Nothing feels like a cedar-strip canvas canoe – Omer Stringer, a confirmed traditionalist

Beautiful things made by hand carry within them the seeds of their survival. They generate a spark of affection. For some it’s sentimental, for some it’s the art of the craftsmanship, for some the beauty of the finished boat. People love these things and try hard to ensure they endure.

The survival of the wood-canvas canoe (to paraphrase John McPhee) is certainly a matter of the heart; a romantic affair. The economics are unfavorable. In fact, the wood-canvas canoe’s most conspicuous asset and advantage is that it’s a beautiful piece of art. It’s the Shaker rocking chair of outdoor sport – handcrafted, simple, clean, and functional. There’s nothing in it that doesn’t have to be there, but all of the pieces add up to more than the parts. It works well and looks wonderful doing it.- From Honeymoon With A Prospector by Lawrence Meyer

Going down a river or crossing a lake in anything but wood-canvas is like floating on a linoleum rug. That’s just how it looks when you glance inside one of those types of canoes and watch the bottom flex and shimmer with the water. Whereas, in any wood-canvas canoe you have all these beautiful rich colors of the cedar planking and ribs, hardwood gunwales and decks, and caned seats. Even the smells are nice and directly relate to the environment you are traveling through. - Jack Hurley, canoebuilder

I suppose there would always be an argument for the different types of materials and canoe designs, but the wood-canvas canoe is one generation away from the birchbark canoe and was made for working and transporting people through the wilderness. It was designed and made out of materials that would stand up to miles and miles of flatwater and whitewater and portaging through very rugged and unexplored terrain. As a trip leader with kids and adults, I have safely traveled across many lakes in a wood-canvas canoe in conditions where other experienced paddlers in the new-design boats were either windbound or took on water during the crossings. - Jim Spencer, canoebuilder.

A Recipe For Success:

STEAMED CEDAR WITH CANVAS

An elegant accompaniment to fish.

Make ahead of time for relaxed visit with friends.

51 board feet of peeled and deveined eastern white cedar

10 board feet of combined ash, black cherry, and maple

2600 brass tacks

18 feet of 10 weight canvas

¾ gallon of oil base filler

3 quarts of varnish

2 quarts of paint

Assortment of beer to taste (chilled if possible)

Using a large shop, prepare all ingredients the night before. Early the next day preheat element to high heat. Bring an adequate quantity of water in a large pot to a tumbling boil. Steam ribs until al dente (flexible) and bend immediately while still tender. Let stand at room temperature to blend flavors until cool. Chop cleaned white parts of planking into long thin slices, (smaller pieces will fall to ground). Add bulk of brass tacks and planks at random until ribs disappear (careful not to tenderize planking with pounding of tacks). When ingredients become solid remove from mold and set aside. Prepare gunwales and decks by chopping fresh hardwoods. Snip to length and desired shape, introducing slowly for best results. Wrap with canvas skin; skewer with tacks along edges, leave middle open. Add both caned seats and center thwart until balanced. Inlay decks for garnish.

Use the same basic recipe for fifteen and seventeen footers. Quantities will vary including concentration of beer.

Well before serving time, press filler firmly onto bottom side of prepared carcass to seal in natural juices and let marinate. Heat entire hull at medium to high sun for about three weeks, covering occasionally, until fully baked.  From a separate pot, baste inside with all-purpose varnish to glaze ribs, careful not to drip, and let harden. Repeat occasionally. Meanwhile, whisk and and gently combine, until mixed but not runny, an assortment of fresh paint to color, stirring occasionally as you serve, and dressing the outside lightly from end to end. The condiments blend even better if allowed to stand for several hours until sticky topping hardens. (Careful not to undercook, but do not let baking temperature bubble surface.) Repeat spreading of additional layers on outer crust and again set aside and let stand until hard. Cover and store in a safe spot until needed. Present whole at room temperature, arranged attractively on an adequate bed of water. If desired, garnish with cherry paddles as a starter. Bon voyage. Serves 2 to 3. (Note: Depending on degree of festivities, presentation may be turned into a dip.)  – Don Standfield, fromStories From The Bow Seat: The Wisdom & Waggery of Canoe Tripping by Don Standfield and Liz Lundell.

My two old canoes are works of art, embodying the feeling of all canoemen for rivers and lakes and the wild country they were meant to traverse. They were made in the old tradition when there was time and the love of the work itself. I have two canvas-covered canoes, both old and beautifully made. They came from the Penobscot River in Maine long ago, and I treasure them for the tradition of craftsmanship in their construction, a pride not only of form and line but of everything that went into their building. When l look at modern canoes, of metal or fiberglass stamped out like so many identical coins. l cherish mine even more …Sixteen feet in length, it has graceful lines with a tumble home or curve from the gunwales inward …No other canoe I’ve ever used paddles as easily … The gunwales and decks are of mahogany, the ribs and planking of carefully selected spruce and cedar… - Sigurd Olson, Tradition

The canoes rode well, not too high in the bows, but just enough. Peterborough Prospectors were made for the bush and for roaring rapids and waves. They embodies the best features of all canoes in the north. They were wide of beam with sufficient depth to take rough water, and their lines gave them maneuverability and grace. In them was the lore of centuries, of Indian craftsman who had dreamed and perfected the beauty of the birchbark, and of French voyageurs who also loved the feel of the paddle and the smooth glide of the canoe through the water. All this was taken by modern craftsman who – with glues , waterproof fillers and canvas, together with the accuracy of machine tooled ribs and thwarts , planking and gunwales – made a canoe of which Northmen might be well proud. - Sigurd Olson

Wood and canvas canoes are strong, seaworthy, exceptionally responsive to the paddle and soothing to the human spirit Hugh Stewart, master canoe builder, Headwater Canoes

I have no interest in building a plastic canoe – Bill Miller, master canoe builder, Miller Canoes, Nova Scotia

I’ve got 36 more years before I retire. I will gladly build my last canoe on my 100th birthday – Bill Miller, master canoe builder, Miller Canoes, Nova Scotia

My hands are on every stage of production. If you spend two or three months making something, it becomes a chunk of you, like for a painter.- Will Ruch, Ruch Canoes, Bancroft, Ont.

As someone said, canoeing is a fringe activity and wood canoes are the fringest of the fringe - Doug Ingram, Red River Canoes, Lorette, Man.

No one gets rich making canoes - Larry Bowers, West Country Canoes, Eckville, Alta.

Last weekend I was at the Great Outdoors & DIY Weekend, helping out my good buddy Bruce Smith….there was my favourite wood canvas canoe on display….the one in my heading and on the Flikr Photostream….the one I’ve described as my beautiful dream. Over the weekend I got to talk a lot about wood canvas canoes. The Canadian Canoe Museum had a display at the show too, complete with a wood canvas canoe. So I’m crazy for wood canvas canoes. But why????

I wrote a blog post last August entitled Reflections On the Outdoors Naturally: A Thoreau Tuesday: A Few Quotes….And A Green Wood Canvas Canoe Business. In that article, I wrote about Mike Elliott of Kettle River Canoes:

Mike Elliott of Kettle River Canoes, in his Canoeguy’s Blog, wrote a great post Canoe Guy’s Blog: Wood-Canvas Canoes In A Green Economy, which describes the basis behind Mike’s canoe restoration business. I love Mike’s opening statement:

An environmentally friendly approach to the world is based on the “Three R’s”: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.  However, there are more: Repair, Restore and Reclaim.

Mike developed a Green business model from the start….and his success comes by reducing, reusing, recycling, repairing, restoring and reclaiming. He provides an example of this in his use of planking from an old salvaged telephone pole or use of hardwood paneling recycled from a  house demolition. Mike’s canoe business focuses exclusively on restoration instead of building. Mike realized that he couldn’t make enough from building new canoes, but he could from restoring older still usable canoes. I also like his “adoption” approach where an old canoe is “adopted” by a new owner who pays for the restoration.

I like Mike’s idea of restoring older still usable canoes….however I might disagree with him about new canoes….I think that in this day and age the wood canvas canoe, new or old (and restored) is more than just a viable alternative….on the website for Timberline Canoes, the home page has the following:

Wood Canvas Canoes: Eco-friendly watercraft constructed of renewable, natural resources

Benefits of Ownership

  • Gentle on the environment
  • No fossil fuels required
  • No water pollution
  • Quiet – no noise pollution
  • Easy to maneuver
  • Easy to transport
  • Renewable construction
  • Good for your body
  • Great for your soul

Now I have expounded on this blog at great length on wood canvas canoes….on why wood canvas canoes should be used….why folks trip with them….why wood canvas canoes are not just “museum pieces”….even about youth canoe building programs involving wood canvas canoes….obviously I love wood canvas canoes….but not just their history or tradition….I even think there’s a future for wood canvas canoes….and maybe even a real need.

I have mentioned the Wooden Canoe Builders Guild (WCBG), Home Page, here before as well….but what exactly is the Guild???….here is how the WCBG describes themselves from their Who We Are page, Who We Are:

The Wooden Canoe Builders’ Guild was formed in 1997 to serve the collective needs and interests of builders and restorers of cedar canvas and woodstrip epoxy watercraft and to foster public interest in and knowledge of such watercraft. The Guild provides a forum for co-operation and communication among wooden canoe and kayak builders and facilitates the co-operative bulk purchasing of the specialised products and materials used in the construction of these vessels.

Guild members are producing, today, those canoes and kayaks which will become the heritage watercraft of future decades. It is the goal of the Guild to preserve and pass on the skills required to build and reconstruct these watercraft, which are so connected with the history and traditions of North America.

Every member of the Guild is indebted to people whom we have never met, but who led the way in developing the techniques which most of us follow today. The names of the old companies such as Henry Rushton, Chestnut, Old Town and Peterborough, to name a few, represent the heritage which we strive to preserve and continue through our work.

Today’s wooden canoe builders operate, predominantly, in small scale enterprises in widely scattered areas of North America. Few workshops have more than two or three employees which is why these builders are truly individual entrepreneurs with a strong sense of responsibility to produce quality watercraft for truly discriminating owners.

The Wooden Canoe Builders’ Guild seeks to have its members maintain high standards as they produce watercraft for those customers who will appreciate the time and care invested in the canoes and kayaks coming from their shops. They also strive to return to active use those craft that have suffered the ravages of time so that they may, once again, connect mankind with the natural elements. For those members who build wood & canvas canoes, one of the conditions of membership in the Guild is agreement to a set of construction standards set down by the Guild. The onus is on each builder to meet or exceed these standards without any formal policing by the Guild.


Further according to WCBG website, the Missions Of The Wooden Canoe Builders Guild are:

  • to preserve the art and craft of wooden canoe building
  • to promote high quality workmanship by its members
  • to pass on the skills of wooden canoe building through workshops, courses and apprenticeship programs
  • to preserve the heritage and history of wooden canoes through education and restoration
  • to support and serve its members by providing forums for mutual assistance and collective action

So what is exactly involved in the construction of a wood canvas canoe????….again from the WCBG website, Canoe Constructionl:

Canoe Construction

The cedar canvas canoe represents the European adaptation of the bark canoe built and used by the native people. As suitable bark became more difficult to obtain and to facilitate industrial production, canvas was substituted for the bark and rendered waterproof by the application of oil, tar or paint.

Cedar canvas canoes have a long and romantic history in Canada and the north-eastern United States where they have been built in small shops and large factories for about 125 years. Many people think of them as ‘old fashioned’ canoes and are surprised to learn that they are still being built today. In fact the methods of manufacture have changed little in the past 125 years, ensuring the same high aesthetic qualities and superior handling characteristics of the classic canvas covered canoes.

Before a cedar canvas canoe can be built, a form has to be constructed. The canoes are built directly onto this form so that it determines the shape of the canoe hull. Building the form is an exacting and lengthy process that can take 200 – 300 hours. However, once the form is complete, a large number of canoes can be built on it, one at a time.

 

The first step in the construction of a new canoe is to clamp the inwales and the stem pieces to the form. Next the cedar ribs are steamed and bent, one at a time, over the form and nailed to the inwales. This forms the skeletal shape of the canoe. The red or white cedar planking is then applied over the ribs and secured to each rib with 3 or 4 brass tacks. Metal bands on the form clinch each tack into the inside surface of the ribs to create a secure connection between the planks and the ribs. Approximately 2000 tacks are used in a typical 16 foot canoe.

When the planking is substantially complete, the canoe is removed from the form. The shear planking is then completed and the ends of the canoe are closed up.The canoe is then sanded and cleaned inside and given at least 4 coats of marine spar varnish. Decks, seats and thwarts are added and the canoe is ready for canvassing.

  

The canvas is folded lengthwise to form a trough and then stretched until taut. The canoe is placed into the trough and the canvas is attached at the top of each rib with brass tacks or stainless steel staples. At the ends of the canoe the canvas is carefully slit and pulled, one side at a time, around the stem and fastened. The canvas is then ‘filled’ with a product that fills the weave and makes a smooth, solid base for the finishing paint.

 

After the filler has cured, the outwales are added and the canoe is then given at least three coats of marine enamel. Finally, the ends of the canoe are finished off with the installation of brass stem bands. The time required to build a canoe varies with the size and the degree of finish and can range from about 80 to 200 hours.

Also these drawings from the old WCBG site:

*Drawings by Sam Manning for the Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y., U.S.A.

Also this from McCurdy and Reed Canoes: Construction:

I really liked the FAQ section of the WCBG, FAQ:

Q:What are the advantages of a wooden canoe?

A: The primary advantages of a wooden canoe are its appearance and its handling characteristics. Quite simply, no other material can match wood in these two respects. From an appearance perspective, the beauty of wood can’t be matched by any other material. As for handling, a wooden canoe is quieter, warmer and more responsive to the water than any other material. The flexing of a wooden canoe, which is made of many pieces, allows it to respond to the water it floats in as well as the paddler it carries as no moulded material can.

An additional feature of cedar canvas canoes, which is not shared by canoes of other materials, is that, if required, any part of the canoe can be repaired or replaced – no matter how old the canoe – thus restoring the canoe to as-new condition.

Q: Does a wooden canoe require a lot of maintenance?

A: Being made of natural materials it is true that, on average, a wooden canoe will require more care than some other materials such as fibreglass, aluminum and plastic. To put it another way, wood will suffer more from neglect than these materials. However, the actual upkeep required by a wooden canoe depends on how it is used and stored and can be surprisingly low if a bit of common sense care is taken. For example, the paint and varnish on a wooden canoe, which represent the first line of defence for the wood, can provide many years of service before requiring attention if care is taken in the use and storage of the canoe.

Q: Can I use a wooden canoe for whitewater?

A: The short answer is yes. Until the advent of synthetic canoe materials, wooden canoes (specifically cedar canvas canoes) were used for all purposes including whitewater. However, today some other materials are more appropriate for this use in the sense that they are more impact resistant and suffer fewer consequences from striking a rock.

Q: How long does it take to build a cedar canvas canoe?

A: The length of time a builder spends to build a cedar canvas canoe will vary primarily with the emphasis placed on fit and finish details and can be anywhere between approximately 80 and 200 hours.

Q: What do you do if you get a tear in the canvas?

A: A small tear in the canvas can be patched and, when repainted, rendered almost invisible. A tear which is too large to patch will require replacement of the canvas. However, the canvas on a canoe is really quite rugged and would require impact with a fairly sharp object to cause even a small tear.

Q: Why not use fibreglass instead of canvas on a canoe?

A: As previously mentioned, one of the advantages of a cedar canvas canoe is the ability to repair or replace any component. Because fibreglass is not readily removable, this advantage would be lost if it was used in place of canvas.

The  Wooden Canoe Heritage Association is a non-profit membership organization devoted to preserving, studying, building, restoring, and using wooden and bark canoes, and to disseminating information about canoeing heritage throughout the world. This is a great group of wood canoe fanatics….the WCHA has a great online forum,  on all things dealing with wooden canoes.

Filler was mentioned in the section on wood canvas canoe construction above from the WCBG. Fillers are used in to treat the canvas….as the WCBG section describes the canvas is ‘filled’ with a product that fills the weave and makes a smooth, solid base for the finishing paint. Many canoe builders have their own “secret” fomulas for this filler. The WCHA has a great deal of info on past and present filler formulas, Canvas Filler Formulas:

Canvas filler formulas have been guarded for decades by wood canvas canoe builders all over the world. The formulas below have been published or made available in a legal manner and not “stolen” or otherwise “borrowed” without permission….

One note about filler formulas. The materials that were used in the early 1900’s may not be the same as materials with the same names today. In addition, canvas is certainly different today than it was in 1900, so some of these formulas may not provide the best coverage for your money.

Reprinted from Wooden Canoe #16 (no lead)

  • 43 ounces boiled linseed oil
  • 21 ounces mineral spirits
  • 34 ounces enamel paint
  • 2 ounces Japan drier
  • 6 1/4 pounds 300 grit silica
  • 2 ounces spar varnish

“Rushton’s Filler” – Reprinted from Wooden Canoe #20

  • 5 pounds silica
  • 1 1/2 quarts turpentine
  • 1 quart boiled linseed oil
  • 1 pint Japan drier
  • 2 pounds white lead

Reprinted from Wooden Canoe #31

  • 1 quart boiled linseed oil
  • 4 pounds silica
  • 7 ounces Japan drier
  • 3 quarts turpentine
  • 4 pounds white lead

From Scott E. Marks, picked off the USENET group rec.boats.building by Phil Gingrow.

I can suggest a recipe, the best I remember it from 20 years ago. It was based on glaziers putty and floor varnish – we used Hippo Oil brand at the time. Glaziers putty is basically clay and linseed oil. We warmed the varnish and mixed (kneaded) the putty into it by hand. I honestly don’t remember the proportions, but we ended up with something like a thick pancake batter. To this we would add some japan drier to accelerate drying. This mixture was worked into the nap of the canvas by hand, in thin coats. If allowed to dry between coats, it wouldn’t build up into a single soft thick layer. It would remain flexible, and as many layers were applied as were required to fill the canvas. Two coats of orange shellac with light sanding between were applied over it prior to painting with enamel paint. This recipe originated from someone in the Dwight, Ontario area, who was generous enough to teach a few of us to repair and re-canvas the fleet of Chestnut canoes we battered on the rocks of Algonquin park.

More from Dom Williams: I used your site to prepare a filler based on the floor varnish/glaziers putty/indian dryers mixture listed in the site; the author could not remember proportions. 0thers using this formulation may be surprised to find how much putty is required versus varnish. I wound up with a mix of 1cup varnish/ 2 1/2 lb putty and 1 tablespoon of dryers and probably would have been better to increase the putty to 3lb. To refinish a 16 ft canoe with the existing filler largely worn away by use and/or paintstripping I used 4 batches ie 1 quart of varnish and 10lb of putty; the final batch was not all used. I found it applied best using a cheap 8 inch plastic drywall knife (the more flexible the better) and applied it from the gunwales up and then from the centerline to meet the “upstroke”. I “spot-primed ” the areas where the old filler had largely washed out of the canvas by hand rubbing glops into the weave before doing the overall trowelling.

Notes

  1. Silica can be purchased at pottery supplies under the brand name Silex. Silex dust can cause breathing problems, so please always use a respirator when sanding filler.
  2. Lead is known to cause brain damage when absorbed through the skin or inhaled as dust. Be very cautious using and disposing of white lead in your filler.

Wood canvas canoes, to reiterate the Timberline Canoe home page, are eco-friendly watercraft constructed of renewable, natural resources….despite the fact that certain chemicals might be used in their construction….such as in the filler, paint, or even varnish….but personally I believe that the “carbon footprint” involved in the construction of wood canvas canoes is much less than that involved in building fiberglas or Kevlar canoes. So I think it’s safe to say that are more “eco-friendly” than other types of canoes on the market….not only are they constructed from renewable and natural resources….but they instill a closeness to the natural environment….especially in a spiritual sense….just check out the quotes from various folks at the outset of this post, especially from the canoe builders.

On her website for Bourquin Boats (Bourquin Boats), Jeanne Bourquin answers Why Wood? :

Jeanne Bourquin

Almost everyone interested in a wood canoe at some point asks me “Why wood?” “Why paddle something so beautiful?” “It should be on a wall somewhere.” “They’re so heavy… they require so much upkeep and work…”

The camp where I learned to travel by canoe uses wood canoes because they believe that by learning to respect and care for one’s equipment, we learn to take care of the environment, and we learn to take care of and respect each other. The material, the care required, the natural beauty of a wood canoe all fit into the experience of wilderness travel. A wood canoe is more of a friend (or a pet) than a piece of recreational equipment (most people name their canoes), and the purchase of a wood canoe should be approached the same way. “Am I willing to take the extra care loading and unloading?” “Will I want to get my feet wet?” “Where am I going to store my canoe?” “Will I enjoy the cleaning and sanding and touchups required each fall?”

Wooden canoes

Asked why we use wood/canvas canoes, those of us who have paddled them for years can mostly only shrug and smile. Maybe its love… cupid’s arrow… pure foolishness. Maybe its all appearance… maybe its how quiet they are on the water… maybe its how you can forget the mosquitoes as you admire for the 10,000 time the graceful curve of rib and plank disappear into the bow. Or, maybe its the history and memories we see reflected in each dent and scratch – while imagining our children and grandchildren off on some adventure of their own in the same canoe. For most people the love for wooden canoes starts the first time they actually get in one and paddle. They are beautiful to look at – but they are much more beautiful on the water – clear skies and Fall leaves, or grey skies and pouring rain, another friend to share it all with.

As John Hupfield states on his Lost In The Woods Boatworks website:

Why wood? Besides being beautiful, wood is a renewable resource that we think is more in keeping with our enjoyment of the environment, and is a non-toxic alternative to the increasing use of toxic chemicals in recreational watercraft. It’s warmer and stiffer than synthetics, smells nice, is pleasant to work with, and is quieter on the water too. And by using modern building methods, hulls are extremely light, durable and easy to care for. It’s a myth that wooden boats are high maintenance!

Or as Paul Roddick states on his website for Roddick Canoes:

Canadian adventure canoes and rowboats, built the traditional way with wood and canvas, and a whole lot of Canadian know how. Our great country of lakes, rivers and ancient waterways is the birthplace of the canoe. Long before the white man ever set foot on this land the great native people built the canoe to travel and explore the wilderness. Today we build these great canoes in the same way,ready to take you on a wilderness adventure, or an eary morning paddle on your favourite lake, with the mist rising off the water as your quiet wooden canoe glides effortlessly with hardly a ripple, as they have done for thousands of years and will continue to, as long as individual craftsmen, dedicated to preseving this great Canadian tradition, culture and life style, persevere.

I am not defending the wood canvas canoe, because they need no defense, they speak for themselves, they whisper “Canada, wilderness,water, adventure, lakes , streams, rivers, sun on the rocks, wind on the water, trout in the clear crystal pools, an early morning moose feeding at the the waters edge, or you and your companion, pushing off your loaded canoe, into another day of being one with with nature.

Our models never change from year to year, they are the same today as they were a hundred years ago. It’s hard to improve on perfection, we don’t worry about the newest tecnology, or the competition. Why?, because we don’t have any, all we have is our timeless wooden canoes and boats, each one hand built, one at a time, slowly, carefully, soulfully, each one a bit of Canada, each one cherished for what they are, a thing of timeless beauty, function and grace, the wood canvas canoe. forever.

Maine Canoe Journeys adds:

Wood/Canvas canoes have enjoyed a remarkable revival since the early 1980s for more than nostalgic reasons. A fine wood/canvas canoe offers not just aesthetic beauty, but also superior handling in the water, craftsmanlike construction of largely organic materials, and infinite repairability.

Finally as Pam Wedd  says on the Bearwood Canoes website:

The experience of paddling a traditional wood and canvas canoe is like no other in this high-tech world of ours. Being a part of our surroundings in a watercraft built from natural materials returns us to our roots. It is a link to our past and our soul.

I don’t think I can add much more to any of that….certainly nothing I haven’t added before here….so next time you’re thinking of buying a new canoe (or even an “old” new canoe), think of a wood canvas canoe….and if you are worried about the weight then remember it’s really not too heavy….and even if it is more than that featherweight Kevlar, it will let you know you’re still alive….as for maintenance that’s part of the charm too. And nothing like taking a wood canvas canoe on a northern lake, especially in traditional canoe country like Algonquin, Killarney or Temagami.

Paddles up until later then….and may you have a green canoe (if you don’t already have one)….a green wood canvas canoe….truly “green”.

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