January 8, 2017
by Mike Elliott, Kettle River Canoes
For those of you new to this blog and have not heard me on this topic before, let me be as clear as I can be: To anyone thinking about applying fiberglass to a wood-canvas canoe, I say, “DON’T DO IT!” To anyone wanting to remove fiberglass from a wood-canvas canoe, the short answer is: HEAT.
Wood-canvas canoes are a product of a by-gone era; a time before planned obsolescence — when things were built with the long term interests of the consumer in mind. The whole idea of building a canoe with wood and canvas was to have a vessel that lives and breathes. These canoes work in the natural environment and are part of it. They are held together with tacks and screws – no glue. The wood flexes and moves with the water around it. When part of the canoe breaks or rots, it can be repaired or replaced with comparative ease because it is designed to be taken apart. As long as there are people who know how to restore canvas-covered canoes, they will live forever.
It has been about forty years since these canoes were the standard in the marketplace. Not only has the technology of wooden canoe repair faded into obscurity, but the mindset of both manufacturers and consumers has also changed. Synthetic materials are now generally seen as better – easier, tougher and longer lasting. The consumer has been convinced that the new materials can improve that which is outdated or at least maintain it quickly and easily.
When it comes right down to it, wooden canoes and fiberglass just don’t mix. Since the ribs and planking are held together with tacks, they flex and move naturally. Over the years, the tacks tend to work loose and eventually have to be either re-clinched or replaced. Conversely, fiberglass resin is rigid. Once applied, it tends to resist any movement. The combination of a flexible hull and a rigid outside layer results in cracked or delaminated resin. The tacks can also wear against the resin from the inside to the point where they come right through the resin. It can take several months or several decades, but at some point the canoe needs to be repaired and the fiberglass has to come off. It is then that the real problem with fiberglass on a wood canoe comes to light. All of that synthetic resin has to be removed. It is a long, painstaking process that usually has you cursing the person that put the stuff on in the first place. The moral of the story is: Avoid applying fiberglass to the hull of a wood-canvas canoe. Learn how to re-canvas the canoe or find a professional to do it for you.
This leads us into the next question: How do you remove fiberglass from a wood-canvas canoe? All you require is a professional-grade heat-gun, a 2” putty knife, a pair of pliers, safety equipment (work gloves, safety glasses and a respirator mask) and lots of patience. The first step is to move the canoe into a well ventilated work space – preferably outdoors. Then start at an edge of the canoe and apply heat to the resin.
At this point it is important to note that fiberglass resins come in two basic types – polyester and epoxy. Polyester resins were the first to be developed. If your canoe had fiberglass applied to it in the 1970’s or earlier, you can bet that polyester resins were used. They tend to become brittle and deteriorate rapidly, so if the fiberglass on your canoe is delaminating it is most likely that you are dealing with a polyester resin. Fortunately, this makes the removal of the fiberglass relatively quick and easy. In many cases, the cloth can be ripped off by hand with very little need for heat. When I say rip, please be gentle. If you get carried away and pull at the fiberglass cloth too rapidly, you could end up tearing sizeable chunks of planking off the canoe as well (I speak from first-hand experience).
Epoxy resins hit the market in a big way in the 1980’s and are the standard today. They are applied by first mixing a hardener with a resin in a two-part formula. What results is a strong, tough plastic that bonds very well to wood. Unfortunately, this means that the removal process is arduous and painstaking.
As mentioned earlier, start at an edge of the canoe and apply heat to the resin. If you are dealing with epoxy resin, you will probably have to apply the heat for several minutes before the cloth begins to respond to your attempts to lift it with the putty knife. At some point, it does let go and the fiberglass cloth can be separated from the canoe. Then move a few centimeters and continue the process. Again, polyester resins let go fairly quickly. You will find that large sheets of cloth come off in fairly short order. I usually grab the cloth with a pair of pliers rather than with my hand. Even with work gloves on, the pliers prevent nasty encounters with heat and/or sharp edges of fiberglass (again, this is the voice of experience talking).
Once all of the fiberglass cloth is removed, return to the canoe hull with the heat gun and a putty knife. Apply heat to any patches of resin still stuck to the wood. Then, scrape the resin off. Be prepared to settle into hours of tedious work. It typically takes 15 to 20 hours to remove the fiberglass cloth and resin from a 16′ canoe.
Once you are back to the bare wood, the restoration is like that of any other wood-canvas canoe. So, enjoy the pleasures of life in the slow lane, stay away from fiberglass and celebrate the fact that you have a wood-canvas canoe.
Many people complement me on the great fiberglass job on my canoes. They are shocked to learn that the canoes are covered with painted canvas.
All of this (and much more) is described in my book – This Old Canoe: How To Restore Your Wood Canvas Canoe.
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