With the final weeks of summer upon us, I’m glad to say that we’ve finally broken ground on canoe rebuilding. I’ve been delving into the depths of wood canvas canoe construction books, YouTube videos, discussions forums and phone calls, to figure out the next steps. Of course, we spent a lot of times outdoors as well. It’s been a pretty mild summer in Virginia thank goodness.
We spent a good amount of time, first doing some careful demolition. Removing one piece at a time to get to the guts of the canoe. The outwales were rotted for the most part, these came off pretty easily. What was left of the stem bands and the keel were removed next. I was just amazed that overall, the wood seemed to hold up well, despite being stored in the Virginia elements uncovered for several years.
The keel proved to be rather tricky to remove because the heads of the screws were corroded. Once upon a time, they were flat heads. Using a utility knife to carefully score out the old slot and then a few gentle raps on the head with a hammer loosened it enough to get purchases with a screw driver. Another approach would have been to use a Dremel tool to basically create a new slot in the screw head.
After numerous trips to lumberyards, Facebook marketplace searches, I made the decision to purchase my lumber already milled from a canoe builder. When it comes to Old Town Wood Canvas canoes, why not go straight to the source. Island Falls Canoe in Atkinson, Maine is run by legendary canoe builder Jerry Stelmok. He wrote the book: The Wood and Canvas Canoe: A Complete Guide to its History, Construction, Restoration and Maintenance (1987). I had a few pleasant discussions with him on the phone and after a few weeks, our supplies arrived! It was like Christmas, boxes of white cedar planking, ribs, new thwarts, tacks, bolts, canvas and much more. We also had to acquire some new tools as well as a clinching iron, purchased from Northwood Canoe Co.
One of the issues I ran into, that I haven’t really come across in any of the discussion forums or videos, is the fact that probably 80% of the canoe plank tacks were so severely corroded that they were literally falling off the canoe. When the canoe was first constructed, eastern white cedar was used to plank the canoe. These are thin 5/32″ thick boards that were steamed and tacked onto the ribs to create the shape of the hull. After 90 years, most of these were literally popping right off! As a result, the planking unstable. To preserve the shape of the hull, I started removing these corroded tacks and placed a few tacks to stabilize the hull, until they can be addressed properly. I did NOT fully clinch these tacks.
Clinching basically means that these specialty tacks (designed with a taper) are hammered into the plank and into the rib. A large piece of iron (the clinching iron) is held against the rib on the other end where the tack would exit. As the tack is exiting the rib, the tack hits the clinching iron and it curls upon itself back into the rib. The problem with working with nearly 100 year old white cedar, is the risk of splitting the planking. So to prevent this, I wetted the planks with water and then steamed it using a fabric steamer. Some people use irons. This softens the wood, making it less brittle, and less prone to splitting. The thwarts and seats were relatively easy to take out, once again, corrosion left very little to work with for the nut sand bolts. I ended up cutting several of the bolts to get the seats out.
My son got to work cutting out the old cane, and we stripped the old finish and got to sanding. The seats seemed to still be in decent shape and we worked on bringing them back to their old glamor. We were actually working on the seats while we waited for the lumber to arrive from Maine.
Once the hull was decently stabilized, we were now looking at taking out the stern, stem of the canoe . This is especially difficult to do, because the canoe was essentially built around the stem. This area of the canoe is especially prone to rot. In many scenarios, only one section of the stem would need to be replaced (perhaps 1/3 or 1/4 of the stem). There are different ways to scarf the new stem into the old, however, gauging from the amount of rot, I knew I needed a whole new stem. This is the part I’m working on currently.
It is becoming more apparent to me that there is no cookie cutter way to restore/rebuild a wood canvas canoe. I found this interesting posted on the “Wooden Canoe Heritage Association” YouTube channel. It details the restoration of an “Old Town Ruston” wood canvas canoe. Through watching these videos, I gather different types and tricks to help with my restoration.
The weather has been getting milder and we spent many grand days outdoors. My daughter was able to go on her first canoe trip and I do believe she is hooked. She is asking for her own paddle like her brother’s. We will probably have to carve one of those as well one day. Alas, fall is approaching and we are ready for more! Stay safe and healthy everyone!