by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

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

1.       A General Picture (3/4 Profile)

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

2.       Both Decks (Top View)

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

3.       Stem-Ends (3/4 Profile)

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

4.       Seats (Above 3/4 Profile)

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

08 gunwales

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

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

6.       Obvious Damage (Above 3/4 Profile)

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

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

09 restored

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

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

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

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

Huron Canoe 2013 KRC 02_doc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huron Canoe Keel 02

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specification Page - Huron 02

Tom Thomson and his grey canoe 01

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

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

Tom Thomson in his grey canoe circa 1914.

Tom Thomson in his grey canoe circa 1914.

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

And Tom Thomson

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

tomthomson_canoeandlakealg_fs

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

16' Chestnut Cruiser circa 1965

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

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

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

Chestnut Ajax circa 1952

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

repairs 06 SG

Without a doubt, the most horrible job in the restoration of a wood-canvas canoe is the process of stripping the old varnish from the interior.  It is messy, stinky, agonizing work that takes forever and cannot be rushed.  Truly, the only positive thing to be said about stripping varnish is that as long as you keep going, the job will end.

clean 03 CM

However, it is not always necessary to strip the old varnish.  If the interior varnish is in good shape – not peeling, cracked or gone altogether – you can simply clean the interior with TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) and rough up the surface of the varnish with fine steel wool.  After vacuuming the interior and removing any residual dust and débris with a tack cloth, you are ready to apply new varnish.  In my experience, if the varnish is stripped with chemicals, the canvas has to be replaced as well.  As a result, one big job leads to another.  That is why many people opt for simply cleaning the interior and applying new varnish to whatever is still there.

before 12 LCCa

If, as is often the case, the interior varnish is peeling away, breaking apart or gone completely, the varnish has to come off in order to rebuild the interior finish from the ground up.  Sometimes, the varnish is peeling so much that it comes off with a combination of a paint scraper, coarse steel wool and a lot of elbow grease.  I have tried sanders and “sandpaper stripping wheels” powered by a variable-speed drill, but soon gave them up when I saw that I was removing just as much wood as varnish.

strip 02 CL

When it comes right down to it, the best way to remove all of the old varnish (and still have the original ribs and planking left intact) is to apply chemical strippers. I strip the old varnish before removing the old canvas.  This way, the chemicals tend to stay inside the canoe.  They soak into the old canvas and lift the filler and paint from the canvas, so unless you are extremely careful with the chemicals, you cannot strip the interior varnish without then putting a new canvas on the canoe.

I have heard of some people using a pressure washer to remove the chemicals from the hull once they have done their job.  This would work well as long as the nozzle is wide enough to reduce the pressure to avoid ripping the planking apart.  One downside I see to removing the chemicals with a pressure washer is that the work is usually done outside, often in your backyard.  Consequently, all those nasty chemicals end up on the ground and (probably) in the water-table.  At the very least, you succeed in killing the grass in that corner of the backyard.

repairs 03 JK

When stripping varnish, the first step is to protect yourself from all those nasty chemicals.  The commercial products usually contain dichloromethane (commonly used as a propellant in aerosol cans) and methanol (wood alcohol).  Sometimes toluene (lacquer thinner) rounds out the mix.  Besides long sleeves, long pants and an apron or coveralls, be sure to wear gloves (heavy-duty latex/neoprene), a respirator and eye protection.  Have lots of water close at hand to wash off any stripper that contacts your skin.

repairs 03 SG

It is essential to maintain a wetted surface when using varnish strippers.  It evaporates quickly, so be sure to use lots of this stuff and do the canoe in small sections.  I usually divide the job into four quarters of the canoe.  Once the stripper has been poured onto a section of the canoe, use a sturdy scrub-brush (natural bristles) to spread the chemicals around and ensure that they get into every corner and let it work on the old varnish for about 20 minutes.  When it turns dark brown and becomes thick, you know it is working.

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

repairs 10 SG

Any stripper remaining in the canoe can be cleaned out with TSP mixed in a pail of water.  Use a scrub brush, a scraper and/or steel wool to ensure that remaining stripper is removed from all of the nooks and crannies.  Once the hull interior has dried, I go over the wood again with medium or fine steel wool to remove the last of the TSP and/or chemical stripper residue.  Then, vacuum the interior to remove the dust and steel wool fragments to finish the job.

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This takes as long as it takes – no short cuts.  As with almost everything in life, if you don’t do a good job on the foundation work, it just creates problems later on.  As much as I want this job to be done as quickly as possible, there is no way to speed it up.  It takes time to do a thorough job.  Last year, I coordinated the restoration of a 30′ C-15 Racing War Canoe (circa 1949) for the museum in Penticton, BC.  A crew of six people took five weeks and four times through the canoes with those nasty chemicals to remove all of the old varnish.  They were happy to see the end of that job.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

While repairing your wood-canvas canoe, you may come across some ribs that are perfectly good except for a small portion attached to the inwale.  Rather than replacing the ribs, it is possible to repair the rib-tops.

rib top 02 CL

First of all, you need access to a substantial portion of the damaged ribs in order to do the repair.  Remove the planking along the sheer line to expose all of the damaged rib-tops.  Identify each piece of planking as it comes off since you may be able to replace the original pieces once the repairs are completed.

rib top 04 CL

Now, machine new cedar to replace the damaged rib-tops.  Sometimes the rib-tops are tapered, so make sure each replacement piece is cut and shaped to match the original wood.

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Cut the rotted top off the rib to be repaired.  I use a Japanese utility saw with 14 teeth per inch.

rib top 06 CL

Create a scarf angle in the original rib.  For a solid scarf joint, the glued surface ought to be at least six times that of the rib thickness.  Therefore, ribs 3/8” thick have a scarf angle with a surface area approximately 2¼” long.  You can use a rasp to make the scarf.  I use a 4” angle grinder that is set up with a 24-grit sandpaper disc.  It makes quick work of the job – perhaps too quick, so careful attention and a light touch are needed.

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Line up the new wood with the original rib and mark the location of the matching scarf.

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Create the matching scarf in the new cedar.

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Glue the new wood to the original rib and clamp it in place with spring clamps.  I use either a water-proof resorcinol glue (such as Weldwood or Dural) or a polyurethane glue (such as Gorilla Glue).  The resorcinol glues are water-based which makes clean-up a breeze.  After clamping the new piece in place, wipe away any excess glue with a damp rag.  When dry, it sands easily and blends well with the wood.  Polyurethane glue sets more quickly, sands easily once cured and creates a very strong bond.  Lacquer Thinner is used to clean up polyurethane glues.  I use these two glues interchangeably.

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The repaired rib-top is fairly rough at first.

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However, a quick sanding evens out the joint and creates a clean repair.

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Attach the rib-top to the inwale (I use 7/8” 14-gauge bronze ring nails, copper canoe nails or brass canoe tacks) and trim the rib-top flush with the top edge of the inwale.

rib top 14 CL

When faced with rib-top repairs next to each other, it is easiest to do every second rib-top to avoid clamping difficulties.  Therefore, it takes a couple of days to complete all of the repairs.

sheerline reference 03

If most of the rib-tops in your canoe are rotted, it is still possible to repair the ribs rather than replace every rib in the canoe.  Since every rib will be cut, the original sheer-line will be lost.  Therefore, the first step is to establish a reference line for the sheer-line.  Go around the canoe with a carpenter’s pencil and mark a position 5” below the top of each rib.  Where the entire top of the rib has rotted away, skip to the next rib and mark the reference point there.  This will give you enough reference points to create a fair line the full length of the canoe.  Now, tack a spruce batten (approximately ¼” x ¾” x 16’) at the reference points to create a fair reference line.

rib top repair 05

As mentioned before, every second rib will be repaired.  Unless you have hundreds of 3” spring clamps, it will take a week or two to splice new wood into every rib.  Once done, mark each new rib-top 5” above the reference line and cut every rib to re-create the original sheer-line of the canoe.

rib top 17 CL

Reattach the original planking and replace damaged planking with new cedar.  Stain the new wood to match wood in the rest of the canoe.

Luke 01

The finished product is strong and solid.  Many of the rib-tops repairs extend less than an inch below the inwales, so it was difficult to realize that they had been replaced.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

Unless you live in British Columbia, you have probably never heard of Bill Greenwood or Greenwood canoes.  And if you want to start a fight amongst wood-canvas canoe enthusiasts, just ask them to name the prettiest canoes ever made.  In Maine, you would hear names like Morris, Gerrish and White.  In Ontario, Peterborough canoes are top of the list.  But in British Columbia, people speak about Greenwood canoes in hushed tones and bow down to Bill Greenwood’s exquisite water craft.

There is very little information available about Bill or his canoes.  Whatever I have collected is from people who bought their canoes directly from the builder at his shop as well as some antecdotes from Jim Kinzell, who worked with Bill as an apprentice from 1969 to 1975.  There is also a small biography produced in 1972 as an assignment for a physical education course at a college.  My information is incomplete to say the least and is probably full of errors and omissions.  That said, Bill Greenwood and Greenwood Canoes deserve recognition in the world of wood-canvas canoes.

finished canoe

As I understand it, Bill was born around 1910 and was an active outdoorsman who loved hiking, skiing, canoeing — just about anything that got him outside.  Then in 1934, at the age of 24, he suffered a stroke while hiking in the mountains.  As part of his rehabilitation, Bill decided to learn how to build canoes. He boarded a train in Vancouver, BC and made his way to Old Town, Maine.  He hung around the Old Town Canoe Company shop and absorbed everything he could about canoe building until they realized what he was doing and kicked “the spy” out.  Bill spent some time at other canoe factories including the Peterborough Canoe Company in Ontario before returning to British Columbia and setting up Greenwood Water Craft Company.  The shop location changed a number of times over the years until he estabished a large shop complex on Mitchell Island in Richmond, BC in the late 1960′s.

Not surprisingly, the lines and details of Greenwood Canoes borrow heavily from the “Maine Guide” canoes of Old Town and other builders in Maine.  They all sport wide, flat bottoms and have very little rocker.  The stem profile is heavily recurved and the hulls all contain a lot of tumblehome.  Bill’s 16’ (4.9 meter) canoes did not have a centre thwart, but instead had both bow- and stern-quarter thwarts as was typical of Maine Guide canoes.  Many of the canoes had bottoms reinforced with half-ribs between the main ribs to create a strong comfortable floor.  And Bill absolutely refused to make a canoe without a keel.  In fact, one of my clients asked Bill to leave the keel off the canoe he was ordering.  Apparently, Bill said something like, “My canoes have keels.”  When my client told Bill that many Chestnut Canoes paddled very well without a keel, Bill said, “If you want a Chestnut Canoe, then buy a Chestnut Canoe.”  My client told me that story while I was preparing the restoration work order on his 17’ (5.2 meter) Chestnut Cruiser.

16' Greenwood Pleasure 02 corrected

The workmanship in Greenwood canoes is outstanding.  He used “aircraft quality” Sitka Spruce for the double-tapered ribs.  The wide planking was made of old-growth Western Red Cedar (edge grain).  The stems (and slat seats) were White Oak while the rest of the canoe was trimmed in Philippine Mahogany (Luan).  All of the woodwork was flawless – tight planking, graceful lines and elegant detailing.  The one drawback in many Greenwood canoes built in the early 1970’s is the fact that he used steel screws to attach the mahogany outwales.  Apparently, Bill was feuding with one of his suppliers.  He wanted 1.5” (37 mm) #8 brass wood screws in lots of 1,000 while the supplier insisted on selling lots of 10,000.  Bill ordered steel screws from another supplier in lots of 1,000.  I have had to cut that beautiful mahogany into hundreds of tiny pieces because the steel screws had corroded to the point of being fused into the wood.  I’m sure Bill thought he had won the war with his supplier, but it has made the restorer’s job much more difficult 40 years later.

IMGP0430

The quality of the workmanship is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that Bill worked almost entirely with one hand.  The stroke affected his left side. Consequently, his left hand was crippled to the point that he had limited use of it.  My understanding is that he used jigs for almost every step of production.  That and a few very good assistants in the shop (including George Fletcher and Jim Kinzell) made it all work beautifully.

Greenwood Canoes came in lengths from 15’ (4.6 meter) to 18’ (5.5 meter).  He had two basic models – the Pleasure Model (12” – 30 cm – deep) and the large volume Prospector Model (14” – 36 cm – deep).  He built a full range of lengths in both models (as well as a 12′ car-top boat) until 1970.  One client of mine has a beautiful home in North Vancouver overlooking the entire Lower Mainland.  He had ordered a canoe from Bill in 1970 and was expecting a call any day to say that the canoe was ready.  Then, he heard a news report of a large fire on Mitchell Island in Richmond.  He looked out over the valley from his home and saw a big cloud of smoke.  The Greenwood Water Craft shop was engulfed in flames.  The next day, my client went to the site and saw Bill kicking through the ashes that used to be his shop.  He said, “I only had time to grab two canoes – The yellow one over there — that’s yours.”

Bill rebuilt the business with a limited number of moulds and continued building canoes until he sold the business in 1975.  According to Doug Ingram of Red River Canoe and Paddle, the moulds ended up in Cranberry Portage (a small community in Northern Manitoba east of Flin Flon).  Apparently, they were never used again and are now in very poor condition.  Bill died in 1979.  His contribution to the world of wood-canvas canoes is significant here in British Columbia.  People bow their heads in reverence to these stunning works of art.

Konnert 02

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

A Zen Master and his student were walking together across a bridge when the student asked, “Master, What is Zen?”  Before the student had a chance to react, the Zen Master picked him up and threw him off the bridge into the river below.

Zen is the moment – right here, right now.  Zen Masters have written thousands of books in an attempt to explain the unexplainable.  As the student hurtled through the air towards the water in the river, he was totally consumed in the moment.  No past – No future – Just now.

So, what does this have to do with wooden canoes?  I have found that a successful canoe restoration demands a mind and body that work together in the present moment.  As soon as I rush things, I make mistakes and have to start all over again.  As soon as I think of myself as the expert, I find something I’ve never come across before.  As soon as I think the task is simple, I get bogged down in complex problems.  As soon as I obsess over technical aspects and try to think my way through them, everything grinds to a halt in a mass of frustration.  And the more I try to get out of my head and get back to “the moment”, the worse the frustrations become.

For me, a canoe restoration it is an opportunity to immerse myself in the moment – now and now and now and now.  When I succeed, the hammer drives the tacks straight into the wood – almost by itself.  The hot, steamed wood bends to hug the canoe in a warm embrace.  The work flows and I lose track of time.

However, as soon as I try to take credit for the accomplishment or repeat the masterful actions of the past, everything goes wrong.  I bend a new rib over the canoe only to find that it is upside-down and has to be thrown away.  The air of the shop is filled with my not-so-quiet curses.

In those moments, I endeavor to see the cloud of frustration as a gift.  Sometimes at least, I am able to catch myself and laugh at the situation and – with any luck – laugh at my approach to it.  I take a deep breath and shake my head.  Instead of trying to change the situation, I revel in the fact that I am feeling frustrated.  I practice learning how to stay with the day where nothing seems to be going my way.  When I succeed in taking the day – and myself – for what it is, things tend to turn around.  Paradoxically, as soon as I try to hold onto my feelings of frustration they vanish and the rest of the day tends to flow a little more smoothly.

Perfection is Impossible

When it comes right down to it, you are not working on your old wooden canoe, you are working with it. You and your canoe are active partners in search of a successful conclusion.  You must listen to your canoe and accept its strengths and limitations. There will be times when you want one thing and your canoe simply has something else in mind.  You must be prepared for times when things don’t go as planned.  The fact is, when things work out the first time, it will be the exception rather than the rule.

The minute you try to force the issue, your canoe will remind you who is in charge.  Let your mind wander and your canoe will shake you back to reality.  Think for a moment that you know what you are doing and your canoe will show you otherwise.

Mistakes are the engine of learning and mastery.  Indeed, in order to allow your body to learn anything, you must give it permission to screw up.  However, you are starting down a particularly challenging path.  A friend of mine, a master carpenter with 25 years of experience, ran from the room five hours into a canoe restoration and wished me luck on my crazy adventure.

Your canoe may have been made in a factory as one of thousands in the production line.  However, after four or five decades, it is unique.  The lines are no longer completely fair.  The wood is no longer smooth and even.  Abraham Lincoln said, “Every man over forty is responsible for his own face.”  So too, the life of your canoe is written in every crack and warp in its venerable hull.

I use a lot of photographs to illustrate the techniques I describe in my articles.  Bear in mind, that I have the luxury of selection.  If I were to illustrate the mistakes as well as the successes, the articles would be at least twenty times as long.

My hope is that by presenting some of my successes and alerting you to some of the pitfalls, your canoe restoration will be rewarding, enjoyable and successful.

Bobs Special 08

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.

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, heated and bent onto 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.  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.

Chestnut Bobs Special Deck

Decks – The decks the Bobs Special were made of hardwood – usually maple, ash or oak.  Sometimes, they used mahogany to help reduce the overall weight.  By the time you start restoring your canoe, the decks are often rotted along with the stem-tops and inwale-ends.  They are attached to the inwales with six 1¾” #8 bronze wood screws.  As with the outwales, I help prevent future rot by sealing the decks on all surfaces with a couple of coats of spar varnish.  The deck extends about 18” into the canoe from the end.

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.

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Seats – The seat frames are made of ¾” ash that is 1½” wide.  Both seats are suspended under the inwales with 10-24 carriage bolts and held in position with 5/8” hardwood dowel.  The rear stern seat dowels are 1¾” long while the front dowels are ¾” long.  All of the bow seat dowels are ¾” long.  The forward edge of the bow seat is about 51½” from the bow-end of the canoe while the forward edge of the stern seat is about 39½” from the stern-end of the canoe.

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 artisan@canoeshop.ca .  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.

It has been about forty years since these canoes were the standard in the marketplace.  Not only has the technology of wooden canoe repair faded into obscurity, but the mindset of both manufacturers and consumers has also changed.  Synthetic materials are now generally seen as better – easier, tougher and longer lasting.  The consumer has been convinced that the new materials can improve that which is outdated or at least maintain it quickly and easily.

When it comes right down to it, wooden canoes and fiberglass just don’t mix.  Since the ribs and planking are held together with tacks, they flex and move naturally.  Over the years, the tacks tend to work loose and eventually have to be either re-clinched or replaced. Conversely, fiberglass resin is rigid.  Once applied, it tends to resist any movement.  The combination of a flexible hull and a rigid outside layer results in cracked or delaminated resin.  The tacks can also wear against the resin from the inside to the point where they come right through the resin.  It can take as little as ten months or as much as ten years.  At some point though, the fiberglass has to come off.  And it is then that the real problem with fiberglass on a wood canoe comes to light.  All of that synthetic resin has to be removed.  It is a long, painstaking process that usually has you cursing the person that put the stuff on in the first place. The moral of the story is: Avoid applying fiberglass to the hull of a wood-canvas canoe.  Learn how to re-canvas the canoe or find a professional to do it for you.

This leads us into the next question: How do you remove fiberglass from a wood-canvas canoe?  All you require is a professional-grade heat-gun, a 2” putty knife, a pair of pliers, safety equipment (work gloves, safety glasses and a respirator mask) and lots of patience.  The first step is to move the canoe into a well ventilated work space – preferably outdoors.  Then start at an edge of the canoe and apply heat to the resin.

At this point it is important to note that fiberglass resins come in two basic types – polyester and epoxy.  Polyester resins were the first to be developed.  If your canoe had fiberglass applied to it in the 1970’s or earlier, you can bet that polyester resins were used.  They tend to become brittle and deteriorate rapidly, so if the fiberglass on your canoe is delaminating it is most likely that you are dealing with a polyester resin.  Fortunately, this makes the removal of the fiberglass relatively quick and easy.  In many cases, the cloth can be ripped off by hand with very little need for heat.  When I say rip, please be gentle.  If you get carried away and pull at the fiberglass cloth too rapidly, you could end up tearing sizeable chunks of planking off the canoe as well (I speak from first-hand experience).

Epoxy resins hit the market in a big way in the 1980’s and are the standard today.  They are applied by first mixing a hardener with a resin in a two-part formula.  What results is a strong, tough plastic that bonds very well to wood.  Unfortunately, this means that the removal process is arduous and painstaking.

As mentioned earlier, start at an edge of the canoe and apply heat to the resin.  If you are dealing with epoxy resin, you will probably have to apply the heat for several minutes before the cloth begins to respond to your attempts to lift it with the putty knife.  At some point, it does let go and the fiberglass cloth can be separated from the canoe.  Then move a few centimeters and continue the process.  Again, polyester resins let go fairly quickly.  You will find that large sheets of cloth come off in fairly short order.  I usually grab the cloth with a pair of pliers rather than with my hand.  Even with work gloves on, the pliers prevent nasty encounters with heat and/or sharp edges of fiberglass (again, this is the voice of experience talking).  If you are dealing with epoxy resin, be prepared to settle into hours of tedious work as the cloth is lifted one square centimeter at a time.  It took me 17 hours to remove the fiberglass cloth from one 16’ Chestnut Pal.  There was a double layer of fiberglass cloth on the bottom of the canoe.

Once you are back to the bare wood, the restoration is like that of any other wood-canvas canoe.  So, enjoy the pleasures of life in the slow lane, stay away from fiberglass and celebrate the fact that you have a wood-canvas canoe.

Many people complement me on the great fiberglass job on my canoes. They are shocked to learn that the canoes are covered with painted canvas.

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.