What to look for in used wood gunwales?

Just got a 1996 Mad River Malecite in Kevlar Lite with wood gunwales. Original owner said he never oiled the gunwales, hadn’t used the canoe in 10 years, only used it a few times (but enough to require patches to the hull) and kept it in a garage. What should I look for before the first oiling (and maybe sanding)? I’ve never had wood gunwales. They look sound, maybe a tiny split and a thin 1/2 inch chip along the top at the bow. I see a guide from Mad River at http://www.madrivercanoe.com/us/customer-service/faqs/gunwale-faqs, but wonder whether I should do anything differently at first. Thanks. Love the Malecite, by the way.

Color and hardness
Besides looking for gouges and cracks that you have all ready stated check the color of the wood. Grey or black can mean rot. Grey can just mean weathered and in need of a sanding.

After checking the color check for softness. If it feels spongy you have rot.

If the crack lookse to be any thing other than surface you may wish to “dig” it out with a Dremel. Drill holes at each end of the crack. Then fill in with marine epoxy and sand. Ugly but it works. Eds canoe has gunwales that can be shipped by UPS if needed.

Look out under the end caps. That seems to be were rot likes to hide. If you take of the gunwales to sand them make sure you do many coats of oil on the side that rest on the hull you will probably never get to oil that side again.

Welcome to the wood gunwale club. If you can store indoors they are the best. If you scratch them you can always jut touch them up with oil. Please be careful with your oil rags. Rags with oil used for gunwales can Spontaneous combust.

It can be hard to tell
Good advice there from ljk. I agree with the symptoms he said to look for.

However, sometimes I can’t tell. Years back, I set out to help a friend restore wood gunwales on a Mad River boat. The boat had been sitting outside for a few years and the gunwales were discolored, grey, and a flakey, but I thought they were sound. We decided to remove the gunwales so we could oil the surface that faced the hull. We were sanding them by hand and one of the outwales suddenly snapped in my friend’s hands.

Inspecting the broken remains, we surmised that on original installation, a screw had caused a split about an inch long on either side of a screw hole. Over the years, enough water had found its way into the crack to cause a pocket of dry rot to form. The gunwale was solid for the remainder of its length, but in about a 2" section, the inside of the wood had turned to powder. We failed to detect that damage while inspecting the gunwales before we started the job, and I don’t know how you’d discover it other than by accident. We felt lucky the accident happened when and where it did instead of on a river!

If the gunwales are really in bad shape, you might want to remove them so you can treat the back side of the gunwales. Be on the lookout for cracks! I don’t have much indoor storage for my boats, and therefore I avoid boats with wood gunwales. So, my experience with them is limited. The part of the gunwales that are up against the hull, I think should not need to be treated very often because they are out of the sun and not subject to scrapes and scratches. But who knows if they were ever treated before they were put on the boat?

Don’t forget the underside of the gunwales. I had one boat that an owner had done a great job of keep the parts you see oiled, but the underside, especially of the inwales towards the stems, hadn’t been oiled at all. When done paddling, we usually turn the boat upside down (usually on a rack). Any water on the hull runs down onto the underside of the gunwales, and from there it runs into the stems. Water on the top side of the gunwales runs off and the gunwale quickly dries. On the underside, the gunwale forms a little shelf and the water will sit there longer than it does on the top, so in a way, the underside is more important to treat than the top.

Sorry for long-windedness. For a guy that doesn’t know much about wood gunwales, I sure got wordy.

Good luck with your project and I wish you many years of happy paddling in your Malecite.


Appreciate the replies, thanks.