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After the battle of Waterloo, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, said to Thomas Creevey “It was a near run thing. The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” On a much smaller scale, and in a more maritime way, that’s what happened at my house tonight.

You’ll recall that I bravely posted a couple of months ago that I was back in action with boats. Well I was, sort of, but then two writing projects for WoodenBoat came my way, about which more soon. The second of these is finished, so now I can turn to more pressing matters, and the above-mentioned “near-run thing.”

At lunchtime today, I went to my storage locker to retrieve the Ontario Canoe Company decked sailing canoe. Yes, I probably should have put a plank on top of the roof racks and under the keel, but I wasn’t going that far and I slowed down over the railroad tracks(!).

canoe on car adjusted

I had measured the window into my new basement shop several times, and I knew it was going to be close, but I hoped we would end up just on the good side of “close.”

In we go:

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I learned a couple of useful things today:

  1. Future projects should be LESS than 14′ long and LESS than 31″ wide!
  2. Make sure that the canoe doesn’t get any bigger during the restoration!

Time to start scraping green paint.

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In response to a post at the end of July about re-canvassing the 1937 Old Town, reader David Little posted an interesting comment in response to my use of epoxy as a canvas filler:

I understand the need to make things last longer…although it seems the previous traditional filler and paint lasted pretty long considering it was put on over 70 years ago….i do not subscribe however to taking the tradition out of traditional…i would not have gone to modern methods as a filler…the synthetic somehow doesn’t sit well with my view of tradition…just my thoughts.

His thoughts prompted some thoughts of my own, beginning with the words of a true expert on the subject.

Fiddler_on_the_roofAs the film opens, Tevye says:  “Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!” (boat builders and restorers might take some ironic pleasure in the other song the film made famous: “If I was a Rich Man. . .”) But what is tradition, and by association, what is traditional?

At a fairly fine and granular level, tradition means simply keeping things exactly like they were. In the context of boatbuilding, this might mean that a steam-bent rib of white oak should always and only be made from white oak. At a mechanical level, traditions can be founded on properties. The oak rib, for instance, is such because oak happens to be an excellent material from which to bend ribs. But, it isn’t the only one, so one also sees small boats with ribs made of ash, elm and cedar, among other woods, because they share the same mechanical properties. Substituting one of these woods for another might therefore be “un-traditional,” but it may not necessarily change the fundamental character of the boat, because the steam-bent rib is still doing what has always done.

However, if you were to make a change in the structure of that rib, you’re dealing with tradition in a different way. Let’s say that your steam-bent oak rib becomes a laminated epoxy oak rib. Now you’ve introduced a significant change and, I would suggest, broken from tradition, because the rigidity and strength of the epoxy change the properties of the rib. The outward similarity–someone looking at the boat would still see a thin bent rib–masks a significant change. In the same way, a glued-lapstrake plywood boat is still lapstrake, and therefore nominally traditional, but whatever the outward similarity, it is a fundamentally different structure with different mechanical properties whose component parts have a different working relationship than in a traditional lapstrake boat.

To me, one test to apply would be the Arts & Craft movement’s maxim “Truth to Materials.” If the component parts of a boat still bear the same mechanical relationship to each other as they did in the original, then, possibly with minor variations, the boat might be said to be traditional. That is, a lapstrake dinghy built with clench nails and rivets and steam-bent frames in North America is traditional with respect to the same dinghy built in the UK, notwithstanding that when the builder moved across the pond he found out that he couldn’t get the larch stock he was used to for planking so he substituted oak.

Thus, with all due respect to American Traders, who build this canoe, this is not traditional:

Trapper14What started life as a wood/canvas canoe, where a non-water tight wooden shell supported a layer of waterproofed canvas stretched tightly around it, is now a different kind of watercraft, where resin-impregnated fiberglass cloth not only keeps the wood water tight but is also mechanically and chemically bonded to it. Before the mail starts coming in, I’m not saying it’s not a good canoe, just that for all of its outward similarities to wood/canvas canoes it is a fundamentally different structure.

This, by comparison, is traditional, at least to my way of thinking:

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Yes, the canvas has been filled with epoxy, and not a mixture of silica, linseed oil and white lead. However, 1) it’s still cotton canvas; 2) it’s still not fastened to the hull except by tacks at the ends and gunwales; and 3) it still comes off in a couple of big pieces when it’s time to re-canvas.

Interesting topic to ponder. What do you think?

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On January 20th, 1937, my 17′ Old Town HW-model canoe was canvassed at the factory in Old Town, ME. On April 28th, 2013, I decided that at 76 years and 14 weeks I had probably gotten my money’s worth out of that first canvas skin (which I hadn’t paid for anyways!), and so it was time to re-canvas. A couple of years ago, I wrote about finding the canoe and making the decision to try and revive the original canvas instead of replacing it. Turns out to have been a good strategy, and it gave me many miles of paddling and sailing. It also helped me name my new canoe. The salvage job on the original canvas had left the canoe with a rather, shall we say, “textured” look, and this, combined with the Princeton Orange colour led inevitably to the name Clementine.

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The first step was to get the hardware, outwales, keel and old canvas off. The spruce outwales were held on with the original slot-head brass screws, and they were pretty well secured in their countersunk holes by years of varnish buildup. I’m always reluctant to use a slot bit with an electric driver because it’s so easy to have the bit walk out of the slot if it’s at all out of alignment, so I turned to a tried and trusted method for removing the outwale screws.

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With a simple socket attachment that takes standard 1/4″ hex shank bits, your brace and bit can be converted into a high-torque, low-speed screwdriver that’s very useful in situations where you have to proceed carefully but also apply considerable force. You do own a brace and bit, don’t you? The attachment is available from Lee Valley tools, among other retailers, for under $12.00. There’s also one for sockets which is very useful for freeing stuck nuts and bolts. I never cease to wonderat how surprised people can be to see simple, non-powered tools in use. A typical comment in this case was “don’t remember the last time I saw someone using one of those.”

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After the outwales were off, I removed the rest of the hardware, including the bolts that held the external keel on and the stembands. The stembands are the original bronze and I’m hoping to re-use them, so they were labelled and stored.

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Then, it was time to peel the canvas. I was pleased to find that the planking was in excellent shape and that there were no hidden pockets of rot. Traditional canvas filler can take more than a month to dry after it is applied. Because I was foolish enough to embark on a re-canvassing project at the beginning of the boating season and not the end, I was hoping to find a quicker alternative. My friend Dick Persson, proprietor of the Buckhorn Canoe Company, has been using an epoxy-based filler that dries in days, and not weeks or months, so I decided to use that. Epoxy is know for being rather sticky, so I needed to take an additional step before putting the new canvas on.

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I sanded the exterior of the hull with 80-grit to take out the re-saw marks and then built up three coats of varnish, topped with a healthy spray of silicone mould-release. In the event that any of the epoxy penetrated all the way through the canvas, this would prevent the canvas from becoming glued to the hull. I may not be around for the next re-canvassing, particularly if it’s another 76 years away, but it’s always good to plan ahead.

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To be continued.

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