Removing & refinishing MR wood gunnels


I just got a 1990 Mad River Kevlar Explorer that from the looks of the underside of the gunnels - spent storage time outdoors. I want to sand them down, check them out and recondition them before paddle season. One of the wooden decks has also separated and needs reglued/repaired.

Has anyone done this? Other than removing the screws, is this a big deal? Anything I need to be careful of - especially since its KEVLAR?

I know about Watco from another one I owned and sold, but having used Boiled Linseed Oil successfully for years on many other things - any reasons to NOT use it on the gunnels? Since they are kinda weathered, I am planning on letting it soak in good on all of the gunnels’ edges/crevices.

Thanks to all that reply. - A

Congrats on your acquisition!

– Last Updated: Feb-25-09 7:12 PM EST –

And glad to hear that you are interested in protecting it.

There are several schools of thought here on P-Net. One is to continue with Watco Exterior Oil. That is what MR used for the boat originally.

Another school opf thought is to make your own treatment: 1/3 boiled linseed, 1/3 varnish, 1/3 turp. Many here swear by this.

I have been using Watco Teak oil at the suggestion of N.T., one of P-Net's long-time posters. So far I like the darker appearance and the seemingly greater "buffability" as compared to WEO.

Mike McCrea is in the middle of a weathering test as we speak: several wood treatments (including the linseed/varnish/turp mix). He might weigh in as well.

Glad to hear that you are going to remove the gunwales before sanding and treatment.


I think the linseed oil will be fine, as
long as you renew it when needed. There are no issues with the Kevlar.

Some hints on “letting it soak-in good”

– Last Updated: Feb-25-09 8:37 PM EST –

Hint #1: Boiled-linseed oil lathered on thick and allowed to soak will create a nasty, gummy mess in an hour or two. I found out the hard way.

Hint #2: (Courtesy of Arkay ("The old woodshop teacher has spoken")). Dilute the linseed oil with turpentine and it will soak-in more easily.

Hint #3: There is no Hint #3.

Hint #4: Multiple light applications, with the excess wiped off each time, usually work better than one heavy application.

decks are glued
The decks are glued to the inwhales, so don’t be surprised. Also expect to find the boat extremely dirty and probably muddy under the outwhales.

Explorer Redo
I refinished my Explorer about 10 yrs ago and sanded the wood down to new look and applied tung oil. Only prob I had was my “new” gunnels were a little thinner and my royalex hull stuck up a little higher between them. I would like to here a fix for this if someone has ideas.

Thanks, doods - BUT - as first stated, I know how to use linseed oil. What I really wanna know is - any tricky things coming up here wit hremoving gunnels? Just back out all the screws - DON’T sand down too much -and refinish/replace?

nermal - THanks! Have wondered how that was attached for years. Both outer edges of one deck are sticking up and have obviously been 're-glued." After removing and checking it out, I wonder if I should drill some countersunk holes,and screw that deck to its inwales?

Thanks, folks!

What I Did
There’s not really much to it. Remove the screws and save them, I put mine in an old coffee can which I then misplaced, do not follow my lead! :wink: After you’ve treated your gunwales you might want to off set them a bit from the orginal holes, we did that on Scottb’s big boat and maybe someone else can add some insight on that. Clamps, clamps, and more clamps is what you are going to need and even better if you can get a helper the extra set of hands helps big time. I have always started in the middle and worked my out alternating direction as I work towards the bow and stern.

As for the deck(s), on my Malecite the decks were so rotten they literally crumbled. I add new ones by doing just what you suggested, drilled through the side of the gunwales and attached them but I didn’t glue them in case I wanted to do something different down the road.

I’m no expert but have done this kind of thing to 3 canoes now. Good luck!


Don’t remove too much wood
from the tops of the rails. The outwales are rabbeted and don’t have a lot to spare on the top sides.

Check condition of the undersides of the outwales at the ends. Poke at them with the end of a small screwdriver and exert some real pressure to be sure that they’re solid. If someone has removed the decks, it was for a reason. I find that suspicious.

Contact Openboater here or at Vermont Canoe. He has a bunch of new OEM MRC decks that might be right for your canoe, should you need them.

Call me…
cell 802-793-7549. I’d be happy to talk through some of this with you, if you want.


Might ah’ also soogest…
Yer git yer’self some SS screws de same size as de ones in yer gunnels jus’ in case yer strip some o’ de old ones waan yer remove dem - a common occurrence. Also a new screwdriver bit or screwdriver itself ta reduce de chance o’ stripin’ de aformentooned screws.


Thanks everyone!

dougd - Clamps? do the gunnels kinda ‘spring’ off?

‘Offset them’? Ummm, whaddaya mean and WHY? : )

openboater - thank you, i sure will if I need help.

It’s a real treat to get such positive responses. Thanks to all of you for your morale support and ideas - y’all rock!


  • tktoo: what the heck is “OEM”?

I’m watching this thread too!
Sorry if my remarks on boiled-linseed oil missed the mark. The way the stuff acts during a good soaking is very different from how it acts during normal application, so I thought it couldn’t hurt to mention that stuff.

I have a set of Blackhawk gunwales out in my garage right now which are in the middle of being re-sanded and oiled. I saw the same feature regarding the rabit edge on the outwale that someone here mentioned, but I think I dealt with it okay.

Yes, the gunwales had some “spring” in them when removed, but on this particular boat, it was not severe. I’m expecting to need lots of clamps to put them back on, but I don’t get the impression that the process will be overly difficult. Even so, I’ll be interested in hearing how this works out for you.

If we (the boat owner and I) get the gunwales re-installed on the Blackhawk before this thread has run its course, I’ll let you know how it went.

hey, guideboatguy…
NO problaymo! : ) I appreciate your input and look forward to more. I have never mixed it with turpentine, just used it straight. I work it in, let it sit and buff it off now for decades with excellent success on all kinds of hard use tools. I guess the turp makes it thinner and the job quicker. I always thought the whole Watco thing was kind of a ripoff, when you look at what they charge for that stuff! Can’t imagine BLO letting me down on this project!

Good luck with YOUR gunnels!

Royalex is different beast
Composite boats use a kerfed outwale, Royalex boats use two un-kerfed rails. If the Royalex is sticking up, use a belt sander and sand it smooth. The Royalex is much softer than ash and it will quickly even it out. You will need to finish sand the gunwales and apply a finish, but you’ll return to your smooth top.

Typically . . .
MRC used 1 1/4" screws for composite boats for the gunwales except near the deck plates where 2" or 2 1/2" screw passed through the inwale into the deck. The decks were also glued in. They do rot pretty quickly on the underside. If after sanding, the top looks good but the under sides are ugly, give them a good coat of epoxy to strengthen them. If your decks are book-matched butternut, then the new MRC decks will not work. Mad River tweaked the Explorer at the same time they shifted from book-matched butternut to 1-piece ash deck. They are not the same shape and will not fit. Gunwales that have been on a boat for a long time don’t have much spring in them. New rails which haven’t conformed to the hull are a battle to put on. Start removing screws from both ends to unload the flex. Take out the center screws last and you’ll find it much easier. Same with install, do the center first, then work toward the ends. You may want to write on the unseen ends of the gunwales in a permanent marker, LF (left front) RF (right front) LR and RR. Removes all doubt when it comes to reinstalling them. It is also required by law to have a serial number in two places on a boat, one the right rear of the hull, and the other being someplace hidden. I’ve found a lot of those hidden places to be under a gunwale. It’s kind of like finding meaningless hidden treasure.

Have fun, make your boat beautiful, and get it done soon so you can return to paddling.

I replaced
the rotted gunwales on two Curtis boats, a Nomad and a Ladybug. I made new ones from White Ash. I also replaced the decks that were shot with new Cherry ones with a nice figure. Be carful removeing the old gunwales, if you intend to reuse them, using plenty of clamps to hold it in place while removing the screws. The gunwales are thin and will break easily if allowed to drop down while still attached with a couple of screws. If you plan on making new decks make a thin cardboard templete first after the gunwales are reinstalled so that the joint between is tight. There is nothing worse looking than lousy joints. Undercut the rear of the new decks to make it more comfortable for the hand when picking up the boat. Make the decks slightly domed - thicker in the middle than the edges - it will look better espescially with the undercut rear edge. I always use spar varnish, not oil, I like the look better. I always figured the canoe companies used oil not because it was better but because it was easier, quicker and cheaper to apply. Regardless of what you use store the boat inside snd it will not be a problem.


J Curtis

Spring in Gunwales

– Last Updated: Feb-27-09 4:54 PM EST –

Well, I did this by myself and it was a bear and the boat was 16' 6" so it was along stretch. Yeah, I swore a lot as I walked up and down the canoe trying to get the inners and outters lined up and clamping them into place before drilling new holes. Like I said, I ain't no expert but this has worked for me. I use something like 15 clamps per side to get everything lined up. Goes a like quicker with another person there.

Off setting the screw holes! Can someone else chirp in here? The old holes are worn/close to the rim of the canoe/worn out. Maybe throw some fiberglass on the existing hole or depend on them to hold it all together if you reuse them. I've done both and both approaches have held up fine.