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

If there is an area of controversy in the world of wood-canvas canoes, the question of the keel would be it.

Historically, canoes (and kayaks for that matter) never had keels.  Edwin Tappen Adney documented hundreds of indigenous water craft throughout North America in the early part of the 1900’s.  His meticulous notes, drawings and scale models are presented in the book “Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America”.  It was compiled and edited by Howard Chappelle after Adney’s death.  The canoes and skin boats range from small hunting boats around 11’ (3.35 meters) in length to large cargo vessels over 36’ (11 meters) long.  None of these vessels had a keel.

As people of European ancestry came in contact with canoes through the 1800’s and tried to build them, they tended to approach the task of boat building from a European perspective.  For them, building a boat begins with a keel.  The rest of the vessel is built around it.  As canoes became a commodity for the general public, canoe builders also had to appeal to a market that didn’t trust a boat unless it had a keel.  Many people unfamiliar with canoes feel unstable in them and have trouble travelling in a straight line.  As a result, most canoes sold in the better part of the 20th century were equipped with a keel.  However, it is interesting to note that true working canoes built at the same time (such as the Chestnut Prospector, Cruiser and Ogilvy) were usually keel-free.

The Chestnut Ogilvy was designed to be stable. The wide, flat bottom allows a person to stand up in it all day long. A true working river boat, it never had a keel.  Safe travel in rapid rivers requires a canoe that can side-slip easily to avoid encounters with large rocks.  A keel makes this maneuver more difficult and puts the canoeist at risk.

To look at it from a design perspective, the stability of a canoe is determined by the hull shape.  Wider canoes – 36” (90 cm) or more – with flat bottoms tend to have greater “initial stability”(feel more stable when you first get in them) than narrow canoes – 34” (85 cm) or less – with arched bottoms.  What is gained in stability with a wide, flat bottom is lost in hull speed and vice versa (what is gained in hull speed with a narrow, arched bottom is lost in stability).  Attaching a strip of wood an inch (2.5 cm) high to the bottom of a canoe does little to affect stability one way or the other.

The Chestnut Prospector was designed to dance around rocks in rapid rivers.  Although it has a more rounded bottom than the Ogilvy, the tumblehome and high sides in the centre of the canoe gives it very good “secondary stability” (gets more stable as you add weight to the canoe).  When the Chestnut Prospector it is tipped over on one side, it becomes stable in that position.  Also, the waterline width increases as more weight is loaded into the canoe.  Greater width at the water-line equals more stability.

Tracking – the tendency of a canoe to travel in a straight line – is determined by its length.  The longer the waterline length, the better the canoe tracks in the water.  Note here that I refer specifically to the waterline length rather than the canoe’s length overall.  The hull of a Chestnut Prospector lifts dramatically at the ends.  As a result, an unloaded 16’ (4.9 meters) canoe will only be about 14’ (4.2 meters) long at the waterline.  What is gained in maneuverability in a shorter waterline length is lost in tracking and vice versa (what is lost in maneuverability in a longer waterline length is gained in tracking).    If you are simply looking for a canoe that will travel in a straight line, get a long canoe – 17’ (5.2 meters) or more – with no rocker.  If you want your canoe to be able to dodge rocks in a rapid river, choose a canoe with lots of rocker at the ends – and no keel.

Functionally speaking, most canoes are designed to navigate rivers.  The rivers of northern Canada present the traveler with many challenges – chief among them; rapids filled with large rocks.  The Chestnut Pal was equipped with a “shoe” keel. At 3/8″ (9 mm) high and 2¼” (57 mm) wide, it provided protection to the bottom without interfering with the canoe’s ability to sideslip past rocks in rapid rivers.

In lakes, many people complain that a canoe without a keel will be blown around by the wind.  Again, it comes back to learning how to handle the canoe.  When travelling on a large lake with the wind in your face, the canoe must be loaded with a majority of the weight in the forward half of the canoe.  It will always tend to “weathervane” – that is, it will orient itself with the lighter end downwind.  As long as the weight of the canoe is slightly upwind, the canoe will track easily into the wind.

Speaking as a canoe restorer, I wince slightly whenever I finish preparing a beautifully watertight canvas cover and then proceed to drill a dozen or more holes straight down the centerline of the canoe.  I solve the watertight issue by using a top quality marine bedding compound to set the keel.  Eventually, the bedding compound dries out and/or the keel is jarred by one too many encounters with rocks in rivers.  When the seal is broken, the canoe begins to leak.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to remove the keel without damaging the canvas.  Therefore, when the canoe starts to leak, it is usually time to for a new canvas.

If the question of keels in canoes were strictly one of form and function, there would not be a discussion – a canoe is a water-craft designed to travel on rapid rivers, and as such, is better off without a keel.  You only have to look at any modern Royalex or Kevlar canoe on the market.  None of the canoes built today have keels.  However, in the world of wood-canvas canoes, there is more to consider.  Many people have grown up with their canoe.  It is part of their life and part of their family.  Their canoe has had a keel for fifty years, so it seems only natural that it stays that way.  In this context I say, “Fair enough.”  It turns out that wood-canvas canoes are more than form and function.  They must be seen in the context of family history and tradition.  For this reason, I have no problem re-installing a keel in a wood-canvas 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.

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

Proper storage of your wood-canvas canoe is essential to its long, rot-free life.  The basic principles of proper storage revolve around creating an environment that is hostile to the growth of the fungi that cause wood to rot.  This means keeping the canoe:

a) well off the ground
b) upside-down
c) protected from rain, snow, etc.
d) in an area with lots of air circulation

Finding a suitable place is often a major challenge.  I’m sure there are as many places to store a canoe as there are canoes.  Let’s look at a few.
Some examples of suitable storage spaces include:

1)  Carport
2) Covered Porch
3) Unheated Garage
4) Lean-To Shelter (against a building).

Once you have identified a spot, the next step is to develop a storage method.  I will describe three possible systems.  From them, you ought to be able to come up with something that works for you.

Canoe Storage Rack_sm

1. A Basic Rack – Does your space have a solid wall on one side?  Is there enough room away from the wall to allow access into the space?  If so, build and install two large racks about 7’ (2 meters) apart.  The example illustrated here is made from spruce 2×4’s.  The joints are glued and screwed to ensure a sturdy structure.  The top edges of the rack can be rounded and/or padded to protect the gunwales of the canoe.  Make sure the racks are secured well to the wall (with lag-bolts or through bolts and washers).

Canoe Rack Rollers 01_sm

If you are able to use the services of a steel fabricator, a canoe rack can be constructed from 1″ (25 mm) square tubing.  A single weld to create a right angle is more than strong enough to support a canoe, so there is no need for extra bracing if the rack is made of steel.  Protect the gunwales of your canoe by threading a length of 1½” (38 mm) ABS pipe over the steel struts.

Canoe Rack Multiple 01_sm

Canoe Rack Multiple 02_sm

 

2. A Roller System – Is your space long and narrow?  Is it awkward or impossible to access the space from the side?  In this case, it may be possible to feed the canoe into the space from one end.  For this situation, install two support racks about 7’ (2 meters) apart.  Each support rack is a  length of standard 1” (25 mm) steel pipe (or square tubing) at least 40” (one meter) long threaded through a  length of 1½” (38 mm) ABS pipe at least 38” (96 cm) long.  Install each steel pipe securely at the desired height.  The ABS pipe acts as a roller and makes it easy to store the canoe in and remove it from a confined space.

Canoe Storage Hardware_sm

3. A Hoist System – Is it possible or desirable to get your canoe up out of the way above everything else?  If so, try using a system of ropes and pulleys to hoist your canoe up and away.  Support the canoe with a length of rope wrapped around each end.  Tie a permanent loop in both ends of the ropes.  Use a carabiner to clip the ends of each rope together to create a support loop for each end of the canoe.  Then rig a length of ¼” (7 mm) braided rope (I use multi-filament polypropylene – MFP – rope) through a series of pulleys as illustrated above and install a cleat to secure the free-end of the rope.

photo by Kevin Dunn

4. Interior Design – Let’s face it, wood-canvas canoes are works of art and as such can enhance a living space.  They can set a tone for the room and become a conversation piece for visitors.  A little creativity can provide a method for hanging the canoe that shows off your canoe to its best advantage.  This is an option as long as the space has large doors to allow the canoe to be moved into and out of the space.  Narrow hallways or tight corners into the space would eliminate this as an option.

photo by Kevin Dunn

Warning:  When storing your canoe (either inside or outside), resist the temptation to wrap it up in a tarp.  Any moisture trapped inside the tarp or developed over extended wet periods will remain there.  As mentioned earlier, this sets up perfect growing conditions for the fungi that cause wood-rot.  If you want your canoe to compost, then wrap it up in a tarp.  Otherwise, make sure there is plenty of air circulation around your canoe and never wrap it in a tarp.

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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.

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

In Canada, the canoes from the Chestnut Canoe Company set the standard by which all others are measured.  Now, forty years after the company went out of business, they are still held up as classic canoe icons.  So, how can you identify a canoe as a Chestnut and what makes a Prospector a Prospector?

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The Chestnut Canoe Company – William and Henry Chestnut started building wood-canvas canoes in 1897.  They bought a canoe in Maine (probably a Gerrish canoe) and made exact copies of it which they then sold out of their father’s furniture business in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  They incorporated the canoe business in 1905 which most historians view as the birth date of the company.  However, the 1972 Chestnut Canoe Company catalogue proudly celebrated 75 years in business.  It seems the company viewed its birth as 1897.  Be that as it may, the company grew into the largest canoe manufacturer in Canada and, at their height, were producing in excess of 3,000 canoes/year.  In 1923, Chestnut Canoe Company and Peterborough Canoe Company (and later Canadian Canoe Company) amalgomated under an umbrella group called Canadian Watercraft Limited.  As a result, the wood-canvas canoes for all three companies were built in Fredericton by Chestnut.  The Peterborough Canoe Company ceased operations in 1961 while the Chestnut Canoe Company continued until it closed in 1978.

Chestnut produced over 50 different canoes in a wide variety of models.  In this article, I will focus on the most common Chestnut canoes — Ogilvy, Cruiser, Bobs Special, Pal and Prospector.

The Chestnut Ogilvy – Although never as popular as the others, fishing guides on the salmon rivers of New Brunswick helped create a working canoe that is unmatched for its purpose.  They needed a river canoe they could stand up in all day long.  They were often poling the canoe upstream through shallow rapids in order to offer the prime fishing spots to their clients.  The canoe had to be stable and tough with a shallow draft so as to avoid many (but not all) of the rocks.  They come in six models that range in length from 16’ to 26’ – real, honest working canoes.

The 16’ model has a 36” beam and 13½” depth at the centre.  The ribs are 3” wide, 3/8” thick and have only ½” space between them.  This creates what amounts to a double-planked hull.  The rugged nature of the Ogilvy comes with a price in terms of weight.  The 16’ has an average weight of 84 pounds and a carrying capacity of 850 pounds.  It has a flat-bottomed hull, straight sides, full entry lines and modest rocker in the ends.  This makes for a canoe that is slow and steady – exactly what is needed when moving through shallow, rapid rivers.

The Chestnut Cruiser – This canoe was one of the first canoes that Chestnut developed.  It was influenced very heavily by (if not copied directly from) Gerrish canoes built in Maine in the late 1890’s.  The lines are sleek, narrow and graceful – designed to handle rivers with speed and efficiency.  This narrow canoe has an arched bottom, fine-entry lines and generous rocker at the ends.  Therefore, it was not for the novice paddler.  However, in the hands of someone who knows what to do, this canoe is a dream to paddle.

Three models are 16’ 17’ and 18’ long.  The ribs are 2-3/8” wide, 3/8” thick with 2” spaces between the ribs.  The 16’ model has a 34” beam, is 13” deep and weighs 70 pounds.  They are also built with ribs 3” wide, 3/8” thick and ½” spaces between the ribs.  These heavy-duty models are called the Guide Special.  The 16’ model weighs 75 pounds.  Both 16’ models have a carrying capacity of 600 pounds.

The Chestnut Bobs Special – This 15′ canoe is one of two lightweight pleasure canoes built by Chestnut.  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 Will 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 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 is 58 pounds while the carrying capacity is 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.

Many outdoor enthusiasts were looking for a lightweight, stable canoe that would allow them to enjoy fly fishing or just a quiet paddle on the lake.  With a 37” beam and 12½” depth at the centre, the Bobs Special is very stable — ideal for those who find a regular canoe too ‘tippy’.  At the same time, it is surprisingly quick and maneuverable in the water.  This is due to the shallow-arch bottom combined with moderate rocker and fine entry lines in the ends.  The ribs are 2-3/8” wide and ¼” thick with 1½” spaces between them.

The Chestnut Pleasure Canoes – It is no accident that Bill Mason used a 16′ Chestnut pleasure canoe in most of his films.  It is stable, yet quick; steady, yet agile.  It has a 36” beam, 12¾” depth at the centre, weight of 72 pounds and a carrying capacity of 700 pounds.  It is as close to being a perfect recreational canoe as you ever hope to get.  It had a variety of names over the years and was one of the Chestnut pleasure canoes which also came in 14’ and 15’ lengths.  Until 1958, the 16’ pleasure canoe (called the Ajax or Moonlight) had a 34” beam.  Then, the mould was widened.  The economy version of the 16’ pleasure canoe had been called the Pal for several years (from about 1954).  The pleasure canoes came in both narrow and wide versions until about 1960 when the wider versions were adopted exclusively.  Over the years, the ribs of the pleasure canoes came in two different sizes – either 1½” wide and 3/8” thick with 1½” spaces between ribs or 2-3/8” wide and 3/8” thick with 2” spaces.  The 16′ was called the Pal or the Deer, the 15′ was called the Chum or the Doe and the 14′ was called the Playmate or the Fox.

The bottom has a shallow-arch hull with tumblehome extending through the entire length of the canoe.  The fine entry lines and moderate rocker make it very easy to paddle.  In his film, “Path of the Paddle: Solo Whitewater”, Bill Mason demonstrated very well that the Pal (or Deer) was not designed for Class 3 rapids.  But, that didn’t stop him from trying.  The Pal (or Deer) is a great general-purpose canoe and was the canoe of choice for many generations of canoeists – even if many of them called it a Chestnut Prospector.

The Chestnut Prospector – This is the real deal – often copied, never matched.  A quick search on the internet produces at least ten modern canoe companies with a “Prospector” in its catalogue.  However, the Chestnut Canoe Company invented this winning combination.  With high sides, substantial arch in the bottom and lots of rocker in the full ends, it is designed to transport heavy loads quickly through rapid rivers and large, challenging lakes.  It is essentially a deeper, wider Cruiser and is still regarded as the ultimate wilderness tripping canoe.  Like the Cruiser, many people unfamiliar with these canoes find it a little “tippy”.  The round bottom of the Prospector makes for a “shaky” feel when you first get in.  However, it becomes much more stable as weigh is loaded into the canoe — making it perfect for extended trips.  It also settles into a stable position when heeled over to one side.  As a result, many people love it as a solo canoe.

They were made in five lengths from 14’ to 18’.  The 16’ model has a 36” beam and a 14½” depth at the centre.  The 16’ model weighs 76 pounds and carries 850 pounds.  Although there is good tumblehome at the centre, the hull flares about 4’ from the ends in order to throw water away from the canoe while hitting big waves in rapid rivers.  The ribs are 2-3/8” wide, 3/8” thick with 2” spaces between them.

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
email: artisan@canoeshop.ca

Fundamental to any canoe restoration is understanding what you are dealing with. This blog examines a number of ways to answer some basic questions:

1) Who built my canoe?;
2) When was it built?;
3) How was it built?;
4) What supplies and materials were used? and;
5) What did it look like originally?

Mike Wootton asked the WCHA about his Old Town canoe.  It was built in 1937 and was shipped to Portland, Maine. The decks, thwarts and seats are oak, the gunwales are spruce and the canvas was painted dark green. He added the Old Town design number 1 as a finishing touch.  He then showed it off at the 2016 spring meet of the Northwest Chapter of the WCHA.

WCHA – The first place I go for information about a new restoration project is the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association (http://www.wcha.org).  They are an amazing resource.  One of the things they do is to host an on-line forum.  When you ask a question, there are often several people quick to respond with help, advise, guidance and historical information.

Mike Wootton asked the WCHA about his Old Town canoe (serial number 120233). They sent him a scan of the original build record. He used the information to complete the restoration.

Part of the forum is a build record search.  They have archived a complete collection of Old Town, Carleton and Kennebec canoe company build records.  If you have the serial number from your canoe, they will send you a scan documenting when it was build, the model, colour and style as well as to whom it was shipped.

(photo by the Canadian Canoe Museum)

Canoe Museums – The Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario houses a collection over 600 vintage canoes and kayaks from around the world.

(photo by the Canadian Canoe Museum)

In addition, they house a large archive of canoe-related documents.  It is worth becoming a member and spending the time to dig through their collections for the information you are looking for.

(photo by Jamie Dunn)

Another source of information is the Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum in Spooner. It has a small, yet comprehensive collection of primarily American-built antique canoes.

(photo by the Canadian Canoe Museum)

Both of these museums include workshop facilities and run regular classes teaching canoe restoration techniques. They can also connect you with canoe restorers who have experience dealing with specific types of antique canoe.

It is also worthwhile to venture into every small museum and gallery you come across in your travels. Old canoes often create a focal point in community collections.  When you find a canoe you are looking for, ask the curator for permission to measure the canoe and take notes on its construction.

Old canoe company catalogues are sold regularly on ebay and other on-line sites.

On-Line Searches – Once you know the make and model of your canoe, it is often helpful to enter those words into on-line search engines. You never know what may happen to be available for a week or two.  Written articles, blog posts and images from boat shows (to name a few) will be available on-line for a limited time.  Check on a regular basis to see what is newly posted.  Also, see what is being sold on ebay.  There may be a listing for exactly the same canoe you are working on.  Canoe catalogues are also sold regularly on ebay.  If your canoe is an Old Town, and you known the year it was built, it is possible that the catalogue for that year is being sold on-line.

Catalogues – As you begin to plan your restoration, the canoe catalogue for your make, model and year can often provide a wealth of specific information about how your canoe was constructed, the woods used for the various components and perhaps examples of decorative designs painted on the canvas.

The WCHA has developed an impressive collection of historic canoe company catalogues for sale. From their on-line store, you can buy reprints of a wide variety of vintage canoe company catalogues (both Canadian and American).  Large collections are also available on USB memory drives.  These include: 1) a collection of 73 catalogues from 12 Canadian companies; 2) a collection of 50 Canadian and American companies; 3) a collection of every page of every Old Town Canoe Company catalogue from 1901 to 1993 and; 4) a collection of Thompson Brothers catalogues from 1907 to 1970.

The front cover of the 1978 catalogue for the Chestnut Canoe Company. My client designed the catalogue which turned out to be the last one ever produced.

The Last Chestnut (How research helped bring a canoe back to life) – In 2006, a client came to me with his Chestnut canoe which was in desperate need of restoration.  He designed the 1978 catalogue for the company.  When asked what he wanted in terms of payment, he requested they build an Indian Maiden canoe for him.

 

It had been almost 20 years since they last built that model.  They found the building form buried in mud behind the factory.  They rebuild it and decided to build a special edition series of 300 canoes.  They worked out the process by building a prototype and then built the canoe for my client (a special plaque on the bow identifies it as 001 of 300).  He took possession of the canoe directly from the factory in December 1978 and they closed the doors behind him. They were out of business.

When the canoe arrived in my shop, many components were missing and I had never seen another like it. In an on-line search, I found an article from the University of New Brunswick talking about a canoe that had been hidden away in the basement of a building on campus.  The article identified it as a Chestnut Indian Maiden built in 1978.  The university had just donated the canoe to the Wild Salmon Nature Centre in St. Andrews by-the-sea, NB.

My sister and her husband live in Maine about two hours drive from St. Andrews. I told them about my project and asked them to collect dimensions for a number of components on the canoe.  They readily agreed and took on the research project as only two wildlife management PhD’s can.  A couple of weeks later, I received a package full of photos, measurements, drawings and notes.

My restoration concluded successfully thanks to lots of research.

After publishing the story, I received an email from someone in Toronto. His brother had seen the Indian Maiden on display at the Canadian National Exhibition in the fall of 1978. Apparently, he was the only person to order one. The plaque on the bow identifies it as 002 of 300. To my knowledge, it is the last canoe ever built at the factory.

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.

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.

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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.

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

Frequently, I get an email from someone who is looking to sell their wood-canvas canoe.  Typically, they tell me, “The canoe has been stored under-cover for the last twenty or thirty years and is in excellent shape.  What would be a reasonable price to ask for my canoe?”  Conversely, a person is considering the purchase of an old canoe and wants my opinion on whether or not the asking price is a reasonable one.  In both cases, the best I can do is refer them to what I see on classified ads offering other wood-canvas canoes for sale.

I guess the simplest answer is: “It is worth whatever someone is willing to pay.”  I have a hard time seeing these canoes as commodities.  That is why I am in the business of repairing and restoring wood-canvas canoes.  My clients tend to value their canoe based on a set of criteria far removed from monetary concerns.  That said, wood-canvas canoes are bought and sold.  Most of them are at least thirty years old and range in condition from pristine to ‘ready for the burn pile’.  So, let’s look at the market and what tends to be ‘the going rate’.

Fully restored wood-canvas canoes tend to be listed in classified ads in a range from about $3,500 to $7,000.  Bear in mind that a brand-new Old Town 16′ Guide canoe – made by hand on the original mould – currently sells for $9,000 USD (about $12,000 CAD).  Serviceable canoes that need some work tend to be offered somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1,500 to $2,500.  Canoes requiring a full restoration can be picked up for $50 to $500 (and sometimes you can get the canoe because you are willing to cart it away).

When people ask for my opinion on a specific canoe, I base my answer on what a professional canoe restoration shop would charge to bring it back to ‘like new’ condition.  Almost any ‘original canoe in mint condition’ will require a new canvas.  Unfortunately, the original canvas will only last about forty years (Oh, how I long for a return to the days before planned obsolescence).  If the work is done by a professional canoe restorer, you are looking at spending about $2,000 to $3,000 after you have bought the canoe (all of these prices are in Canadian dollars).  If the canoe ‘needs a little work’, be prepared to pay for a full restoration which could cost in the range of $3,500 to $5,500.  And if it is a ‘basket-case’, the bill could far exceed what you would get for it if you ever decided to sell it (not unlike the cost of renovating an old house).  So, when you see a fully restored canoe listed in a classified ad for $4,500, they are probably just trying to recoup the cost of the restoration.

About fourteen years ago, I bought an original Greenwood Canoe for $900.  The bulk of the woodwork was in excellent condition and the interior varnish was still in very good condition.  The canvas was original (about forty years old) and although it was not rotting, it needed to be replaced.  Greenwood canoes are well-known to wood-canvas canoe enthusiasts in British Columbia.  Bill Greenwood built canoes in Richmond, BC from the mid 1930’s to 1975.  His workmanship was unequalled not to mention all of the Philippine mahogany (luan) used in components such as gunwales, decks and thwarts.  Anyone who knows these canoes bows their head in reverence whenever they speak of Bill Greenwood and his canoes.

In my shop, I brought the canoe back to life.  The original mahogany outwales were shot, so I replaced them with exact copies.  I added a couple of coats of varnish to the woodwork and painted the new canvas the dark green that was typical for Greenwood canoes.

The next spring, I replaced the original slat seats with mahogany-framed hand-woven cane seats in the style of Greenwood canoes.  I removed the bow-quarter thwart, installed a mahogany carrying yoke and moved the stern-quarter thwart to a position halfway between the stern seat and the centre yoke.  I had no intentions of selling this canoe and, at that time, I had not seen a restored canoe sell for more than $2,500.  So, when anyone asked me how much I wanted for it, I told them, “The canoe is all yours for $4,500.”  In 2008, someone fell in love with my canoe and handed me a check.

Chestnut Prospector fully restored

Two years ago, I finished restoring a 16′ Chestnut Prospector for myself.  I replaced the original solid-wood slat seats with hand-woven cane seats replicating the Chestnut style of cane seats.  I then painted the canvas the original light green colour and installed copies of the original Chestnut deck and hull decals.  These days, I rarely see a fully restored canoe selling for more than $4,000.  If anyone asks me what I want for it, I will say, “$8,000 — but it’s not for sale.”

If you are selling, it is possible to get the price you are looking for.  Just be prepared to wait a long time for that ‘special someone’ to come along.  If you are buying, be prepared to factor in the cost of a full restoration once you have purchased the canoe.

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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.

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

People email regularly asking me to identify their canoe and/or give them an estimate on a restoration.  When I ask them to send me some pictures, I often see a big difference between what people regard as a helpful image and what I require, so here is a little tutorial on the art of photographing a wood-canvas canoe.

Before taking any pictures, pull your canoe out of storage and get it into the light.  Pictures of your canoe hanging up in the garage are not helpful.  Pictures of your canoe in the basement are equally useless.

1.       A General Picture (3/4 Profile)

The first picture I ask for is a general picture in a three-quarter profile.  It is a view taken from an angle to show both the inside and outside of the canoe.  You are standing off to one side near one end.  The picture shows the decks, seats and thwarts as well as giving a good view of the hull shape.  Many people send me a series of pictures of the bottom of the canoe from every conceivable angle.  Other than the presence or absence of a keel, these pictures do little to help identify it or determine the condition of the canoe.  For identification purposes, along with a picture like the one presented above, it is useful to let me know the overall length from tip to tip as well as the maximum width and depth in the centre of the canoe.  If the canoe has a serial number (often stamped into the stern stem), that information is also useful.  This canoe is 16’ long, 33” wide and 13¼” deep.  I can see two caned seats, a centre thwart, a stern-quarter thwart and two hand thwarts (one at each end near the deck).  From this single picture and the accompanying dimensions, I can identify this canoe as a Chestnut Cruiser (called the Kruger).

2.       Both Decks (Top View)

Take a picture of each deck from directly above.  Be sure to show the entire area from the tip of the canoe to the base of the deck.  If a hand thwart is present (as illustrated above) include it too.  These pictures help me see the condition of the various components at the ends.  There is almost always some degree of rot in this area.  The decal on this canoe shows it to be a Chestnut Canoe built in Oromocto, NB.  The Chestnut Canoe Company was located in Fredericton, NB from 1897 to 1974.  They moved to Oromocto in the mid-1970′s and stayed there until they went out of business in 1978.  Therefore, this canoe was built in the period between about 1974 and 1978.

3.       Both Stem-Ends (3/4 Profile)

It helps to have close-ups of the ends taken at an angle off to one side, near the end and slightly above.  In some cases, as in the bow deck above, the damage is obvious.  However, in most cases, it is helpful to remove a few screws from the outwales (and perhaps the stem-band) to reveal the ends more fully.  In this canoe, rot in the stern-end is seen only once the interior surfaces are exposed.

4.       Both Seats (Above 3/4 Profile)

Take a picture of each seat from above at an angle.  Stand to one side near the centre of the canoe.  This view shows the bolts and spacers as well as the seat.  In this canoe, the original 3/16” carriage bolts have been replaced with 1/4″ threaded rod and nuts.  The original cane is in good condition.  Although it is weathered, it could be revitalized with a mixture of boiled linseed oil and turpentine followed by the usual finish of shellac to seal it followed by a number of coats of spar varnish.  However, in most cases, it is best to re-cane the seats (hand-woven with natural cane — rattan).

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5.        Gunwales and Thwarts (Above 3/4 Profile)

The rails along each side of the canoe are called gunwales.  They consist of an inside rail called the inwale and an outside rail called the outwale.  Stand near the bow seat off to one side and take a picture (or two) from above to show the inwale and outwale as well as the centre thwart.  In most cases, it was difficult for the builders to find full-length wood for the gunwale components.  They spliced pieces together by gluing a scarf joint.  Often the glue lets go and needs to be re-glued.  In the final years of the Chestnut Canoe Company, they attached the ribs to the inwale with steel tacks.  Over the years, they corrode causing the entire canoe to come apart.  Most companies assembled their canoes completely before applying paint and varnish.  As a result, the inside surface of the outwale is bare wood and the top-edge of the canvas is raw as well.  If the canoe has been used at all over the years, water collects under the outwales creating a moist environment for the fungi that cause rot.  Often, the canvas rots and begins to fall away from the canoe.  The outwales may look fine on the outside but are often rotting from the inside out.  Most canoe builders used steel carriage bolts to attach the thwarts and seats to the inwales.  Again, the original carriage bolts often look fine until you try to remove them. I replace these with silicon bronze bolts as a matter of course in most restorations.

6.       Obvious Damage (Above 3/4 Profile)

Please photograph any areas with obvious damage.  As with most photos of the canoe, take these at an angle (to one side and slightly above).  Sometimes the canoe is stored away in the back of a shed.  It may be a real hassle to haul the canoe out into the daylight, but please make the effort.  Good lighting is essential for these photos and taking the shots from an angle emphasizes areas of light and shadow.  In this canoe, the broken rib and cracked planking are brought into clear view by the angled light.

All of the pictures are best in a fairly large format (between 500 KB and 1 MB). It is not necessary to overload an email with huge picture files.  That said, tiny images are pretty much useless to me.  As long as the photos are large enough to allow close examination, they will work well.  Also, be sure to attach the actual files to the email rather than embedding them in the email.  I need to be able to put the images in a file for my records.

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In all of this, there is light at the end of the tunnel.  All of the damage can be repaired and all of the rotted components can be replaced.  The restored canoe will be part of the family for many decades to come.

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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.

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

If you are planning on bringing an Old Town canoe (or six) to the 2018 Wooden Canoe Heritage Association Assembly at Trent University this July, please contact me via email (artisan@canoeshop.ca).

I am writing This Fancy Old Canoe: A Collector’s Guide To Restoring Antique Canoes.  It is a companion to my first book (This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood-Canvas Canoe) and will focus on Old Town Canoes.

Chapter 12 of this book will describe various models of Old Town Canoes. I want to photograph them on the water at first light (or at dusk).  I am hoping to get pictures of an OTCA, a Yankee, an HW, a Guide, a Charles River and a 50-pound model.  If you would like to see your canoe in my next book, please contact me to arrange the photo shoot.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
email: artisan@canoeshop.ca

Once you’ve got your canoe out of the shed for the season, you’ll need some way of supporting it off the ground when it is not on the water.  I can still hear my father saying, in no uncertain terms, “The bottom of this canoe touches two things: air and water”.  One of the most convenient support systems is a pair of canoe cradles.

They are quick and simple to build and can be stored easily when not in use.  They are also essential tools when repairing or refurbishing your canoe.

For the cradles I build, each one consists of two vertical struts, two base struts, two horizontal brace struts, two sling clamps and a cradle sling.  All you need to build a pair of cradles are:

  • 4 – 8’ 2×4’s (spruce) to make the struts;
  • A bunch of 2½” deck screws to hold the whole thing together and;
  • 2 strips of material 3½” wide for the slings (I use pieces of carpet or scraps of canvas leftover from a canoe project).  I have seen some people use 3/8” rope for the slings.

As far as dimensions are concerned, I find a stable design that still holds the canoe off the ground at a comfortable height have vertical and horizontal struts that are 28” long.  The base struts are 24” long and are oriented parallel to the centre-line of the canoe to create stable “feet” for the cradle.  The sling material is about 50” long.  The clamps are just scrap pieces used to hold the sling material to the vertical struts.  These can be about 6” long – whatever you end up with.

To build a cradle, start by creating the two sides.  They each consist of a base strut attached to the end of a vertical strut to form a T-shape.

Next, the 28” bottom brace strut is attached between the two sides and the 28” upper brace strut is positioned somewhere in the middle of the vertical strut.

I take a minute to round-off the inside corners of the vertical struts.  Otherwise, the sling material wears out quickly and has to be replaced frequently.  I use an angle grinder to round the corners, but the same job can be done with a rasp and a little elbow-grease.

Construction of the cradle is completed by attaching the sling by means of the clamps.  The whole process takes the better part of an hour for both cradles.  If you want to pretty them up a bit, the struts can be rounded off and sanded smooth.

Any cradles that are going to spend a lot of time outside are finished with an opaque oil-based stain to protect the wood.

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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.