Universality of Gunwales

Hello all!

Total noob here (in all respects). I’m about to embark on the restoration of a ‘77 fiberglass Mohawk. It currently has banged up, aluminum gunwales which I’d like to replace. I’ve seen a lot of options regarding materials, vinyl and ash seeming to be the most preferred. My question is, if I purchase gunwales pre-made (I’d obviously have to fit them to the ‘noe) are they universal? Supposing there are both universal and non-universal options, are universal options worth it?

Thanks for dealing with my noobishnish. I hope to become a valuable member of the community one day.


p.s., assuming it hasn’t already caught on, I hope my “‘noe” abbreviation is acceptable. I did a similar thing with barbecue. As I don’t like Australian vernacular I started saying “‘cue” in place of barbecue. I’ve heard plenty of others say it, so it’s probably not my innovation alone, but I’d like to think I have a somewhat unique influence on l’academie anglaise :wink:

Gunwales can vary a lot.
Ash has to be steamed into place, Aluminum has a lot of memory. Vinyl might be the easiest to work with, since you can’t order 1977 Mohawk gunwales from a catalogue.

1 Like

Thanks for your reply. As I’m going to be using the ‘noe with my 10 y.o. son, I’m worried aluminum presents an unacceptable risk of laceration (assuming we break a gunwale and it becomes dangerous).

Then again, I suppose a piece of wood could easily turn itself into a spear.

Aluminum is very flexible and malleable. Even a wrapped canoe will not usually break aluminum gunwales. It just folds them up. Ash is much more likely to splinter.

1 Like

You will have way more to worry about if you manage to snap an aluminum gunwales.

Vinyl would be pretty easy to do. Just need to rivet it on, which can be done with a hand riveter. No special skills or significant time required. Just drill new holes.

1 Like

Well Andrew, I appreciate your unique influence. Given your fluency in French I’ll just comment that some of our Canadian friends use cherry. C’est bonne, n’est pas?

1 Like

I recently ordered two canoes with cherry gunwales. It is sure a pretty wood.

One thing to be aware of is that it darkens over time.

1 Like

It could be worth taking the risk. I’ve had this boat over 25 years and the cherry outwales, thwarts and seat haven’t darkened too badly. :wink:


I wouldn’t say it is a bad thing, just an FYI as it is a little unique compared to most other woods

1 Like

Ah, oui Tom, c’est un joli bois. Je me demande en fait si les québécois n’étaient pas les premiers européens de découvrir le canoë (après les amérindiens, bien sûr). :wink: Désolé si mon français n’est pas parfait. J’essaye toujours.


Nice boat Tom. I have an old beater Old Town w/c but I am in love with it.

Thanks to all for your advice. I’ll post updates (once the weather is nice enough for me to start on this)!

Aluminum gunwales can be really difficult to fit to the canoe because they are straight and stiff when you get them and they need to be made to conform to the shape of the boat. I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think vinyl gunwales are compatible with a fiberglass hull. The ones I have seen have a wide slot to accommodate the thickness of a Royalex hull. The fiberglass hull is not as thick and the gunwales would fit poorly. That leaves wood as your best and easiest option.



And expensive to ship! Often shipping is more than the cost of the gunwale. Canoe makers have machinery to prebend the gunwales to the desired shape. You would have to make a bending jig.
Cherry is pretty available and reasonably priced and we have used it for replacement of gunwales ( because we did not want to meddle with the difficulty of aluminum). It is actually a commonly used wood for wooden gunwales second to ash which some detest ( me among them)

Tom L ;s boat has multiple coats of varnish carefully sanded between coats for UV protection. I have a similar Loon Works boat and no darkening at all over 24 years. Or if it has its quite lovely. But the maker took care in preparation of the finished product.

1 Like

I use cherry on all of the woodstrips I build. Its weight difference from ash is negligible and is flexible enough that you don’t have to steam it.

Two coats of epoxy and then three properly laid coats of quality varnish is good for three to five years, then sand and re-do the varnish. The 3-5 depends on how it is stored, more than how often used.

Never had it darken.

1 Like

I have rerailed several canoes with ash gunwales and have never had to steam the wood.

1 Like

And I have bent a couple of alu gunwales. They never can be bent back to shape. Not broken but creased and that crease is a weak point. One boat we left the bent gunwale alone, drilled out the alu from the other boat and replaced it with cherry.

1 Like