WOOD GUNWALES : How do you sand them? How do you protect them?

Long time paddler, First time canoe owner! The dream has come true - I bought my first 2nd hand canoe (16ft 1999 Scott River Dancer kevlar). The gunwales (and deck plate) are wood and they clearly need some love, I assume sanding and some sort of protective coating (they seem dry and rough). How should I do this? Hand sanding? Palm sanding? What grit? What oil / varnish / finish is appropriate to protect them from water / rot / sun etc? ANY TIPS would be so appreciated! Let me know if there is anything I should NOT be doing … total newbie and want to get it right! I have attached some photos … Cheers! Karen

I would apply some painters tape to the canoe to protect it from scratches then sand by hand. A palm sander could get out of control quickly.

Finish is personal preference and can be impacted by how your store and use it. I really like modern water based poly’s, but you want to make sure you use something that is UV stable if it lives outdoors

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Yes, mask off the canoe hull on the interior and exterior. Hand sanding should suffice. I would also remove all thwarts, yokes, and seat hangers that are attached to or suspended from the inwales.

Sandpaper of around 100 grit should do the trick. Sand down to bare wood removing all discoloration if possible.

As for finishing the choice usually comes down to some type of oil or some type of “bright finish” with varnish or polyurethane. Many different types of home made and commercial oils have been used. Bright finishes take longer to apply initially because multiple coats are required. Oil finish is quick to apply but must be reapplied more frequently. Both oil finishes and bright finishes have their proponents.

Whatever type of finish you apply pay particular attention to the cut ends of yokes, thwarts and seat frames where the end grain is exposed. Exposed end grain readily takes up moisture leading to rot as the moisture progressively penetrates along the grain of the wood. Any holes in the inwales, thwarts, and seat frames should also be treated which can be done using a pipe cleaner dipped in finish.

It looks as if you wood trim was originally finished using some type of oil. If you wish to maintain the original finish you might choose to go that route. If you are looking for a specific recommendation Watco Teak Oil is pretty widely available and does a pretty good job. After sanding all the wood thoroughly wipe off any sanding dust using a tack cloth or solvent rag. Apply the oil using either a brush or a rag. After about 30 minutes wipe off any excess with dry rags. Repeat the process at least once.

With most oils if you try more than about three applications per day the wood will take no more and the oil will tend to sit on the surface and get gummy. But you can apply more oil after a day or two if you choose to do so.


Many thanks for such a thorough reply! How hard is it to remove and replace thwarts, yoke, seat hangers etc? Is there anything I should worry or take care about taking them off and putting them back in? Is there a certain tension I should be looking for when I screw everything back into place - I have never (but NEVER) taken apart a canoe so is it as delicate as say truing the wheel of a bicycle? (ie easy to take apart and a nightmare to put back together again and suddenly everything is not quite right and slightly crooked …lol … just my experience). Thanks again! my first post on this forum and I appreciate the help so much!

Well, I have trued bicycle wheels and removed/replaced canoe furniture. Bicycle wheels are harder. The seats and thwarts are usually bolted in with #10 stainless machine screws. You will need a screw driver, phillips or straight, for one end and an 3/8" open end wrench for the other. Keep the hardware and the pieces together as screw lengths vary. Replace rusted or bent screws. You can usually get them at a hardware store unless they are very long. Replacement is just the reverse of removal. Screws sometimes are a tight fit in the wooden parts and need to be unscrewed all the way. An electric screw driver will come in handy.


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I like Watco oil on gunwales. Varnish is traditional but too much work.


As pegeorg said, removing thwarts, seats, and yokes and reinstalling them is usually pretty easy. Wood tends to swell over time so the holes in the inwales that the stainless steel machine screws go through are often tight. I will usually drill these holes out slightly oversized to make reassembly easier and so that I can treat the exposed end grain on the interior of the holes as I described.

If the nuts securing the thwarts and seats are acorn style nuts with nylon inserts you shouldn’t need any additional washers. Tighten screws snug but do not over tighten. If you mark the position of the pieces (left or right, bow or stern) during disassembly and put everything back in the same place it will all go together just fine.

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Nice canoe. When I clean up a new used boat I’ll typically use 100 grit, then 150 followed by a little 220. On your boat I might start with 80 grit. It’s not hard to do by hand, I’d use sandpaper wrapped around one of those foam sanding blocks.

I like an oil finish. I use Badger paddle oil (hempseed oil) because it works great and is totally harmless. I knew a canoe dealer that sold “gunnel lotion” which was 1/3 boiled linseed oil, 1/3 mineral spirits, 1/3 distilled white vinegar. Works great. Just apply a few thin coats to dry wood and wipe off excess. Wipe on a touch-up coat when the wood looks dry. If your boat will be stored outside then you need to use varnish.

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I use bees wax on the screw threads. Helps to prevent rust and rot in the screw holes and they thread much easier.
Star Brite makes a wood cleaner that is easy to use and will clean and brighten old weathered wood.
Like TomL I use hemp oil, but mixed with cedar oil 2 to 1 ( Parker oil). The wood takes the oil very well without build up and leaves a Cedar sent rather than a heavy chemical smell. I will apply it several times a year, but I like working on my boats when I am not in them.


Thanks so much for the advice! I love cedar so will see if I can source that around here!

I need to correct the ratio it is 4/1 hemp to cedar or to your liking.
Hemp oil and cedar oil are available on Amazon.

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Thanks for that clarification! Your boat looks gorgeous. And even MORE IMPORTANTLY what rigging system are you using to keep your boat off the ground ? We have been agonizing on whether to buy a pulley system (everyone seems to have rather bad reviews for most of the systems you can purchase out there) … Did you create that yourself? Any details greatly appreciated! Cheers!

Hi. Lots of good advice given. Both Northstar Canoes and Mad River Canoes have excellent care info on their websites. Placid Boat Works has great info on storing your boat (even how to hang it). I will say that once you start it is a labor of love and can take an entire weekend so give yourself plenty of time! If you do replace and hardware, be sure you buy stainless steel. Also, make sure you use a quality #2 screwdriver to loosen and tighten. I was given a great tip years ago to use the wrench to loosen and tighten the nuts and use the screwdriver to simply hold the screws in place. When you are all done, use 303 Protectant on both the inside and outside of the hull. One day you may even take the bold step of removing the gunwales and treating the sides that touch the boat. You need an entire week for that! Enjoy!

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