Old Town (1929, 17′ OTCA) Wood Canvas Canoe Restoration – Part 3 – Assessment

In typical Virginia fashion, we have experienced all 4 seasons in the past few days. There were days when I was out in a t-shirt, and then shoveled some snow the next day. Nevertheless, the first signs of spring have finally made their appearance. I’ve noticed some cherry blossoms beginning to bud and the occasional days of full sunshine beating on the face is certainly welcoming after another long pandemic winter. The warmer temperatures in the shop, is also helping to motivate me to get some things done.

After building our steam box, we really haven’t had a chance to do much. I have mostly been reading, and researching the art of canoe restoration. It definitely seems like a daunting task however, one that we willingly take on. I honestly believe that it might be easier to build a canoe from scratch, this one looks pretty beat up. Most of the ribs are cracked in more than one place, the gunwales are spent and the stems on both ends have suffered some degree of rot. The decks actually appear to be in decent shape and the seats as well. All of the diamond Old Town Canoe bolts will be changed out for new ones, and probably all of the planking will have to be replaced. I’ve actually really enjoyed reading about boats, and different properties of wood and the structure and framework of canoes. It doesn’t matter how slow you go as long as you don’t stop…

As a non-boat builder, my research pointed to the direction of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association (WCHA) for further guidance. The WCHA is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to preserving, studying, building, restoring, and using wooden and bark canoes, and to sharing information about canoeing heritage throughout the world. The discussion forums are particularly helpful, where boat builders can share experiences and troubleshoot through problems. It was here, where I was able to learn more about my canoe. It is certainly interesting to see what many builders are willing to restore. Some boats are more reasonable for the firepit, however, as myself, I find others that are restoring these vessels for the pure joy of it.

When it comes to Old Town Canoes, there is a way to find out more about your particular wood canvas model. There is a 4-6 digit serial number printed on the stem of the canoe, towards the stern and can be read from the starboard side. Often times, the serial numbers are faded and worn so I was fortunate that I was able to still make out mine. Through careful inspection with lighting from all possible angles, I was able to make out….#103607.

It’s there if you can make it out: “Serial number: 103607”. (Not pictured is the “17” that indicates a 17 ft long canoe)

Through the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association discussion forums, I was able to get help from a very kind member who was able to look into the specifications of this particular canoe and gain access to old build records. I find it absolutely amazing that this document still exists! After reading the form, I knew this was definitely her. 17 foot long OTCA model, Grade AA (top), with western cedar planking with gunwales and decks of mahoghany. This particular model also has a keel. The Design Color #10 is one of the paint schemes back then, which was mostly green, it is shown in the drawing below.

Old Town Canoe build record: Dates this canoe back to 1929-30! Special thanks to Benson Gray of The Wooden Canoe Heritage Association.

Western red cedar (thuja plicata) has a variety of uses in construction and carpentry. It has many properties that make it ideal for canoe planking. It is light, intrinsically rot resistant, naturally resistant to bugs, flexible, with a high tensile strength. My next task is to track down straight grain red cedar boards. With the new bandsaw, I hope to resaw these boards to get 5/32″ boards. In terms of the gunwales, I will unlikely be able to find 17′ long mahogany pieces, so I’ll likely have to scarf shorter pieces together. I’ll see what my journey through the mills bring me too. This is where the fun begins….stay safe and be healthy everyone.

This video, although certainly not politically correct, shows some of the steps of building a wood canvas canoe in an Old Town Canoe workshop. Amazingly as old as this video was, the canoe I’m working on was made at least 20 years earlier. The credit of this amazing vessel is to the First Nations People and the Native Americans who perfected it.


Wood Canvas Canoe Restoration – Part 2 – Woodsteam Box

I knew from the beginning that the restoration of this Old Town canoe would require us to practice some wood steam-bending. This is a technique in woodworking where boards are exposed to steam in order to soften the wood fibers, allowing the entire board to be molded into new shapes. Once the boards are cooled, the wood will hold its new shape. This is how certain parts of the canoe were constructed, notably the many ribs which help form the frame of the canoe. Steam-bending wood can be used for several numerous other projects.

It was time for us to build a wooden steam-bending box. With this box, we would be able to steam wood for other projects such as the construction of furniture like rocking chairs, wine racks etc.

I purchased the Rockler steam bending kit, which includes plans as well as hardware for the construction of a steambox and then the actual steam generator and tubing. The construction of the box itself is simple. It doesn’t have to be pretty, only functional. This box will also be subjected to extreme temperatures and humidities so it will take a beating. It can be constructed out of either solid wood or plywood (external). If you decide to use plywood, make sure it is for external grade plywood as regular plywood would simply delaminate once you use the steambox.

My brother recently had to tear down sections of a wall in his house so he had a pile of scrap pine that we used. Nothing better than reusing old wood and giving it new purpose. In the restoration of this canoe, the largest rib that we would have to bend measures at nearly 4.5 feet. So the dimensions of our box was roughly 5′ by 5.5″. In general, for this size of steam generator, Rockler did not recommend creating a box longer than 5ft and with sides no longer than 6 inches. For larger steam boxes, you would might consider having a larger reservoir of water.

The construction of this box is very straightforward. Basically, no wood glue is to be used because of the constant stress of expansion and contraction that the box will be under. Outdoor screws will do the job to hold together your box. Screws will also allow you to take apart the box if you should need to replace any sides. At the end of the box, a brass fitting is installed where the tubing will connect to from the steam generator. The front of the box, is a lid with a latch, sealed with weather stripping. Using a forstner bit, I drilled holes along the box with evenly spaced dowels to serve as a resting rack for the piece of wood to be steamed. The wooden board that you steam should ideally be elevated, so that the steam can circulate around the whole board. Remember, water will accumulate on the bottom of the box so a drainage hole should also be placed. This steam box will leak regardless, so either have a water collection bucket or steam outdoors.

After using some scrap pieces and a pocket hole jig, we attached some feet to the box for some stability. After a quick test on a small piece of pine, she is ready to go! Next step, damage assessment and materials ordering.

Happy New Year Everyone! Be safe and healthy!


Wood Canvas Canoe Restoration – Part 1

It’s hard for me to believe that the last entry regarding canoe restoration was back in June. Our progress has been slow but certainly steady. Amidst the throes of this pandemic, things at my workplace seem to have gotten busier….I’m seeing more patients and doing more surgeries….meanwhile COVID cases in Virginia continue to soar. Wear your masks and get your vaccines people!

I’ve been finding some time every night, to go into the garage with my kids and work on something….anything….if only for 20 minutes at a time. Lately, I’ve been striving for more discipline, the practice of doing a little bit of work, everyday, in several different areas: exercise, work, learning languages, woodworking, music. It really is incredible what can be accomplished with just 30 minutes a day towards a goal.

Step 1: Building canoe cradles

We are grounding most of our work around the guidance of this book: “This Old Canoe” by Mike Elliott. It has proved very helpful so far.

The priority was building a stable platform for working on the canoe. Flimsy and old cedar planks were coming off the side of the boat and it was simply not safe to keep the canoe on saw horses with children about, not to mention the strain it was putting on this old canoe. I’ve been reading the book: “This Old Canoe – by Mike Elliot”, and used the plans inside to build some basic canoe cradles. Basically out of 2x4s and old carpet stored in the attic. The slings on the cradle allow for an equal distribution of forces along the hull. Also, you can rotate the canoe along its long axis so you can work on different angles of the canoe.

Once the cradles were completed, we could breathe easy. The canoe was in a sturdy and safe platform, and most importantly it was out of the elements and I knew that it would not further deteriorate. Psychologically, it was a huge boost, knowing that from this moment on, this thing will only get better.

Step 2: The Workbench

What we needed now, was a work area to launch our operation of repairing this canoe. We needed a workbench.

We decided to take down some old cabinets and free up some space for an 8ft bench. The cabinets found new owners through Facebook marketplace….they weighed a ton.

After looking at several different workbench plans on the internet, I settled on this one:

It was a very simple design and it seemed sturdy enough for our work. After many hot, summer day trips to Home Depot and a lot of sweating while sorting through lumber piles, I acquired all the wood that I needed. The cost of materials was less than $150. My son and daughter had a blast building this thing. My son, particularly enjoyed chiseling the half lap joints for the 2x4s. I didn’t have a table saw, so the cuts were actually just made using a compound miter.

We coated the table with a coat of boiled linseed oil. (Whenever you work with flammable oils like linseed, make sure your rags are disposed of safely. These can spontaneously combust. I generally soak the rags, and then leave them out to dry either in a metal can or on the drive way before disposing of them).

We subsequently had to paint the wall where the cabinets used to be and then replace the wall base vinyl which was easy enough.

Now we’re ready for the next phase……doing a thorough assessment of the extent of canoe repairs and figuring out a way to acquire the materials and tools necessary for the job. We are looking forward to working in a cooler shop now that autumn has arrived. Onward!


***As with all projects please make sure you wear proper eye protection. As an ophthalmologist (physician and surgeon specializing in eyes), I have treated vision threatening eye injuries from accidents in the workshop, construction sites and even in the gardens. In ophthalmology, it does not get more serious than an “open globe injury”. This is a scenario where the eyeball itself has an opening, either from a tear, blunt trauma or a projectile object. In the workshop, some of the worst injuries are from flying species of wood or metal that can penetrate the eye. The surgeries to repair these injuries can take hours and the visual prognosis often very poor. Prevention is key, WEAR safety goggles…PERIOD. ***

This is a photo of me repairing an “open globe injury” in the operating room. The eyeball in this case has been penetrated by a piece of steel. This was a high velocity injury. This occurred when the patient was hammering a metal stake with a sledge hammer. A piece of the stake broke off and went flying into the patient’s eye. The surgery was over 4 hours and the patient never regained meaningful vision. Wear safety glasses people.

Philpott Lake Canoe Camping (video)

After a long clinic day, my brain feels fried. I often use the zombie mindset aftermath to edit some old videos and clear out the old video project list. Here are some clips from a canoe trip back in 2017 to Philpott Lake in Virginia. Nothing fancy, just some canoeing and music. Stay safe out there everyone, looks like COVID numbers are on the rise across the whole country. Stay healthy.

Fort Lewis Lodge – Bath County, VA

The Blue Ridge Mountains along the border of Virginia and West Virginia is one of my favorite places. It has some of the most scenic views and fantastic waters such as Lake Moomaw and the Jackson River. We have been coming to this area for many years to camp and hike, but I only recently learned about the 3300 acre mountain escape known as Fort Lewis Lodge and Farm. This hidden gem has been family run and operated since it’s opening in 1989. I’ve been wanting to go for the past year and a half but reservations have been hard to come by. Their season runs from April till October.

(I filmed this video on a sony a6000 with a Tameron 28-75mm lens)

Happy National Canoe Day

June 26, 2021 was national canoe day in Canada. I guess it was meant to be, because this weekend we finally took the first steps into restoring an OLD and beat up Old town wood canvas canoe that has been sitting at my parents lot for years. I honestly don’t even know if it is possible to restore it, but I’m going to give it a shot. This particular canoe, has been sitting out in the bare elements for over 3 years……a decent wind could take off all the canvas. It looked as if wasps had ants had been residents in this canoe at some point. We all stripped the canvas and strapped her in the car and brought her home.

I was surprised to see that the heart of the canoe….the ribs were all still in decent shape. Meaning, it had a shape. I plan to pick at this project over the next year until it’s done. No timeline, but just work as we go. After this weekend, at least I’ll know it’s condition can only improve. I need to build some canoe cradles pronto and let her settle in. I still have to set up a new workshop somehow along the way. Much to be done, but it’ll be a labor of love. Happy paddling to all.

Building a Canoe Paddle

From the moment he stepped foot in a canoe, my son has never been satisfied with just sitting and taking in the views….. He wanted to paddle! He was not even 2 years old and at the time there was not a paddle small enough for him. This was my chance to make him one. As with all projects, we both learned a lot and had a blast making it.

His first canoe trip.

Selecting the wood:

Traditionally, canoe paddles are made from hardwoods. The definition of a hardwood is a species of tree that will yield a seed that has a coating on it, either in the form of a fruit or a shell. (Oak, maple etc). Softwoods, yield seeds that do not have any particular coating. Example: many conifers. The terminology is sometimes misleading because there are some softwoods that are actually harder than hardwoods, but in general, hardwoods are usually indeed harder. These trees take much longer to grow to the equivalent size and as a result are usually denser.

For a project such as this, you will likely not find the board of wood that you need from Lowes or Home Depot. Your best bet is to go to your local lumber mill or wood working store. In this case, we were fortunate enough to find our wood from Woodcraft. If you haven’t spent much time in a lumbar yard, some of the terminology might be confusing. You will hear the term “board foot”. This is the unit for which wood is sold. IT is misleading because it is actually a unit of VOLUME not length. A board foot describes a piece of wood that is 1inch thick, by 12 inches wide, by 12 inches long. Hence 144 cubic inches. For our project, we used a 3′ x 1” x 4”  foot long piece of hard maple.

When you are selecting the wood, make sure that there aren’t any knots or wood defects in the areas that you will be using, ESPECIALLY in the shaft of the paddle. These knots can lead to weakness in the paddle and could eventually fracture down the road.

Equipment/Materials:

  • hand bench plane (I used a #4 Wood River plane)
  • spokeshave
  • jigsaw or bandsaw
  • sandpaper (120 and 220 grit)
  • woodburning pen (optional, if you want to add designs to the wood)
  • clamps
  • tack rag
  • spar varnish
  • woodstain (if you want to stain the wood)
  • linseed oil (optional)
  • orbital/hand sander
  • protective eyewear

Selecting the design:

When selecting the design of the paddle, keep in the mind where the paddle will be primarily used. Is it flat water? whitewater? tripping? leisure paddling? There are numerous types of canoe paddle designs to choose from. These mostly differ in the shape of the blade of the paddle. Different paddle shapes will move different amounts of water. I’ve always prefered the beaver shape paddle, it is not too wide and it is not too narrow.

The Woodworkers Journal: provided a template for one of their Northwoods canoe paddle. A beavertail shaped paddle. I didn’t use these exact dimensions because we are completing a scaled down version for my 2.5 year old son. But I was influenced by the overall shape. Notice how the design templates are for one half of the paddle, when you are finished tracing that half, flip it over and trace it again to create the complimentary side. This will allow for the most symmetrical template possible. If you’re going to making many paddles over the years, consider making this template out of wood for safe-keeping over the years.

Once the outline has been drawn on the paddle, use a bandsaw or a jigsaw to cut out the paddle. If you spend extra time making the cuts as precise as possible, this will save you time later with the hand carving, shaving and sanding. I used a Bosch jigsaw.

Here is the video of the northwoods canoe paddle making process.

2. Planing

The key point to make during the remainder of the carving process is to maintain symmetry through the axis as well as throughout thickness. Use a gauge to mark the very center of the board on it’s axis as well as its thickness. The line, will let you know how close you are to your desired thickness of the blade. You may decide to vary the wood thickness based on the type of wood as well.

When working on a project like this, I want to emphasize the importance of knowing your tools and how to maintain them and to keep them functioning at their very best. There is no better example than the bench hand plane. If your tool is properly sharpened, maintained and tuned, this part of the project can be the best part. If your plane is not set up correctly, this could lead to a very frustrating experience.

In addition to keeping your tools finely honed, it is crucial to take into account the wood’s grain direction. Ideally your board is free of knots, this will make for the easiest planing. If there are knots, just be cautious of the grain drain direction change in these areas which could leave to tear outs. One way to battle this is to take shallower cuts if necessary. There are numerous tutorials online about how to read grain direction on a board.

Here is a useful video on how to set up a hand plane.

The Handle

The handle is probably the most difficult part of the carving process. There are many different methods to tackle this portion. Some paddle companies will actually do this part all by a large drum sander. Others will use files to whittle away the handle. I prefer to use the spokeshave, although this can be a little, especially if you are making sharp turns. I sanded parts of the handle afterwards with a belt sander.

Watch this craftsman at Shaw and Tenney (an oar and paddle company based in Maine) shape most of the paddle using a large drum sander. Some people will say that this method is not truly “hand made”. Nevertheless, the precision is impressive.

Woodburning

This step is entirely optional; I really wanted to put a logo on our canoe paddle, with a maple leaf (representing our Canadian heritage) and an oak leaf to represent our currrent home, Virginia. Similar to the wannigan I constructed, the wood burning process is a very enjoyable part of the paddle making process. Now if you were a professional furniture or paddle maker, you could consider just getting an ironing brand. Who knows? Maybe one day we will start canoe paddle business. It certainly seems like there are quite a few out there. There is one paddle company in Minnesota named: “Sanborn Canoe Company” that appears to be doing well. They specialize in artisan paddles.

The finish:

There are different ways that you can finish your canoe paddle handle. While some people will varnish the entire paddle, others leave the handle unfinished. I opted for the latter. I left the handle unfinished and unvarnished. I later added 3 coats of boiled linseed oil on the handle. The decision to oil or varnish your handgrip is purely personal preference. I found that over long canoe trips, the feeling of a varnished hand grip can make your hand a little raw after thousands of strokes. Finishing with linseed oil, gives the handle a buttery smoothness, similar to an axe handle. Over the years of use, the grip will darken naturally.

Personal preference, but I left the handle, unstained and unvarnished. I used 3 coats of boiled linseed oil to give it a buttery smooth finish, that will feel much better in the hands. Over time, the wood will darken naturally from the oils on your hand as well as the elements.

In conclusion:

For the canoe enthusiast, I can’t think of a more rewarding experience than using a paddling that you’ve created. It is also a fantastic father son bonding experience. As with other projects, I always find that I learn so much from even the smallest of projects. In this case, the big take home point, is that maintenance of your tools and knowing how to calibrate and hone them is essential to getting a precision job done. The hand plane was a joy to use once sharpened and calibrated. This holds true for the spokeshaves as well. Obviously with any project, the use of a work bench with clamps to suspend your work also makes the task of carving your paddle infinitely easier. Have fun.

**This is the best canoe paddle carving I have found on the internet. It features Ted Moores (craftsman) and this video from the 1990s was produced in Ontario, Canada.**

Maiden voyage…..all smiles