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

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If the seats in your canoe are laced with rawhide similar to that in old snowshoes, chances are you own a “Huron” canoe – the generic name for canoes built in Huron Village (renamed Wendake in 1986). The “babiche” is likely to last longer than the canoe, but at some point you may need to re-lace the seat frames.

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Seat frames for “Huron” canoes are constructed of birch or maple and assembled with mortise and tenon joints that are very rough and loose.  No glue is used, so the rawhide lacing is the only thing holding the frames together. As with all of the other components in a canoe, I prefer to apply finish to the frames before I lace them.  The bow seat requires about 65’ (20 meters) of 3/16” (5 mm) rawhide lace while the stern seat requires about 50’ (15 meters). The lacing is usually shipped in a long tube and is as hard as a rock.  It has to be soaked for several hours before it can be used to lace the seats.  I use the bath tub at home and add a little borax to the water to help loosen the rawhide and make it easier to manipulate.  It will take a few hours to lace a seat, so keep a large bowl of water nearby in order to re-soak the lacing as you work. Handling rawhide lace for several hours can be hard on the hands and the borax can really dry out your skin. Use a hand lotion both before and after lacing a seat to help avoid damage to your skin.

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The lacing pattern I describe is the most common one found in canoe seats. It is by no means the only one.  The process can be applied to all the other patterns.  However, some are more complicated than others.  The stern seat has 36 anchor-points – 9 on each of the 4 frame rails. The bow seat is wider than the stern seat.  Therefore, it usually has 11 anchor-points on each of the frame rails.  In order to make this fit, the anchor-points on the side rails are placed very close together.  This will provide enough room for one more complete repetition of the pattern.

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The only tool I use is a sharp pocket knife.  It trims the lacing and cuts small slits in the ends of pieces for joining.  The entire pattern is laced using just a few basic knots and joins.  The starting anchor join at 1.1 is made by threading the lace through a small slit in the end of the first lace in the pattern.  Throughout the lacing pattern, pull the rawhide firmly but not tight.  As the rawhide dries, it becomes very tight.

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All of the remaining anchor points are tied using a larks-head knot.  To perform this knot, you start by passing the lace over the frame.  Wrap around to come up on the “outer” side of the lace and pass over the strand that was just made.  Bring the lace back under the frame, then around to finally pass back over the frame and under the lace “bridge” to form the knot.  In this case, a picture is worth a thousand words, so use the photo as your guide.

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Anchor-points 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4 form a triangle pattern on the frame. As you go from 1.3 to create the anchor-point at 1.4, pass the strand under the horizontal. The strand then passes over the horizontal and under the diagonal “forward slash” ( / ) strand before tying off at anchor point 1.5.  All subsequent weaving in the fourth strand follows this pattern.

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The fifth strand of the pattern passes over the forward slash strand and under the “backslash” (\ ) strand before tying off at anchor point 1.6. All of the subsequent weaving in the fifth strand follows this pattern.

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The sixth strand weaves over the “backslash” strand and under the horizontal strand before tying off at anchor point 1.7. All of the subsequent weaving in the sixth strand follows this pattern.

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The seventh strand passes over the horizontal strands and under the “forward slash” strand before tying off at anchor point 1.8. All subsequent weaving in the seventh strand follows this pattern.

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The eighth strand does not have any weaving, but it finishes by passing over both the fourth and the fifth strands at the fifth anchor-point in that repetition of the pattern.  It wraps under the strands and then up and over itself before forming the first anchor-point in the next repetition of the pattern.

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From now on the pattern is repeated with one addition. After forming the second anchor-point in the pattern and before weaving the second strand, stabilize it by passing over both the fifth and seventh strands of the previous set, then come up and over itself.  The second strand requires no weaving.

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The seat is woven with progressively more and more weaving required as each set of the pattern is performed.

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At some point, usually two or three times in a given seat, you come to the end of a piece of rawhide lace.  To continue weaving, join the next lace to the previous one.  The joins are made by cutting a small slit in each end.  The end of the old strand is passed through the slit in the new strand.  The entire new strand is then fed through the slit in the end of the old strand to create a secure join.  I like to locate the joins so they lie on the underside of the frame.

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Once you have completed the lacing pattern, the last larks-head knot is tied at the final anchor-point and the rawhide is knotted with one or two half-hitches.

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Allow the rawhide to dry for a couple of days. Then apply a mixture of two parts boiled linseed oil and one part turpentine.  Let the oil mixture dry for at least a week. The seat will be finished with shellac and varnish along with the rest of the new wood in the canoe.

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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

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.  Usually, the original carriage bolts are corroded and must be replaced.  I use 2″ 10/24 silicon bronze 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.

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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

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Without a doubt, the most horrible job in the restoration of a wood-canvas canoe is stripping the 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

students restoring canoes in penticton

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.  In 2014, I coordinated the restoration of two 30′ C-15 Racing War Canoes (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.

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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.