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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(!).

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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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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!

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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.

radix 1

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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With three good coats of varnish built up on the outside of the hull, it was time to stretch the canvas. On final precaution against the epoxy filler adhering was to spray the varnished hull exterior with a hefty coat of silicone mould release. If you do this, just remember that you’re also covering the floor around the canoe with slippery overspray and you’ll need to tread carefully until it wears off! (says the voice of experience).

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The canvas is good old #10 cotton duck. For a canoe that will really see heavy service, you could go down to #8, but the heavier grade adds weight. At about 85 lbs, Clementine doesn’t really need to get any heavier. There’s a fair bit of information out there about canvassing and re-canvassing wood/canvas canoes, including The Wood and Canvas Canoe: A Complete Guide to its History, Construction, Restoration, and Maintenance by Rollin Thurlow and Jerry Stelmok, now sadly out of print, and of course videos on YouTube like this one.

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There are different schools of thought about how to stretch the canvas: right side up or upside down, tacks or staples. Personally, I’m a right side up, tack man. It doesn’t really matter in the end, because anything that will stretch the canvas tight and secure it to the canoe will do the job. I’ve even done it outside between two trees using a small child to help weight the boat down. When the canvas is folded in half and stretched tight, the canoe hull is inserted and forced down into the envelope. Here, I’ve got sandbags in both ends and two shore poles pushing down from the ceiling. You want to get it good and tight.

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Working out from the middle, the canvas is pulled up tight to the gunwale with a pair of wide-jaw vise grips or artist’s canvas pliers and tacked into place at each rib. With two people, you can work both sides at once. Here, my colleague Jeremy Ward is clamping the vise grips for another upward pull. The sign of a good job with the right tension is to have little “eyebrows” of puckered canvas above each pair of tacks when the pliers are released.

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As you go towards the ends, it gets harder and harder to pull the canvas in towards the hull, usually somewhere around the ends of the decks. When everything is tacked but the two ends, it’s time to cut the canvas away from the stretching clamps.

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Then, bit by bit, the ends and pulled tight and tacked. It’s not as hard as it seems to get the wrinkles out here, even on a hull like this one that has some hollow in the ends. By pulling on the bias, and occasionally removing and re-tacking some of the earlier fastenings, it will all come right eventually.

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With one side tacked in place, the canvas is cut close to the tack line and the process is repeated with the other side folded over the first. Some people like to add a little glue to help hold the ends in place, but be careful not to add too much as it may affect the adhesion of the filler later on.

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Next it’s on to the filler.

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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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By the mid 1980s, I has been sailing  for a while, beginning with Flying Juniors and Lasers in Vancouver, and extending eventually to anything I could cadge a ride on, including a Chinese junk and a Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter. I was browsing in a bookstore, looking for something boat-related to spend that week’s grocery money on, when I picked up the April 1985 issue of The Yacht. I think it’s folded now, but at the time it was a glossy, swanky publication with wonderful photography. Paging through it, I came across page 94, which carried an article by Steve Clark entitled “The International Canoe: Mercurial Fantasy.” I can’t honestly recall if I’d ever really thought too much about sailing canoes before that moment, but reading Steve’s article fixed that pretty quickly. The image above smacked me between the eyes just like the handle of the rake that you left lying in the back yard, and I haven’t been the same since.

I mean, how could you look at that old-school Swedish IC photo and not want to go do that right away. Planing to windward, the skipper is perched at the end of his sliding seat, perfectly balanced (for the moment) between his rig (a foil in the air) and his centerboard (a foil in the water) with only a little hull between the two. All of a sudden, I needed to know more about canoe sailing, and about International Canoes in particular.

I posted a message to rec.boats [remember Usenet?] asking for anyone who could provide some information about these wonderful boats, and maybe help me find one of my own. Replies came back from a couple of stalwarts of the Chesapeake Bay IC community [one of whom, sailmaker and Moth afficionado Rod Mincher, runs a great sailing blog of his own]. Some chatting back and forth did nothing to diminish my enthusiasm. The grapevine told me that there was a boat located just outside NY City that might be available. Its owner had recently passed away, and his widow was cleaning out the garage. It was IC US 78, a Lou Whitman Manana II design. Here’s Lou aboard one of his boats off City Island in the 1960s.

So, off I went down to New York City to have a look (just a look, mind you, I wasn’t going to buy it. . .) at this canoe. As I drove south, I was thinking of what Steve Clark had said at the end of his article.

Canoes combine power with lack of drag. Their speed potential is outstanding, but what probably makes the Canoe most attractive is the nature of that potential, for it is not realized without consummate technique and finesse. For this reason, the Canoe lives on a frontier of the imagination that historically few have ventured to cross, and from which even fewer have chosen to return.

What I saw when I arrived at the house in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge was a very tired boat that had been outdoors a little too long. The Manana hulls had been produced by Max Andersson in Sweden, who was normally a builder of racing canoes and kayaks. In the technology of the 1950s, they were hot-moulded, laid up from layers of veneer adhered with resorcinol glue which had to be cured by heat and pressure in an autoclave. This produced a light, strong frameless hull with one great disadvantage: it didn’t age well. By the time I saw US 78, she had been sitting out in the back yard for too long, and water had gotten into the veneer seams on the bottom. The result looked like an old head of Savoy cabbage, with the veneers sprung up in all directions.

Nevertheless, I loaded her on top of the truck, along with all the gear and a nice piece of stained oak which the sailor’s widow thought was part of the boat but which was really the center leaf from an old dining room table, and headed back north. What I didn’t take, and I regret it to this day, was the William English paddling canoe that was hanging overhead in the garage, and was in much better shape. I only had room for one boat on the truck, though, and I had IC on the brain. Now I had one in my hands, too.

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