvas 11 CP

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

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

A little research into traditional wood finishing methods will tell you that, for over a hundred years, there were three basic steps to finishing the interior of the canoe – Oil, Shellac, Varnish.  That said, I get a lot of e-mails and comments asking me about this.  It appears that much of the knowledge about finishing wood for outdoor use has been lost over the years or clouded by conflicting information.

Note: Oil, Shellac and Varnish are applied to bare wood.  If you are not stripping the old finish and simply want to add a coat of varnish to the existing interior finish, start by cleaning the varnished surface with TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) mixed in water.  Rinse the interior with clean water and let it dry.  Then, use fine steel wool to scratch the surface of the old varnish and make sure that all dust and debris is removed.  With the varnished wood properly prepared, it is ready for the application of new varnish as described below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set up your canoe in a well-lit space with good ventilation, away from direct sunlight.  Pour about two inches (5 cm) of thinned varnish into a clean, empty one gallon (4 litre) paint can.  Load the brush with varnish and rap the brush against the sides of the can to shake off excess varnish.  Apply the varnish quickly and vigorously making sure that it gets into all of the corners.  Work on a short section of the canoe.  Then, look at the surface from an angle with work lights set up at an opposite angle to reveal any areas that were missed.  Apply enough varnish to achieve full coverage while at the same spreading it thin enough to avoid drips.  Don’t worry about streaks or bubbles.  If the varnish is thinned properly, it will spread evenly and bubbles will disappear in a few minutes.  Once you have full coverage, ‘tip’ the surface by touching it lightly and quickly with the brush bristle tips.  It is best to tip the surface first across the grain of the wood and then with the grain.  However, it is difficult to tip in both directions in the canoe interior, so I usually just tip in one direction following the grain of the ribs.  The varnish is both applied and tipped very quickly.  Then, move over to the next section of the canoe.  Always maintain a ‘wet edge’ as you apply varnish to the full length of the canoe.  Work in small sections to make sure that the varnish in that section is still wet when varnish is applied to the next section.  That way, the entire surface will be smooth.  Once done, go away and leave the canoe in a well-ventilated, dust-free space for 48 hours.  I normally apply two coats of shellac and three coats of varnish.

Clean your natural bristle brush in three stages.  First, clean it with mineral spirits or turpentine.  Then, clean it with lacquer thinner.  Finally, clean the brush with a heavy duty cleaner such as Lestoil®.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

Grey Canoe 05_sm

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

Gallery 07_sm

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

Grey Canoe 14_sm

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

Grey Canoe 15_sm

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

1968 Volkswagen Westfalia

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

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

keel 18a DT

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.

keel 03 DT

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.

keel 04 DT

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.

keel 06 DT

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.

keel 07 DT

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.

keel 12a DT

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.

keel 14 DT

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.

keel 15a DT

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

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

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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