by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes


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.

by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

In my book, This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood-Canvas Canoe, I describe how to weave natural cane (rattan) in Chestnut canoe seats.  However, most canoe builders used their own weaving pattern for their canoe seats.

Many of the original canoe builders in the USA (Old Town, Carleton, Rushton, Morris, White  ̶  to name a few) used a standard 6-stage warp-and-weft pattern in their seats. Here are instructions on how to weave this pattern.  For this demonstration, I made new cherry seat frames for a 1905 J.H. Rushton Indian Girl.

In my book, I describe the full process of preparing the seat frames, preparing the cane and handling the cane during the weaving process. Here I will present the basic look of each stage and give details that apply to the warp-and-weft pattern.

First Stage  ̶  Vertical strands

Second Stage  ̶  Horizontal strands strung across the strands of the first stage

Third Stage  ̶  A second set of vertical strands set next to the first set.  These vertical strands create what weavers refer to as the “warp”.  To this point, each set of strands is set on top of the previous set without any weaving.

Fourth Stage  ̶  A second set of horizontal strands woven next to the first set.  In this example, start on the right side rail.  You will notice, moving from right to left, the first horizontal strand passes under the first vertical strand and over the second.  In order to lock all four strands in a woven pattern, the second horizontal strand is woven over the first vertical strand and under the second.  This creates what weavers refer to as the “weft”.  Weave the strand over and under three or four pairs of vertical stands.  Then, pull the entire strand through.  Pull the strand firmly but not tight.  Make sure that the strand is woven with the shiny side up and is free of twists.  This process is hard on the cane.  The tight bends required to weave this stage causes the cane to crack or even break on a regular basis.  Be prepared to redo a strand if it breaks.

Continue weaving small sections of the first strand until you get to the left side rail. Pass the strand down through the hole to the underside and come up through the next hole in the left side rail and hold it in place with a caning peg.  Now, continue the pattern by weaving from left to right.

This process is very slow. As you get more strands woven in the fourth stage of the pattern, use your fingernails to adjust the positions of the various strands until they are arranged more or less evenly.

Fifth stage – Diagonal strand woven under the vertical strands and over the horizontal strands.  In this example, I started in the top right-hand corner and wove the strand under the first set of verticals and over the first set of horizontals.  The pattern continues moving from right to left and from top to bottom.  As with all weaving in these patterns, work in small sections of three or four strands before pulling the entire strand through.  Check your work frequently in order to catch mistakes before you get too far into the pattern.

As you continue this diagonal stage, weave two strands into the corner hole.

Continue the pattern, until you have a complete set of diagonal (/) strands.

Sixth stage – Begin this stage in the empty corner on the transverse rail of the seat.  In this example, it is the top left-hand corner.  Trim the working-end of the cane strand to create a sharp point. This makes weaving easier.  Make sure the shiny side of the strand faces up and start the weaving pattern by going under the diagonal strand next to the corner hole on the transverse rail of the seat.  Then, weave over the first set of vertical strands in the pattern and under the first horizontal strands.  Continue in this way (over the second set of vertical strands and under the second horizontal strands) until you reach the opposite transverse rail.

Continue with this pattern for each diagonal (\) strand .

The final step in the seat weaving is to do the usual “couching” to cover the holes in the seat frame. The couching is held in place with loops of cane in every second hole around the seat frame.

mockup 02

Complete instructions on seat caning (and much more) are available 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.
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by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes

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 (

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.