To Save a Wooden Canoe: Part III

Using stainless steel staples and artist’s pliers, we stretch the canvas into place and fasten along the rib tops at the gunwales. Photo: Conor Mihell

(Ed’s note: This is part III of a series; see part I here » and part II here ».)

By Conor Mihell
Published: March 18, 2011

“The concept and the magic of a canvas-covered canoe is that it can have two, three, or even four new outer skins in its lifetime… These canoes are exceptionally recyclable and ultimately, except for screws, tacks and brass, biodegradable.” — Hugh Stewart, wood-canvas canoe-builder and owner of Wakefield, Quebec’s Headwater Canoes

A balance of horizontal and vertical tension in the canvas allows it to conform to the curved form of the canoe. Photo: Conor Mihell
The outer shell is usually the first to show the signs of wear and tear on any boat, but this is particularly true in the case of traditional wood and canvas canoes. While most of the cedar ribs and planking of my 1988 North Bay Canoe Company Cruiser are sound, its red canvas skin was peeling from the gunwales and cracked by the sun. As longtime builder Hugh Stewart notes, it’s the relative ease of which a new piece of fabric can be stretched over the cedar frame of a wood and canvas canoe that sets it apart from its modern brethren. After years of use, the canvas is meant to be discarded and replaced.

After replacing about 15 linear feet of eastern white cedar planking, I set about the daunting challenge of re-canvasing my canoe in my woefully under-equipped basement workshop. Luckily a local canoe builder came to my aid. Ron Pellinen offered me the use of his garage and was willing to assist me with the project. With the proper equipment, stretching a square sheet of cloth over the curved form of a canoe is far easier than it sounds.

I purchased an 18-foot length of 60-inch-wide, mildew-resistant Number 10 canvas—the typical weight for a general-purpose canoe (lightweight Number 12 and heavyweight Number 8 are also occasionally used). The canvas was folded in half lengthwise with its open end up and stretched between two sets of clamping hardwood battens with a hand-powered winch, essentially creating a hammock. Once Pellinen achieved the optimum tension, we released the tensioned and popped the 16-foot canoe right side up in the canvas envelope. The trick is balancing horizontal tension (adjusted with the winch) and vertical tension (adjusted with downward pressure on the canoe) to eliminate wrinkles in the canvas. Pellinen uses a combination of sand bags and adjustable drywall jacks to set the canoe firmly in its new canvas shell.

Pellinen stretches the canvas to minimize wrinkles at the bow and stern. Photo: Conor Mihell
Traditionally, copper tacks were used to attach the canvas along the top edge of the canoe. Pellinen, however, prefers the ease of stainless steel staples. We started amidships and worked around the gunwales, fastening the canvas to the tops of the ribs. Before each staple is secured, the canvas must first be stretched into place with a pair of wide-nosed artist’s pliers. Next, we cut the canoe loose, turned it over and used the pliers to carefully stretch the canvas and staple to the bow and stern. Finally, Pellinen likes to saturate the seam in the canvas at either end of the canoe with epoxy for a smoother finish. In less than three hours the project was complete.

Since I used treated canvas I didn’t need to bother with the traditional and sometimes risky procedure of singeing the fuzzy nap of the canvas with a blowtorch. Back at home in my basement, I proceeded to fill the weave of the canvas—applying a durable, oil-based, ground silica-fortified “filler” which renders the skin waterproof and forms a base layer for enamel paint. After applying nearly a gallon of filler—rolled on, thoroughly rubbed in with a canvas mitt, and finally smoothed with the palm of a glove-covered hand—and my canoe was ready glossy enamel paint. But first, I decided to allow it to hibernate for a few months to ensure the filler had time to fully cure.

The oil-based filler is vigorously rubbed into the canvas with a fabric mitt to create a smooth, durable and waterproof surface upon which layers of glossy enamel can be applied. Photo: Conor Mihell

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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