Thursday, June 6, 2013


Twenty years ago my good friend Paul Haertel gave me an old Chestnut canoe, made in Canada.  After many years, Paul and his wife Margo were leaving Alaska.  He had been a role model for me: the first superintendent of the newly created Lake Clark National Park, (likely the most beautiful park in America), and later the Associate Regional Director for Resources in the Alaska region.  Everything Paul did was first class.

So, now I had this lovely old canoe.  I paddled it a few times around lakes near Anchorage, but the canvas was old, and I knew it needed work, so it hung in my garage for the next ten years always intending to fix it up.  In 2005 I tore the old canvas off, removed hundreds of tiny brass tacks, unscrewed the gunwales and keel, kept the little bronze screws in jars and the old rotted wood on wood racks.  However the bare bones of the old wood and canvas canoe hung from the top of the garage for another six years, until one day in September, 2011, I lowered it down and carried it into my shop for a make-over.  It is a delicate structure out of the water and not protected by its canvas cover, so I constructed two sawhorses and covered them with carpet strips to protect the wood.

The bare spruce slats on the outside were nailed with tiny brass tacks that had colored the wood green around them.  Inside, the varnish had cracked in places, and there were several large holes in the bottom from rough handling during an ice storm one winter.  The bow and stern had gray rotted wood that needed replacing.  Both gunwales and keel had seen a lot of use and need to be reconstructed.

I unscrewed the gunwales to measure them and see how much I could salvage and how much I would have to make anew.  In the end it seemed like the best course was to build new gunwales and a keel out of nice hardwood.  Anchorage has a wonderful hardwood supply, Hardwood Specialties, so I chose a nice long board of straight ash and brought it home.  The 16' canoe filled the 20' shop, so  I could barely work.  I wrestled the board around, positioned my table saw catty corner, and ripped the ash on the saw into long thin gunwale-sized strips.

The first area to repair was the hull of the canoe, full of holes, and some of them fairly good sized.  I sawed some straight-grained spruce into the proper thickness: 3/16 "for the hull and 1/2" for the ribs.  Cutting out the broken wood was a delicate job.  I tried to angle the cut so that I could fit in a new piece like a plug.  I tacked it from the bottom so nothing would show on the inside, glued the seams, and matched the wood exactly.
The new patch was white, white, white, so I realized I would have to stain it to match the darker wood of the rest of the boat.

Next I rebuilt the bow and stern.  Like a dentist I had to cut the decayed wood out, and rather than completely disassembling the end and risk having it fall apart, I cut out the rotted parts and spliced in new spruce, reusing every piece I could.

The old varnish had cracked and weathered over the years; some areas had worn away, so I decided to strip the varnish completely.  I bought a very fine liquid varnish remover designed for antique wood.  I brushed it on and waited....nothing happened.  So I went to the hardware store and bought a pink slime paint remover.  It worked, but slowly.  What I had envisioned as a two-week project now seemed like a long term labor of love.  Over the next two weeks I brushed on the pink goop, waited, scraped with metal scrapers, brushes, and knives, sandpaper....anything to get the old finish off.  It appeared that the original spar varnish had been redone with Urethane varnish, and the paint removers were having a tough time cracking its surface.  Being retired helped, because I seemed to spend most of my time chiseling out the old finish, and it was fighting my best efforts.

I dragged the canoe out into the yard for more sanding, more crust removal, and to avoid the fumes of the chemicals.  This thing was not going to get the best of me; I would remove every drop of varnish.  Finally it was bare wood.  I cleaned it up with mineral spirits to keep all the wood the same finish. 

The boat now went back into the shop for varnishing.  It was completely patched, the rotted wood replaced, and should serve another 50 years.  Marine spar varnish has been the standard for boats forever.  It also has a beautiful golden gloss finish, so I kept with that, rather than a new urethane coating.  Four coats seemed to do the job: one sealed the wood, a second covered most of the drier spots, a third really started to shine, and the fourth made it look beautiful!
Time to stretch on a new canvas.  So far I had operated within the limits of my knowledge of woodworking, but stretching the canvas was a challenge.  I ordered the canvas and the gallon of goop to waterproof it from Jerry Stelmok of Island Falls Canoe Company in Maine, along with a book,
"The Wood and Canvas Canoe".  It showed how to stretch the canvas over the canoe, the part I had been curious about.  To build the canvas stretcher, I screwed a large 3/8" eye-screw into the front and back walls of my shop and attached a come-along puller to each one.  Then, I bolted two 2" x 3" boards to each end of the 20' piece of canvas, folded in half lengthwise, and hung them from the ceiling by the top end.  These strips acted like a vise to hold the ends of the canvas while the come-alongs pulled it tight.

Next, I set the canoe in the fold of the canvas.  The canoe is about 16' 6" long, and it nestled in the big fold easily.  As I cranked on the arms of the come-alongs at each end, the canoe lifted slowly in the air, I pushed the canoe into the bottom of the canvas and pulled it tight, so that the canvas formed a form-fitting shell around the canoe.  To make it even tighter all around, I thought of putting weight in the canoe, but instead put two long 2 x 4's in the canoe and wedged them against the ceiling as I cranked the canvas tighter.  It worked like a miracle.  The canvas was stretched over the canoe!
The little brass tacks I had saved now looked bent and unusable, so I decided to staple the canvas onto the canoe with my air-powered crown stapler.  The local art supply store sold me a canvas stretcher, a sort of pliers, with which I could grab the canvas and pull it tight over the inwales, then hit it with the stapler.  It made short work of the job, and in the end would be a very strong connection.
Once the sides were tacked on, I cut the bow and stern canvas to fit and tacked it on with copper tacks. I tried the staple gun, but the thin wood at the end needed a softer touch. Then I cut and trimmed the remaining canvas so it was flush with the bowline. 
The canoe was now ready for a coat of goop, a secret mixture of silica and linseed oil I had bought seven years ago.  As it sat in my shop it had turned to a rock-hard sludge on the bottom of the can.  It took hours of stirring with a power drill to restore it to the emulsion ready for the boat.  I painted it on with a brush in several coats.  I made a glove out of the canvas scraps and rubbed the goop until it was smooth, letting each coat dry for a day before the next application.  Now, the long wait:  the boat sat in the shop and cured from January to March before it had completely hardened and was ready for the next step.
First, it needed a fine sanding until the surface was smooth and ready for painting.  Although the canoe was originally a light powder blue, I had a hard time finding a match.  West Marine makes a beautiful red lacquer.  Hmmmm Red!  The red would be striking.  I cut the lacquer with a thinner called "333" so it went on smoothly.  This old canoe was teaching me new techniques as I proceeded step by step in the restoration.  Daily I watched the dull gray of the silica become a glossy red.
It is now March 1, 2012.  The canoe is almost done.  But it must wait.  I had lived in Alaska for the past  32 years; it was my home.  But... I woke up one morning and decided the canoe and I would move south to Ouray County, Colorado, to be closer to both my kids and my close climbing & skiing friends.  Selling the house required a remodeling, so I threw my efforts into replacing both bathrooms, the downstairs flooring, painting, electrical, and whatever else would make the house appeal to a buyer.  I had hoped to sell the house by the end of the summer, giving me time to hike, climb, sew up my affairs and enjoy a last glorious summer in the arctic...and finish the canoe.  I put the house on the market mid-April, had three offers the first day, and closed a month later.  That month might have been the most furious of my life: my brother Tony came up and helped me pack and drive the huge moving van down the Alaska Highway to Colorado.  On top of the load sat the vintage Chestnut canoe.
Tony at the wheel of the Jumbo JH U-Haul van

It took longer to buy a home than I planned, so the canoe sat in storage.  By October I had a house, but it needed new floors, so I spent the next month on my knees cleaning old odors and laying flooring.  The garage became a shop, but it was unheated and not conducive to work in the Colorado winter.  Last week I looked at the old canoe, lowered it from it's berth on the ceiling and set to work finishing the job.

I started making the gunwales from the long ash strips I had cut and carried from Alaska. I had just made a new router table for my Porter-Cable 3-1/2 HP router, and I used it to cut a 1/4" rabbet lengthwise out of the wood to make the gunwales. Then I routed a rounded edge to the top and bottom.

In order to bend newly routed gunwales and a keel, I needed a steamer.  A steamer is used to heat the wood and impregnate it with moisture so it would be pliable enough to bend into the shapes I need to wrap around the canoe.  There are lots of ways to make a steamer: I resurrected my old National pressure cooker, a vintage 1940's model.  I filled it half-full of water and set it on my big propane camp stove.  A high-pressure hose was attached to a nipple I screwed into the top of the cooker;  the hose went to a nipple inserted in the end of a 4" PVC pipe 16 feet long and capped at both ends.  The long strips of ash went into the pipe and steamed for an hour making them soft and pliable.  
 The pressure cooker and hose
The steamer at work

As soon as I took the long piece of ash/gunwale out of the steamer, I clamped it onto the side of the canoe so that it would form to the proper shape.  Then I drilled and countersunk holes for the brass screws to hold it on.  I was frustrated as three screws in a row broke off in the wood.  I couldn't risk any more broken screws, so I switched to square-head stainless steel screws, and not a one broke.  They won't ever rust or break!
The new wood looked beautiful, if a little on the light-colored side for a vintage canoe with golden wood.  The sun and varnish would cure that.  Four coats of marine spar varnish gave them a shine; then they dried for four days before I turned the canoe over for the end brass bumpers and the keel.

Long half-round brass strips are screwed onto the the bow and stern.  They serve as a bumper to protect the canvas hull from rocks and gravel when the canoe hits the shore.  They had become almost black with corrosion over the years, so I put them on the buffing wheel and made them shine like gold.
Now that the brass strips were in place, the keel was the final replacement part to be made.  I had originally cut a piece of the ash blank for an exact replacement for the flat keel on the original.  However it seemed like a lot of additional weight, so I ripped a long strip of alder, a softer and lighter wood.  I made it 7/8" thick and 1-1/8" wide to be a better rudder on a lake where I would be doing most of my canoeing.  It is screwed onto the hull through the floor of the canoe with square-head brass screws, which I polished on the buffing wheel.
The final job was to clean and re-varnish the maple seats and bolt them back in place.  They hang from the gunwales with 3/16" long carriage bolts, adjusted with 3/4" round oak spacers, cut to fit.
Now the boat needed to rest for four days in the shop while the varnish hardened.  I worried that water might get in through the screw holes in the hull, so I took off the keel, squirted plumbers' silicone in each hole and reattached the keel.

Ridgway has been windy this spring; the wind picks up by 10 am, so a trial run at the local reservoir needed to be early in the morning.  Nori and I loaded the canoe on the Thule rack atop her Volvo, but it was a struggle.  Since I was young, I've picked up canoes, flipped them onto my shoulders and portaged them through the forest between lakes.  But, this time it seemed heavier at 85 pounds; maybe being 70 has something to do with it.  Most of my other canoes have been a bit lighter.  The Blue Hole canoe had a Royalex hull, and seemed much lighter.  The Sawyer was 18-1/2' long, but made of Kevlar and only 44 pounds.  The old 17' Grumman lightweight, although aluminum, was only 66 pounds.
The old Blue Hole canoe
However, I gave a great grunt, hoisted it onto my shoulders...with a bit of pain on the neck and Nori's help...laid it on the rack on top of the car.  We cinched it down with webbing, tied the bow and stern to the front and rear of the car, and made sure it wouldn't shift in the wind.   Nori loaded the paddles and life preservers, and we headed to Ridgway Reservoir.  A nice young couple with cute kids took our picture beside the restored old Chestnut.
Nori climbed into the bow, I pushed us off, hopped onto my knee and crawled into my seat as the old girl glided onto the lake.  We couldn't call it a maiden voyage, maybe a second honeymoon, as we paddled the western shore close in, making sure there were no leaks or other defugalties.  A brisk wind hit us at the point, so we turned the canoe to the east, paddled down south and up the inlet to the Uncompaghre river, past a great blue heron perched on a rock watching us paddle by. 
Not a drop of water seeped into the canoe, and we remained dry and happy as we circled the lake.  It bucked the waves, quartering across them easily.  Now it's time to dream of a long canoe trip in the north, probably Canada.

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