Tuesday, June 9, 2009

New Life for an Old Town Canoe

A recent project that I've spent way too much time on is the restoration of a badly-damaged and well-worn Old Town Canadienne canoe. Here is the finished result:

This canoe belongs to my long-time canoeing partner, Ernest Herndon, who has paddled it many hundreds of miles on rivers and lakes of the region, frequently using it on his research trips in the course of writing such books as Canoeing Louisiana and Canoeing Mississippi. When we paddled the Pascagoula River System from the headwaters to the Gulf in order to co-author the book, Paddling the Pascagoula, Ernest chose his trusty Old Town, while I paddled a hand-built wooden sea kayak.

The Old Town Canadienne is a classic north woods canoe with recurved stems, tumblehome sides, and a large load-carrying capacity. It's ideal for long trips on big rivers and lakes, and can easily carry two men and all their gear and supplies for trips of two weeks or more.

Below, Ernest Herndon getting ready to shove off in the morning after breaking camp on a river sandbar. Here, you can see that the canoe is well-loaded with dry bags, duffel bags and all the other assorted gear needed for a river trip.

Ernest bought this canoe at a local Mississippi salvage store. The Old Town, along with many others in a shipment, came into the salvage store's inventory after suffering some significant damage in transit somewhere. When he first brought it to me back in about 1993, to see if I could fix it up, it looked like it had fallen off a truck at highway speeds. There were several major cracks in the hull, broken all the way through in places, and the aluminum gunwales were bent and even broken in one place.

At that time my boat repair skills were minimal. I patched the fiberglass, reinforced the broken gunwale with a strip of aluminum riveted in place, touched up the red paint with a spray can, and called it good enough. He used it like that for all these years, finally bringing it to me for a complete refit earlier this year. The canoe had lost much of its shape due to the bent and broken aluminum gunwales. The fiberglass patches were finally peeling off, and the floatation bulkheads in each end had broken loose from the hull. Below is a photo of it right before I began the work. It's hard to see all the problems in the photo. It looked much worse in person.

The only cure for the gunwale problem was to get rid of the aluminum rails and rebuild the boat with inwales and outwales made of ash. I started with the inwales, scarfing them to length, then gluing on spacer blocks to the inner sides so they would have, in effect, scuppers all along their mid-length to allow easy dumping of water by turning the canoe on its side.

I first cut away the aluminum rails at the ends and glued in triangular blocks of solid mahogany to serve as a termination point for the inwales, as the extreme ends of the fiberglass hull were too irregular and rounded to carry the inwales all the way. I then removed one aluminum gunwale first, leaving the other one in place to maintain the shape, while the first wood inwale was clamped and glued in place.

After both inwales were fitted and glued in, the outwales came next, in two separate steps. You can see the scuppered inwales in the photo below.

The new ash gunwales imparted much rigidity to the tired old hull, bringing out its true shape and fairing the wobbly sheer that had been so distorted by the fatigued aluminum. I have no doubt that the boat will have an entirely different and better feel to it once it's in the water again.

Below you can see the detail at the stern, which is identical to the bow. The hull sides are sandwiched between the inwales and outwales of ash, and the mahogany end blocks finish out the bow and stern. Note that Ernest wanted me to replace the Canadienne graphic with the more appropriate for him, Mississippian.

A big part of the job I did not photograph step-by-step was the repair of the fiberglass damage and the filling and fairing of the hull. It was, as you would expect, a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, but in the end proved worth it. The hull exterior was then painted with four coats of Interlux Brightside in "Fire Red".

Four coats of spar varnish on all the ash and then the application of new vinyl graphics for the Mississippian name and the Old Town logo completed the job. Tomorrow, I'm meeting Ernest at the nearby Pearl River, where we'll break-in the new refit by paddling the canoe from Hopewell to Georgetown, a river trip of about 10 miles.


  1. The canoe you are talking about came out of an insurance claim in Chicago. The store named Chicagoland Canoe Base had been hit by high winds causing the canoes to be tossed around. The salvage store is named Hudsons in Mississippi. I was at the store before they shipped the canoes to Mississippi and was fortunate enough to purchase the identical canoe (and picked the least damaged).

    I still own that canoe and she has been paddled in Illlinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Washington state.

    Tell Mississippian her sister says HI.



  2. The Chicagoland Canoe Base is owned by Ralph Frese who designed the Canadienne. I own one too. You did a nice job redoing the boat! I was at the Ralph's store today and spent as usual a lot of time talking of restoration projects along the rivers.

  3. If you haven't already, try paddling the Strong River at D'Lo water Park. It is almost the same distance from the Coast as Hopewell and Georgetown. It is a beautiful small river I've spent many days paddling.

    Take Care, Brian B.

  4. Brian,

    Yes, that's great float. I've done it a few times. Really like the Strong River.

  5. Hello;
    I am the owner of a 30 year old, 18ft, fiberglas,s old Old Town Canadienne Canoe. I have just returned from a paddling trip to "Hell Hole" lake in the California Sierras. High winds came up and my boat got scratched against the granite rocks. I am just sick. How can I get scratches out of the green fiberglass finish on my boat. She needs to be pretty again.....

  6. If the scratches are not all the way through the Gelcoat, you should be able to sand and then buff them out. If they are deep though, there's not much you can do unless you want to try to custom match the Gelcoat color and fill them - or either paint the entire hull as I did with the red one.

  7. What product did you use to recoat the interior of the fiberglass canoe?

  8. I didn't do anything to the interior, except at the bulkheads at each end where there is enclosed foam flotation. These were re-glassed in at the joints and the bulkheads coated with clear epoxy, which was then sanded to dull it so it would blend in with the rest of the interior.

  9. I have the same canoe and would like to redo the inside as well as the outside. What should I use to coat the inside of the canoe. Right now it is an old faded orange color over the fiberglass. Is painting the only way to finish the outside?
    Thanks for any help.

    1. Hello Anonymous:
      You can simple clean and sand the interior of the Canadienne and paint the inside with a coat or two of silver grey porch and floor enamel for a clean looking contrast to the color of the hull.
      Ralph Frese

  10. I just forwarded the information here to Ralph Frese... he will be tickled to find out that people are doing to the boats out on the water.

  11. Scott, my name is Ralph Frese of the Chicagoland Canoe Base in Chicago. I wish all of you trying to redo one of my canoes would contact me for ideas. You were right in painting the canoe, just as we do when restoring a wood/canvas canoe. The Canadienne needs to have the gunwales curve evenly from bow to stern, the idea is to widen the deck area to provide maximum buoyancy when in heavy waves. Too many modern craft are diamond shaped and with a narrow point at the bow, they will ship water easily. We have paddled 43 miles across Lake Michigan in 6 foot seas with the canoe open, not decked without a problem. It's performance is legendary, and an excellent sailing canoe also. By the way, Scott, I would not have glued the inhales on the hull, as you do not know when you might have to replace them! I built Canadiennes from 14 feet in 7 models to 34 feet long, all using the same hull design. If anyone reading this wishes to learn more about canoe hull design and the background of the canadienne, contact me at ralph@chicagolandcanoebase.com, or search for ralph frese on Google or you tube. Keep up the good work, scott.

    1. Is painting the hull and interior the only option to refinishing the canadienne fiberglass canoe? My hull is green gel coat and the interior is an orange finish over the fiberglass. Any suggestions would be helpful.
      Thanks for you reply

  12. Anonymous,

    What role exactly do you think a designer plays in determining what a boat owner does to maintain or repair a damaged 20-plus year old boat. This canoe is now better than new and the owner is very happy with it. Without this refit, it would have ended up in a landfill.

  13. Hi Ralph,

    Thanks for writing. The Canadienne is a great design. This one was on the brink of no longer being useable and drastic measures had to be taken to save it. As it is now, the owner and I both agree that it is far better than when new. The wooden gunwales have not in any way affected the shape of the hull, but have greatly improved the stiffness (not to mention the appearance) when compared to the riveted on aluminum gunwales and cheap plastic end caps that it came with. Replacing a glued-on inwhale is no issue at all, if it ever comes up, which is unlikely, as the boat will be stored out of the weather.

  14. I bought an Old Town Canadienne about a year ago, here in AZ. I've only had it out a few times it seems unstable and want to roll. Am I doing anything wrong. It was only two passengers, no gear and flat water paddling. It come on so sudden that you tend to jerk sometimes making matters worse. I am an experienced paddler, with lots of Old Town Discover and Tripper canoes.

  15. It will be more stable when loaded with gear, although it shouldn't be too unstable with either one or two paddlers even when unloaded. I think it's just a different feel than your Discovery and Tripper models. Lower initial stability but great secondary. I would practice leaning it over in shallow water to see how far you can go, and I'll bet you have more confidence in the hull when you see how well it paddles at a high lean angle.


"A boat is freedom, not just a way to reach a goal."
Bernard Moitessier - A Sea Vagabond's World


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