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Archive for the ‘Canoes’ Category

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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You know how when you buy a particular marque or model of car you start to see them everywhere? A few years ago, wandering through ebay while avoiding a more important task, I came across some images of canoeing on romantic themes. I can’t recall now which one I saw first, but here’s a representative example.

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How charming, I thought. They’re courting in a canoe. I bought the first one I saw, and then I bought a few more, and soon the search expanded to sheet music and souvenirs too. Last year, while I was still working at the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, I proposed the idea of an exhibit about canoes and romance. Because I left the museum for another job at the end of the year, I didn’t end up curating that show, though I did do a design concept for it.  I did agree to write the Gallery Guide for the exhibit, however.

These Gallery Guides are a project that I started at the Museum three years ago. The original idea was to publish some of the material that inevitably doesn’t make it into the finished exhibit and provide visitors with some more information that they can take home. The first Gallery Guide was about the Museum’s “It Wasn’t All Work” gallery and explored the topic of canoeing for pleasure. The next Guide in the series was published in 2013 and recounted the story of the Museum’s founding and its origin in the private canoe collection of Kirk Wipper. The third Gallery Guide, I’m proud to say, is my own. It was released when the exhibit it accompanies was opened on Wednesday, April 23rd.

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The collecting of the images and souvenirs was great fun (and continues to this day), and the writing was a lot of hard work, but it’s a great exhibit and I encourage you to drop in if you’re travelling through southern Ontario. It’s open now and will be up until next March. You can purchase a a copy from the Canadian Canoe Museum Store. The first (It Wasn’t All Work: Canoeing for Pleasure) and second (Becoming Kirk Wipper: The Story of the Museum’s Founder) Gallery Guides are also available from the store online.

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Well, the sub-floor for the workshop is gradually going down. You hear a lot about people “starting from square one.” If you ever wondered what square one actually looks like, here it is:

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As of the end of last week, we were making steady progress, and were well past square one:

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Thanks to looking for things to do while avoiding preparing our income taxes, I’ve finally gotten around to something I’ve been meaning to do for long time: add image galleries to the blog. You’ll find the first one in the right-hand sidebar. As you might expect, I started with sailing canoes. Not completely happy with the formatting, and I will add captions, but I thought I would put it out there as a teaser while I work out the details. Stay tuned for more.

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I’ve been around canoes for a long time, arguably even in utero. This was courtesy of my parents, who met when they both worked at a YMCA camp in the 1950s. I won’t go as far as Farley Mowat and claim that I was conceived in a canoe, but insofar as the relationship that brought me into the world began and flourished at Camp Widjiwagan on the shore of Burntside Lake, and my father-to-be was in charge of the out-tripping department, I might say I was at least conceived of around canoes.

Like a lot of kids, I went to camp for several summers in my early teens. I knew I was going to camp, but when I arrived I was disappointed to find out that I was also going to church, whether I liked it or not, and that I had to learn to walk like an Indian to get to there. My appreciation of the inevitable lecture about the Great Spirit and the singing of Kum-Ba-Yah was always undercut by a pretty strong feeling, at least in an jumbled, inchoate 12-year old way, that nature, far from enfolding me in her bosom and the oneness of all creation, really didn’t give a damn, and would just as happily have me for lunch as refresh my mind and spirit.

A lot of my discomfort around the rituals and philosophy of camp had to do with Indians. Not  real First Nations, mind you, not actual living, breathing people you could talk to, but the Indian that I, the middle class urban white kid, was expected to become while I was at camp. We learned quickly that it wasn’t an option to go into the woods or into a canoe as ourselves, since we were expected to learn Indian “lore” and “ways” as a rite of passage and an introduction to the mystery. I can lay a lot of this at the feet of Ernest Thompson Seton, whose late 19th and early 20th advice on character formation and masturbation avoidance for young men borrowed heavily from a free-floating, heavily-idealized notion of Indian life, outlined in classic works like The Book of Woodcraft (1912, 1921), The Birchbark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians and (perhaps my favourite title) How Boys Can Form a Band of Indians.

Texts for training the future defenders of the empire, these books combined instructions for parts of your body you were supposed to touch and parts you weren’t with paeans to the Noble Savage and confirmation of the inherent rightness of muscular Christianity. As Seton ever-so-earnestly maintains in The Book of Woodcraft, “. . .more nations have been wiped out by sex abuse than by bloody war. The nation that does not bring up its youth with pure ideals is certainly going to destruction.” (p. 240). If Krupp had manufactured sex toys and dirty magazines instead of artillery, the Germans might have won the war! I can only wonder what became of those lost souls who not only didn’t want to pretend to be an Indian but did want to abuse themselves, and in the woods, no less. They were probably beyond redemption. Imitate the Indians and learn to walk softly on the earth but for goodness’ sake don’t touch yourself because you’ll contribute to the collapse of western civilization.

This philosophy bothered me then and it hasn’t gotten any better in the many years since I last went to summer camp. As an urban white kid, I knew that I couldn’t have become an Indian, or even convincingly acted like one, if I tried for 100 years. Maybe it was just because I suspected that the truth of “the Indian way” wouldn’t manifest itself to non-believers like me, the way only the faithful can see the image of the virgin on the wall of the carwash, or maybe it was because I just didn’t have Grey Owl’s duplicitous sangfroid or his desire to pass in someone else’s culture. I also didn’t want to learn to walk like an Indian in the woods. The woods were fine, to a point, but couldn’t I just learn to walk through them as myself?

The most discomfiting part of the whole experience was unfortunately supposed to be the highlight: the grand council fire. This reminded me of my childhood’s big Sunday roast beef dinners, presented as a treat, and an expensive one at that, for which we were expected to be grateful, but which I usually spent most of the meal trying to re-arrange on my plate to make it look as if I’d eaten some of it. The core of the council fire experience was sitting around a campfire with a bunch of other kids like myself, led through ersatz myth and ritual by a university professor who, for the evening, had turned himself into a great chief who had travelled across the lake in his underwater canoe to lead us in a council fire and tell us legends. This wasn’t my culture, for sure, and it was a little embarrassing to be play-acting at someone else’s, even for an evening. I mean, it wasn’t as if we’d actually sat down and talked about Canada’s First Nations, and who they were, or how they related to canoes and canoeing and the landscape and natural world or, heaven forbid, even had a real Indian come and talk to us directly. This wouldn’t have been possible anyways because there weren’t any Indians around summer camp, at least not the one I went to. This wasn’t thoughtful study, it was a redface minstrel show, and I had to take part whether I liked it or not. It was even worse than skit night.

Much as I enjoyed certain aspects of summer camp (canoes, boats, horses, water, occasionally the dining hall), there were also other parts that were just horrifying. You never knew when you were going to be pounced on and organized into an activity by an overly-cheerful counselor. The most intense of these people were like a combination of the briskly-efficient nurse who tells you, even as she’s pulling on her rubber gloves, that “it won’t hurt a bit and bend over and cough please” and the activity director from a senior citizens’ bus trip. That kind of aggressive cheerfulness, which can’t abide dis-organized, non-group activity, always made me want to run as fast as I could in the opposite direction. The fact that the most aggressively-promoted of these activities took place in groups only made it worse. I worked very hard at perfecting my own version of “capture the flag,” which I called “find a place to hide until it’s all over.”

The camp I went to was pretty hard core in its approach and old-school in its methods. The older you got, the more you went out on canoe trips and the less time you spent in camp. Canoe trips were carried out in a fleet of wood-canvas canoes. They were probably Chestnuts, though I don’t recall for sure. Elderly they certainly were, and covered in layers and layers of paint and patches, to a point where a canoe that originally weighed maybe 75 lbs dry was probably up in the 90s by the time it was placed on our shoulders. And these weren’t broad and mighty shoulders, either. These were skinny, 12-year old shoulders, at least in my case attached to a body that had grown up well before it had grown out.

On “out-trips,” as these expeditions were called, these canoes were accompanied by a traditional backpack known as the Trapper Nelson. The Trapper Nelson was technically a pack-board, a wooden frame with vertical uprights covered by green duck canvas. You could lash all sorts of things to it, but we usually used it with a bag that was held on by wire passed through screw-eyes that protruded through eyelets in a flap at each side of the bag. The whole thing was made from pine or spruce and waterproofed green canvas, a big rectangular bag with a top flap and green webbing straps. The tops and bottoms of the posts were covered with aluminum caps stapled on, and the whole thing smelled like insect repellent, woodsmoke, wax and dirt. In the grand tradition of the army, whose equipment this pack resembled, they seemed to come most often in two sizes with respect to our young shoulders: too large and too small. Sometimes, on one of the interminable character-building portages we endured, if the counselors weren’t looking and you edged forward or back to the right spot in the canoe you were carrying on your shoulders, the gunwales could be balanced on the posts to transfer the weight to a different part of your anatomy for a moment.

We cursed them when we carried them on portages, but for me these canoes were also the saving grace of the whole summer camp experience. With my abhorrence of structured recreation, which extends in a long and awkward arc from childhood’s forced participation in baseball to a complete lack of interest in team sports as an adult, my favourite part of the day was after dinner when the waterfront was opened for free time. All of the boats in the camp’s motley fleet were fair game, including the old Chestnuts, a down-at-the-heels Klepper folding kayak and several much-patched, high-mileage fiberglass whitewater boats. Once you had passed the swimming test, you could choose any boat you wanted to take out. Better still, you didn’t have to pretend to be anyone else to use it.

The high-liners of the waterfront were the counselors. One of these young men (old to us, but he might have been all of 17) in particular could heel his canoe so far over, paddling solo from the middle of the boat, that the bottom of the gunwale just brushed the still evening surface of the lake. This was cool, and we all strove mightily to imitate him. The further down you could go, and the steadier the canoe was, the higher your status rose. I learned later that this style of paddling was awkwardly known as “Omering” after 1930s canoe guide Omer Stringer, latterly more famous as the eponym of the Beaver Canoe t-shirt and sweatshirt empire. All I knew at the time was that this was the “proper” way to paddle solo.

Later on, I would find words to describe this experience. At university, I would first read of “the still point of the turning world. . .of the still point there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement” and think of how much Eliot’s meditations on equilibrium, equipoise and the continuum of time reminded me of balancing that canoe on the boundary between air and water. I would also learn about hull forms and the turn of the bilge and tumblehome and the physics of how bodies move through water. I even tried to learn naval architecture until I was defeated by math.

At that moment, though, what was most important about paddling those canoes was that it was worth everything I had to put up with to get there: the Indian play-acting, the forced jollity of organized games and “ice-breaker” activities, the occasional Lord of the Flies-style cruelty inflicted when groups of young boys are brought together in close quarters and the pantheistic moralizing of summer camp. On those summer nights, alone in a big old canoe on a quiet lake, I learned that while I didn’t always like playing with other kids, or playing at being other people, or being told what to do and when, I really, really liked playing with boats. I’m still at it.

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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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So I says to myself, “Self, what’s the least helpful thing I could do right now, given that I have a lot of boat projects on the go? Probably it would be to bring home another boat project. OK, let’s do that.” So I did. But what a boat!

OCC 4

This might be the prettiest canoe I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. What have I brought home? well, I’m pretty sure it’s a late 1890s Ontario Canoe Company decked canoe. Constructed from white cedar planking with Spanish Cedar decks, it was build in the “raised batten” technique by one of the pioneering canoe companies in the Peterborough, Ontario area. Incorporated in 1883, the OCC built a variety of cedar and basswood canoes using the techniques originally developed and patented by John Stephenson. The company flourished until May 9th, 1892 when it was completely destroyed by fire. Despite having lost everything and having no insurance, the founders decided to rebuild and on February 15th, 1893 a new factory opened at the intersection of King and Water Streets in Peterborough. This time, the sign on the building read “Peterborough Canoe Company.”

I think my new boat is a Model 200 “Ontario Canoe” as depicted in a late 1880s OCC catalogue.

occ catalogue profile view with rig

occ catalogue model 200

The dimensions and specifications match perfectly, as does the fabulous shape of the coaming, with its long, raking forward end. There are some interesting things about this boat, though, not the least of which is that it was never completely fitted out to sail. As you can see from the catalogue illustration above, it was intended to be sailed with a two-masted “Mohican”-style lug rig. The mast holes are there in the deck caps, but I can’t find the screw holes that would have been left by the deck hardware, and nor is there any sign on the keel of mast steps or mast tubes having been fastened in place. There is also no indication that a rudder was ever fitted to the sternpost. Most tellingly, there is no centreboard!

The catalogue says “Centre-boards fitted to any of these canoes at extra cost.” The OCC offered two choices for folding fan centreboards: the Brough, which used 5 overlapping plates of brass, and the much more complex Radix, whose leaves telescoped inside each other when retracted.

occ catalogue radix and brough

Along with the canoe, I was also able to acquire a #2 Radix, though I did pay slightly more than the 1880s price of $20.

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Stay tuned over the coming months as I work to bring this beautiful little canoe back to life. Should keep me out of trouble for a while.

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Once the canvas has been stretched on to the canoe hull, it needs to be filled. This fills the weave and waterproofs the exterior, making a smooth surface for the final coats of paint. To say that there’s lots of different canvas-filling options out there, and opinions to go along with them, is a bit of an understatement. Traditional oil-based fillers can be obtained from The Buckhorn Canoe Company  in Canada and Island Falls Canoe in the US, among others. The good folks at the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association have collected a whole bunch of recipes for various fillers if you’d like to try mixing your own. Mike Elliot, who writes the Canoeguy’s Blog in British Columbia, now uses a latex pipe-lagging compound, and there’s probably more possibilities still waiting to be discovered.

I’ve used traditional linseed oil and silica fillers before, but this time I thought I would try something new. Dick Persson at the Buckhorn Canoe Company has been experimenting with using epoxy as a filler for wood-canvas canoes. It’s readily available, dries fast and is durable. So, I took Clementine up to his shop one Saturday morning.

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This job was done with WEST system, but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work just as well with any other epoxy product. You’ll need resin, hardener and a lightweight micro-balloon fairing compound, in this case WEST 410.

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The first coat is un-thickened resin, poured on and distributed with a squeegee. The goal is to work it into the canvas and distribute it evenly but not leave excess on the surface. One difference that Dick has found with epoxy over conventional fillers is that you shouldn’t scorch the nap off the canvas first, since this hardens the surface and prevents the epoxy from penetrating through. Remember too that this filling method is being used on a hull whose outer surface has received several coats of varnish and mould-release to prevent it sticking.

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We went from one end of the canoe to the other, pouring it on, working it in and then scraping off the excess. At the end of the first coat, we went back and hot-coated a second layer. This is a job for old clothes and old shoes, and also a good day to leave the dog at home, since the epoxy gets all over the floor around the canoe as it drips off the hull. After giving the two coats of clear resin about half an hour to dry, it was time for the fairing filler.

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The filler is added and mixed until it’s the consistency of heavy syrup [or thin yoghourt, if you prefer], and then it too is applied by squeegee. After several sticky hours, you end up with a hull that looks like this:

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