People often ask what is involved in restoring a canvas canoe. It is multi-step process so I will only describe it briefly here but it is similar for cedar strip and skin on frame canoes and kayaks. Restoration can be expensive because it is labour intensive. The best way to avoid the expense is to keep up regular maintenance on the boat.
I always have a discussion with the customer about what is required for their boat. While this helps them to make a rational choice, the emotional value of the boat often plays a factor in the customer’s final decision.
First we have a good look over the boat and take photographs of it for reference.
If the work requires removing the canvas, then I start by detaching the metal stem bands.
Next, the outer gunwales have to be removed and a decision made about whether they can be repaired, reused or need to be replaced. Some manufacturers mount the outwales and inwales as a unit, in which case the entire assembly needs to be removed.
I check to see how well attached the canvas is to the boat. If the wood into which the fasteners are driven is rotten, it will have to be replaced. All steel nails and screws are removed as they cause the surrounding wood to rot when they corrode. Removing the canvas may be difficult if it has been heavily glued or stapled to the ends of the canoe. Old canvas, once removed, cannot be re-attached. For safety reasons I do not sand and repaint old canvas. Lead based fillers were used on canvas into the 1970’s and lead dust is toxic.
The whole hull is now inspected and measurements are taken for reference during the re-building process. A significant challenge is to prevent the boat from changing shape as ribs, planks, stems and decks are repaired. Cracked and rotten wood has to be removed and replaced, loose brass tacks reset or replaced and so on. Replacement parts are custom made, using the old parts as templates or by measuring and fitting.
There are few truly straight parts in a boat. Most pieces need to be shaped to be installed. Some may have to be steam bent to accommodate some of the more curvaceous shapes found in boats such as ribs, stems or upswept gunwales and decks.
With the wood working done, the interior of the hull can be varnished and the exterior can be treated with mould control agents. The seats and bars that have been repaired are refinished and reinstalled. Only now can the new skin can be installed. In the case of canvas canoes, this requires placing the canoe in a very large stretching apparatus that is bolted to the concrete floor of our shop. The canoe is dropped into the stretched canvas and attached along most of the hull except for the ends. The boat is released from the stretcher and the canvas wrapped around the ends of the boat to close it completely.
Canvas has to be coated with filler to make it waterproof. Traditional canoe fillers are thick and heavy and take about a month to cure so the canoe has to be set aside to dry. Modern fillers are faster but drying time is still required. In the case of skin boats, the polyester fabric is painted with multiple coats of polyurethane which dries within a day or two.
After the filler has cured and been sanded, several coats of paint are applied and sanded to obtain a smooth, glossy finish and rich depth in the colour. Custom multi-tone and decorative paint work is done at this time if requested.
The gunwale and the keel (if the boat had one) are then re-installed. Finally, the interior and exterior trim are given finish coats of paint or varnish. Once dry, the boat can be returned to the customer, generating a big, contented smile!