How much better is wood than vinyl?

I’m seriously considering upgrading my gunwales to wood. Before I take the plunge let me add, this would not be for cosmetic reasons. I want to add structural integrity to a fiberglass hull. Is it worth the time and money?

Can you tell me how the wood will benefit the hull as compared to typical vinyl?



Some Questions
What’s wrong with the structural integrity as it is? I’ve never seen a canoe with a hull that was too flimsy on account of the gunwales not having adequate strength. Therefore I tend to doubt that there’s much justification for switching to wood with the goal of making the hull stiffer.

I’m no expert, but I’ve never seen a fiberglass canoe with vinyl gunwales. Usually, if the gunwales are not wood, they are aluminum. I’m trying to avoid jumping to conclusions, but it’s not exactly rare for people to think that their Royalex canoe is made of fiberglass (Royalex canoes very commonly have vinyl gunwales), and I don’t know whether you know boat materials or not.

So fill in some blanks. What boat is this that you want to modify, and what is the current problem that you wish to remedy?

I have paddled one glass boat with vinyl
rails. It was an Old Town Canadien cloth layup. When paddled race style it flexed excessively. When following the canoe one could easily see at least 2" of lateral displacement in the rails on each stroke. And the squeaking was also pronounced. I have raced and followed other all cloth canoes with wood rails (3/4x3/4 rounded ash) with no hint of flex. The seats were hung from the rails in both cases.

I suspect you could stiffen the existing vinyl by adding an aluminum angle but that would be strictly experimental.

Wenonah Solo
Plus is advertized for ‘vinyl’ gunwales.

The hull has vinyl covered aluminum gunwales.

Something to think about
If you load your boat from the rear and slide it on the racks, the wood will require constant maintenance.

We have canoes with wood, vinyl, and aluminum, and I would much rather have aluminum or vinyl just for that reason

Jack L

I doubt you will see much difference
Some synthetic gunwales are all vinyl material. Others are aluminum with vinyl covers. Others are mostly plastic with a thin, flat strip of aluminum on the underside of the gunwale top.

Some wood gunwales are lighter than synthetic varieties but this depends on the thickness and height of the wood gunwales and the variety of the wood (most commonly ash). Lightweight extruded aluminum gunwales are typically lighter than wood, however.

If your gunwales sustain a significant impact, ash gunwales will often (not always) flex without breaking or splitting while aluminum or other synthetic gunwales will crack or crimp resulting in permanent deformation.

Apart from this last and the weight factor, I have not really seen any performance advantage to wood gunwales. Most people who have wood gunwales (assuming they had a choice) pick them because they like the way they look.

As Jack said, wood gunwales do require a significant time investment in preventative maintenance. The majority of owners of canoes with wood gunwales choose to treat them with one of a variety of oils but for canoes that see only flat water use, a bright finish with varnish, polyurethane, or varnish over penetrating epoxy works well. Depending on how your canoe is used and stored, you may need to apply oil several times a year.

If your canoe is stored outside, wood is probably not a very good choice. Ash tends to soak up moisture and as it does, the grain separates and weakens the wood. Many people tell themselves they will conscientiously keep on top of the maintenance of their wood gunwales when they buy a canoe, but life circumstances prevent them from doing so, or they just don’t find or make the time.

wood gunwales
Wood is appealing from a structural and aesthetic point of view. It adds some weight, but the big problem is that wood and fiberglass expand with temp variations at different rates. If you store a canoe outside, you need to loosen the gunwales in the fall and tighten them in the spring or risk breaking them during the winter.

Wood gunwales…
Have never had an issue with wood gunwales, because all my boats with wood trim are stored indoors, and I don’t mind doing the maintenance necessary to keep them in good condition. I loosen some screws in the winter time; garage & loafer’s shed where my boats are stored aren’t heated. We very rarely get a temp below zero.

If I had to store boats outside; none would have wood trim. I don’t particularly care for wood trim on whitewater canoes. Got rid of the last one I had several years ago. I used to picture them cracking & splintering & making wooden spears tips…


Isn’t that just an issue with Royalex?
I’ve heard countless times that Royalex and wood have different rates of expansion, and that loosening the gunwale screws in winter is a good idea. This only makes sense because Royalex expands and contracts a lot with changes in temperature (look how many inches a Royalex boat shrinks when it comes off the production mold!). Wood doesn’t change dimension very much with temperature.

I’ve never heard about this issue with fiberglass. All I know for sure is that my fiberglass boats with wood gunwales have been fine in unheated storage for many years.

That is my experience as well. The differential expansion thing is only significant enough with Royalex to pose a problem. Actually, I have quite a few Royalex boats including some with wood gunwales, have never backed the screws out, and they are not stored in heated environments and it has not been an issue for me.

Yes, royalex will cold crack with woods.
I have seen a few old royalex explorers cracked as far as 4 or 5 feet in from the end. Those were boats stored outside at 30 below. Cracks closer to the stems occur at less dramatic temps. I would be concerned at 10 above. Part of the problem with the explorers is that the screws are run thru the hull without drilling. A very tight fit. I have successfully winterized a few explorers by removing the screws and slotting the holes in the royalex with a drill to get a slot extending at least a quarter inch beyond the screw toward the stem. I do this about 6 feet in from each end. Our explorer has been outdoors as low as 10 below without cracking.