restoring my canoe gunnels

Hi everybody! Just joined up.

I picked up a canoe last year and even though I thought that oiling up the gunnels and keeping it tarped would be okay, it was not. Now my gunnels look nothing like the semi-glory they were when I bought this lovely boat used. Can someone let me know what I can do outside of just replacing them? I was thinking about sanding everything down with a power sander and then reapplying teak oil. Good Idea or Bad Idea?

I really do love this boat and somehow thought I was taking care of it. Now it’s killing me to see it looking mangy.

Thanks for any help you can give!

Good for you for noticing before it got worse, caring, and for asking for help. The 1st 2 pics don’t look too bad. 3rd pic makes me worry a bit, but I’d still say, remove (this is debatable) sand (if you must use a power sander, NOT a disc-type - use the vibrator or oscillating kind) and oil. If you try and sand them on the boat, protect the hull with something thick, like duct tape; I don’t think masking tape will be enough.

If you possibly can, find a way to get the boat into a more protected situation. if it must live outside under the tarp, perhaps much more frequent oiling would save the wood. If it’s really humid there, like in Louisiana, where I am, plenty of air circulation also can help.

Sand down to bare wood… Your gunwales look like you oiled them but they were partly oiled over some old varnish. You gotta get that off… If you are in the winter, the dry air requires that you oil every month… Yes every month… We have a teak table outside that looks like crap now as I didn’t do that. The winter before I did every month ( interesting in below freezing temps)

I agree. The first photo looks as if the gunwales had been varnished and the varnish was wearing off. A varnish finish that is worn through can tend to trap moisture in the wood beneath the intact varnish. An oil finish is great if you keep up with it, and you may need to do that quite often depending on climate, use, and storage conditions.

Sand it down to bare wood, then finish it with Varathane Spar Urethane outdoor water based clear gloss. This is the best finish I’ve found in decades of wood working. Application is very simple and easy, but it does require some detail. It will take several coats before the finish really looks and feels right and the first few coats will need to be lightly sanded between coats. This stuff drys to the touch in about five minutes, but it needs about 24 hours to cure, so I usually only do about two coats per day. For the first few coats that will need light sanding; it should dry overnight before sanding.

All of this probably sounds like a lot of trouble, but I assure you that it is very quick and painless, because the actual application is so easy. You will need a very high quality fine finish brush for best results. There is no finish that will not require at least annual attention if it is exposed to the outdoors, but here again, the water based urethane is very easy to keep nice. A quick once over with fine sandpaper, or scotch pad, wipe, or brush away the dust and recoat–15-20 minutes and you’re done. You never need to sand it down to bare wood again, especially if you stay on top of it. Clean the brush with hot soap and water and let dry.

@magooch said:
Sand it down to bare wood, then finish it with Varathane Spar Urethane outdoor water based clear gloss. >


After you do yours, would you mind taking care of mine :wink:

I simply do not store boats with wooden gunwales outside. I have not found any type of cover that will keep the wood dry. Wind-driven rain blows in underneath and then runs along the gunwales to the ends where it keeps the decks wet for days. You will continually have to keep up with maintenance and eventually you’ll have to replace everything.


Hey everybody, I thought that I’d set it up so I would get an email when someone responded so until now I just thought this post was floating out in the ether unanswered. So I apologize for the delay in getting back to you.

Thanks for all the great advice.

When I bought the boat, the fella who sold it to me said to give it a once over with Watson Teak Oil at the beginning and end of every season. I’m out here in Portland OR, so it’s wet for 9 months of the year and unfortunately I only have a studio room. So the canoe has to live outside. I store it on brackets hanging off the side of a house and then tarp it.

So if I’m hearing all of this correct, I should forget about the Teak Oil and:

  1. sand it down to bare wood
  2. use duct tape to cover anything that isn’t wooden
  3. apply Varathane Spar Urethane, only 2 coats a day
  4. do several coats before satisfied
  5. reapply at the start and end of each season


Doubt you will need to do it that often…just as needed

As needed, got it.

I picked up some Varathane Spar Urethane from home depot and I’ll get started sanding tomorrow. If I feel like it’s restored to its previous beauty I’ll post some pics so you guys can see what you helped with.

I hope you got the water based urethane. There is no need to use duct tape on anything, You will only need about a one inch wide brush and if you are careful you won’t even have to use masking tape. Even if you get a little on the boat it won’t hurt a thing.

On second thought, you might want to use some masking tape while you are sanding, so you don’t sand the boat. I wouldn’t try using a power sander on the underside of the gunnel, though–maybe a scraper–carefully.

Be sure to shake the can up vigorously before you open it. Apply the urethane sparingly and don’t be discouraged when it raises the grain on the wood. This is expected and that is why the light sanding after the first few coats dry. Do not sand immediately after it feels dry, which only takes about five minutes. Let it dry for at least a few hours. After maybe three, or four coats the wood grain should remain smooth, but you still might need to sand very lightly between coats with fine paper, or Scotch pad. Eight to ten coats will probably get the finish you’re looking for and you can do it over a period of time whenever you have a few spare minutes. There is no reason you can’t use the boat before the finishing process is complete. I would suggest no more than two finish coats per day as the urethane will need some time to completely cure–even though it will feel dry to the touch.

From the pictures, it doesn’t look like the gunnels have water stained, so it might not be necessary to do anymore than just sand the wood smooth before proceeding with the finish work if you are satisfied with the coloring. The urethane dries completely clear, so it will not tint the coloring of the wood at all. If there is some discoloring of the wood after the initial sanding, you might want to consider staining it to get a more consistent coloring, but you will only be able to go with a bit darker color unless you want to try to bleach the wood, which might not be worth the trouble.

I think the earlier recommendation for using duct tape was to prevent accidental damage to the hull during sanding (not going back to check right now), rather than something to do when applying your wood treatment.

If I were you, I’d remove the gunwales and do a thorough job, especially if you are going to use something like varnish or urethane. If you are going to seal the wood that way, it makes no sense to not seal the surface that’s wet more of the time than any other! A common recommendation is to skip thorough sealing with varnish or similar products if the gunwales see much abuse. It’s much easier to touch-up rough spots if you go with oil. The natural delay that there will be in fixing damaged spots if you used varnish or urethane will simply let the water soak in at those spots and have minimal ability to get back out again.

If you take off the gunwales, you can even use a powerful sander without fear. I did this on one canoe that had unusually delicate gunwales, yet with judicious use of a belt sander (I can already hear people gasping at this), I finished each strip in just a few minutes, without there being even a hint of “overdoing it”. An orbital sander would have required a good two hours of work on each strip (I know because that’s how I started out the job).

If all you do is apply oil, perhaps you can get by with not removing the gunwales, but every once in a while, loosen up the screws to let applied oil work its way around to hidden surfaces.

Finally, I bet you have thought of this, but with some lumber and a bit of rope, you can make a tarp shelter that is not in contact with the boat and also won’t allow rain to blow inside. I have a utility trailer with a wooden cargo box for which I rigged an overhanging “lid” with a tarp over it, and even in the wettest weather, the wood of that trailer stays as dry as if it were parked in its own little shed. Most people who protect boats with tarps don’t put much as much effort into the job as they could, and it ends up being a moist environment, but there’s no reason a tarp shelter can’t be as dry inside as any other kind.

@Guideboatguy said:
A common recommendation is to skip thorough sealing with varnish or similar products if the gunwales see much abuse. It’s much easier to touch-up rough spots if you go with oil. The natural delay that there will be in fixing damaged spots if you used varnish or urethane will simply let the water soak in at those spots and have minimal ability to get back out again.

I think this line is very pertinent to my situation.

This boat is certainly going to continue seeing some heavy use. I’d like to think I’m not being abusive to it; but the fact is that I’m just one person trying to move it, load it onto the ladder rack of my truck, carry it down a river bank, and then do it all over again going home. It’s gonna keep getting dings and scrapes.

So if varnishing the boat means that it will be more susceptible to water damage through scratched and dinged up spots, that is not the best route for me to go. If I don’t varnish, does that mean I should go through this process of sanding and then use the Teak Oil? I don’t mind oiling it often, I quite enjoy the work, my only problem is that late Fall through early Spring won’t provide me a sunny/dry day to do it.

I have looked into creating some way to keep it out of the sun and rain, but because of my living situation, I can’t do much more than hang it on the house and tarp it. Even that was kinda up in the air for a while and it was looking like I may have had to get rid of it. If I had my own place, I would tinker and toy with things to make proper coverings for my gear and give stuff the bomb-proof storage it deserves. But for now, you work with what you got.

I wouldn’t say that using varnish etc., makes the boat more susceptible to water damage. Ultimately the opposite should be true, except that for most of us, damaged spots are likely to stay bare for a longer time in the case of dinged-up varnish versus a dinged-up oil finish. I’m sure some will say that dings in varnish or similar coatings can be fixed rapidly, but in real life I think most people would find the time to dab some oil on the wood a lot sooner than they’d find time to prep, then put a few coats of varnish, etc. on every little ding, especially when for a lot of people, during the summer there is seldom enough time between uses of the boat for proper varnish application. Then again, as time goes on many of us get lazy about keeping up with the oil, too, though outdoor storage would be pretty good motivation to keep up with it.

Don’t forget, you can put padding on the ladder rack of your truck. I have carpeting fastened to my roof bars, and my wood-gunwaled boats get loaded and unloaded by sliding the gunwales on the bars with no scratching or scuffing.

One of the reasons I use water based urethane is exactly because it is so quick and easy to repair.

Can I use the Teak Oil before the Urethane to give it more color? Sanding it down shows just how light the wood is and I’d prefer it have a more… I don’t know… “wood” look.

From the pictures you posted, I would say that in order to stain the wood properly, you would have to sand it down to the bare wood and depending on what type of finish is on there now, that might take a lot of sanding. You would have to thoroughly remove every bit of the previous finnish, or the staining would be spotty. By the way, varnishing is not the way to color the wood–albeit there are colored varnishes, but that is another discussion.

If the wood is presently fairly consistent in color, I would only sand enough to achieve a very smooth surface and proceed with the finishing (apply the urethane as previously discussed).

The wood color is pretty good overall, but the wood beneath the surface it is very light in color. That means that when I sand it down, it will be a white wood color. I do not believe there is varnish on it right now because the owner told me to just use the teak oil for protection. I hand sanded down a small area and it came off quite easily but lost its color in the process.

So I was thinking of sanding it down to the wood, then applying the teak oil (which adds color), and finishing it up with the urethane as a sealant. The oil adds color and I believe that several coats will get it as dark and, (though I’d like it darker) even if it doesn’t, the color of the oil is an acceptable shade for me.

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