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

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  The consumer has been convinced that the new materials can improve that which is outdated or at least maintain it quickly and easily.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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

If you have read the book, please post a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads and/or any other review site.

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

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.

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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
email: artisan@canoeshop.ca

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.

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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.