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

Note: In 2016, I put out a call for someone with a wide-board raised-batten canoe to bring it to my shop in British Columbia, Canada for me to restore and document as part of my second book ̶  “This Fancy Old Canoe”.

I was contacted immediately by Sam Browning. He was about to start restoring one of these canoes.  He offered to take pictures of the project as he worked.  I offered to come to his shop to see the canoe and meet him in person until he let me know he lived in Ely, Cambridgeshire, England.

A few months later, I received a USB flash drive in the mail from Sam. It contained 300 images and a copy of the posts he presented on the ‘Song of the Paddle’ web forum as he documented the restoration.  For my blog (and eventually my book), I have edited Sam’s posts and added a few notes of my own (presented in italics).  For this article, I am presenting the wide-board repairs.

Many thanks to Sam for his excellent work and generous contribution to my book.

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My plank repairs consist of three boards that need to be replaced. There is a small piece missing from the bilge-plank at the stern.  It starts at the last rib and runs to the internal stem.  The second is a bilge-plank on the port side spanning across six ribs and the third is a long bilge-plank on the starboard side spanning across 17 ribs.  My plan is to do the repairs in order from smallest to largest in order to learn on the small repairs and hone the process for the Big One.

Copper canoe nails (16-gauge 1″ or 25 mm long) are harder to get out than tacks on a cedar-canvas canoe as they are driven through a basswood (or Spanish cedar) plank as well as rock elm ribs before being bent over (dubbed) and clinched. The nails aren’t tapered either (apart from the point) and they hold well despite their age.

Getting rid of the heads and punching them through to the inside works best. I use an angle grinder set up with a 24-grit sanding disk to grind off the heads of the copper nails. Care must be taken to ensure that only the board to be removed is touched by the grinder.

For the first repair, I tidy up where the new piece of plank has to start, removing nails and chamfering the edge so that the new nails will go through both the new and existing wood.

The new plank is a piece of basswood cut carefully to its final dimensions and planed to match the thickness of the original boards (¼” or 6 mm). The end of the new plank butts up again the existing board and laps over it with a chamfered edge to match the chamfer on the existing board.

When I am happy with the fit, I drill pilot holes for the canoe nails at the join and push them through from the outside.

Next, whilst pushing them firmly from the outside, I bend (dub) the nails over with a clinching iron.

I wet the outside of the new plank with hot water so the nails  sink into the wood without doing any damage.

Then, while holding a clinching iron on the bent nail inside, I hammer the outside until the nail is flush with the surface.

I repeat this along the top and bottom edge as well as two rows of nails in the stem. The end of the new plank extending past the stem is trimmed to complete the job.

I now turn my attention to the second plank repair. Because of what I’ve done already, I’m confident about the nailing procedure.  For this repair, I have to learn to fit a plank that bends in two directions.  In the factory, the planks would have been cut from patterns which (sadly) are not available to me.  When the flat shape had been cut, the outside of the plank was soaked with boiling water poured over it.  This swells the grain causing it to cup until the correct curve was reached.  Then, it was nailed into place.  My plan for the repair is to cut the plank oversize, hold it in place with a strap at each rib, then pour boiling water over it to cause it to curve.  As it bends, I should be able to tighten the straps and hold it in place until it dries.  I will then mark out the dimensions of the gap and work from there.

The first step is to fit basswood strips onto the outside surface of the exposed ribs. These spacers create a flush surface upon which to bent the oversized plank.  To make spacers, I cut strips and poured boiling water over them.  They bend into a suitable curve with very little pressure.  I then tape the spacers into place.

I chamfer the edges of the old plank so the chamfer on the new plank fits precisely and allows a line of nails to go through both.

To spread the tension from the straps evenly along the new plank, I put battens along the both the top and bottom edges.

I use steam from a wallpaper stripper rather than pouring boiling water to help the plank curve into shape.

Two people would have made things easier, but after holding the steamer in place for a minute or so, then moving it along the plank and holding it with my knee, I am able to pull the straps progressively tighter. I work my way up and down the plank until it is tight against the hull along its full length.  At both ends, I use ratchet straps and a couple of wedges to hold the curve tight to the hull.  I allow the plank to dry for a couple of days.

Before I remove the straps, I clamp some blocks under the plank and at the ends. These act as reference points so I can put the plank back in exactly the same place while I mark, trim and fit the top edge.

A planking gauge is used to mark the position of the gap’s edge even though the plank covers it and I can’t see.

The ‘L’ part of the gauge slides behind the plank and is moved along the edge of the gap while a pencil sits in the notch and draws a line.

Once the plank is marked, I use an apron plane to bring the plank dimension down to just outside the line. Then, a series of testing fitting, shaping, fitting, shaping until I have it just right.  Then, the inside edges at the ends were chamfered to match the existing planks.  The whole process takes about two hours before I am happy with it.  I run a line of masking tape above and below the gap.  On the tape, I mark where the ribs are so I can drill from the outside and place straps and blocks just to the sides of the ribs. This way, I can get the nails in, dubbed and clinched without worrying about the straps being in the way.

I nail the ribs, five in each, with a double row on the ends, then along the top and bottom edges into the battens – about 90 nails in all, drilled, pushed through, dubbed and clinched.

With the process honed, I turn to the Big One. I begin by making 16 basswood spacers for the ribs.

I steam and tape the spacers to the ribs.

I make two 12′ (3.7 meter) battens, arrange 16 straps and two ratchet straps. I make an oversized piece of basswood to fit over the gap.  I steam the plank and tighten the straps, then steam and tighten again.

I check to make sure it is all tight with no gaps showing, then leave it for a couple of days.

The marking, cutting, fitting, shaping routine is the same as for the second plank.

The final fitting and nailing proceeds smoothly.

It’s great how once you have done a job, you wonder what all the fuss was about. I suppose, at any time, I could have pulled a strap too tight and split a plank.  I could have planed too much off and left a gap.  A plank could have split while I was nailing.  If you need a plank for your board and batten canoe just let me know, I have a spare plank waiting in reserve.

mockup 02

The entire restoration process (including plank replacement) 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, Goodreads and/or any other review site.

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

Note: In 2016, I put out a call for someone with a wide-board raised-batten canoe to bring it to my shop in British Columbia, Canada for me to restore and document as part of my second book  ̶  “This Fancy Old Canoe”.

(photo by Nick Dennis)

I was contacted immediately by Sam Browning. He was about to start restoring one of these canoes.  He offered to take pictures of the project as he worked.  I offered to come to his shop to see the canoe and meet him in person until he let me know he lived in Ely, Cambridgeshire, England.

A few months later, I received a USB flash drive in the mail from Sam. It contained 300 images and a copy of the posts he presented on the ‘Song of the Paddle’ web forum as he documented the restoration.  For my blog (and eventually my book), I have edited Sam’s posts and added a few notes of my own (presented in italics).  For this article, I am presenting the rib repairs as well as some general history and description of the canoe.

Many thanks to Sam for his excellent work and generous contribution to my book.

*****************

(Canadian Canoe Company catalogue, 1929)

My canoe was made by the Canadian Canoe Company in Peterborough, Ontario. The company started in 1892.  The last canoes of this type were built around the mid 1930’s.  From the 1929 catalogue, my canoe is the 15′ 6″ No. 4 all wood canoe F quality (varnished, basswood boards).  It has a 29½” (75 cm) beam and a depth of 11½” (29 cm) amidships.  It is interesting to note that the garboards (the two planks on the bottom of the canoe) in my canoe are Spanish cedar  ̶  a true mahogany.

(photo by Sam Browning)

This particular canoe was imported to England by Salter Bros. Ltd. of Oxford. Looking at the Salter Bros. history, they mention importing 21 canoes from Canada in 1930.  My canoe may be one of those.

(illustration by Sam Browning)

The exact origin of wide-board raised-batten canoe construction on a solid wood form is up for debate, but it was probably developed in a combined effort by Tom Gordon and John Stephenson in 1857. Construction began by laying down a white oak keelson.  Rock elm ribs were then bent over the form and fitted into notches cut into the keelson.  Wide basswood boards (three or four on each side) ran longitudinally and were attached to the ribs with copper canoe nails.  Nail holes were pre-drilled and the nails were driven straight into the solid-wood form.  The hull was then pulled free of the form and turned right-side up. 

(photo by Sam Browning)

The nails were then ‘dubbed’ (bent over) to lie flat along the ribs (with the points towards the keelson) and then clinched tight with a clinching iron and cobblers hammer. The seams between the basswood boards were covered with ironwood battens between the ribs held in place with copper canoe nails.

If this was a cedar-canvas canoe with damaged ribs, I’d just take them out and replace them. With one of these canoes, you can’t do that without taking the whole thing apart.  What I plan to do is bend new rib material which will extend from the keelson to the sheer-line and nail it in place alongside the existing rib (this process is commonly used in wooden boat repair and is known as sistering ribs).

(photo by Sam Browning)

Because the canoe has had broken ribs for many years, it needs a bit of reshaping before I can bend and install the new rib material. Straps around the canoe with a couple of lengths of timber to push in the right places helps to reshape.

(photo by Sam Browning)

I bend the new rib material inside (straight-grained english oak cut to size and shaped to replicate the original before it is soaked overnight and steamed for an hour), on top of the old rib.  Any spring-back should result in the right size and curve.  The end of the new rib at the keelson is held in place by a scrap piece of hardwood wedged between it and a length of timber positioned above the keelson and clamped on top of the thwarts.  The rest of the new rib is held in place with g-clamps (c-clamps) and spring clamps. This process is facilitated by the fact that one of the basswood planks is missing.  The missing plank allows me to use a couple of spring clamps to hold it in the middle.

(photo by Sam Browning)

Once the new rib has dried overnight, I decided to cut the battens first as it has to be easier than removing them and installing new ones. With over ten copper nails dubbed and clinched in each batten, it would be impossible to remove them in one piece, and they do have to fit exactly.  I cut the battens with an inlay saw (3″ or 76 mm blade with 20 teeth per inch and a 0.011″ or 0.3 mm kerf).  Its curved blade allows me to remove a small piece of the batten with less chance of damaging the planks.

(photo by Sam Browning)

The battens are carefully marked and cut. I have to make sure the plank is clean where the new rib will go.  I clamp the rib in position making sure it fits well against the keelson and the original rib.

(photo by Sam Browning)

When the new rib is in place, I drill a pilot hole through the rib and plank at the centre of each rib. Then, I push a 19 mm (¾”) copper canoe nail in from the outside.  The nail is then dubbed towards the keelson and clinched tight.  Then, I pilot, dub and clinch three more nails into each plank as well as one at each batten.  I cut the rib flush with the sheer-line and shape the rib-top to match the existing ribs.

(photo by Sam Browning)

At the gap, where the broken rib is exposed, I cut it off in line with the battens.

(photo by Sam Browning)

In some sections, retention of the original hull shape was facilitated by clamping a hardwood batten on the outside of the exposed original ribs.

(photo by Sam Browning)

The broken sections of original rib were cut away with the inlay saw as well as the sections of batten required to allow for positioning of the new rib which was then soaked, steamed and clamped in place.

(photo by Sam Browning)

A total of twelve broken ribs were sistered in this canoe. The ribs were repaired in stages, doing every second rib along the length of the canoe in order to maintain the shape of the hull as much as possible.

mockup 02

The entire restoration process (including rib repairs and replacement) 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, Goodreads and/or any other review site.

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.

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.