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Varnish and seam seal on a Willits Canoe

Discussion in 'Traditional All-Wood Construction' started by asc67, Apr 19, 2009.

  1. Todd Bradshaw

    Todd Bradshaw Sailmaker

    On a similar note, I hate epoxy-coated trim (gunwales, decks, etc. and the same would go for coating the hull of a boat like a Willitts or a strip Peterborough) because it looks like plastic and rather fake. On the other hand, whenever I'm working on a canoe with end decks (stripper, wood canvas, wood-trimmed fiberglass, it doesn't matter) I will flip it over, go up underneath and brush two coats of epoxy resin on the underside of the pointy end of the decks and the stem/inwales/decks junction. It doesn't show and nobody would probably ever know it's even there unless you told them, but the moisture exclusive properties of the epoxy in that area probably makes the little pointed tip of the deck ten times less prone to eventually rotting out - something that many of us have seen happen over and over again.

    Water is getting in there and most of it is getting in there while the boat is sitting upside down, not while it's being paddled. Epoxy will put a stop to that. Varnish won't, as is plainly obvious from all the examples of boats with rotted stem tops and deck tips. I suppose some folks feel that getting within ten feet of a wood/canvas canoe with a can of epoxy is a cardinal sin. On the other hand, the tips of their decks will probably rot out some day. Mine won't. For those who totally shun epoxy, you can do something similar with melted paraffin, which also has excellent moisture exclusion properties. It just doesn't last as long and needs to be maintained and renewed from time to time.
  2. Mark Adams

    Mark Adams all wood nut

    Hey Todd, Speaking of Willits, have you ever done a sail for one? My sailing Willits came with a nicely done, heavy canvas sail. The sail is not original to the rig. I'd like to replace it with one of lighter material. Is Egyptian cotton still available?
  3. Michael Grace

    Michael Grace Lifetime Member

    Whoa! Todd, don’t get too upset! These are just opinions, and no one has yet quoted an objective, controlled, scientific study of the benefits vs. harm of epoxy vs. varnish-based filler for the applications described... I'm not aware that there such a study exists. Most who posted here have argued FOR the use of epoxy in certain situations such as scarfing. But filling gaps is another matter entirely.

    I’ve also studied the chemical and physical properties of resins, and I use a variety of epoxy and similar resin formulations both at home and at work (Epon/Araldite/Spurr's/West System/others). I come down squarely on the opposite side- I would NEVER apply epoxy as a gap filler between the planks of a Willits canoe. The notion that “the idea that varnish or paint "breathe" letting moisture in, but then can let it out before it does damage is pure hogwash” is pure hogwash. If paint and varnish do allow moisture in, then they must also let it out! Epoxy, as you rightly suggest; is a great moisture barrier, but therein lies its problem- if a piece of wood isn’t entirely coated with epoxy, then there is differential moisture absorption and loss in the areas that are covered vs. not covered with epoxy- relatively high water absorption and loss in areas not epoxy-coated, and relatively low absorption and loss on epoxy-coated areas. This means that water coming in through non-epoxy-coated surfaces, and wicking through to epoxy-coated surfaces becomes trapped. The idea of putting a dab of epoxy under the tips of the decks (granted, something I haven’t tested) would seem to promote rot, rather than inhibiting it, because moisture that wicks into the wood elsewhere (i.e., the nearby part of the same boards not covered with epoxy) then becomes trapped within the wood, behind the epoxy barrier. In fact, I once restored a canoe that had epoxy applied to the tips of the decks- above and below. The deck ends became completely rotted out, leaving only a shell of deck-shaped epoxy behind. Maybe the earlier “restorer” trapped rot under the epoxy and accelerated its expansion, but epoxy should do the same thing (albeit more slowly) to good- even new- wood.

    But to get back to the main point raised by Mark and Dan (and the one that concerns me most with respect to the current discussion), there is the issue of reversibility- or irreversibility. Having done a number of re-restorations, like many other restorers, I’ve run into all sorts of foul and funky things applied to wood. In my experience, nothing has ever been nearly so difficult to deal with as epoxy, which often makes it difficult to perform any repair without damaging a greater extent of original wood than would have been necessary with other materials.

    I’m not attacking you, Todd, just disagreeing. As you surely know, this battle also rages in the runabout community- 5200 bottoms (or truly traditional methods of bottom replacement) vs. fiberglass/epoxy bottoms... While I don’t think there is anything close to consensus, the arguments for and against each method have easily and completely convinced me that if MY runabout needed a new bottom, I wouldn’t go near epoxy. That said, like others here, I do use epoxy, judiciously, to make a variety of repairs in my restorations.

    Here’s a practical, personal way of looking at it- if today I found a Willits that was in great condition other than having planking gaps filled with epoxy, I simply wouldn’t consider it unless it were at an extremely low price relative to a similar non-epoxied Willits. Even then, I’d give it serious thought and still might pass. But that’s just me…

    Last edited: Apr 22, 2009
  4. pat chapman

    pat chapman Willits biographer

    Mark - regarding your Willits canoe sail, if it is the one with the canoe you bought in Washington, if I recall it correctly, it IS the original sail sewn by the Willits brothers. They used a light canvas which is heavier than other sails I've seen on other canoes. Egyptian cotton would not be authentic. But, as you know, it's all a matter of personal preference. Send me some closeup photos of the fabric, including the seams, and of the lashing and I can give you a more informed opinion.
  5. pat chapman

    pat chapman Willits biographer

    In this case, a significant issue with using epoxy resin is that it would act not only as a sealant, but would also be a very permanent adhesive. The "marine glue" used in Willits canoes served one purpose - to seal the tack holes, planking seams, and joints between the keel or stem and the hull. It was never intended to be an adhesive (even though when cured it offered a very weak bond). In their earliest canoes they used a heavier canvas, rather than muslin, coated in a white lead filler, which would have had even less adhesive power than the pine tar compound used later. The brothers relied on 7,000 copper tacks to hold the planking together, not glue, and I prefer to keep with that tradition.

    I stay as close to original conditions in a Willits canoe for the same reason that I wouldn't ask someone to rebind a leather-bound antique book in Naugahyde. But this approach has a slippery slope - should a book binder be required to use nothing but hide glue, or is a modern alternative OK? It's up to the owner in the end, because there aren't any laws on any of this.
  6. Todd Bradshaw

    Todd Bradshaw Sailmaker

    Mark, Egyptian cotton is quite hard to come by, unless you want to cut up expensive bed sheets or buy a whole container full of yard goods. You can, however get a very good approximation by buying a fabric called "Bohemian Cotton" which is sold by Hancock Fabrics on-line store. It is excellent fabric and very close. Canoe sails over the years have often been made in small quantities by what sometimes seems to be anybody the canoe builder could find that knew how to sew. Relatively few of the old ones show any of the telltale signs that a real sailmaker was involved in the process. Here again, you have a choice of matching the original, even though it may not be the best from a performance standpoint or using something lighter that sails better. Then it's a matter of finding someone who can or will make it, or making it yourself. One-off sailmaking, even with modern materials, is a labor of love that doesn't pay worth a damn. Cotton sailmaking is even worse and most sailmakers (including me) won't mess with it because they lose money doing it.

    I actually spent a couple years when I was broke working for a friend who owns an old-style hand book bindery (I have one of the strangest resumes on the planet) and much of what we did was restoration of old books for rare book dealers. For the record, we used hide glue where it worked best and modern PVC glue for those parts of the process where it worked better. The basic idea was to restore it so that it looked right, but hopefully wouldn't need to be restored again later.

    Michael, I'm not the least bit upset. We'll simply just have to agree to disagree. I'm simply basing my statements on almost 40 years of working with epoxy resins, various types of wooden boats and cored or laminated wood and wood/composite costructions. The fact that most members of this forum don't believe me doesn't really surprise me at all. This place tends to be very close-minded about such stuff.

    You are free to believe that moisture intrusion into, and if you choose moisture escaping through, the paint or varnish on your dry-constructed, laminated wooden boats won't hurt them until the day they fall apart. If a Willitts with planking gaps fell into my hands, I wouldn't fill them with epoxy either. I'd spline them with wood, glued in with epoxy and then varnished, but that's probably more tedious work than most people are willing to invest. I do tedious work for a living, so it doesn't really bother me that much. In any case, I certainly wouldn't try to fill them with varnish or any other form of home-made resin when there are resins with far superior mechanical characteristics available.

    I suppose we also have to consider that a large number of the canoes that come in here for restoration have suffered greatly from neglect and lack of even the most basic care and maintenance over the years. This often seems to be abuse far beyond anything the builder had in mind or could ever have planned for during construction. Luckily, most of these canoes will likely lead a pretty charmed life after restoration by someone who really cares about them. It would be nice if everything could be fixed by tacking on a few new planks, replacing a couple ribs and adding a new canvas skin, but that's often not the case. The way I see it, that alone can justify some "out of the traditional box" repair techniques and materials. Your mileage may vary, depending on your experience and what you believe.
  7. frostyscot

    frostyscot Guest

    Thanks to everyone for all the great canoe restoration tips. I thought some of you might be interested in the history of this canoe.

    It was originally bought for the Boy Scout Canoe Base in Ely, MN. My father in law bought it and refinished it in 1954. It was used by his family for many years before being stored (suspended upside-down) in his garage in St. Cloud, MN in the early 70's. It was moved to several other locations but always stored the same way. It has been sitting in my garage for the last 3 years. When I first got it, I took it down to Northwest Canoe Company in St. Paul and talked to a couple of guys who build strip canoes. They pointed me to this group but told me it would be a "labor of love" to restore it. So, initially, I thought it would be WAY too much work to restore or that it was too far gone. Recently I thought "what the heck - let's see if it still floats." Probably not the most responsible thing to do, but we had fun paddling it around the local lake for an hour or so without shipping much water. Then I checked out the McFarland Lake Canoe Co. and saw the old beat up canoe there that was restored. So I thought it might be possible. I asked my brother (carpenter/painter and all around handy guy) to see if he could restore it enough for our family to use. He's great with acoustic guitars and loves to canoe. I'm amazed at the response and helpful ideas. Thanks!

    Rob Caldow
    Roseville, MN
  8. frostyscot

    frostyscot Guest

    Another question I have is about the serial number. Is there a way to look up the manufacture date from the serial number? It is pretty clearly marked 618 (see picture). There is also a roman numeral 'X' on the front, top deck. I'm thinking that might have been added at the canoe base to just number the canoes they had (ie. this is #10 of however many they had) but it's a bit strange to use roman numerals. Any ideas?

  9. pat chapman

    pat chapman Willits biographer

    Willits #618 was finished in late July or early August, 1939 (I have documented #602 finished in July, 1939 and #631 finished in August, 1939).

    The "X" on the kingplank is not typical of anything the Willits brothers did, so it likely was done by the owners after taking delivery.
  10. OP

    asc67 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Who makes the best Spar varnish ?
  11. crosscuts

    crosscuts Crosscuts

    Epoxy in seams

    I can't count the number of hours I have spent picking epoxy out of the seams of canoes and edge planked small boats. The epoxy is there as a result of earlier fiber-glassing of the hulls or as a seam sealer on all-wood boats and canoes.

    The epoxy is usually firmly bonded to one side of the seam but has broken away from the opposing plank as that planks dries and shrinks. Breaking the bonded edge loose often results in tearing damage to the plank.

    Planking, soaking and drying repeatedly compresses against the next plank or an unforgiving material in the seam. This compression crushes the cells and the plank does not return to its original dimension when it dries.

    Thickened varnish and some of the new caulking non-hardening products work well and as the seams re-open with time thinned varnish or paint coats can be applied to re-seal with additional finish coats applied. Wood has no respect for modern chemistry.
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2009
  12. Dan Lindberg

    Dan Lindberg Ex Wood Hoarder

    For Pat and Rob,

    Pat, any idea how many Willit's might have been sold to Sommers Canoe base back then?

    For both of you, here's another piece of the puzzle,

    The guy I bought my Willits from, was a "Charlie Guide" at Sommers for 2 years, roughly from 1939 to 1940, AND he claims to have paddlied only a Willits during that time, and that all the rest were wood/canvas.

    So, it's very likely that the guy I got mine from was one of the guys who paddlied yours.

    Also, I'm in Mounds View, if you ever want to talk canoes/look at canoes, see another Willits, etc.

  13. Michael Grace

    Michael Grace Lifetime Member


    "Who makes the best spar varnish?" is a difficult question to answer unless we define what's meant by "best". Personally, I prefer Epiphanes Gloss Clear. I like its consistency- for me, under the conditions that I varnish and using my methods, it goes on easily and levels well. It also has a nice gloss, builds up well to a rich, deep finish, and seems to hold up well over time. My next favorite would be Z-Spar 1015 Captains. I've also used Interlux Schooner, and among what I consider the best marine varnishes, this one is a distant third. For me, application isn't as pleasant, and the surface doesn't seem to hold up nearly as well as the others. That said, even Interlux, in my opinion, far outpaced any of the common off-the-shelf products I've tried (i.e., products commonly found at national chain marine stores, home centers, paint stores...).

    One person's opinion...

  14. pat chapman

    pat chapman Willits biographer

    Sorry, Dan, but I don't have access to information about how many canoes were sold to various liveries, camps, etc. Lon Willits has the original records that would have that information but he's never been very interested in divulging it.
  15. OP

    asc67 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Thanks Michael,

    How about Helmans spar varnish ?
  16. pklonowski

    pklonowski Unrepentant Canoeist

    RE: epoxy chunks between planks, here's just a thought, from a very INexperienced, NON-expert person:

    Would it be feasible to cut/grind most of the epoxy chunk out with a Dremel Tool, and then follow up with mineral spirits, which will soften the epoxy enough to scrape the rest of it out with a dental pick? Could also use a heat gun to soften it.

    I've used spirits to help remove epoxy from un-glassed boats, and on that scale, it's a nasty toxic cloud. But for a smaller scale effort like this, might it be worth a try?

    Just wondering... it could easily be a much worse idea than I would realize...
  17. Dave Wermuth

    Dave Wermuth Who hid my paddle?


    Helmans makes a spar varnish? ;-]
    I've seen Helmsman spar urethane by Minwax in The Home Depot. It is cheaper. I think that as a urethane it may peel or crack through its thickness as it ages. varnish tends to wear off from its surface. So Im' told. If this is wrong, let me know. I'd consider it if I ran out of Epiphanes and thought it would be acceptable. A friend of mine used it for lots of boat restorations, and likes it. Actually, I think it is on my '26 HW and it's been fine for 12 years. No cracks, peels, runs.
  18. Michael Grace

    Michael Grace Lifetime Member


    I don't care for any of those low viscosity varnishes commonly available from home centers, etc (including Helmsman)- at least not for varnishing a boat. You should know that the term "spar" is a generic term, generated because spars were finished bright. Today, spar is applied to a variety of different formulations, some of which are urethane-based. No polyurethane on old wooden boats! (see past discussions)

    I've used inexpensive store-bought varnishes for other projects where I could realize some cost and time savings at the expense of quality, on a boat cart made of 2x4s and destined to get paint, filler, etc. spilled all over it, for example. Once you try one of the high-quality marine varnishes, you'll really see the difference. They do cost significantly more, though. The commonly-available off-the-shelf varnishes are less expensive and of lower quality (lower solids content, maybe less UV shield) in order to make them palatable to the average consumer. When people hear that you've spent $30/quart (or more) on a good marine varnish, they'll yell "Are you crazy? Are you NUTS?!" and suggest you trot on down to Home Depot for that $6.99/quart varnish they saw last Saturday. "Heck, I painted my whole house for $8 a gallon!"

    There was a raging debate about varnishes over on the WoodenBoat forums a while back... I had to quit reading afer the 200th post because it simply wasn't going anywhere. The proponents of the less expensive off-the-shelf formulations seemed only interested in price, and seemed convinced that the quality was just as high, even though they appeared never to have tried the higher-quality stuff. In fact, instead of actually trying something new, the "debate" kept coming back to "Where can I find that discontinued brand... you know, the one that was so cheap?"

    I hate to waste money. I make my own caning pegs from scraps and tree branches instead of buying a pack of golf tees! But when it comes to varnish for a nice old boat, there's no question but to spend the money for the good stuff. A china cabinet for the wife? Maybe I can scrimp there!;)

  19. OP

    asc67 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    About how mant quarts are needed for a canoe...inside and out ?
  20. frostyscot

    frostyscot Guest



    The restoration is coming along nicely. We hope to have it out on the water in a few weeks. One question I had for you is - how did you license your canoe and do you have to have a MN sticker on it since it's an antique? I tried calling the DNR and haven't gotten a good answer yet. Also, it would be fun to get together sometime at a local lake and compare canoes.



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