To Save a Wooden Canoe: Part I
(Ed’s note: This is the first piece in a series.)
“The canoe is the simplest, most functional, yet aesthetically pleasing object ever created.” —Bill Mason, Path of the Paddle
By Conor Mihell
Published: January 14, 2011
The late Canadian canoeing legend Bill Mason was fond of extolling the virtues of wood and canvas canoes in his books and films, and he was famous for the thousands of wilderness miles he put beneath the red canvas of his beloved Chestnut Prospector.
But the torn skin, rotten gunwales and cracked planking of the 22-year-old canoe I purchased last fall ($300 Canadian, via Craigslist) were hardly functional or aesthetic. Diehard wooden canoe enthusiasts will tell you that their greatest strength is longevity—their ability to be rebuilt, paddled hard and passed on to the next generation. Though beat up, my 16-footer’s gently sweeping lines, narrow beam and moderate depth had me dreaming of my next trip. First, though, it needed some work.
Wood and canvas canoes are a generation removed from the Native American birchbark canoe. Built over a solid form to simplify mass production, this construction method originated in Maine in the 1880s. They’re essentially built from the inside-out. Steam-bent cedar ribs are curved over the form and covered with longitudinal cedar planking, fastened with self-clinching brass tacks. This wooden frame is then covered in a single sheet of stretched canvas, which is in turn waterproofed and painted with hard-wearing enamel. Thwarts, gunwales, stem bands and seats complete the canoe’s construction.
The canvas covering of this type of canoe is meant to be removed and replaced when it shows the wear and tear of a decade or two of use, enabling access to the wooden frame for additional repairs to cracked planking and broken ribs. This gives the relatively fragile wood and canvas canoe an infinite lifespan. “Given one rib, I could rebuild a canoe around it—that’s no problem,” wrote veteran Maine canoe-builder Rollin Thurlow in The Wood and Canvas Canoe, an essential text for prospective canoe builders and re-builders. “The bigger the job, the more woodworking skills will be required, but as with most jobs, persistence pays off and given time and patience and a little care, most difficulties that a canoe can present can be overcome.”
Fortunately for this neophyte craftsman, my canoe presented few difficulties. Its outer gunwales were rotten, the canvas was weak and brittle and an initial investigation of the wooden frame revealed several cracked ribs. Using a screwdriver, I carefully removed the outer gunwales and saved a piece to serve as a template for their replacements. Then I stripped the canvas, using pliers and a flathead screwdriver to lift the staples that fastened it to the planking beneath the gunwales. It was interesting to discover that the builder had scribed his name—William Schorse —on the planking when he constructed it in a Northern Ontario shop in 1988.
From here I could assess the scope of the project: The canoe needed new canvas, 10 to 20 feet of cedar sheathing to replace cracked planking, new protective stem bands for the bow and stern and milled white ash for outer gunwales. Luckily it was only November and I had an entire winter to complete the restoration.