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Wood Canvas Canoe Restorations

Resident artisan boatbuilder Josh Tolkan talks through a recent canoe restoration in his latests blog post. 

Posted on March 25, 2021
by Josh Tolkan

As winter melts to spring and people dream of summer adventures, I have been busy restoring wood canvas canoes for clients. Wood canvas canoe construction has been one of the biggest areas of learning during my time at North House. I was able to study with a real master, Jeanne Bourquin, as part of a class building three canoes in just over two weeks. Since then I have had time to practice canoe restoration while volunteering to keep Camp Menogyn’s fleet of wooden canoes running. 

I recently put a canoe back together for a local couple who are very active in the North House community. The boat had been in a state of disrepair for almost 30 years. It was really a bunch of ribs attached to one nice gunwale and a scattering of falling apart planks. Some ribs had been repaired but weren't quite the right shape and the boat was looking sort of lumpy. To get things back to fair I used a bunch of temporary batons. These are long straight strings of wood clamped in place connecting the properly-shaped ribs. The new ribs were bent using the batons and remaining planking, and these parts defined the shape of these replacement ribs. 

After that new planking can be put on. In an old boat like this, it can be tricky to figure out the planking pattern. There are special planks on wood canvas canoes called the goring planks that are shaped to take up the curve of the boat. Different boats would have two or three gorings of different shapes and since there were no goring to recreate I had to make up some shapes that I thought would work. There are a few other planking details that different builders used and I am still learning those. In some ways, it doesn’t matter as long as the product looks good in the end but builders had things they did that worked for the specific boat that they built and if you know what those are it can save time.

So anyways, once planked, I get to do some of my favorite things - shaping the decks/breast hooks, thwarts, and yokes. Then, on to canvassing, which is an elusive art that I really enjoy. It’s basically upholstery work, but upholstering something stiff with no fluff, and a very tricky shape, of course. 

So, I’m spending more and more time restoring boats for clients. I love hearing the stories of peoples’ boats. I keep the stories in mind, and they motivate me to breathe new life into old treasures. Let me know if you have an old boat that needs some love! I’d love to look at it!