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Archive for the ‘Canoe Restoration’ Category

So I was now the proud owner of a 1937 Old Town HW. After I moved the boat into my shop, the first step was to sit down and have a good think about how I was going to do this project. This was going to be a practical boat, a “user boat,” as the Antique and Classic Boat Society folks would call it, and if it ever went to a boat show, it would only be an observer, not a participant for judging. I wanted it to float, and to be useful, so there were clearly some things I had to address, but how far should I go?

For a number of years now I’ve found “restoration” to be a really problematic word. It can mean: 1) a boat that’s only 2% original structure, but still presented as a restored old boat; 2) a boat that is far shinier or better-appointed than it was when left the builder; or 3) a project involving meticulous research, scrupulous attention to detail and a great concern for accuracy of materials, fit and finish. I knew that the project I envisioned for the Old Town wasn’t going to involve massive repairs, so 1) wasn’t an issue. I wanted a workmanlike finish, not 10 hand-rubbed coats, so 2) wasn’t going to be a problem. But I bumped my head on 3), because I wasn’t going to spend an inordinate amount of time on this, either. I wasn’t going to do anything really perverted, like re-covering the hull with naugahyde, but at the same time, I wasn’t going to sweat it if I couldn’t match the original fasteners exactly, or if I changed a detail, like adding sheet copper around the mast where it was severely worn from chafing in the mast ring on the seat, or if I gave the boat a new synthetic sail.

In the end, I settled for describing the end result of the project as a “return to usefulness.” To me, this means more than a repair, but less than a full-blown, super-accurate restoration. It’s a phrase that describes most of the boats I’ve worked on over the years, I think, and I’ll probably use it more. With the philosophical part out of the way, the first practical question was canvas. The canoe was still wearing its original 1937 canvas. On top of the original filler and orange enamel were a couple of coats each of bright blue and then greenish blue. All of the paint was cracked and peeling, and there were “dry lakebed” cracks in the underlying filler, too.

Aside from the aforementioned two small tears in way of the keel, however, the canvas was sound. A careful look along the underside of the outwales revealed none of the usual problem, which is water pooling in that area during prolonged inverted storage outdoors and rotting the canvas so that it separates right below the outwale. Nor were there any problems at the ends. The oak keel was gone at one end, and a little punky in two or three other places, but it was nothing that couldn’t be addressed by scarphing on maybe 2′ at one end and graving in a couple of little filler pieces. All this led me to consider trying to refinish the canvas rather than replacing it.

Re-canvasing would mean removing the stembands,  keel and outwales, and given the state of the oak keel and the boat’s spruce outwales, I didn’t think either of them would survive being taken off and put back on. So, the plusses to recanvasing were that I would have an exterior skin that would be good for a nother 40 or 50 years. That minuses were a longer and more expensive project, and probably some new wood. In the end, I decided to try refinishing the exterior first, and if that didn’t work, or if I really damaged the canvas in the process, I would re-do it entirely.

So, out came the stripper, and I took a small square patch right down to the filler as a test. With some care, good sharp scrapers with rounded corners and 3 applications of stripper, it went ok, and I embarked on stripping the whole hull. This was just as exciting as paint stripping usually is, so I amused myself while I was doing it by playing loud music and thinking about sailing next summer.

 (to be continued. . .)

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I have long had a hankering for boats that are slightly out of the ordinary, and that’s one of the things that has led me to sailing canoes. The more obscure the better, really.  Over the years, it has been from time to time observed by friends and family that most of these “slightly out of the ordinary” boats that I like to play with are either uncomfortable, hazardous, awkward and/or wet to use, and therefore fine for me but not really suitable for a relaxing afternoon outing.

A decked sailing canoe, the perfect example of a boat I really like that is "uncomfortable, hazardous, awkward and/or wet to use." Not relaxing at all, but a great deal of fun.

The Old Town was perfect for us, then. It was, with all the extras removed, just a nice, older, wood-canvas canoe in which one could take either a long trip or a relaxing afternoon paddle. However, it also had a complete sailing rig, and in just a few minutes I could change over from paddling to sailing. “Sail when you can, paddle when you must,” the old guys used to say, and I’ve always agreed with them. So what was in box when I unwrapped my new-to-me Old Town?

The as-yet-unamed canoe was a 1937 17′ HW model canoe, produced in what the company called its “CS” grade, which the catalogue described this way:

This grade provides a hardwood and spruce trimmed canoe of thorough construction, good finish, and with the omission of no detail essential to strength, serviceableness and long wear. No shaky or unsound lumber is used, but the wood parts are subject to slight discolourations, small knots etc. Planking and ribs are of cedar; gunwales of spruce, decks, thwarts and seat frames of oak, birch or ash. . .bang plates of brass, and fastenings throughout of brass, copper and galvanized iron. . .For general use where a superior finish is not desired C.S. Grade provides a common-sense canoe of guaranteed dependability.

The canoe was still wearing its original canvas, which was intact except for a couple of small tears under the keel. The varnish finish was in bad shape, and peeling, cracking or just plain gone. The caning in the seats was shot and would have to be replaced. Overall, the canoe was tired, but structurally sound and eminently fixable.

Because the Old Town company records are largely intact, I was able to find out that the canoe had originally been ordered by a Mr. O.A. McPeek of Netcong, NJ. The hull was completed by January 19th, 1937 and canvassed and filled on January 20th. A second coat of filler was applied on March 30th, and on April 10th it was “railed,” or given inwales and outwales. Painted on April 16th, it had received two coats of varnish by April 19th, and Mr. McPeek presumably picked up his new canoe not long afterwards. The build record indicates the color as “orange,” which was likely the “Princeton Orange” shown in the middle of the catalogue color chart.

The canoe also had a complete factory sailing rig, including mast, yard, boom, rudder, leeboards and leeboard thwart, mast step and the special bow seat which incorporated the mast thwart.

I am indebted for the images from the original Old Town catalogue, as is everyone with an interest in old canoes, to Dan Miller and Benson Gray, who scanned and reproduced a great many old canoe and boat company catalogues. You can buy these fascinating documents from the web site of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association.

(to be continued. . .)

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