The Evolution of Factory-Built Wooden Canoes

June 17, 2018


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

(photo by Nick Dennis)

Fundamental to any canoe restoration is understanding what you are dealing with. The scope of this blog is limited to factory-built wooden canoes held together with metal fasteners.  More recent types of wooden canoe construction employing materials such as glue, fiberglass, resin, etc. will not be included.  This blog presents a rough guide to the form and structure of factory-built wooden canoes and the ways in which they developed and diversified over time.

Since this blog concerns itself with the repair and restoration of antique canoes, I will not enter into an academic examination of canoe history. For that, I refer you to such books as: Canoecraft by Ted Moores and Merilyn Mohr (1983); The Wood & Canvas Canoe by Jerry Stelmok and Rolin Thurlow (1987); The Canoe: A Living Tradition by John Jennings (2002) and; Canoes: A Natural History in North America by Mark Neuzil and Norman Sims (2016).  Instead, I will present the evolution of factory-built canoes with an emphasis on the variety of construction methods employed.

Dubbed Copper Nail Construction

In Ontario, Canada in the mid-1800’s, a number of boat builders in the region in and around Peterborough were experimenting with canoe construction methods. Their ideas were influenced by the dugout canoes in the region.  They built their canoes over a solid wood form (perhaps using a dugout canoe as the basic shape).  They employed many building techniques borrowed from European boatbuilding traditions to create all-wood canoes with no exterior waterproof cover.

Rib-and-Batten – By 1859, John Stephenson and Tom Gordon were producing canoes using a ‘rib-and-batten’ method.  A keelson (usually made of white oak) is set into the form.  Notches are cut along the length of the keelson (at 4½” or 11.4 cm centres) into which half-round rock elm ribs (about 5/8″ or 16mm wide) are set and steam-bent over the form.  Wide-board planks (made of basswood or Spanish cedar) are bent over the form on top of the ribs and are held in place with 16-gauge copper nails.  Pilot holes are drilled through the planks and ribs.  Then, the nails are driven straight into the solid wood form.  Once this is done for the entire canoe, it is pulled off the form and turned right-side up.  A chunk of iron shaped specifically for the purpose (called a dubbing iron) is used to bend the nails along each rib with the points oriented toward the keelson in a process called ‘dubbing over’.  The dubbing iron is then used as backing against each rib while each nail is hammered flat into the wood with a cobblers hammer.  The wide-board planks run longitudinally the length of the canoe and are placed against each other with butt joints.  These joints are covered with battens on the interior which are also attached with dubbed copper nails.  ‘Labour-intensive’ is a mild way of describing this process.  A 16′ (4.9 meter) canoe is held together with approximately 4,000 nails.

Cedar Rib – In 1879, John Stephenson patented the ‘cedar-rib’ canoe construction method.  White cedar ribs are steam-bent over a solid wood form and are fitted tightly together with tongue-and-groove joints.  Once completed, the canoe is disassembled in order to remove it from the form.  It is then reassembled and held together with a number of stringers running longitudinally.  The stringers are attached to the ribs with copper nails which are dubbed over and flattened in the usual fashion.  As we looked at one of these canoes at the Canadian Canoe Museum, Jeremy Ward, the museum curator, said, “I want to build one of these just to prove it can’t be done.”

Longitudinal Strip – John Stephenson continued his design efforts with a third construction method patented in 1883.  This method starts by bending the half-round rock elm ribs over the solid wood form at 3″ (76 mm) centres (notched into the keelson).  Then, longitudinal strips of edge-grain white cedar are placed on top of the ribs and are fitted together with shiplap joints.  These strips are 2″ (51 mm) wide in the centre of the canoe and are tapered by hand to about 1¼” (32 mm) at the ends.  Again, dubbed copper nails are used to hold the entire canoe together.  Over time, this method emerged as the standard for what became known as the “Peterborough” canoe.

Flush Batten – The rib-and-batten method was refined by William English with the introduction of his patented ‘flush batten’ construction method in 1888.  His method begins in the usual way with half-round rock elm ribs steam-bent over a solid wood form (notched into the keelson at 4½” or 11.4 cm centres).  Wide, white cedar planks with rabbeted (rebated) edges run longitudinally on top of the ribs.  Thin rock elm battens are set into the channels formed by the rabbeted edges.  These battens sit flush with the interior edges of the planks.  As usual, the entire canoe is held together with dubbed copper nails.  This construction method was widely used in racing canoes.

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(photo by Nick Dennis)

All of these construction methods rely on expert craftsmanship and tight joints to produce watertight canoes. Once it has been sitting in water for a day or two, the wood in the canoe swells and the joints become very tight indeed.  That said, a large sponge is a standard piece of equipment in these canoes.

Clinched Tack Construction

Double-Plank – Dan Herald was another of the inventive canoe builders in the Peterborough region of Ontario.  He patented his ‘double-plank’ construction method in 1871.  This method employs a solid wood form sheathed with metal.  White cedar planks are steam-bent transversely (from one side of the canoe to the other) and are fitted together with butt joints.  Next, cotton muslin or canvas soaked in pine tar is laid on top of the first layer of planks.  The treated cloth helps waterproof the canoe.  The next step in this method is to place a second layer of thin, white cedar planks onto the form.  These planks run longitudinally and are attached to the first layer of planks with small, thin copper tacks (later simply referred to as ‘canoe tacks’).  The tacks are driven into the wood with a cobblers hammer.  They hit the metal sheathing on the form and curl back on themselves to clinch the wood together.

Capped Gunwale – A number of salmon fishing guides and canoe builders lived and worked along the Penobscot River in Maine in the late 1800’s.  They worked with and often built birch bark canoes.  They had become used to using canvas (waterproofed and painted) to cover their canoes and keep them watertight.  It appears they heard about Dan Herald’s double-plank construction method in the mid- to late 1870’s and started adapting his ideas to create canoes emulating the birch bark canoes in their region.  They began building their canoes over solid wood forms sheathed with strips of metal.  White cedar ribs (about 2″ or 51 mm wide and 5/16″ or 8 mm thick) are steam-bent over the metal strips on the form.  No keelson is used since birch bark canoes do not employ this feature.  White cedar planks run longitudinally on top of the ribs and are fitted together with butt joints.  The planks and ribs are held together with copper canoe tacks that clinch when they hit the metal strips upon which each rib is bent.  The ends of the ribs are attached to hardwood (usually ash) inwales – another feature of birch bark canoes.  To emulate the look of bark canoes, the ends of the ribs are either tapered and attached against a chamfered edge of the inwale or they are set into pockets carved into the inwale (usually with a forstner bit).  Once most of the canoe is completed, it is removed from the form and turned right-side up.  Then, the stems and decks are installed and the hull construction is completed.  Canvas is then stretched over the hull and held in place with canoe tacks.  Next, the canvas is waterproofed with a canvas filler and trimmed along the sheer-line.  The look of a bark canoe is completed with the attachment of thin hardwood caps on top of the inwales and thin hardwood outwales used to cover the top edge of the canvas.  Evan H. Gerrish has been acknowledged as the first canoe builder in Maine to use this method.  Others quickly followed.  Among them were Edward M. White, Bert N. Morris and Guy Carleton.

Double Gunwale – By the 1890’s, the look of the gunwales was refined with the development of the ‘double gunwale’ system.  The tops of the ribs are still set into pockets in the inwales but the gunwale-cap is no longer used.  Instead, the outwales are widened to look very much like those found on canoes built in Ontario.  This results in a very elegant look to the gunwales.

Open Gunwale – Bark canoes are held together with tension as the ribs are hammered into place thus wedging the rib-tops between the inwales and outwales.  Each fall, the ribs are hammered out of position and the canoe is stored away for the winter.  In factory-built canvas-covered canoes, the rib-tops are held permanently inside pockets cut in the inwales.  Over time, water is held in the pockets and the moist environment is perfect for the growth of the fungi that cause wood rot.  Around 1905, builders developed the ‘open gunwale’ system.  This allows water to drain quickly from the canoe and keep the rib-tops rot-free for a longer time.  By the mid-19-teens, the entire canvas-covered canoe industry had adopted this system.

mockup 02

The entire canoe restoration process 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.

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2 Responses to “The Evolution of Factory-Built Wooden Canoes”

  1. brendashantz@telus.net Says:

    We have now finished stretching and tacking the canvas on our canoe. The special canoe canvas pliers and This Old Canoe book have been invaluable. We would not have had a clue how to start without the book. Your pictures, detailed directions and encouragement in the book were great. We mixed the filler with the silica recipe, it seems quite dry even after one week! Thank you for writing your book.. Brenda

  2. jazzersten Says:

    What an incredible blog post!

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