by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes


The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) website is a treasure trove of beautiful short films.  Among my personal list of favourites is the Path of the Paddle series by Bill Mason.  Of the four films in the series, Path of the Paddle Solo Whitewater (1977) is the one I tend to watch over and over again.  Not only is the photography outstanding, I get a thrill every time I see a wood-canvas canoe being jockeyed through 3′ (one meter) standing waves in a wild river.


The canoe featured by Bill Mason in the film is a Chestnut Pal (16′ pleasure canoe).  Its gorgeous lines, distinctive red colour and hand-woven cane seats gives the film a touch of class.


One of my favourite occupations while watching any film, is looking for and finding continuity glitches.  In this one, Bill navigates his Chestnut Pal through a particular set of rapids.  Meanwhile, the canoe is alternately being paddled empty and then is loaded with canoe packs — switching back and forth as if by magic.


I enjoy watching the Chestnut Pal handle challenging rapids with grace and style.  For a general-purpose canoe that is 12.5″ (32 cm) deep with a 36″ (92 cm) beam, its ability to handle these conditions is impressive.  That said, I like to keep in mind that Bill was able to run the same section of river many times and select the runs that worked out (the key to good story-telling is good editing).


For anyone unfamiliar with wood-canvas canoes, this film is an education in just how durable they are.  I love watching Bill bumping and thumping off rocks in his Chestnut Pal.  Especially impressive is one sequence where the canoe hits an exposed boulder broadside in the river and lives to tell the tale.


Bill plays fast and loose with cinematic continuity during a sequence discussing how to handle the canoe in high-water conditions.  We watch him start into a class 3 rapid in his Chestnut Pal (note the hand-woven cane seat).


Then, the canoe miraculously survives a near upset.  Indeed, this would have been a miracle if Bill was paddling his Chestnut Pal.  However, a closer look reveals that the canoe capable of handling this situation is not a Chestnut Pal but rather a Chestnut Prospector (16′ wilderness tripping canoe) that is 14.5″ (37 cm) deep — note the all-wood slat seats.


The Chestnut Prospector is perfectly designed to handle class 3 rapids.  The extra depth keeps the water out of the canoe as does the fact that the hull is flared (V-shaped) about 4′ (1.2 meters) from each end.  Bill painted all of his canoes the same colour in order to allow him to interchange them during filming.


The photography in these films is absolutely stunning.  The image of a red canoe on the water has become a major part of Canadian iconography due in no small part to Bill Mason and his use of red Chestnut canoes in his films.


The Chestnut Pal is one of the best general-purpose canoes ever designed.  However, it is not designed to handle class 3 rapids.  Apparently, that did not stop Bill Mason from trying.  I applaud him for showing us the limits of this amazing canoe.


I encourage you to make your way to the NFB website and check out the Path of the Paddle films by Bill Mason.  They are, for me, well worth the time and effort.


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 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.

Bobs Special 08

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

Chestnut Bobs Special Inwale


Inwales –The inwale is a length of White Ash or Douglas Fir 15/16” high with the edge grain visible on the top surface.  It is fashioned to fit the tumblehome present on most Chestnut canoes.  Therefore, the top surface is 9/16” wide while the bottom width is 11/16”.  The last 18” or so at each end is tapered down to about ½” wide (top and bottom) along the sides of the decks.  All of the transverse components (centre thwart and seats) are attached to the inwales with 10-24 (3/16”) galvanized steel carriage bolts.  I replace these with 10-24 silicon-bronze carriage bolts.

prebent outwales

The gunwales (both inwales and outwales) are pre-bent about 18” from the ends.  If you are replacing these components, the wood will have to be soaked for 3 days, heated by pouring boiling water over them and bent onto custom-built forms in order to get a proper fit.

Chestnut Bobs Special Outwale


Outwales – The outwales are also made of White Ash or Douglas Fir.  Depending on when the canoe was built, the outwales may have a chamfered edge on the bottom of the outside surface.  Water often gets trapped under the outwales and results in rot on the inside surface of the originals because they assembled the canoe first and then applied paint and varnish.  Consequently, the inside surfaces of the outwales are bare wood.  Therefore, I usually end up replacing this component.  Prior to installation, I seal the wood on all surfaces with a couple of coats of spar varnish.  Unlike the original builders, I do all of the painting and varnishing first and then assemble the canoe.

Chestnut Bobs Special Deck


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

Chestnut Stem-Top


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

Chestnut Bobs Special Keel


Keel – The Bob Special had a regular (tapered) keel installed.  Use a piece of hardwood (the original was ash) and taper each end to 3/8” wide.  The overall length is about 13’.  It will accept the brass stem-band which is 3/8” wide.

Chestnut Lightweight Rib


Ribs – The Bobs Special was constructed with so-called “regular” ribs (2-3/8” wide) that were ¼” thick instead of the normal 3/8”.  They create a light-weight canoe but are not as robust as the regular ribs.  You will probably encounter several broken ribs in your canoe restoration.

The edges of the ribs are chamfered in most Bobs Specials.  Replicate the angles found in your canoe.  Often, the edge closest to the centre of the canoe has tapered ends (11° chamfer) while the edge closest to one end of the canoe is chamfered about 25°.

Chestnut Canoe Planking

Planking – The planking in Chestnut Canoes was made of either Eastern White Cedar or Western Red Cedar.   Although the planks started out at 5/32” thick, you will probably be shaving replacement planks down to match the original planks.  Again, this results in a lighter, less robust canoe.  You will probably encounter many broken planks in your canoe.


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

Chestnut Canoe Thwart

Centre Thwart – The thwart is made of ¾” ash that is 2½” wide.  It tapers from the centre to create handle grips on either side that are 2” wide.  They were attached directly under the inwales with galvanized steel 10-24 carriage bolts.  As with every component in the canoe, I seal the entire thwart with a couple of coats of spar varnish prior to installation and replace the original galvanized steel bolts with silicon bronze bolts.

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.

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 and rebuilt.  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 comes to light.  All of that synthetic resin has to be removed.  It is a long, painstaking process that usually has you cursing the person that put the stuff on in the first place. The moral of the story is: Avoid applying fiberglass to the hull of a wood-canvas canoe.  Learn how to re-canvas the canoe or find a professional to do it for you.

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

During the restoration of a wood-canvas canoe, it is rare to have to replace the entire stem in the canoe. However, when faced with the restoration of a canoe which is more than 100 years old, a new stem (or two) is more than likely going to be part of the project.

I restored a 1905 J.H. Rushton Indian Girl canoe. Both stems had extensive rot and one was broken in two places.  Rushton made his stems from a solid piece of rock elm.  Since this wood is nearly extinct now (thanks to Dutch Elm Disease), I used straight-grained ash 1″ (25mm) thick (at the lumber yard this is referred to as 4/4  ̶  pronounced four-quarters).

The first step is to remove the stems from the canoe. I use both a tack remover and a Japanese concave cutter bonsai tool to remove the fasteners without doing too much damage to the ribs, planks and stems in the canoe.

The next step is to create a bending form. Here, I present the dimensions of the bending form required for the Rushton Indian Girl.

It is comprised of three layers of 5/8″ (16mm) plywood. I ask my local building supply centre if they have any damaged sheets of plywood.  I can get all of the wood I require for a fraction of the cost of full sheets of plywood.  All three piece have the same curve but the centre piece of plywood has a longer base which clamps easily into a work-bench vice.

I start by placing the original stem on one piece of plywood and drawing the inside curve of the stem onto it.

I then keep the stem-top in the same location as the original while rotating the stem until the curve is about 3½” (9cm) greater than the original. The form shape is then drawn onto the plywood and is extended about 6″ (15cm) at both ends to accommodate the clamping system.

The form shape is cut with a saber saw or band saw. The first piece is then used as a template for the other two pieces.  Once assembled, the form is sanded more or less square with a belt sander or an angle grinder set up with a 24-grit wood grinding disk.  The final form is 1.875″ (48mm) wide.

The base-end of the stem is 1.1875″ (30mm) wide and 0.875″ (22mm) thick. I bend a piece of ash which is 1¼” (32mm) wide and 1″ (25mm) thick.  This allows me to shape an exact replica of the original.

The clamping system is attached to the bending form with enough space for the new wood and a backing strip. The new stem stock is soaked in water for four days, steamed for 60 minutes and bent onto the form where it remains for at least a week.  When removed from the form, the new wood will spring-back slightly and ought to come to the same shape as the original (or close enough).

The original stem is much more than just the curve in its profile. It is tapered at the stem-end, angled to accept planking and notched to accept ribs.  Draw the rough dimensions and contours onto the new stem (first with a pencil and then with a permanent ink pen).

Use a Japanese cross-cut saw or a dovetail saw to cut the sides of the rib notches at the correct angles and depths. Use a wood chisel and mallet to remove the bulk of the material in each notch.

Check the dimensions of each notch on the original and use the chisel to shave each new notch to the desired thickness.

Use an angle grinder set up with a 24-grit wood sanding disk to carve the desired angles and tapers into the new stem.

Work slowly and carefully with a random-orbital sander and 60-grit sandpaper (checking dimensions with calipers against the original) until the new stem is an exact replica of the original.

Turn the canoe upside down and use spring clamps to hold the new stem in place while you drill pilot holes for bronze ring nails to attach it to the ribs.

Use a cobblers hammer backed with a clinching iron to drive the ring nails tight.

Turn the canoe right-side up and sight down the centre-line. Position the stem so it is lined up straight down the centre-line and clamp it in place.  Pre-drill holes for 16mm brass canoe tacks and attach the new stem to the original planks.

Mark the height of the stem-top against the underside of the inwale-ends.

Use a Japanese cross-cut saw to trim the stem-top to its desired height. I cut it a little long and use a random-orbital sander to achieve a snug fit.

Attach the rest of the planking to complete the job.

mockup 02

The entire restoration process (including stem repairs and replacement) 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, Goodreads and/or any other review site.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

In the early days of wood-canvas canoe construction (late 1800’s until about 1906), builders (primarily in up-state New York and Maine) tried to emulate the birch bark canoes in the region. Like birch bark canoes, they constructed their hulls with cedar ribs and planks.  They also emulated the look of the gunwales.  The inwales and outwales of birch bark canoes are lashed together and the rib-tops are whittled to wedges which are forced up between the inwales and outwales.

To replicate this look, the builders cut pockets in the inwales into which the rib-tops were fitted and nailed. The outwales were attached (with brass screws) directly to the inwales to create a closed gunwale.  This looks beautiful.  However, with regular use, water collects in the pockets and creates a moist environment perfect for the growth of the fungi that cause wood rot.  Around 1906, all of the builders transitioned to an open gunwale system which allows water to drain quickly from the canoe.

To describe and document the replacement of pocketed inwales, I worked on a 1905 J.H. Rushton Indian Girl canoe. This particular canoe was in pretty rough shape when it arrived in my shop, but I was able to determine the original dimensions of the component parts from salvaged pieces.

Replacing the original inwales is complicated by the fact that the canoe is already built. In 1905, the builder started constructing the canoe by making the inwales first (complete with pockets already cut).  He then placed them in the building mould and fit the rib-tops into the pockets.  The process of replacing the inwales is the exact opposite.  The inwales must be fitted to the canoe. Then the position of each pocket is marked and cut before the inwale is installed.

Rushton trimmed his Indian Girl canoes with cherry. The first step is to cut new cherry stock 1″ (25mm) wide and 7/8″ (22mm) high.  Then, run the stock through the table saw with the blade angled 8° and 5/8″ (16mm) high to create a rabbet on the outside face ¼” (7mm) from the top surface and 3/16″ (5mm) deep at the top.

Arrange two 10′ (3 meters) pieces for each inwale and mark the location and orientation of a scarf joint on the four pieces of inwale stock. Soak about 7′ (2 meters) of each piece at the non-scarf joint end for three days.  Meanwhile, build a bending form for the ends of the inwale stock.

Heat the ends of the inwale stock with boiling water and bend them onto the form. The bend is not severe, so a backing strip is not required.  Allow the wood to dry for about a week before removing them from the form.

Cut a scarf joint angle into the end of one of the pieces (I arbitrarily chose the bow piece) to be used for each inwale. Fit the bow and stern pieces of inwale stock for one side of the canoe into the canoe and match the curve at the ends to the rib-tops in the canoe.  Clamp them in place with lots of spring clamps.

Overlap the bow and stern pieces and mark the position of the scarf joint on the stern piece for the inwale.

Cut the scarf joint angle in the stern piece, use polyurethane glue to splice the bow and stern pieces into a full-length inwale and allow it to cure overnight. Perform this sequence on the other side of the canoe to create two inwales.

Once the glue has cured, sand the joint smooth.  Then, clamp one of the full-length inwales into the canoe. Use a pencil to mark the position of every rib-top in that inwale.  Remove it and do the same thing for the other side.  Be sure to label each inwale so you know to which side it belongs.

Set up a drill press as illustrated and prepare in-feed and out-feed supports for the inwale.

Cut the pockets on both inwales. You will need help from a second person to guide the inwale through the curves at the ends.

Install one inwale and secure it with clamps at every second rib-top. Pre-drill  two ¾” bronze ring-nails in each rib-top.

Use a clinching iron as backing while you drive in the nails. Once the first inwale is fully installed, repeat this process for the second inwale.

Meanwhile, make new cherry decks for each end.

Soak the wood for three days, steam the wood for 60 minutes, bent the decks in a press and allow the wood to dry in the press for a week.

Use a flexible straight edge and a permanent ink pen to mark the inwale tapers at both ends of each inwale.

Use a saber saw to cut the tapers into each inwale-end.

Smooth the tapers with a random orbital sander and 80-grit sandpaper.

Hold the new stem-top (either a new piece spliced into the original stem or, in this case, a completely new stem) against the inwale-ends and mark where the stem-top meets the underside of the new inwale-ends.

Use a Japanese cross-cut saw to cut the stem-top.  It is best to cut it a little long initially and sand it gradually (while checking frequently with dry fitting) until the stem-top fits snugly under the inwale-ends.  The process of replacing the stems in a 1905 J.H. Rushton Indian Girl will be described in a separate blog (to be posted soon).

Use a ratchet strap to pull the end of the canoe together. Then, dry-fit the deck.  Line up a straight edge with the centre-line of the canoe directly above the stem-end at each inwale-end.  Then, mark the angle for the inwale joint.

Release the ratchet strap and cut the inwale joint on each inwale-end.

Sand the joint faces smooth with a random orbital sander.

Re-attach the ratchet strap and pull the end of the canoe together again. This time, draw the inwales together until the deck fits properly.  Check the inwale joint and make any adjustments to the angle until it fits exactly.

Install the deck and attach it to the inwales with 1½” #8 bronze flat-head wood screws (counter-sunk).

Use a random orbital sander set up with 60-grit sandpaper to sand the deck and inwales until they are perfectly flush.

mockup 02

The entire restoration process (including stem-top repairs, inwale replacement and deck repairs) 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, Goodreads and/or any other review site.