Opinions on wood vs. aluminum gunnels

I am still thinking about putting wood gunnels on my 16’

kevlar tandem canoe. I’ve been checking on availability,

and my last obstacle is the concern that maybe the wood

gunnels would not hold up to the stresses of transport.

I strap the canoe onto the top of a van. Right now, the

canoe has only 1 center thwart. There is no question

about formed high tech aluminum being stronger than

wood, but for practical canoe purposes, does this apply?

My paddling is flat water, so no issue there. I have

seen new canoes with wooden gunnels, and they usually

have an extra thwart.

Can anybody offer an opinion about the differences of

wood and aluminum gunnels, maybe on the same canoe?

wood vs aluminum
Wood will bend and return to it’s original shape, aluminum can bend a stay bent. This should not be much of a factor for you but my brother bent one of his aluminum gunnels when he sliped on a portage and it’s still bent.

I have also found that wood is quieter than aluminum as well as heavier.

16 foot kevlar canoe
with one thwart in the center seem quite unsupported.

I have seventeen canoe ranging from thirteen to eighteen and a half feet and all have more than one thwart. The purpose of the thwart is to hold the hull shape. Gunwales dont do that.

Transport…I travel thousands of miles a year trucktopping wooden railed boats and have never had any failure.

I have had one do a barrel roll on the highway because I forgot to tie it down(duh) and there was no damage to the boat from rail failure as there was no failure.

Not so from accidents with aluminum railed boats. A couple of on water incidents over thirty five years have had aluminum rail failure.

But the final wonderment I have is if you have a Kevlar boat with aluminum rails ostensibly you got it for weight savings. Putting wooden rails on (thats been another thread here) is not an afternoons lark. It takes 20 hours or so of muscle…and meanwhile your one thwart boat is struggling bare of rails to hold its shape.

I would look for another project.

Aluminum is carefree.
Wood a pain in the A…

I am into maintenance free boating. Sponge it down, hang it up.

Not into checking screws. Loosening screws for winter, then remembering to tighten all in spring. Oiling or varnishing wood each year, yuck.

But if you are the type that likes to work on stuff to be fulfilled, that would be the perfect project to tackle. Not only would it be very challenging aligning the already drilled holes to your new gunnel set. You can be further rewarded by guaranteeing yourself a fall project of loosening them, then refinish the rails and tighten them each spring. Plus you get the advantage of constant monitoring throughout the season. It would be a dream come true for the OCD type.

there is no need to loosen
screws on a wood railed kevlar boat.

You are thinking wood railed ABS boats where there may be differential expansion and contraction between wood and ABS.

I love wood
My bro’s kevalr wenonah sundowner has wood and wood rules. Aluminum is so walmart

wood gunwales
I have several wood trimmed whitewater canoes which have taken a beating and I have never broken a gunwale. I don’t think that wood is necessarily weaker than aluminum, nor is it necessarily heavier.

My 16’ 6" wood-trimmed MRC Kevlar Explorer has a single center thwart.

Some canoes have very lightweight extruded aluminum gunwales, like Wenonahs, and in that case wood trim is a little heavier. A number of whitewater canoes come with vinyl-covered large aluminum gunwales, and in that case ash gunwales were often a little lighter.

Some companies have sometimes put poorly-shaped aluminum gunwales on hulls that have distorted the intended shape. Wood, having more flex, tends to better conform to the hull shape. An example was the original MRC Outrage, to which (I am told) Mad River applied aluminum gunwales that had been designed for another boat and distorted the flare.

I have a number of Royalex wood-trimmed boats that are stored in an unheated environment. I don’t loosen the gunwale screws and have only had a “cold crack” in one boat, this being a whitewater boat where a small crack originated at a gunwale screw near the bow stem. I’m not even sure that didn’t result from bashing the bow into rocks, rather than differential contraction in the cold.

Wood gunwales pose absolutely no problem in terms of transport. They do require maintenance with periodic sanding and oiling (some use varnish). The best reasons not to have wood gunwales are they are more expensive and require more care. The most common reason to have them is esthetics.

For equivalent boat stiffness, ash
is going to be stronger than aluminum. Yeah, aluminum may not split, but it will bend in ways that can’t be corrected.

Still, for lake boats, I favor aluminum, because the boat will be lighter. The only way to achieve the same degree of lightness with wood is to turn to Sitka spruce (maintenance issues) or to thin the ash to the point that it will not be as stiff as the same weight of aluminum.

aluminum bends
Just last week my Bell Northstar in Kevlight and aluminum was sitting on saw horses outside. A large limb fell atop if and ripped the kev as well as bent the gunwhale. didn’t crush, but just bent it enough that it now holds it shape slightly off skew. I am replacing with wood this week as well as doing kevlar repair.

I went to edscanoe.com and ordered gunwhales that come in pieces and all new wood parts. I plan to take pictures of the process.


– Last Updated: Apr-11-10 5:50 PM EST –

Wood is usually screwed through the upper laminate every six inches or so, and clasps that laminate tightly if the rabbet is slightly back angled.

Most aluminum rails touch the laminate at each pop rivet but allow the laminate to rattle between, as the inwale side is loose and ripples under compression. [Swift and bell have addressed this issue with two piece rails; a John Winters concept.]

Both systems have a good horizontal leg through which seats and thwarts can be rigidly mounted. The old Sawyer/Moore system of crushing thwart ends and double pop riveting to the rail underside is lame. We know where the rail is weakened and where it will fail.

I remember the difference between the Sawyer solo 13 w/ alu rails and the Classic, same mold, same laminate with wood. The wood railed hull was stiffer, more solid, and much higher performing. Same song with Bell WildFires.

And, after a maximum credible accident, with a wood trimmed hull we have fire starter too!

I know…
I know what I like; wood trim on my canoes, and wood paddles.

I don’t know which is “best”, or if “best” can be proven, and even if “best” could be proven, I’d still like wood trim on my canoes, and wood paddles.

Even if it was proven NOT the “best”.


I like low maintenance.
I get no joy from maintaining wood gunwales. I may never sand them - just add oil when they need it. Didn’t have any boats with wood gunwales until three years ago, but now have four. I’d rather have a no maintenance option for them, but don’t have $3k for a new boat with composite gunwales. Have no interest in ever replacing any gunwales with anything.

I don’t tolerate varnish fumes at all. Watco oil is tolerable.

I’ve got no indoor workspace.

Paddling my boats is my hobby, not maintaining them.

I do what I need to to keep the rails structurally sound, but would prefer not to have to maintain them at all.

Maybe royalex boats with aluminum trim are all that I should be allowed to own.

If anyone believes that my wood trimmed boats are being treated inhumanely, you are welcome to intervene with an outrageous cash payment to save them from me.

You need to get you an old Perception HD-1.

I’ll trade you my HD-1 even up for those wood trimmed boats.

You won’t have to worry about maintenance; it’s nearly indestructible. It’ll will keep your paddling partners entertained, watching you do stupid paddling tricks & you might even end up as the subject of a pnet photo of the week.

It’s a classic too.



P.S. I’m here to help you out, whenever I can.

Aren’t those things very heavy?
I don’t need another stinking heavy boat.

You’re retired and have work space. I suspect that both of those make boat maintenance easier.

Regarding boat tricks. My recently acquired modified Bell Flashfire seems to spin like a top compared to my Curtis Lady Bug, which the Flashfire is supposed to be nearly identical to. This Flashfire has 1" wider gunwales and a kneeling thwart.

Bob, I didn’t know that you had
an HD-1 too. I just assumed your garage was filled with Blackhawks! The HD-1 sure was an…interesting hull. Brings back memories.



I like to throw a monkey wrench (HD-1) into a well oiled machine every now & then; just to hear the gears grind.

Blackhawk count is down to 9.

A Dagger, 2 Mad River, a Swift, a Lotus, a Chestnut, a Wenonah, 2 Bells, and a Hemlock round out the mini fleet. Recently sold an Old Town & a Mohawk.

Still “lookin”.


I’ve got both.
Royalex w/ aluminum live outdoors. Kevlar w/ wood gets stored inside. Works great for me that way.

Maintenance is a pain…
but wood looks a lot nicer IMHO.

Don’t know about kevlar…
…but my fiberglass Malecite (with wood gunwales, of course) has no extra thwart. In fact - it has a center seat instead of a thwart. And it seems plenty rigid.

My beat-up Penobscot has aluminum rails (don’t they all?). They were bent pretty bad when I bought it (for cheap). It took a lot of effort to re-bend them to a shape closely resembling, but not exactly, the way they came.

On a nicer boat, I would tend toward leaving the existing rails as they are until damage necessitates some action. Then I would consider replacing with wood.

My 15 foot Old Town Penobscot had wood gunwales & brass deck plates.

The gunwales were most definitely built to last; strongest looking gunwales I’ve ever seen on a canoe.