by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

In Canada, the canoes from the Chestnut Canoe Company set the standard by which all others are measured.  Now, thirty-six 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 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 Companyand 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 wealthy 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”, Harry 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.

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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.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

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.  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 (or free) to $500.

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.  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 $2,500 after you have bought the canoe.  If the canoe ‘needs a little work’, be prepared to pay $3,000 to $5,000 for a full restoration.  And if it is a ‘basket-case’, the bill can often far exceed the cost of a brand-new canoe (not unlike the cost of renovating an old house versus building a new one from the ground up).  So, when you see a fully restored canoe listed in a classified ad for $4,000, they are probably just trying to recoup the cost of the restoration.

About twelve 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 1934 to 1975.  His workmanship was unequalled not to mention all of the Philippine Mahogany 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

This spring (2016), 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.  If anyone asks me how much I want for it, I will say, “This Chestnut Prospector would be all yours for $10,000 — 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.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

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.

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.  As long as the photos are large enough to allow close examination, they will work well.

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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.

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Conor Mihell is an editor-at-large for Canoe&Kayak Magazine.  He has just posted a review of This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood-Canvas Canoe.

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Review of This Old Canoe – Canoe and Kayak

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Review of This Old Canoe – Paddle Making blog

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