I could use some help with a complete restoration of a 30 year old Mad River Winooski canoe.

First thing, HOLY COW are replacement gunwales expensive and I was going that route, but I can buy a heck of a lot of quality tools for what they cost. Fortunately, I have most tools I could use that can fit into a garage, power and many hand tools except for a lathe and so I’m covered. I have good quality rough finished s2s white oak boards 108"x9"x2" so I can’t do this as one piece but I can cute and glue up two pieces to make two sets of gunwales. Then I’m thinking I’ll take two sections and turning them into one piece seats that I may web or cane, webbing likely winning because of time. Anyway, seats, a thwart, well everything you see in the pics. I also need to take care of the oxidized finish as well. The fiberglass hull is otherwise in terrific shape, just some surface scratches.

I’ve also never used spar varnish so a recommendation would be welcome.

As a woodworker, just slapping something on isn’t something I have an easy time doing so I’m looking for a better than new restoration at least as far as woodwork goes.


That finish for the oak is something I can easily do and as white oak does have figure it would be nice to bring it out, but I have no idea what a spar varnish would do in terms of darkening the wood. Is there a particular one you would recommend? Is it even a workable idea?

Lastly the sad canoe-

Lastly there’s a matter of bending. I’m not set up to steam bend something of this length although I could make something from plastic sheeting. Has anyone bent something like this to shape without steaming? How would you recommend doing it? I have cordage galore including 3k+ test dyneema and I could in theory attach the rails midline, put in the thwart and use a stick to twist two cords and tension into place, but maybe I don’t have to do that and maybe that’s too complicated or the wood won’t survive.

Obviously I’m completely new and what I can find is either not detailed enough or not wholly applicable to my situation.

Thanks in advance,

From what I can see from your photos, the hull looks good. Are the deck plates salvageable? If not, you will need to decide whether or not you are going to replace them, and if so, whether you are going to use inset or on-laid deck plates. Obviously, inlaid deck plates require more work and fitting, not only shaping of the plate itself, but of the ends of the inwales where they meet and join at the stem. With on-laid deck plates, the ends of the inwales need not join up precisely and the plate simply needs to be shaped and contoured, then screwed onto the tops of the inwales.

I have rerailed canoes with ash, but not with oak. With ash, there is usually no need to steam bend the inwales and outwales. Oak may be different, however, and the Winooski is a short and rather wide canoe and there is going to be a good bit of convexity of the outwales, and concavity of the inwales, so you might have to. I would suggest starting out on the assumption that you won’t need to steam the wood, but if you find during the installation that the inwales or outwales don’t want to cooperate, you could probably just steam a third of the length or so at each end. I have seen descriptions of some inexpensive steam chambers made from PVC pipe for this purpose. There are a number of forums for wooden boat construction and repair that contain a wealth of information that might be helpful.

Here is a link to a pdf file from Mad River Canoe on gunwale repair and replacement that I think you might find helpful:

Before you remove the remnants of the existing gunwales from the boat, mark on the hull the positions of the center thwart, the seats, and the end carry handles. Also use the center thwart to get an accurate beam measurement for the hull. Most Winooskis I have seen have had a center carry yoke instead of a straight thwart so it is possible that center thwart is not stock. Use it to brace out the hull sides, then measure your beam at center. MRC listed a gunwale width of 39" at center and they usually took this measurement at the outside edge of the molded hull, i.e, the beam measurement not including the outwales. Save that center thwart and use it to jack out the hull to its proper width as you start to fit your gunwales. Typically the hull will collapse inward without the rails. If you install your gunwales and then try to jack the hull out to spec you will be applying stress on your gunwale screws as well as to the inwales, outwales, and the holes in the hull that the screws go through.

If you need to lay up multiple pieces to achieve sufficient length (in your case about 15’ for each stick) I would use simple scarf joints which should be easy for you, having woodworking experience. A lot of builders suggest a long scarf in a 1:7 ratio (thickness to length) or longer. That might be necessary to provide a sufficient bonding area when scarfing thin panels but I have used much shorter scarfs of 1:3 and been quite happy with the results. With inwales and outwales of approximately 3/4" thickness a shorter scarf will still provide plenty of bonding surface. I use epoxy to bond the scarfs together. Arrange your scarf joints to that the joints on the inwales and outwales do not overlap if possible, and so the scarf joints point backwards at the outer edges of the outwales and inner edges of the inwales.

You will need to decide whether you are going to “sandwich” the inwales and outwales so that the tops align with the top of the hull, or whether you are going to route the outwales so as to leave a thin lip or kerf that covers the top of the hull. The latter is what is usually done with composite hulls, and looks a bit more elegant but requires more work. If you have a table saw with a router blade or a router table you may be all set up to route the inwales. Definitely route the outwales rather than the inwales as you want to preserve the full width of the inwales to mount your seats and thwarts.

Fitting the inwales will be the harder job because the length must be precise and the joinery at the ends needs to be decent, if you plan to use inset deck plates. Before you start to install the inwales you need to drill the holes for your gunwale screws and countersink them. Leave the ends long initially and start to attach the inwales at the center point of the hull, using some scrap wood on the outside of the hull to catch the screws if necessary. You can leave the ends sticking out over and above the stems at each end of the hull. Make sure you have the hull jacked out to proper width. You will probably be able to continue to attach the inwales to the hull for some distance from the center before it becomes necessary to trim and fit the ends. Once you get the first inwale temporarily installed, fitting the second inwale becomes easier.

When installing inwales and outwales I use inexpensive plastic spring clamps to hold the wood against the hull. Pad the wood to avoid leaving marks. I have found these to work as well as any other method I have tried.

Once you have inwales installed you can start installing the outwales. Remove a few inwale screws near the center, and start installing the outwale at the center point. Use clamps to hold the inwale and outwale tightly together as you drill your pilot holes in the outwales and alternate ends as you install each additional screw. Since the thickness of the hull will likely vary along the length of the boat, you may need to trim the width of your lip or kerf in you chose to route the outwales. Again, leave the ends of the outwales long. These can be trimmed after the outwale is nearly completely installed. After you get the inwales and outwales installed, you can trim and fit your deck plates.

For finishing, you can either use a “penetrating” oil on the rails, or a bright finish. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. I treat the inner surfaces of the inwales and outwales (the faces that face the hull) with a low viscosity “penetrating” epoxy even if I choose oil the other faces. If I use a bright finish (varnish or polyurethane) I will usually apply a couple of coats of low viscosity epoxy to the wood first. Whole manuscripts have been written about varnishing strategies. You can find a lot of info on the wooden boat forums. The most popular choices for marine varnish seem to be Epiphanes and Pettit Z-Spar.

You can find replacement seats, thwarts, carry handles, and yokes at Ed’s Canoe or Essex Industries:



I would plan to replace the straight center thwart with a carry yoke. You will probably need an extra wide bow seat for the Winooski unless the existing seat is salvageable. You can easily refinish and recane the seat if the wood is sound. You definitely need stainless steel machine screws (#10 size with either 24 or 32 threads per inch) for your yoke, carry handles, and seats, and finding long ones for the seats can sometimes be tricky so if you order from Eds you may want to order a set of 8 long 10x24 machine screws as well. You can make seat hangers out of hardwood dowels if you wish, or you can buy truss seat hangers from one of the above vendors.

Thank you for your thoughts. I’m planning to do an inlay because it seems more of an elegant solution. I’ll be checking out various epoxies and your techniques make sense to me. I’ll be doing some finishing before securing everything so there’s some protection on all surfaces. I’ll be cutting a kerf so it will appear as one piece of wood and I have round over bits galore. Thanks again, I’ve learned more from your post than in a fair bit of online research.

West Systems G Flex epoxy seems particularly good for bonding wood and can be purchased in relatively small quantities. And it can be mixed 1:1 resin to hardener by volume by eye, which allows small batches to be easily mixed without the need for metering pumps. It would be good for bonding scarf joints or deck plates, should you choose to make book-matched deck plates with a center seam, or if you want to bond the deck plates to the inwales.

System 3 Clear Coat is a low viscosity epoxy sealer that I have used with good results to protect wood trim and as an undercoat for bright finishes. It mixes in a 2:1 resin to hardener ratio by volume, is easy to use, and cures very clear.

Woodworking forums offer some good info regarding spar varnish. It takes forever to fully cure, and is a soft finish. As for bending wood, kiln-dried wood won’t steam bend. Also, putting the wood in a long metal gutter, and filling with hot water is a good way to “steam it”. This works best under a vacuum.

Spar varnish does not take forever to cure if you apply it at the correct temperature and allow for drying time… We can sand after 12 hours in dry conditions and 48 in humid
It is the MOST durable varnish for marine conditions and like all good things requires patience. It is NOT a quick fix. We plan on two weeks to apply and sand down five coat… Yes five. When properly cured it is extremely hard and abrasion resistant

I have never used steam bending to apply gunwales but have never used oak… We use cherry from a local sawmill. From this video oak ought to work… even kiln dried ( which requires lots more time in steam!)

Yes, I have applied two coats of varnish in a day if the humidity is reasonably low, with light sanding with a fairly fine grit sandpaper between coats to knock the glaze off.

The term “spar” has been applied to both true varnishes and urethane finishes and is not particularly specific to any given type of bright finish. It simply implies a bright finish product that is formulated to withstand outdoor conditions and has added UV blockers. Marine varnish and spar varnish basically mean the same thing.

The “gold standard” has typically been a minimum of 5 or 6 coats of varnish, and many will thin the initial coats to a diminishing extent with each successive coat, although I have often not thinned even the initial applications. And I have found that applying 2 coats of low viscosity epoxy followed by 3 or 4 coats of varnish yield results that are as good as 6 coats of varnish. I have personally had good results with Pettit’s Z-Spar Captain’s Varnish and I usually apply it with disposable foam brushes, although I avoid the very cheap Chinese foam brushes as they tend to shed little pieces of foam onto the work.

except that now there are matte spar varnishes which do give an aesthetically pleasing look to some, Ephiphanes and Pettits are the two I am most used to… You can betcha that if the varnish was soft that a boatbuilder would not cover the whole boat with a few coats of it then send it overseas by ship to Sweden from New Hampshire.

Another thing is that dust is to be avoided if at all possible… Boatbuilders do have clean rooms and run vacuum systems and wear Tyvek overalls to prevent the escape of clothing fibers.