To Save a Wooden Canoe: Part 4
A first-time craftsman learns that the finishing touches are the hardest part
(Ed’s note: This is the fourth and final piece in a series—see earlier stories here.)
By Conor Mihell
“…all painting seems to be tricky, and if I am ever to get grey hair, it will be over getting a good final paint coat.” — Pam Wedd, owner of Bearwood Canoes, in Wooden Canoe, the journal of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association
“So you’re starting to see what I mean about all the sanding?” says Ron Pellinen, my wooden canoe-building mentor, when I walk into his shop on a brisk March morning in Northern Ontario. Perched on an office chair in his workshop garage, Pellinen has just cut the power to the orbital sander he was using to smooth the contours of a thwart, one of the ash crosspieces that adds strength and structure to a canoe. “At least 50 per cent of building a canoe is sanding,” he says, before repeating what’s now become a familiar line: “If you don’t like it, don’t build a canoe.”
I’ve come to appreciate Pellinen’s words firsthand in restoring a 16-foot, wood and canvas North Bay Canoe Company Cruising model canoe. In late November, I stretched a new skin of canvas over the canoe’s cedar skeleton and waterproofed the weave of the fabric with a silica and oil paint-based filler. After the filler had had plenty of time to cure, in February, I began alternating carefully applied coats of enamel paint with lengthy bouts of sanding. Pellinen showed me the clever technique of attaching the exhaust tube of a random-orbit sander to a vacuum to enable dustless sanding. Still, sanding is tedious and seemingly counterproductive, but essential in producing a smooth, mirror-like finish that rivals gelcoat.
With three base coats of battleship grey paint on the hull, I visit Pellinen to install the new ash gunwales he’s already milled. I also pick up a pint of Dutch-formulated, yacht-grade alkyd enamel that will serve as the finishing coats on the hull. Working together, it takes us barely an hour to fasten the two 16-foot-long ash rails to the upper edge of the canoe with silicon-bronze screws. Back at home, I apply three coats of spar varnish to the gunwales (sanding in between coats). Then I brush the fourth coat of dove-grey enamel on the hull.
Southern Ontario-based canoe builder Pam Wedd’s words ring true after I’ve worn out two sheets of 280-grit sandpaper on the hull, cleaned up the dust and worked up the gumption to apply my fifth and final coat of paint. Depending on how picky you are—Wedd goes so far as to filter her paint and carefully removes all vestiges of dust from her brushes—achieving a mirror-like finish coat can be a black art. First there’s the challenge of maintaining a “wet edge”—working quickly enough to keep the paint from setting while dancing to and from either side of the canoe; then there’s the issue of applying an even amount of paint on the entire hull to avoid dreaded “sags” (too much paint) and “holidays” (too little paint).
I rationalize my anxiety with the fact that I intend to use my canoe and that glossy sheen will quickly turn to scuffs when I graze shallow rocks and drag it over beaver dams on wilderness trips. Besides, it would take dozens of coats of paint to hide the lumps and gaps in the cedar planking of my utility-grade canoe that show through the canvas. But Pellinen insists that it must pass his “10-foot test,” which is to say it better appear flaw-free to an untrained eye. Wood and canvas canoe builders, I’m learning, take “paint jobs” seriously.
Alas, Pellinen’s tips and those posted on the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association website forum (www.wcha.org) have me well prepared. Adding paint thinner to the enamel makes it more viscous and I work in two-foot sections from one side of the canoe to the other, brushing paint on and “tipping it out” to eliminate sags and obvious brush strokes. The concentration involved in the process is exhausting, and when I’m done there’s nothing to do but wait and see how it dries. When I venture into my workshop a day later, I’m satisfied with my work. Mostly, I’m relieved to know the sanding is over.
The final steps are easy—re-installing seats and thwarts and attaching brass stem bands, hollowed-out half-rounds that are attached to the bow and stern with screws and marine caulking and provide protection from rocks. But waiting for open water is hard. In this part of Canada, it will be another week or so until the ice leaves the lakes and another season of wilderness tripping begins, and with it the new life of a reclaimed wooden canoe.