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

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I recently came across a short film called The Canoe.  It has just been released (2017) and is written and narrated by James Raffan (author, director emeritus of the Canadian Canoe Museum).  Running 27 minutes, this short film examines the role of the canoe in shaping the lives and life connections of several people.  It opens with a voice-over narration by James Raffan as we watch him paddle a beautiful old Chestnut Pal (Deer) canoe over calm, misty water.

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The Connector – The first profile in the film is of Michelle Savoie. She comes from a long line of canoe people tracing back to the voyageurs.  She and her family see the canoe as the connecting force in their family.

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The Champion – Alexandra McGee is an elite-level competitor in white-water slalom canoeing. The discipline and focus required to become a champion helped her overcome many personal challenges.

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The Explorers – Gary and Joanie McGuffin are authors, photographers, educators and explorers. They have used canoes to create a life together that is full of wonder and beauty.  They find something new  around every bend in the river.

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The Settler – Michael Zhang left a hectic life in China to create a life in Canada full of joy and peace. He and his family find that joy and peace every time they get out on the water in their canoe.

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The Mentor – Gail Bannon helped the young people in the Fort William First Nation reconnect with their culture and heritage by teaching them how to build a birch bark canoe.

I hope you enjoy this film – I certainly did. For me, it brought into sharp focus the truth about canoes.  They are a powerful cultural linchpin in the Canadian Identity.  The canoe is an essential part of our sense of self, sense of family and sense of community.  Enjoy.

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

About a year ago, when I was in the final stages of writing This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood-Canvas Canoe, I was also developing the marketing plan for the book.  Many self-published authors want to get their book into as many retail outlets as possible.  However, my book is written for a very focused niche audience.  I nurtured my audience over a number of years through this blog.  Consequently, the bulk of my marketing campaign was and is through the use of social media and my book is primarily available through on-line sources.  That said, I also hoped that my book would be available in one national retail chain.

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I first approached Lee Valley Tools in June 2016.  I delivered a promotional package personally to their head office in Ottawa, Ontario.  I was there as part of my book tour.  WoodenBoat magazine had just published a positive review (written by Jerry Stelmok) which I included as part of the package for Lee Valley Tools.  I was hopeful that they would choose my book as part of their retail offerings.  I heard back from them almost immediately to confirm that they had received my package,  They also had a number of technical questions for me concerning availability, shipping, etc.  I was thrilled with such a quick response.  Then, all communication stopped.

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By the end of November 2016, I had resigned myself to the idea that Lee Valley Tools was not going to carry This Old Canoe.  Then, I got a phone call.  Apparently, it had taken more than five months for Lee Valley to find someone within their organization who had enough knowledge of wood-canvas canoes to provide them with a credible internal review of my book.  They called me to say that the review was “glowing” and they were looking forward to making This Old Canoe available to their customers. Click here to see This Old Canoe available at the Lee Valley Tools on-line store.

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I will be helping to promote my book with a number of in-store events as well as original articles in the Lee Valley Tools newsletter.  The schedule for these events and articles has yet to be determined.  A few days after the phone call from Lee Valley, I slipped on a patch of black ice and tore my right quadriceps tendon (just above my knee cap).  The surgery to repair the tendon was on December 7, 2016 and I am now working through several months of healing and physiotherapy to get back to full strength and range of motion.  Once I am mobile again, I’ll let you know when and where I will be appearing in Lee Valley Tools stores.

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

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.

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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 38 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.

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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 probably encounter many broken planks in your canoe.

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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.

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

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

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.

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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).

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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.

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

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

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

Once 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:

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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.

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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.

thinner

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.

tipping

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.

mockup 02

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

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

How to Varnish a Wooden Canoe

November 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

A mixture of boiled linseed oil and turpentine – usually in a ratio of two parts oil to one part turpentine has been the mainstay of wood preparation for exterior use for centuries.  The mixture soaks into the wood and keeps it supple and strong for decades.  It also prevents water from soaking into the wood thereby helping to prevent rot.  I apply a coat of the oil/turpentine mix to the entire canoe and let the oil dry for a couple of weeks (again, if you leaving original varnish on the interior of the canoe, apply the oil/turpentine mixture to the hull exterior).  The wood in old canoes is very dry and brittle, so lots of oil is required.  I apply a single coat of oil and let it dry for at least a week.

MYTH #2: Varnish will not stick to Shellac.  Shellac is fundamental to hard finishes on wood.  It creates a superb base for varnish and seals the wood in order for the varnish to ‘build’ properly.  It is easy to apply, dries in an hour or two, and polishes quickly with extra-fine steel wool.  Back in the days when woodworkers made their own varnish, shellac (as well as other gums and resins) was added to heated linseed oil to create the varnish.

Shellac is made from resins exuded by the female Lac beetle in India.  The resin is refined and dried in the form of flakes that range in colour from almost clear, through various shades of amber to dark orange (almost brown).  The shellac flakes are sold typically in one-pound bags which are then dissolved in denatured alcohol (Ethanol mixed with a little methanol to prevent people from drinking it.  Methanol — also known as methyl hydrate can also be used on its own to dissolve the shellac flakes).

The concentration of shellac in the alcohol is referred to as the ‘cut’.  I normally buy pre-mixed shellac at the hardware store which is typically a ‘four-pound cut’ – four pounds of shellac flakes dissolved in one gallon of alcohol.  This is a rather thick mix.  Most woodworkers prefer a two-pound cut.  I dilute the pre-mixed shellac with lacquer thinner (a cocktail of volatile organic solvents usually including acetone, toluene, xylene and methyl ethyl keytone) in a 1:1 ratio.  Normally, shellac dissolved in alcohol is anhydrous and turns cloudy white when it comes in contact with water – not a good thing for canoes.  The addition of lacquer thinner prevents that from happening and gives me a nice two-pound cut to work with.  In fact, shellac dissolved in lacquer thinner (primarily acetone) is often called lacquer.  If you are mixing your own shellac from flakes, dissolve them in lacquer thinner alone in order to create a coating that will not become cloudy when it contacts water.

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

Myth #3: Varnish is difficult to apply.  Traditionally, varnish is made by dissolving gums or resins (such as shellac, rosin, mastic, amber, copal and damar) in heated oil (such as linseed oil or cotton-seed oil) and thinned with turpentine (distilled pine sap).  These days, most commercially manufactured varnishes contain petroleum-based alkyd polymer resins in oil thinned with mineral spirits (petroleum-based solvent).  A side note here is that some commercial manufacturers of varnish use the label Varathane® for a mixture of resins dissolved in linseed oil.  Meanwhile, a mixture of resins dissolved in cottonseed oil has been called Urethane®.

If varnish is used straight from the can, the high concentration of solids (alkyd resins) makes it almost impossible to apply without ending up with sags, drips, streaks or bubbles in the finish.  Consequently, conventional wisdom states that it is very difficult, verging on impossible, to achieve a smooth, even coat of varnish.  However, there is a simple solution.  Just thin the varnish about 12% with mineral spirits (paint thinner).  Some top-quality varnishes come with a higher concentration of solids and therefore require a little more thinning.  In any case, once thinned, the solvent allows the varnish to flow more easily which means that it will self-level to create a smooth surface.  The solvent also allows the varnish to dry faster thereby eliminating sags in the finish.

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

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

The interior of a wood-canvas canoe is irregular with lots of gaps and uneven surfaces.  Use a natural bristle brush to get the varnish into all the little nooks and crannies.  I use a 2” (55mm) brush.  It is a relatively major investment (currently costing about $48USD) and well worth it when called into service on a regular basis.  I used one brush on more than 100 canoes over a period of about eight years.  I finally had to retire it because the bristles had worn down to less than half their original length.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) A 17′ Willits Canoe circa 1939

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

3) A 16′ Longitudinal Strip Canoe circa 1930

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

4) An 18′ Old Town Sponson Canoe circa 1965

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chestnut Prospector fully restored

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

steam-bending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

reinstalling-the-keel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once you’ve got your canoe out of the shed for the season, you’ll need some way of supporting it off the ground when it is not on the water.  I can still hear my father saying, in no uncertain terms, “The bottom of this canoe touches two things: air and water”.  One of the most convenient support systems is a pair of canoe cradles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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