To Save a Wooden Canoe: Part 2

(Ed’s note: This is part two of a series; see part one here ».)

By Conor Mihell
Published: February 15, 2011

“The canoe implies a long antiquity in which its manufacture has been gradually perfected. It will ere long, perhaps, be ranked among the lost arts.” — Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods

The canvas-covered cedar canoe design of the type I’m restoring wasn’t even invented when Thoreau penned these words in his journal on a canoe trip in 1853. Thoreau knew only birchbark canoes, the ingenious, versatile and ravishingly beautiful craft of North American aboriginals. Since then, the craft has been perfected many times over—in wood and canvas, aluminum, fiberglass, Royalex, Kevlar and carbon.

When I offered to purchase this old wood and canvas canoe, the seller made me promise him one thing: That I wouldn’t cut it in two pieces for bookshelves. Apparently there’s a burgeoning cottage industry engaged in the desecration of wooden canoes for “rustic” furniture. The seller told me he’d received offers of twice his $300 Craigslist asking-price to turn this canoe into furniture. I made the pledge and the canoe was mine.

The second stage of the restoration involved removing pieces of cedar that had been cracked and shattered by encounters with rocks and other hard objects. In a wood and canvas canoe, longitudinal pieces of wafer-thin (typically 5/32-inch), three- or four-inch-wide cedar planks form the shell of the canoe. The sheathing material is tacked onto a series of roughly two-inch-wide cedar ribs; combined, this gives the canoe strength and structure. If the canoe had any broken ribs (it didn’t), this would be the time to remove and replace them as well.

Removing the planking involved making simple cuts with a sharp utility knife and then prying and tearing the broken material away from the ribs. I used pliers and a tack puller to carefully remove the old tacks from the ribs, and cleaned the backsides of the ribs with a wire brush. For a first-time canoe restorer and amateur woodworker, this stage of the project was a huge commitment: When finished, the shell of my canoe was perforated in several places.

Fortunately, a local wooden canoe builder came to the rescue with an ample supply of new cedar sheathing and enthusiastic support. Ron Pellinen sold me about 15 linear feet of immaculate, knot-free, locally cut eastern white cedar and loaned me the tools to replace the planking. First I cut the new pieces of planking to length and applied several coats of spar varnish to each. I then soaked the planking in boiling water to allow it to conform to the curves of the hull, and commissioned a friend to lend a hand with tacking them to the ribs.

The frame of a wood and canvas canoe is held together by approximately 2,000 brass tacks, which secure the planking to the ribs. A heavy, palm-sized clinching iron is held on the rib while each piece of planking is tacked in place, causing the needle-like tips of the tacks to bend and lock in place. Depending on the width of the planking, three or four 11/16-inch tacks are used per rib. The job was surprisingly easy. After soaking for 15 minutes, the planking was lithe and easily bent into place. I pre-drilled a hole for each tack in the planking to reduce the risk of splitting.

With planking replaced, I sanded to the hull to reduce any irregularities, cleaned up the dust and applied several coats of linseed oil to preserve the wood and increase its flexibility. Luckily the finish on the interior of my canoe didn’t require any tedious stripping and was freshened up with a thorough sanding and application of three coats of glossy spar varnish.

Next up was the most elusive stage of wood and canvas canoe construction: Stretching a square sheet of canvas onto the rounded hull of the canoe. For this complicated job I enlisted Pellinen’s help. My canoe would be the 109th he re-canvased, so I knew we’d be in good hands.

Some favorite websites for wooden canoe enthusiasts:
• The Wooden Canoe Heritage Association: The New Hampshire-based WCHA boasts over 1,800 members. Its website hosts a treasure trove of resources: Restoration tips, regional lists of suppliers and a discussion forum.

Kettle River Canoes Blog: British Columbia-based restorer Mike Elliott’s online journal contains a wealth of instruction and photographs detailing all aspects of wood and canvas canoe restoration, as well as information about their history.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!