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Posts Tagged ‘Old Town Canoe’

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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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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We were talking in the last post about Henry K. Wicksteed, and what he had to do with Old Town canoes. Wicksteed was a designer of small craft like the beautiful canoe yawl Myra, but he was by profession an engineer, who spent a lot of time working and surveying in the northern bush. For many years, the legendary Old Town Canoe Company of Old Town, Maine, had in its catalogue a wood-canvas canoe called the “H.W.” model that was described as follows:

Instead of having a perfectly flat floor, the H.W. model tends toward the shape of the well-known salt water yawl boat below the water line. This gives the shape more draft and hence greater steadiness in windy waters. . .For cruising, carrying heavy loads, for use on large rivers, lakes, ponds and salt water, this is an excellent canoe. . .It’s a good sailor.

There has been a great deal of discussion in the canoeing history world, especially amongst members of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, a wonderful group of folks, about what “H.W.” stands for. Through the seductive explanatory power of folk etymology, conventional wisdom has decided on “heavy water.” In Susan Audette’s The Old Town Canoe Company: Our First Hundred Years, she says that at first H.W. was thought to stand for Henry Wickett, the builder at Old Town, except that his first name was really Alfred. She settles for saying that “the H.W. was intended for ‘heavy waters,’ as the sales literature attested.” Unfortunately, the sales literature quoted above doesn’t mention “heavy waters,” and outside perhaps of a sailor who also works at a nuclear power plant, it’s not a term that appears in the maritime vocabulary. “Rough water,” yes;  “heavy weather,” yes, but no “heavy water.”

In When the Chestnut was in Flower, Roger MacGregor advances the case that “H.W.” stood for Henry Wicksteed, who designed a number of canoes for the Chestnut company, including “The Canadian Northern Railway Freighting Canoe” and a shorter version called “The James Bay Railway Travelling Canoe.” We may never settle this for certain, but the association of Wicksteed and his small craft design talents with a particular model of Old Town canoe was sufficient for me to become officially interested in owning one. Imagine my delight, then, when an opportunity to own an Old Town came my way.

Not only was it an H.W. model, in wonderfully original condition, but it had also been equipped by its first owner, when he ordered it in 1937, with the complete factory-made sailing rig. The only thing better than a nice old canoe, IMHO, is a nice old canoe set up to sail. Here’s what the H.W. looked like when I first made its acquaintance (it’s the greenish one on the right):

(to be continued. . .)

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So I know I said this blog was going to be about boats, and here I am talking about canoes. Well, let’s be clear from the start that a canoe is a “boat” too (as is a submarine, if you happen to be in the Navy, or a Great Lakes bulk carrier, or a towboat on the Mississippi)–in fact, the blog is really about (to lift a phrase from the title of William Kaplan’s book on notorious waterfront union organizer Hal Banks) “anything that floats.”

Now that that’s out of the way, let me tell you about my canoe. This will go on for a while, so settle in and get comfortable. A long time ago, pre-me, my parents both worked at a YM/YWCA camp in Minnesota called Camp Widjiwagan. This was a pretty hard-core canoe-tripping camp, and they had a large fleet (at one point, the third-largest one in North America) of wood/canvas canoes that they used for tripping. Many of them were Old Towns, manufactured in Old Town, Maine, and I’ve often heard my dad talk about using and repairing them. I have a great photo up on my office wall of my dad in his early twenties about to lift one onto his shoulders for a portage. So I heard about Old Towns a lot (and Chestnuts, and Peterboroughs and other makes of canoe), and that’s how this particular thread started.

Fast forward a few decades. My dear friend Roger MacGregor, who modestly describes himself as a “canoe fancier,” was working on a book about the Chestnut Canoe Company (called When the Chestnut was in Flower). Roger is the proprietor of the Ivy Lea Shirt Company, which sells clothing, books and other stuff in celebration of some of the great canoe marques of earlier times. Roger worked on this book for some time. In fact, Roger was working on this book, and telling me about it, for so long that by the time it was published I sort of felt it was an old friend. For all of the years we’ve known each other, Roger and I have traded research back and forth. He’s been all over Canada in search of canoeing history, and I’ve spent a lot of time in archives and libraries, and especially the great Metropolitan Reference Library in Toronto. While we were both out and about, I’d keep an eye out for stuff he was looking for, and he’d do the same for me.

In the course of researching the Chestnut Canoe Company, Roger several times came across the name of one Henry K. Wicksteed of Cobourg, Ontario and asked me if I had ever heard of him. I had, as it turns out, because Wicksteed was identified as the draftsman of one of the loveliest small boats I’ve ever laid eyes on, at least in plan form. The boat, a canoe yawl called Myra, is included in W.P. Stephens’ magisterial work Traditions and Memories of American Yachting. Here’s a shot of Myra‘s profile view from Stephens’ book (If you’re interested, Wicksteed’s original drawings are in Mystic Seaport Museum’s Ships’ Plans collection, numbers 1.645.1 and 1.645.2. This is a massive collection, and a treasure trove for the student of maritime, yachting and boating history).

Myra's outboard profile and sail plan.

There’s no indication on the original drawings of whether Myra was ever built or not, but building her is certainly on my list of “things to do when I win the lottery.” In the mean time, as a slightly (!) cheaper alternative to building the entire boat, I made a basswood and cherry half model.

Myra, designed in 1892, is what sailors in those days would have called a “canoe yawl,” an outgrowth of the canoeing craze that began in the 1870s. That’s a topic on its own, but what’s important here is the Henry Wicksteed connection as the second Old Town-related thread in my canoe story. . .

(to be continued)

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