Restoring a Wood & Canvas Canoe

Introduction: Restoring a Wood & Canvas Canoe

About: < Electrical Engineer | Runner | Outdoor Explorer > By day I get to design rockets, and in the evenings I’m a national level runner. Even with all that some of the greatest joys are in the things I get t…

Wood and canvas canoes were popular before plastic and composite boats became mainstream. There's something about being in a wood boat that I completely enjoy, they are quiet, smooth and at home in their natural surroundings.

Popular to common belief wood canoes are incredibly strong and easy to repair. They generally weigh about the same as fiberglass canoes and if stored properly can be kept in mint condition longer than other construction methods as they are more easily refurbished.

In the past few years I have built boats from skin-on-frame, plywood, strip-plank and composite techniques but never found the opportunity to do restoration work on any of the old classics. About a year ago I decided to jump into working on these pieces of Americana purchasing a wood and canvas 1958 Old Town Trapper Canoe in need of repair.

The following details the build process and shares some lessons learned. I thoroughly enjoyed completing this project and expect it will stay in my family for generations to come!

Step 1: Buy a Boat!

Do some research on which manufacturer or style of canoe you are looking for, there were a few main manufacturers and boats are going to be more available in areas around the northeast and Canada Prices vary from free to a touch over $1000. Realize that if a particular model or brand of canoe peaks your interest you should delay in order to find one or pay the extra cost someone may post for that model as the time you spend on the boat will certainly outweigh any savings in project start or money by buying something other than what you wanted.

In this case I purchased a 17ft 1958 Old Town Trapper Canoe. Many times the boat may look to be in one piece and possibly even float however during the buying process one must be aware of hidden areas of rot that cause entire sections of woodwork to be removed (Found this one out the hard way!). These are commonly underneath rails, or at the stems of the boat. Also boats may be stored upside down on the tips of their decks, necessitating rework of decks, stems, rails and the tops of ribs, so a pretty extensive workload.

Now bring it home and show off your boat that won't float!!

Step 2: Set Up the Shop

One thing that I love about boat building is that it doesn't require too many expensive woodworking tools outside of your general hand tools. For this restoration I used:

1) An army of clamps

2) Set of chisels

3) Dovetail Saw

4) Various hand planes

5) Jigsaw

6) Tablesaw

7) Router

8) Sandpaper

9) House painting supplies

You need to build some stands from 2x4s before you can start working on the boat. My stands have the ability to hold the boat in a sling fashion when sitting right side up or on a removable cross-bar when upside down on the rails. Saw horses might work as well but they tend to put you at the wrong working height and don't allow you to roll the boat about the long axis like you can when its in the sling.

Step 3: Demolition

Look over your boat and figure out what might be reusable and which parts you might want to upgrade. Look for those pesky hidden areas of rot and start removing bad planking, rails etc.

In my case after removing the small canoe decks I found that the joint between the deck, stem and rails had some serious rot. I likely could have scarfed in new pieces to the rails and deck, just replacing the top of the stem, however I was going for something more aesthetically pleasing so I decided to remake the rails and deck from scratch. This actually let me put some really neat customized details so I am glad it happened.

The seats and thwarts were completely reusable in my boat however I wanted to upgrade them to mahogany and cherry respectively.

Step 4: Clean & Sand the Hull

Now that all of the rotted wood is removed the boat needs old varnish removed followed by a thorough cleaning. Varnish removers are very harsh and I hate working with them but there is little way around this. Just follow the directions and WEAR AN ORGANIC VAPOR RESPIRATOR.

Luckily on this build the previous owner had removed the varnish many years back so it was only cleaning and lightening the wood that needed to occur. Using a two part teak cleaner followed by soap and water will remove the mildew, dirt and likely leave the wood with a slightly more blonde color which I find appealing.

Many times boats will have taken on a very dark oxidized color. Using a two part teak cleaner will help this much more than a one part. Also sanding the inside of the hull after washing will cut into the oxidized layer and bring out a lovely honey color. It should be noted that when varnish is applied the color will be slightly darker so always wipe with water to see what the final color will be.

Step 5: Enjoy Lumber Yard Smells & Order Parts

Compile a list of parts that you need to rebuild and what type of wood you will mill them from. Head to a reputable lumber supplier and take your time selecting your lumber. Look for wood free of knots and with correct moisture content. The supplies I picked up from the lumber yard:

1) Rails: Light Mahogany 1 x (17ft x 1.5in x 8in)

2) Seats: Dark Mahogany 1 x (6ft x 3in x 6in)

3) Planking: Cedar 4 x (12ft x 4in x 0.5in)

4) Ribs: Cedar 1 x (6ft x 4in x 0.5in)

4) Thwarts: Cherry 1 x (12ft x 4in x 1in)

5) Decks: Zebra wood, Hard Maple, Walnut

Rebuilding canoes does require some specialty parts. Special tacks are used to clench planks to the ribs and all large fasteners are normally brass. Depending on your build quality and brand of boat historically accurate bolts/hardware may be desirable.

1) Canoe tacks (2lbs)

2) Stem tacks (0.5lbs)

3) Brass screws #8, 1.5in (125) Lowes

4) Diamond Head Bolts (12) *Specific to Old Town canoes

5) Duck Canvas (21ft x 72in)

Step 6: Mill Planks, Rails, Ribs and Misc Parts

Find someone who has a table-saw and mill out the rough dimensions of all your parts. Everything can be fine tuned later using hand planes or sanders.

Make sure to use appropriate safety equipment, work with another person and use correct jigs and clamps to insure a safe milling process.

Do spend extra time getting the dimensions of your planks close to the thickness you want. While a touch too much thickness is a good precaution (You cannot install overly thin planks and maintain a smooth hull) realize that if you don't have a power planar you will make a lot of shavings using a hand plane!

Step 7: Fix Broken Ribs

Rib damage can fall into one of two major categories:

1) Cracked or Broken ribs cause the structure of the boat to be weakened and can also causes bulges on the hull of an otherwise smooth boat.

2) Rotted Ribs do not support the rails well and can cause twisting or major failures in a boat when the deck or rail separates from one another.

Cracked ribs are normally recut and bent to appropriate curvature using a jig (shown above) for the Cant Ribs in the very front of the boat, or bent around the hull for any of the main ribs in the middle.

Rotted ribs are normally damaged only at the tops, which can be replaced by cutting below the rot at a sharp angle and scarfing in a fresh piece of appropriately shaped material.

Ribs also commonly have chips taken out of their tops which can be replaced by adding small pieces of wood.

Step 8: Install Planks

After getting the planks to the correct thickness install them into the boat using the canoe tacks ordered in an earlier step.

The tacks are a special nail driven from the outside of the boat inwards and turned back over on itself using a heavy metal object known as a clenching iron. The circle shape that the clenched tack follows makes it so that no sharp tips are seen in the boat and the flat outside head and clenched inside part of the nail act like a rivet but for wood.

The great thing is that this type of construction is very strong and not brittle like composite boats. Also if a paddler ever damages there boat it is a fairly straightforward process of remaking the part and replacing it. This can allow a boat to be maintained indefinitely which can be contrasted to other styles of construction that once de-laminated(strip-plank) or cracked(plastics) are very hard to repair.

Step 9: Blend New to Match Old

Its very rewarding to replace old rotted sections of your boat with new material that will last. Unfortunately the historic patina the wood takes after being exposed to the air is not present and can produce an undesirable contrast. While some of this will be covered by varnish a bit of stain can help the wood match.

I use a very light stain as a base and then add darker shades of brown and red to get the correct color practicing on a similarly sanded piece of excess material. You won't be able to get it perfect but it will certainly be less noticeable.

Step 10: Install Inner Rails

The inner rails are in many ways the backbone of a cedar canoe. They hold the curved shape of the boat's sides and form the foundation which decks, seats and thwarts are attached to. The inner rail is simple in construction with a rectangular shape and simple taper at the bow and stern so it can sit snugly between the deck and planks.

The inner rails are installed by driving two nails through every other rib in the canoe. The rails on some boats have enough vertical curvature that they must be steam bent and dried on a jig to prevent breakout when installing.

When putting the rails on the army of clamps is called into service. A tight match between the stem and the rail tips is required so using a long sanding stick or the kerf of a saw can help reduce the gap.

Step 11: Make & Install the Decks

The tips of my decks were rotted out so I decided to replace them. Most decks are made using a board bent over a jig and then shaped into a triangle. In my case I wanted to have some woodworking details run throughout various pieces of the boat so I incorporated hard maple(white pin-stripe), walnut(center black stripe), and zebra-wood in the decks, outer rails and seats.

The previously roughed blanks were laminated together and cut using a jigsaw. A hardmaple butterfly key was added across the back of the laminated decks and then a chisel used to carve the decks to the appropriate curvatures. Finishing was done by stepping through sandpaper on and orbital snader from cutting grit to finishing grit.

This is were I would encourage people to slow down and think of how long this process takes and how long they plan to use their canoe. It may be troublesome to put these personalized details in but well worth it!

Step 12: Make Seats and Thwarts

The seats were made from dark mahogany to contrast with the light cane they would be woven with. They were built using a keyed mortise and tenon structure and rounded over using a router. Once I finished the routing I was very impressed with the grain that showed through! Holes were drilled for the cane to be woven through.

The thwarts were made from cherry. Its a bit lighter in weight and color than mahogany and I like the color in the boat as sometimes too much dark wood can clutter up a build. The old thwarts were used to pull a pattern which I routed to and then used a smaller rounding bit and sander to finish off the thwarts. The unvarnished product is in the last picture on the left compared to the oak thwarts on the right.

Step 13: Christmas Gifts

Use leftover canoe materials to build Christmas Gifts!

Step 14: Make Laminated Outer Stems

The outer stem is the part of the boat that cuts through the water and covers the bow and stern tips of the boat. Most canoe builders favor placing a brass band as the outer stem but I had enough left over material that I decided to create a custom jig and laminate wooden outer stems.

The jig is created from plywood and has large holes drilled in it so that clamps can be placed every few inches. Strips of 1/4in mahogany are placed in a tube and steamed for 45min. They are bent around the jig with an aluminium band running behind them to prevent backside breakout.

After drying they retain their shape and are laminated using West Systems Epoxy.

*The jig I built was taken off the stern and the stem produced did not fit as well on the bow. Make sure you make two jigs one for the bow and another for the stern.

Step 15: Varnish......Forever

I applied six coats of Epifanes varnish to the inside of the boat and two on the outside. In between each coat the entire varnished surface must be sanded with fine grit sandpaper or a Brilo pad. This takes a very, very long time but the result is spectacular!

Step 16: Canvas the Boat

Skinning a canvas canoe could make a great Instructable all on its own! The canvas is folded in two and placed between a set of two-by-fours at each end so that it can be pulled taught using a set of come-alongs.

In my case I found a tree and my truck worked pretty well as anchors. The boat is placed into the pocket and weights placed inside of the boat to further stretch the canvas. It is then tacked around the upper edge with these tacks eventually being covered by the outside rail.

Once the tacking is completed the excess material is cut away and your boat is skinned!

Step 17: Apply Filler & Fair the Hull

Canoe filler is a mixture of house paint, dryers, and talc powder. When applying it has the consistency of chalkboard paint and is intended to dry to that type of hardness. Due to the different mixture of products the filler does not fully cure for almost 5 weeks!

The filler is applied just like regular paint usually requiring two or three coats. There are formulas available online but I just purchased from a canoe supplier.

After the filler has cured the optional step of fairing the hull can be completed, I used a low density filler and a long-board sander to reduce bumps and smooth the hull. This helps produce a better finish if using a high gloss paint.

Step 18: Make Laminated Outer Rails

The outer rails of a canoe are more complex then their inner counterparts. The outer rails' profile has a lip the size of the planking which stops an inch below the top of the gunwale. This lip can be cut on the table saw or using a router.

The outer rail is also slightly thicker than the inner and more prone to breaking because of such. In order to avoid this I created laminated "Fish Tail" tips for my outer rails composed of mahogany, walnut and hard maple with an inset zebra-wood diamond. The total laminated tip was 9 pieces of wood.

The "Fish Tail" was made of two laminated curves, made using the small jig above, backed up against one another and then transitioned by the inset diamond to the longer part of the tip.

Step 19: Cane the Seats

Canoe seats are typically cane though sometimes webbing, leather, or other materials are used. Cane can be prewoven and pressed into a routed notch on the edge of the seat or hand woven through holes drilled on the seat edge. I choose to hand weave the cane and use a daisy & button pattern rather than the standard six weave.

3mm natural cane was used for the main pattern with a larger width for the border. The cane comes in 6ft long sections and is soaked for a few minutes before being woven. Make sure not to over soak your cane as it will turn gray and not return to the natural tan.

After all the hard work in the shop caning is a pretty fun weekend project and great for the hot months of the year.

Step 20: Paint the Boat

After fairing the hull three coats of Epifanes Marine Enamel, Color #23, were applied using the rolling and tipping method.

In rolling and tipping a paint roller is used to spread paint to a consistent thickness on the surface and then a paintbrush used to remove the bumpy pattern of the roller. High quality rollers and paintbrushes should be used to avoid leaving hairs or fuzz in the paint job. In between fairing, which creates lots of dust, and painting, I thoroughly clean the shop. Epifanes products are very thick and I always have to add brush thinner. This is a good thing as the quality is high and thinner is cheap! While a high quality marine paint does incur a greater expense it is worth it as common house paints won't produce nearly as bright and deep of a shine, don't have UV stabilizers and won't last as long.

This is actually one of the fastest parts of the project and high temperatures can cause you to have a tough time keeping up with the wet edge of your paint job.

*I did not use a high enough quality roller on my first coat, and it started to leave fuzzy bits of the roller in the paint job. When I noticed this I stopped using the roller, just applying paint with the brush. This doesn't allow for even distribution of the paint and caused some sags as seen above. These have to be sanded out and another coat applied. After switching to a better roller for the next two coats I got a nearly perfect finish!

Step 21: Final Assembly

With the paint dry its time to put together all the pieces, So cool to see your handy-work together for the first time!

At the time of writing this instructable I just finished the build and have yet to go out for a maiden paddle. I will upload some better pictures and video of the final product out on the water soon!

Thanks for taking the time to check out the build, happy paddling!

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    Question 2 years ago on Step 21

    So, how did the canoe work when you tried it out? Did it leak at all? You did a beautiful job on it. I am about to start on my dad's 1947 Old Town Yankee. I would love to know if you had to redo your canoe again if you would do anything differently. Thanks, your post will really help me out.


    Reply 2 years ago

    It works beautifully. For sure the quietest boat I have ever paddled! I take it on a mountain lake in Colorado and 1.5 years after finishing it up it looks as good as the day I finished it. Definitely worth it to use high quality varnishes and paints.

    As far as things to do over I would make sure to re-clinch ALL the ring nails that attach the outer planks to the ribs...I had an original nail loosen a bit recently and I can see it as a little bump under the canvas skin. Hard to re-clinch now as hammering through the canvas skin isn't a great idea


    Question 2 years ago on Step 16

    Can I fiberglass this type of a canoe instead of canvas with the mastics? I am completely new to this type of boat. No idea the brand, but it appears to have had canvas on it before. It has no rot that I have found and the inside just needs a cleaning.


    Reply 2 years ago

    Sorry for the delayed reply. Fiberglassing this type of boat is not advised. With a fiberglass layer on only the outside the wood will still take in moisture and expand/contract. This causes the fiberglass to stretch and crack.

    Your boat looks to be a great starting point for a restoration! The wood looks largely intact so just some light sanding and varnish should get the wood looking great. Applying a canvas skin is, in my opinion, also easier than fiberglassing which I have done on other boats.


    Question 2 years ago on Introduction

    Would you please send the dimensions of the 2x4s used to build the canoe stands for the restoration of the 1958 olde town wood canoe.


    Question 4 years ago on Introduction

    How much do you estimate your total cost was? I have a 1948 Old Towne with little canvas remaining. Found the ID tag and researched through Old Towne records. Found it was an Indian style painted several colors and sold to the YMCA in Texas. Although Old Towne no longer sells the skins, they referred me to a supplier that now makes them. Canvas is $1200. Trying to calculate restoration. Thanks!


    Answer 2 years ago

    If no one has suggested it to you yet, The Wooden Canoe Heritage Association ( is the place to go for anything to do with wood and canvas canoes.
    Randy Ober


    Answer 4 years ago

    Were you quoted for installing the skin or just the cost of the fabric? I purchased my fabric in the untreated state, which usually cost ~6 dollars/yd. You can buy fabric from a canoe supplier that has been treated with a mildew resisting agent and has been preshrunk for ~18 dollars/yd. If you went with an untreated fabric I would estimate about $275 including paint supplies, sand paper, etc. I broke out the major items needed to complete a re-skinning:

    Canoe Tacks: $20
    Canvas Fabric: 7yds, $48
    Canoe filler: 1gal, $72
    Epifanes Paint: 2x750ml, $96
    Paint Rollers, brushes $20

    Major Item Total: $256

    This leaves a little room leftover for various 2x4s used to pull the canvas taught and a set of stands.

    It’s definitely a project anyone can do and will certainly save s lot of money compared to getting it restored professionally!


    Question 3 years ago on Step 2

    Would appreciate your plans for the 2x4 canoe stands. I have a 17 foot old town canoe.


    4 years ago

    Excellent. I have a 1909 Old Town that was my grandfathers in my attic now. Just finished a 2 and a half year long total overhaul of my 27' Columbia sailboat so I'm not jumping into the canoe project yet - but you have encouraged me to take it on. At least it doesn't involve that awful fiberglass stuff I had to use on the sailboat. Hate that stuff.


    Reply 4 years ago

    Wow how cool to have a boat over a century old!! Good luck on the restoration it’s wonderful to see people paddling classics!


    Reply 4 years ago

    Neither of you mentioned it and you may already know about it but the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association <<>> is a huge resource for restoration information. There is so much info that it is amazing.


    Reply 4 years ago

    Thanks, totally overlooked putting a link to their website. Very helpful people over there, they can help answer any build questions and find out very detailed info about your boats production history!


    4 years ago

    congrats on the well deserved win!!

    Kink Jarfold
    Kink Jarfold

    4 years ago on Step 21

    Wow, what a job to get to the finish. Well done! KJ


    Thanks so much! I did a weight test today and the boat came in at 66.3lbs and is 16ft long. Mine is for sure heavy, The decks, seats, and rails are hardwood and could probably be switched for a lighter material (Though I did specifically go for a lower density mahogany on the rails).

    I think this is actually similar to your average fiberglass boat but far heavier than the amazing composite canoes being built today which I believe are in the low 30lbs. With that in mind though, I have heard of quite a few wood canoe owners doing hundreds of miles and portages in the Boundary Waters and other places.


    4 years ago

    This looks great and came at just the right time! I'm doing a (much lighter) restoration on Chestnut canoe. Can I ask what low density filler you used to fair the hull? Thanks and great instructable...


    Reply 4 years ago

    Thanks...Chestnuts are beautiful boats, hope its going well!

    For fairing I would definitely recommend trying to get a smooth hull before skinning. On older boats like mine, the wood can cup slightly across the width of the board and you can't sand that away beforehand without cutting to deeply into the planks. If you can get it smooth before than you can do a quick sanding once your filler is dry and apply a build primer. This will cover any pinholes and get a great surface for paint without cutting away the filler which is the main protection of the hull.

    I usually mix my own Low Density filler. I take some regular Bondo that you find at the store, add fiberglass resin(not epoxy). This will thin the mixture and make it spreadable over large areas. In large areas you will sand it almost all back so weight isn't too much of an issue. For larger patches I add more additional resin to the mixture and glass microballons to keep it light. I think there are some more spreadable fillers on the market that are for that purpose but I had supplies available in the shop!