A Brief Guide to Canvas-Covered Old Town Canoes

December 6, 2019


by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

email: artisan@canoeshop.ca

In America, the Old Town Canoe Company set the standard by which all other canvas-covered canoes are measured.  With more than 170,000 produced over the course of seven decades or more, Old Town canoes are ubiquitous.  So let’s look at a few of their classic models and compare them.  From this, you ought to be able to identify your Old Town.  However, be prepared for any American canoe to be called an Old Town.

The Old Town Canoe Company

The brand-name Old Town is synonymous with canvas-covered canoes in the United States.  They are one of the only canoe companies to survive into the present day from their humble beginnings behind the Gray hardware store in Old Town, Maine in 1898.  George and Samuel Gray incorporated the Old Town Canoe Company in 1901.  They were entrepreneurs who hired others to design and build their canoes.  The company kept meticulous build records which are still available through the WCHA.  Their designs appealed to customers across the full range of styles from work-a-day canoes to elegant showpieces.  So, let’s look at some of these quintessential canoes.

The Otca Model

Probably the best selling of all the Old Town models, the Otca was introduced in 1908 and began with a narrow hull (34.5” beam in the 16’ length) and later adopted the wide, flat-bottom of the Yankee model (36” beam in the 16’ length).  According to their 1938 catalog, “The ‘Otca’ model is the widest, deepest and roomiest.  These features make it the steadiest, safest and most capacious canoe we build.  The floor is flat and wide, and carries far into the ends.  The sides are convex, thus producing a handsome tumblehome. This model is not designed for speed but comfort, safety and fine appearance.”

The Otca caters to novice canoeists as well as those looking for a leisurely day on the water.  There is little to no rocker at the ends, so it tracks very well.  As a friend of mine explained, “It goes in a straight line.  If you want to turn, just paddle until you reach the opposite side of the lake, get out, turn the canoe around and head back.”

It comes in 16’, 17’ and 18’ lengths and usually has a floor rack installed.  It sports elegant, up-swept ends with a variety of deck styles over the years including a 16” solid-wood, pre-bent deck, a 20” one-piece deck with a low  coaming and a 30” framed-veneer deck with a king-plank and coaming.  The ribs in the Otca are standard-issue (5/16” thick, 2” wide spaced 1.5” apart and tapered on both sides to be approximately 1.5” wide at the sheer-line).  The 16’ model weighs approximately 75 pounds.

The Yankee Model

This canoe (known as the Livery Model prior to 1920) was phased out in favour of the Otca in the 1940’s.  It is a very easy paddling canoe.  The flat bottom and soft chine makes it both steady and quick.  It is 16’ long, 36” beam, 12” deep and weighs approximately 73 pounds.  With fine entry lines and moderate rocker at the ends, it is a delight to paddle.

The Ideal Model

The Ideal comes in 16’ and 17’ lengths.  It has a flat bottom, soft chine, straight sides, moderate rocker and fine entry lines making for a quick, responsive canoe.  The floor is furnished with half-ribs to make it strong and comfortable.  The ends sweep up with an elegant rise in the sheer-line.  It is a quick, easy paddler and becomes more stable as it is loaded.

The Charles River Model

This canoe (introduced in 1903) is the same as the Ideal without the half-ribs. It was often furnished with a floor rack and was built with elegance and showy good looks in mind.  That said, its flat-bottom, soft chine and fine entry lines produce in a canoe that was just as much fun to paddle as it was a delight to look at.  Both the Ideal and Charles River were phased out in 1929.

The Guides Special Model

This is a slow, steady work-a-day canoe that comes in 18’ and 20’ lengths.  The 18’ model has a 36” beam and is 13” deep.  It has a flat-bottom, slight tumblehome, very little rocker and full ends.  This workhorse is meant to be loaded and will get you where you want to go. Just don’t expect to get there quickly.

The H W Model

The Heavy Water Model is the consummate back-country traveler.  It has moderate rocker, a semi-arch “yawl” hull, mild tumblehome through the entire length and full ends.  With a narrow beam, this canoe is very quick on the water.  Stability is traded for a canoe which is agile and responsive.  It takes a little getting used to and once you do, it dances through river rapids.  In my books, it is a delightful recreational canoe.  The 16’ model has a 33” beam, is 12” deep at the centre and weighs about 70 pounds.

The 50-LB. Model

The “50-Pounder” is a series of light-weight versions of the HW model.  They come in 11’, 13’ and 15’ lengths and weigh 50, 53 and 58 pounds respectively.  They are constructed with ribs ¼” thick to produce canoes which are easy to portage.  Modest tumblehome extends the entire length of the canoe and the bottom has a semi-arch and fine entry lines.  The result is a versatile all-purpose canoe.  Personally, I enjoy the 15’ model.  It is light, quick and both steady and agile to handle rivers and lakes with ease.

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