Oiling wood gunwales

The wooden gunwales on my canoe have been wet for about two weeks, either because I’m paddling or because of our daily rains.

I brought the boat inside, as I have done several times before, to dry out before oiling.

Do any of you who oil the wood on your canoes have an opinion on how long it would take for the gunwales to adequately dry? I don’t think I’ve waited long enough before, as it seems to need it again very quickly.

Thanks for your help. The Tupper sits in the middle of my living room awaiting her beauty treatment.

drying time
It will depend on how humid it is in your living room. In a warm and dry place your gunnels should dry in a few days at most…could take longer in high humidity. You should be able to tell if they are dry by touching them. Leaving the boat out in the sun on a sunny day will dry them afster.

If your boat is often exposed to water (rain…outdoor storage) then you might want to use Watco instead of oil. It lasts longer and is more water repellent.

Watco Teak Oil Finish,
which is recommended for “marine surfaces such as wood boat decks, cabinets and rails,” is what I’ve been using.

The canoe has been inside since Thursday evening—but it was really wet then, having been paddled for 6 hours, rained on, and then washed before I brought it in. So this evening will be 72 hours indoors. It feels dry, but if there is still moisture in the wood, the oil will not penetrate as it should.

This maintenance time is very hard on me, as I like to paddle 3 or 4 times a week.

You’re expecting oiling to make your
gunwales behave as if they were varnished. The oil protects the wood fibers near the surface, but unless you soak in about 20 coats like I do on harpsichord cases, the surface of the gunwales will remain porous and will act as if “wet” from water. Nevertheless, the wood fibers have been protected.

You also do not need to be ultra-perfectionist about how dry the wood is before oiling. It’s been dry a while, it feels dry, it’s dry.

Frequency of oiling
Sorry if I’m misreading your OP, Sissy, but it almost sounds as if you are trying to oil after every paddle.

I don’t see any reason to oil gunwales more than once every three months. For those who live in winter climates, that would be once at the beginning of the paddle season, once in the middle, and once before winter storage.

I have gone more than a decade without oiling some of my canoes and they still have been salvageable. I’m not recommending that, but just pointing out how long an oiled gunwale can last.

Some recommend applying oil in saturation amounts and then wiping off the excess after about 10 minutes. That can work okay for paddles, which you can let drip. However, if you try saturation oiling of gunwales, you may have a lot of dripping on the inside and outside of the hull. Hence, for gunwales, I just apply lightly with cheesecloth.

My question stemmed from having,
about 3 weeks ago, brought the canoe in, let it dry for about 36 hours, oiled it and then went paddling again. It looked great for several days, then started to get that dry look, sort of whitish. I thought perhaps the oil didn’t soak in well because the wood wasn’t dry enough.

So now it had 72 hours to dry out and I just put a good coat of Watco on it and it looks beautiful.

Heck no, I don’t oil after every paddle. But my boat is outside, in the sun, most of the time, and I live in Florida. I know it isn’t going to always look brand new, but I really don’t want the wood to rot before I’m too old to paddle. It is encouraging to hear of your experience with oiled gunwales lasting so long without care.

Paddling season here is 12 months long, but these summer months with almost daily rain keeping it damp most of the time, are the worst.

I really don’t have OCD, far from it, I’m somewhat of a slob and never want stuff that is high maintenance. But I am just besotted with this canoe and want to take care of it. What we do for love!

Oh, Florida, that’s different
As a former resident and frequent visitor to the Infra Red State, I can attest that everything there ages and rots faster.

Watch out! Your canoe will be wrinkled and you will be on Medicare before you know it.

Oiling frequency may thus be greater in Sarasota Bay than Georgian Bay.

My comments about frequency assumed a well-oiled canoe. It’s possible that your gunwales were very dry the first time you oiled it and really required more than one coat. I usually wait 24 hours between coats (more if humid). You can tell that you’ve put on a little too much when your last coat doesn’t dry and stays sticky or tacky after 48 hours.

As mentioned, oiled wood is not going to look like varnished wood – except maybe after years of constant oiling, sanding and rubbing like a furniture finisher.

I hear you
It’s like getting a new car and being ultra leary about people parking too close, shopping carts are all potential enemies, and you even get sad when you notice the new car smell starts to fade.

Watco Teak Oil is good stuff for gunwales. Some people may have other preferences, but I don’t think anyone is going to say the Watco is bad stuff.

Anyway, gotta let that ‘new car smell’ go, you’ll enjoy your boat a lot more if you aren’t stressing about it being in perfect condition. And the good thing about gunwales, even if you let them completely go and they rot and break, you can replace them. Not saying prevention is the best course, just saying, nothing there that can’t be fixed.

Perfect condition?
That is funny. You should see the bottom of my boat. When Rob Scharges (Vermont Canoe) goes paddling with me again in October, I’m going to make sure my boat is in the water before he arrives so he can’t see what I’ve done to his beautiful Tupper.

And did you have to mention “new car?” I think today is the day…

Try Naptha
Try cleaning the wood trim with naptha before oiling.

Try Penetrol
It will hide a multitude of small scratches.


Penetrol: miracle for gelcoat oxidation
I used Penetrol for the first time on my 25 year old Lotus Caper 7 weeks ago. The “disappearance” of the severe whitish gelcoat oxidation borders on the miraculous. It does conceal scratches by taking away their color.

I put 303 over the Penetrol.

I am waiting to see how long the effect lasts, since the oxidation is still there. After 7 weeks on top of my van in sun and LOTS of rain, I’d say the effect is still 90% there.

Thanks, Jim
I’m not really that worried about the scratches; I just want it to stay reasonably nice looking and above all, functional, for a long time.

Now I have a new car to obsess over. Getting the racks put on tomorrow and then it can begin to fulfill its destiny: taking me and my canoodle to the rivers.

If you are really lazy and don’t want to oil every couple of months, try real spar varnish.

It has been used for a few hundred years on wooden boats for good reason.

varnish gunwales
Of course you can varnish gunwales. Thwarts and seat frames in canoes are often varnished. Gunwales are more commonly not varnished, for a reason.

Gunwales are prone to getting scraped while storing the canoe, transporting the canoe, or by the paddle shaft when paddling. This tends to fairly quickly mar a nice bright finish. Also, gunwales are prone to quite a bit of flexing, especially in whitewater boats, and that flexing tends to crack or checker a bright finish.

A natural oiled finish is quick and easy to refresh. A bright varnished finish much less so.

Well, we can debate until the cows come

– Last Updated: Sep-01-09 8:09 PM EST –

home, but oil does not protect wood like varnish does. It has been used on ships and sailing vessels for several hundred years.

The only folks I ever hear about oil on gunwales from are people with wood gunwales on composite canoes. Someone, somewhere in the composite canoe world, got the idea that oil is better and the rumor exploded from there.

It is the same old story - people looking for a quick fix and using a cheap product that will cost them more in the long run. I find it odd that we find ourselves giving advice on how to replace gunwales so often - sure - part of it is poor storage, but I bet inadequate protection is a bigger part of the problem.

I restore old wood and canvas canoes. I rarely need to replace the gunwales - why? - because they were varnished!

The reasoning behind the rumor was something about varnish cracking and water getting in and causing rot. More likely it was polyurethane that cracked. Poly doesn't belong on boats either. Varnish is flexible and made to expand and contract with the wood on the boat.

You don't EVER hear about oil with wooden boat folks. It doesn't cut it. If you don't believe me take a trip over to WoodenBoat Forum or the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association and ask.

I think there was a p-netter who was finishing various woods with various finishes and exposing them to the elements and last I knew, I believe the oil was not working all that well.

I have original 80 to 100 year old varnished gunwales on some of my canoes. Varnish is the only way to go.

Maintenance - Every 5 to 8 YEARS or so, I might scuff my rails with 220 grit and add a fresh coat. How hard is that??

Okay, some folks like the oiled look (even though it may turn BLACK) - fine it is your canoe to do what you want with it, but if you are looking for protection and looking to avoid the need to replace wood gunwales, I think real marine spar varnish is what you want to use.

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depends on use
I suspect you are using your canvas on wood boats on calm water. For flatwater boats I am sure a bright finish is fine and may well make more sense than an oil finish.

For boats used on whitewater, especially the smaller, technical stuff we have in the east, gunwales take a lot of abuse. They get nicked up by rocks, when the boat is turned over to dump water, the occasional boat-over-boat rescue, and on those occasions in which the boat runs a rapid upside-down without its occupant.

After several whitewater runs I frequently go over my gunwales with 60 grit paper to smooth out the dings. A varnished finish would last about 2 trips, not 8 to 10 years.

Another reason for spar varnish
The empires who ruled the waves hundreds of years ago had an abundance of manpower (and boy power) to keep wooden surfaces well-varnished.

Being a navy of one, I like oil. Easy to touch up. Easy to apply. Simple and less sensitive to drying conditions. And I can wipe oil on a scuffe area (yep, I sometimes scuff my brightwork!) and go paddling an hour later. So what if I have to touch it up again? QED.

I believe it comes down to aestetics for many. Some greatly prefer a varnished look, and some, myself included like an oiled look. No right or wrong (dogma be damned!) just do what pleases you.


I believe I prefer
aluminum. As pretty as the wood is, it is more trouble than it is worth in this climate. If I lived up north and paddled three or four times a year instead of three or four times a week, it would be different.

Plenty of use.
I guess I won’t change anyone’s mind, but I fail to see why a hard, flexible, UV protecting finish (varnish) is not better than oiled wood. Pretty soon your hard use and 60 grit will reduce the rails to splinters.

Doesn’t add up.

FWIW, my canoes get plenty of use and abuse.