Gunwale oiling; how far to go?

I’ve just oiled the gunwales on the SRT. They look pretty. But am I just fooling myself? Is it just cosmetic? And I don’t doubt that the oil protects the surface, but I can’t help but wonder about the surface I don’t see. So the question is, how far do you go when you oil?

For example, do you remove the seat truss and thwarts, so your oil can get those hidden surfaces? And further, this boat has gunwales that encapsulate the edges of the hull, rather than the sandwich type where from the top you see distinct wood-hull-wood layers. It strikes me that when the boat is upside down, the water runs along the hull and enters the gunwale assembly. Do you need to remove the gunwales and oil in there, too?

If the answer is yes, there’s going to be an SRT for sale.

Just wondering what other folks do.


Some thoughts

– Last Updated: Nov-26-12 11:36 PM EST –

My rowboats have wood gunwales. I ought to oil them more often than I do, but I do occasionally go the extra mile to get oil onto the hidden contact surfaces between wood pieces. The central one-third of each boat has three-layer gunwales, with the innermost layer being a slotted section. The other two sections are a standard inwale and outwale which run the length of the boat and sandwich the hull (hull is hidden from view, as seen from the top). I can remove the slotted inwale from the central one-third of the boat easily enough, but even though I hardly ever do so, the oil finish on the hidden contact surfaces stay pretty good even after long periods of neglect. I apply the oil pretty heavily there, and it's an ugly mess when exposed at the next disassembly a few years later, but it's quite well bonded to the wood and quite water repellant. The main gunwales really can't be disassembled all the way since the inwales are glued along the decks (the outwales can be removed, but I've never done it), but since I always hear about screw locations rotting before any other location, I occasionally remove the screws (just a few at a time so as to avoid any re-installation complications) and dribble oil into the holes. I'm careful not to cut any "new threads" when reinstalling the screws because then the whole job would do more harm than good in the long run. I suspect that the thick coating of oil in the screw holes is just as long-lasting as what I see when I remove the slotted inwales, so I'm sure it works pretty well. So far, there's no trace of degradation from moisture.

I think that more important than coating every hidden surface with oil is how the boat is stored and how quickly it dries after being soaked. I'm lucky in that I'm able to insure that everything dries quickly and thoroughly once I return home after a trip, but not everyone has that option. On that note, one thing I do is that once the boat is upside-down on the rack, I reach into the stems and mop up all the excess water that's run there along the gunwales. No point in giving it time to soak in, especially with so much end grain being available in there. Also, it's a good place to really goop in the oil too. No one can see if it looks bad in there.

my take

I personally try not to make oiling them any more work than it may need to be.

For me I try to make oiling a quick and easy affair. If you do that then you will oil them more often.

I throw on a rubber glove and take a rag and quickly wipe the tops, then the sides and underneath, and then the inwales…so three full passes around the boat. Takes about 10 minutes. Then I may go out later and wipe them down to removed excess and put another coating on.

I remove nothing and don’t try to drip oil inside, etc.

I think as long as you store the boat inside you are okay.

And…if you ever do sell the SRT please let me know before listing it.


It’s like anything else.
If you dwell on it for too long, you’ll start to lose perspective.

What’s the baseline? Ash gunnels on your average canoe stored in a garage and re-oiled when needed will last how long, 30 years?

A competent professional re-rail costs what, 300-400 bucks?

depends on how you store the boat
Oil, varnish, or polyurethane finish on gunwales is more than cosmetic. Ash has a pretty open grain and bare ash will over time soak up moisture, split, turn gray, and eventually rot without it. But if you store your boat in a protected area and especially if you dry up any trapped water before storing it, that deterioration could take a very long time.

When neglected gunwales rot, it usually starts at the stems on the undersides of the deck plates and inwales, and where the machine screws securing thwarts and seat trusses penetrate the inwales. The thwart ends can rot too because moisture tends to be trapped between the thwarts and inwales for some time after use and the hole the machine screw goes through transmits the moisture into the wood.

I like to remove the thwarts and seat(s) at least some of the time I oil the rails. It lets you inspect the thwart ends and oil them (if not varnished) and get some oil into the holes. It also makes it easier to oil the inwales without getting a gunky mess or oil on the inside of the hull. If you do this enough, the oil residue inside the holes in the thwarts and seat hangers may make it difficult to get the machine screws through so you might want to enlarge them very slightly with a drill or rat tail file.

I have taken the rails off some old boats with weathered wood to inspect the hidden sides of the inwales and outwales. I found them to be pretty weathered but far from rotted. These days if I do that I will sand the inner aspects of the outwales and outer aspects of the inwales and seal them with epoxy rather than oiling that face, as I think it is more durable.

I guess it depends who does it…
I went to a freestyle symposium a few years ago and talked (as well as showed him my boat, a Magic(Bell) and he wanted close to $600 to regunnel it at the time… He’s an extremely competent woodworker as he makes and sells MANY paddles and, of which I purchased one, but I couldn’t justify the expense. I bought the canoe and a beautiful Nashwaak cherry paddle for $800, thanks to a former poster(NT)'s tip. the previous owner had drilled some holes in the gunnels that had started to rot and I thought I might just bring the boat back to original condition, but decided the next owner could have that chance…You know, the Magic is a great design, but I haven’t even paddled it in a couple years…I’ve sortof moved on to daytrippers and it sits unused…

OK, maybe I lowballed it a little.
But you’re right, there are varying levels of both competence and professionalism.

I wonder what openboater scharges for a basic re-rail these days?

$450-600 average price (nm)

Looks like two choices
Digesting what all of you have written, my conclusion is the SRT needs to be stored out of the weather. Practically speaking, that means inside my house, since I don’t have any outbuildings.

I keep my boats in a set of racks under the deck. They are out of the sun, but they still get wet when it rains.

There’s some slings in the garage left over from when I was storing the Wontonah (20 ft wood canoe), and I could hang the SRT in those. But, compared to going to the rack and sliding the boat out and onto your shoulders, it is a pain in the neck. It only takes five or ten minutes, but…

Plus I use those slings when I want to take my truck cap off (a whole one time in the last year). But that’s the only way I can raise and lower the cap by myself.

I am officially in dither mode on what to do, or “admiring the problem,” as a friend likes to say. Seems my choices are find indoor storage I can live with or get rid of the boat.


How about this idea?
I don’t know if this idea fits with your notion of aesthetics (or perhaps more important, those of your spouse), but at the cabin where my dad and his wife lived the last 15 years or so, he put interlocking sheets of metal roofing right under the deck. They were slightly sloped so rain that came through the deck ran off to one side, just like with a “real roof”. You can’t see it from above, but from underneath it definitely looks like a hillbilly solution to a storage problem. It’s very cheap, easy and effective though.

Well, Chip
I kept my Vermont Tupper in the living room for a year, and that was a real PITA. Now I keep it in a Public Storage unit across the highway along with my other toys, and that’s a lot better.

It also has wood trim. I neglect it terribly, enjoy it immensely, and when it is finally worn out or rotten, I will either take it back to Rob and let him make it like new, or I will sell it cheap to someone who likes to restore abused canoes and they will, I’m sure, speak harshly of the way I treated it ;^)

Life is too short to be a slave to canoe maintenance, although I’m told there are those who actually enjoy that sort of thing.

is the word for wooden gunwales on boats that have to be stored outside. No matter what you do, they’re gonna rot over time - you can slow the process, but ya can’t stop it. I do wish that the makers of the high-end canoes that most of eventually end up with would offer aluminum gunwales.


Still seems fair, though I think
I either screwed myself on the hourly rate or gave myself a steep discount!

I thought of that, too.
Although I was thinking of the 2x8 sheets of corrugated plastic. It’s sort of complicated though. I’d need to lower the racks a bit, install some structure to hold up the “roof”, do something about routing water that would fall in one place instead of spread around. Much easier to just bring the boat in and find a place to hang it. It’s a choose your evil kind of choice.


Prior boat with wood gunwales
I’m with you, Sissy. I enjoy working on boats, but really, I’d rather play in them than work on them.

I had a Chipewan that I restored, including replacing the wood gunwales that had mostly rotted off. I enjoyed using the boat for a year or two, but the last time I finished oiling the gunwales on it, I thought, “this is for the birds,” came inside, and listed the boat on Craigslist. I vowed “no more wood gunwales.”

Time has a way of eroding my resolve, and then this SRT came along.


Shame, shame, shame
Chip, you admit you have a garage. I’m reading into this discussion that you actually put vehicles in your garage instead of stocking it full of boats on racks.

You gotta get serious about this hobby, man.

I dislike taking care of wooden rails, and many of mine have rotted under my back deck. I do love the slotted inwales on my SRT, both aesthetically and functionally. I scrub wash them once a year and oil twice. It’s an unpleasant chore. The garage gets the SRT, Caper, Wildfire, Huki and what looks like the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Trim Construction and Maintenance

– Last Updated: Dec-01-12 12:24 PM EST –

My initial reaction to maintenance issues is always: Ugh! Seems like a waste of time, but maybe a process we need embrace in the path of life?

Aluminum trim, with aluminum thwarts, seat bars under plastic seats. etc is one solution: Done when purchased, with occasional cracked seat replacement and the construction issues of usually flattened shear/rocker, poor capture of the hull's top compromising hull strength, rattling, and poor hand feel, with wide temperature swings. It'll do fine under a tarp on sawhorses in the yard, if not under an eve or Hemlock likely to dump an avalanche on it. Oh, aluminum rails with wood thwarts/ seats? See below.

Wood can be slowly bent from center to miinimize shear flattening, is usually much kinder to both eye and hand, but it requires maintenance; oil or varnish/PolyU application to all surfaces including joinery, open ends and machine screw bores.

Oil is easy, but requires several repetitions a year, preferably sanded out to 400/600 grit and needs seats and thwarts be removed to dunk open/crosscut ends a couple times a year. The surfaces where decks join rail and rails meet hull are problematic.

PolyUrethane if properly applied to every edge, replaces 6X annual maintenance with a significant, once every third to half decade event; disassemble, sand, three coats sanding between, reassemble. Unless the decks and rails come off too, we still have the long term rot issue where joinery holds moisture.

Find Mike McCrea's treatis on wood protection from a couple years back, best info to date. MinWax. who'd a thunk?

Inside, dry storage is pretty universally needed for wood trimmed hulls, and in the North, that isn't enough to stop cold cracking for rubber hulls, and in the deep, Republican, South, excess humidity causes rot anyway.

My personal preference runs to integral synthetic rails with synthetic trim because I can always find something more fun to do than service a tool I acquired to service me. It's probably, yet another, personality flaw and while synthetics can be artistically interesting they'll never rival wood for natural beauty.

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Mike’s wood finish thread…
…sadly, I believe, evaporated in the death of

Oh, I’ll bet
Mike still has the data. This might even be a good time to…

What…apply oil?
many of us former solotrippers are back online at Mike is there too.

But the archival stuff on solotripping is hard to find.

Oh yes oil. Paul of Colden Canoe taught me to apply oil and work it in with a Dobie pad. Often. Seems the heat helps penetration a little.