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

During the restoration of a wood-canvas canoe, it is rare to have to replace the entire stem in the canoe. However, when faced with the restoration of a canoe which is more than 100 years old, a new stem (or two) is more than likely going to be part of the project.

I restored a 1905 J.H. Rushton Indian Girl canoe. Both stems had extensive rot and one was broken in two places.  Rushton made his stems from a solid piece of rock elm.  Since this wood is nearly extinct now (thanks to Dutch Elm Disease), I used straight-grained ash 1″ (25mm) thick (at the lumber yard this is referred to as 4/4  ̶  pronounced four-quarters).

The first step is to remove the stems from the canoe. I use both a tack remover and a Japanese concave cutter bonsai tool to remove the fasteners without doing too much damage to the ribs, planks and stems in the canoe.

The next step is to create a bending form. Here, I present the dimensions of the bending form required for the Rushton Indian Girl.

It is comprised of three layers of 5/8″ (16mm) plywood. I ask my local building supply centre if they have any damaged sheets of plywood.  I can get all of the wood I require for a fraction of the cost of full sheets of plywood.  All three piece have the same curve but the centre piece of plywood has a longer base which clamps easily into a work-bench vice.

I start by placing the original stem on one piece of plywood and drawing the inside curve of the stem onto it.

I then keep the stem-top in the same location as the original while rotating the stem until the curve is about 3½” (9cm) greater than the original. The form shape is then drawn onto the plywood and is extended about 6″ (15cm) at both ends to accommodate the clamping system.

The form shape is cut with a saber saw or band saw. The first piece is then used as a template for the other two pieces.  Once assembled, the form is sanded more or less square with a belt sander or an angle grinder set up with a 24-grit wood grinding disk.  The final form is 1.875″ (48mm) wide.

The base-end of the stem is 1.1875″ (30mm) wide and 0.875″ (22mm) thick. I bend a piece of ash which is 1¼” (32mm) wide and 1″ (25mm) thick.  This allows me to shape an exact replica of the original.

The clamping system is attached to the bending form with enough space for the new wood and a backing strip. The new stem stock is soaked in water for four days, steamed for 60 minutes and bent onto the form where it remains for at least a week.  When removed from the form, the new wood will spring-back slightly and ought to come to the same shape as the original (or close enough).

The original stem is much more than just the curve in its profile. It is tapered at the stem-end, angled to accept planking and notched to accept ribs.  Draw the rough dimensions and contours onto the new stem (first with a pencil and then with a permanent ink pen).

Use a Japanese cross-cut saw or a dovetail saw to cut the sides of the rib notches at the correct angles and depths. Use a wood chisel and mallet to remove the bulk of the material in each notch.

Check the dimensions of each notch on the original and use the chisel to shave each new notch to the desired thickness.

Use an angle grinder set up with a 24-grit wood sanding disk to carve the desired angles and tapers into the new stem.

Work slowly and carefully with a random-orbital sander and 60-grit sandpaper (checking dimensions with calipers against the original) until the new stem is an exact replica of the original.

Turn the canoe upside down and use spring clamps to hold the new stem in place while you drill pilot holes for bronze ring nails to attach it to the ribs.

Use a cobblers hammer backed with a clinching iron to drive the ring nails tight.

Turn the canoe right-side up and sight down the centre-line. Position the stem so it is lined up straight down the centre-line and clamp it in place.  Pre-drill holes for 16mm brass canoe tacks and attach the new stem to the original planks.

Mark the height of the stem-top against the underside of the inwale-ends.

Use a Japanese cross-cut saw to trim the stem-top to its desired height. I cut it a little long and use a random-orbital sander to achieve a snug fit.

Attach the rest of the planking to complete the job.

mockup 02

The entire restoration process (including stem 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

In the early days of wood-canvas canoe construction (late 1800’s until about 1906), builders (primarily in up-state New York and Maine) tried to emulate the birch bark canoes in the region. Like birch bark canoes, they constructed their hulls with cedar ribs and planks.  They also emulated the look of the gunwales.  The inwales and outwales of birch bark canoes are lashed together and the rib-tops are whittled to wedges which are forced up between the inwales and outwales.

To replicate this look, the builders cut pockets in the inwales into which the rib-tops were fitted and nailed. The outwales were attached (with brass screws) directly to the inwales to create a closed gunwale.  This looks beautiful.  However, with regular use, water collects in the pockets and creates a moist environment perfect for the growth of the fungi that cause wood rot.  Around 1906, all of the builders transitioned to an open gunwale system which allows water to drain quickly from the canoe.

To describe and document the replacement of pocketed inwales, I worked on a 1905 J.H. Rushton Indian Girl canoe. This particular canoe was in pretty rough shape when it arrived in my shop, but I was able to determine the original dimensions of the component parts from salvaged pieces.

Replacing the original inwales is complicated by the fact that the canoe is already built. In 1905, the builder started constructing the canoe by making the inwales first (complete with pockets already cut).  He then placed them in the building mould and fit the rib-tops into the pockets.  The process of replacing the inwales is the exact opposite.  The inwales must be fitted to the canoe. Then the position of each pocket is marked and cut before the inwale is installed.

Rushton trimmed his Indian Girl canoes with cherry. The first step is to cut new cherry stock 1″ (25mm) wide and 7/8″ (22mm) high.  Then, run the stock through the table saw with the blade angled 8° and 5/8″ (16mm) high to create a rabbet on the outside face ¼” (7mm) from the top surface and 3/16″ (5mm) deep at the top.

Arrange two 10′ (3 meters) pieces for each inwale and mark the location and orientation of a scarf joint on the four pieces of inwale stock. Soak about 7′ (2 meters) of each piece at the non-scarf joint end for three days.  Meanwhile, build a bending form for the ends of the inwale stock.

Heat the ends of the inwale stock with boiling water and bend them onto the form. The bend is not severe, so a backing strip is not required.  Allow the wood to dry for about a week before removing them from the form.

Cut a scarf joint angle into the end of one of the pieces (I arbitrarily chose the bow piece) to be used for each inwale. Fit the bow and stern pieces of inwale stock for one side of the canoe into the canoe and match the curve at the ends to the rib-tops in the canoe.  Clamp them in place with lots of spring clamps.

Overlap the bow and stern pieces and mark the position of the scarf joint on the stern piece for the inwale.

Cut the scarf joint angle in the stern piece, use polyurethane glue to splice the bow and stern pieces into a full-length inwale and allow it to cure overnight. Perform this sequence on the other side of the canoe to create two inwales.

Once the glue has cured, sand the joint smooth.  Then, clamp one of the full-length inwales into the canoe. Use a pencil to mark the position of every rib-top in that inwale.  Remove it and do the same thing for the other side.  Be sure to label each inwale so you know to which side it belongs.

Set up a drill press as illustrated and prepare in-feed and out-feed supports for the inwale.

Cut the pockets on both inwales. You will need help from a second person to guide the inwale through the curves at the ends.

Install one inwale and secure it with clamps at every second rib-top. Pre-drill  two ¾” bronze ring-nails in each rib-top.

Use a clinching iron as backing while you drive in the nails. Once the first inwale is fully installed, repeat this process for the second inwale.

Meanwhile, make new cherry decks for each end.

Soak the wood for three days, steam the wood for 60 minutes, bent the decks in a press and allow the wood to dry in the press for a week.

Use a flexible straight edge and a permanent ink pen to mark the inwale tapers at both ends of each inwale.

Use a saber saw to cut the tapers into each inwale-end.

Smooth the tapers with a random orbital sander and 80-grit sandpaper.

Hold the new stem-top (either a new piece spliced into the original stem or, in this case, a completely new stem) against the inwale-ends and mark where the stem-top meets the underside of the new inwale-ends.

Use a Japanese cross-cut saw to cut the stem-top.  It is best to cut it a little long initially and sand it gradually (while checking frequently with dry fitting) until the stem-top fits snugly under the inwale-ends.  The process of replacing the stems in a 1905 J.H. Rushton Indian Girl will be described in a separate blog (to be posted soon).

Use a ratchet strap to pull the end of the canoe together. Then, dry-fit the deck.  Line up a straight edge with the centre-line of the canoe directly above the stem-end at each inwale-end.  Then, mark the angle for the inwale joint.

Release the ratchet strap and cut the inwale joint on each inwale-end.

Sand the joint faces smooth with a random orbital sander.

Re-attach the ratchet strap and pull the end of the canoe together again. This time, draw the inwales together until the deck fits properly.  Check the inwale joint and make any adjustments to the angle until it fits exactly.

Install the deck and attach it to the inwales with 1½” #8 bronze flat-head wood screws (counter-sunk).

Use a random orbital sander set up with 60-grit sandpaper to sand the deck and inwales until they are perfectly flush.

mockup 02

The entire restoration process (including stem-top repairs, inwale replacement and deck repairs) 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

Water tends to collect in the ends of wood-canvas canoes when they are used on a regular basis. This moist environment creates perfect growing conditions for the fungi that cause wood rot.  I have described the process of rebuilding the rotted ends of a wood-canvas canoe in my book  ̶ This Old Canoe.  However, when the canoe is built with a stylish upward sweep in the sheer-line at both ends, the repair job is much more involved.  For this discussion, I rebuilt the rotted end of a 1967 Old Town OTCA sailing canoe with sponsons.

Often, the damage is not apparent until the end is taken apart. Only then can you see the rotted inwale-ends and stem-top.

In this canoe, the bow deck was also rotted in the end. There are many ways to approach this repair.  Sometimes, all that is required is the application of wood-hardener and two-part epoxy putty.  In other cases, a new tip of solid wood can be spliced into the original deck with a scarf joint.  However, the damage is most often so severe that an entirely new deck has to be made.  In many canoes with highly-curved ends, the solid wood decks (almost an inch thick) are bent to follow the curve in the sheer-line.

I have seen some people make a new deck by carving the curve into a piece of 8/4 (2″ or 5 cm thick) hardwood. Others laminate several thin slices of hardwood together on a form to create the curved deck.  In this example, I employed the same methodology used by the original builders  ̶  namely stem-bending the curve using a press.  The first step is to cut a new deck from a piece of 4/4 (1″ or 25 mm thick) hardwood (in this case I used white oak).

The set-up is comprised of the new deck steam-bent between two solid-wood bending forms. They are both fashioned from a number (in this case, four) of 2×8 pieces of spruce lumber sandwiched together into a 6×8 block (held together with 2½” deck screws).  The bottom block has the concave shape of the deck-bend cut into its top surface while the top block has the convex shape cut its bottom.

The curve required to achieve the correct bent in the replica deck is greater than the actual curve. This is due to the fact that a solid piece of wood will spring-back a little once the tension is removed in the press.  To save you the trial-and-error process involved in getting the proper curve, I present a diagram that will allow you to get it right the first time.

Pressure for bending the deck is generated with an automotive scissor-jack forcing the bending forms together in the middle of a press-frame constructed from 2×6 lumber. In this case, the inside dimensions of the press are 26½” (67.3 cm) high by 31″ (79.7 cm) wide.

The new deck is left in the press for a week to dry completely. When removed, the new deck has exactly the same bend as the original.  Once the deck is ready, new inwale-ends have to be spliced into the original inwales.  This will be discussed in part 2 of this blog.

mockup 02

The entire restoration process (including stem-top, inwale-end and deck repairs) 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.