How To Re-Attach The Keel To A Wood-Canvas Canoe
October 16, 2016
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
Speaking strictly in terms of form and function, canoes and keels don’t belong together. However, wood-canvas canoes that have been in the family for decades must also be seen in the context of family history and tradition. Many were built with a keel installed and that is the way the owner wants it to remain. For this reason, I have no problem re-installing a keel in a wood-canvas canoe.
Most keels were removed at the beginning of the restoration project and are being re-installed. Therefore, the first step is to clean it and remove old paint and bedding compound. This is usually a two-step process. I start with an angle grinder set up with a 24-grit sanding disk. This cuts through the worst of the old material and gets down to the original wood. Care must be taken in order to remove only the old paint and bedding compound. Finish the job with a random-orbital sander set up with 80-grit sandpaper. This removes any marks made by the grinder and creates a smooth surface for new bedding compound and paint.
Having just spent a lot of time and effort creating a waterproof canvas cover, it seems a little strange to then poke a dozen or more holes through the bottom of the canoe. It is essential, therefore, to use a bedding compound that seals the keel to the canoe, creates a waterproof barrier and stays flexible for decades.
Having tried a variety of products, I have returned to the old school. Dolphinite 2005N Natural Bedding Compound is a linseed oil-based compound with the consistency of peanut butter. It is the same as the bedding compounds used a century ago. Unlike more modern compounds (such as 3M 5200 or Interlux 214) it stays flexible for the life of the canvas (several decades), seals well, accepts paint well and yet allows the keel to be removed from the canvas if necessary some years down the line.
Most canoes use 1” (25 mm) #6 flat head silicon bronze screws combined with brass finish washers. Begin by driving one screw into each end of the canoe. Turn the canoe on its edge to allow access to the bottom of the canoe inside and out at the same time. This is where it is useful to have the canoe set up on two canoe cradles.
With one screw at each end, move to the outside of the canoe and line up each screw with the original holes in the keel. Use a permanent-ink marker to show the position of the keel on the canvas. Then mark the location of the screw where it comes through the canvas and mark the location of the screw hole on the side of the keel to facilitate attachment later.
Apply bedding compound generously to the keel with a putty knife. Any excess will be cleaned up later. For now, it is more important to ensure a good seal along the entire length of the keel. Then, open the original screw-holes at each end to make it easier to find them.
Not everyone has my “wingspan” – 79” (200 cm) from finger-tip to finger-tip – so not everyone can hold the keel in place with one hand and drive the screw with the other at the same time. Installing a keel is normally a two-person job. Get someone to line up the original holes in the keel with the screws coming through on the outside of the canoe while you drive the screws from the inside. Sometimes, the original holes in the keel have been stripped. In this case, use larger diameter 1” (25 mm) #8 screws to secure the keel. If the keel has warped a little, you may need 1¼” (32 mm) screws to draw it tight to the canoe. In this situation, especially with Chestnut and Peterborough shoe keels (3/8” thick), the screws may go right through the keel and poke out on the outer surface. That will be dealt with later.
Once both ends are attached, check to make sure that the keel is properly lined up with the centre of the canoe. Once aligned, drive the rest of the screws along its full length. Usually, it is necessary to apply some pressure on the keel in order for the screws to catch properly. Sometimes, I need to get under seats to drive the screws. This is where a flexible drill extension comes in very handy. Most of the time however, I have removed the seats to refinish or re-cane them, so access to all of the screw-holes along the canoe’s centre-line is not a problem.
Remove excess bedding compound from the edges of the keel and apply more to areas that are not completely sealed. Remove any bedding compound stuck to the canvas using medium steel wool soaked in lacquer thinner.
Use a file to take care of any screw-tips poking through the keel. Finally, let the bedding compound cure for a few days before applying paint.
All of this (and much more) is described in my book – This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood Canvas Canoe.
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