Old Town Canadienne Repair

-- Last Updated: Feb-24-12 11:55 PM EST --

I have a 1982 OT Canadienne with Wooden mahogany Gunnels. Last year I took my brother out canoeing for the first time and flipped the boat 3 times. Now The gunnels need some refinishing. I was wondering if there was A SPECIFIC METHOD I should be using or if stripping and refinishing is the right thing to do. Thanks

Mahogany gunwales oiled or varnished?
Ash gunwales are usually oiled. Mahogany is more rot-resistant, and certainly could be oiled, though varnish looks pretty.

If you want to varnish, you’ll need to strip and sand, and the difficult question will arise as to whether to loosen or remove the gunwales so you can get at the hidden faces. Obviously you want to use a high quality spar varnish that will stand up to UV.

I would oil them. If they’re varnished now, strip and sand, and then wipe on several coats of exterior oil such as Watco, wiping between per instructions. Again, it would be desirable to oil the hidden faces.

Let us know if you find any cracks or damage. If you keep trying to drown your brother, you’ll eventually need some ash gunwales.

The usual
Most gunwales are either varnished or oiled. Oil is nice and much easier to do, but it doesn’t protect as well for boats left outside. To do this, just sand the gunwales down and apply a coat of Watco teak oil finish thinned a bit. Then apply another coat or two, and keep applying a coat every 6 months or so.

Varnish makes a nice finish, but takes about 6-10 coats to build up a protective layer. This means thorough sanding, dust removal, and applying the coats at least 24 hours apart in a dust free, low humidity environment of the right temperature. Buy top quality marine varnish (generally not available at Home Depot - even if it is labeled spar varnish) and follow the instructions. This is a bigger project than it might seem, but it makes for a very weather resistant finish.

Old Town Canadienne Repair

– Last Updated: Feb-24-12 11:52 PM EST –

Thanks for the advice! I am looking forward to start work on my project. And just wait until I try to teach my brother to drive!

Lovely canoe
I own an Old Town Ranger of about the same vintage. It has very similar trim. The original finish was varnish and I have stripped and re-varnished several times. It is a lot of work. Oil has the advantage of requiring less work to maintain. One thing I will mention. Those brass end caps are nice looking (mine has the same end caps) but they trap water and I think they contribute to rot developing in the ends of the gunwales. Mine certainly has a lot of rot even though it has always been stored indoors. Keep an eye on that. Might even consider removing the caps for the off season and refinishing that area each year.

Drill the endcaps

– Last Updated: Jun-01-12 6:16 PM EST –

You are correct that you will experience rot from water trapped by the brass endcaps. In fact, if you don't make a small modification, you will experience rot no matter what you do or how you store your canoe because some water will inevitably get into the canoe and will ride down and along the inner gunnels when you turn the canoe over. That water will run down to the tip of the bow and stern and be trapped by the end caps and rot will happen then. That's why you should definitely drill a hole at the very end of the brass end caps to allow that water to drain. I drilled three small holes in the very end of each cap in case one becomes plugged. It even looks nice! That is the usual practice and I'm amazed that canoe manufacturers sometimes don;t provide any provision to drain water from the stem and stern. I had bad rot and had to replace my inner ash gunnels. My outer gunnels are mahogany and that held up fine. It was a fairly big job but I then drilled the holes and made sure that I the wood under the end caps was finished very well. In fact, I soaked several coats of thinned linseed oil deep into the wood and then varnished it. (The oil and varnish are compatible and, in fact, most varnishes have linseed oil bases anyway.) I have never had rot again. It worked perfectly.

By the way, oil or varnish are both fine but I would use oil. I've been finishing and refinishing wood for many decades, even professionally. But I would not use Watco if it is an interior grade. You want an oil that remains flexible over a long period of time. Linseed oil is traditional but you can mix a little (or a lot) of varnish into the final coats to build up some surface. If you do that, you can wipe it into the wood just as you do with just oil. I have been doing this for decades even for fine furniture and musical instruments with great results. Just remember to choose an oil or varnish that will remain flexible. Don't use interior varnish. Also, you will probably find that straight varnish will chip and not hold up too well where your paddle rubs againt the gunnels. Oil will hold up beautifully and you can simply rub in extra coats any time you like. Again, go with oil but add a little varnish for "body" if you like.