Bending new wooden gunwales

I just bought a highly “rednecked” older Mad River Malecite canoe that I have finally finished gutting ALL the plywood and rotten plank seats that were ingloriously screwed into the rotten 2x2 gunwales. It is now JUST A HULL. Now I want to install new wooden gunwales but even after I decide what type wood and source,…I wonder how to properly and permanently bend/curve the gunwales to the shape of the canoe before installing? ANYONE?

I’ve helped a buddy steam and bend the ends of the gunnels on a form. He bends them to a tighter curve, so it will be right when the wood relaxes a bit when released from the form.

This is the vertical bend for antique Old Town wood and canvas canoes with upturned ends. The horizontal curve is gradual enough that you don’t need to pre-bend.

I wonder if the Mad River has straight enough lines that you may not need a pre-bend. For more, try the forums on the site. The wooden canoe guys might take pity on you and your petrified snot boat.


Doing the same to an ? 12’r…
that I found in the dump. The gunwales where rotten, no seats, a couple small cracks, but everything else is good. Nice little rstoration project that will end up as a nice solo fishing canoe.

I’m working off the book Building the Maine Guide Canoe by Jerry Stelmok in which he recommends Clear Northern White Spruce, followed by Sitka spruce and the comments some use Mahogany or Black Cherry as outers.

Spreader bar.
One doesn’t need to prebend wood rails on most hulls.

The gradual center to stem screwing “sets” the rails together in the bend you want if you start in the center and use a spreader bar or center thwart to hold the width.

email me at for the attachment on Bell/Placid railing protocols, sanitized for general use.

Charlie beat me to it
There is no need to steam bend the gunnels for a Malecite. Ash or cherry gunnels should readily bend to fit.

Marc Ornstein

Dogpaddle Canoe Works

Custom Paddles and Cedar Strip Canoes

Old MRC instructions
Email me and I fax or mail you the original Mad River Canoe railing instructions.

If I ever replace wood gunwales again…
I made my own ash gunwales to refurbish an OT Chipewan. I did not pre-bend them. The hull, age 25 years, did not need spreaders. Perhaps after all those years it just remembered what shape it was supposed to be.

Rob, Charlie and Mark have far more expertise than me. I’ve just done the one boat. But here is a suggestion for you that I intend to employ if I ever replace wood gunwales again.

I ripped and shaped the gunwales before I installed them. If I ever do it again, I will rip the material and install it before I shape it. By shaping, I mean transform the gunwale from rectangular stock to the rounded stock we see as finished gunwales. If you install it before shaping, you don’t have to worry about marring the material with your clamps, and it is a lot easier to clamp rectangular stock than it is to clamp rounded stock.

Also, when you are shaping a canoe-length piece of stock, whether using a router or plane, you have to secure it somehow. If you install first, then shape, the material is already secured by it’s attachment to the hull. So, the job can be more easily done.

That’s what I’d do. Your other respondents are pros, but I don’t think I am contradicting them. If so, go with what the pros say.