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1968 Old Town Lightweight Restoration

Discussion in 'Wood and Canvas' started by Duncan, May 20, 2021.

  1. Duncan

    Duncan Curious about Wooden Canoes

    So I picked up this Old Town this past winter for what seemed like a good deal from a seller in Cape Cod. After helping a friend do a full restoration on a 1930s Otca in much worse shape, this boat seemed like it would be much easier to get back out on the water. I'm not planning on doing a complete showroom floor restoration, just want to address the main problems; a couple holes in planking, whatever's hiding under this fiberglass patch, re-canvas (dacron perhaps?) and be done with it.

    It appears that this canoe has encountered a decent amount of salt-water in its previous life and has case of the fastener disease. Luckily the tacks are sound, I've been pushing pretty hard on the planking and no tack-heads are popping off. So hopefully it's just a cosmetic issue and a good dose of oxalic acid and/or additional products after stripping will help on that front. Any suggestions here? Would the snappy teak-nu help? Wish me luck!
  2. OP

    Duncan Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Also, I've read about people soaking canoes that have seen salt. Is this really necessary? I would think that a decent hosing off once down to bare wood would suffice. Other salt remediation thoughts?
  3. OP

    Duncan Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Got the outwales, keel, and canvas off. Outwales are solid with minimal wear so they'll certainly be reused. Keel is no good so I'll be making a new one or perhaps going keel-less? In between the canvas and planking there was a whole lotta beach sand so I guess that gives a sense of where the boat was used. No big surprises und the canvas so I'm happy with that. Underside of the hull looks pretty decent.

    IMG_0405.jpg IMG_0408.jpg IMG_0410.jpg
    Dave Wermuth likes this.
  4. MGC

    MGC Scrapmaker

    Hi Duncan, That looks like it will be a great project. The hull looks pretty fare.
    I'm not sure what you heard about soaking a boat that's been in salt water? It seems like a step that may not make a great deal of difference. If the tacks have already started to dezincify you will not be able to reverse the process. If there are blooms and if the brass has discolored washing will not restore the metal.
    In cases where the tacks are really badly damaged the fix is to re-tack the boat.
    Whether or not you need to pull the current tacks is something you need to figure out. SOP for a re-canvas is to re-clinch the tacks in the hull. Perhaps you should try re-clinching a few of the worst looking ones to see if they fail.
    I'm not trying to keep you from washing the boat. You should do that to get the sand out and clean it for re-finishing and re-canvasing.
  5. Greg Nolan

    Greg Nolan enthusiast

    I would guess that the idea behind soaking a boat in fresh water that has been in salt water enough to affect the canoe's brass is not to reverse existing damage, but to prevent further, future damage from salt that may remain in the wood after salt water has evaporated. Soaking would presumably dissolve and dilute any residual salt. Soaking would not eliminate re-clinching and/or replacing damaged tacks if needed, as described above.

    I have no idea if this is would work or be worth the trouble. because I have no idea how much residual salt may remain in the wood. It seems to me that if one has the time and way of soaking the wood, it probably would not hurt anything, and might help. Soaking a fiberglass covered canoe is sometimes undertaken in an effort to make removal of the glass easier -- and I have not heard that such soaking has caused harm.
  6. MGC

    MGC Scrapmaker

    I will not pretend to be a metallurgist, but I did study and practice it while I was working as an engineer. I'm much better at tribology, a skill you must have if you aren't great with metallurgy;)
    I would not soak the boat. The current dryness of the hull has halted the dezincification.
    For the process to begin again all you need is moisture to combine with any salts that remain trapped in the wood.
    Salts will not flush from the wood. Salts have entered into the wood in the places where the wood has been penetrated (the tack locations). Introducing water will re-start the decay.
    The blooms you see are indicators that salt has decayed the tacks. The question that needs to be answered is how badly?
    If you did not need to do other work on the boat you could prevent further decay of the tacks by keeping them dry.
    Soaking is exactly the opposite of what you should do.
    If you could seal the hull inside and out it would have the affect of preserving the metals exactly as they are.

    Of course that does not align very well with what you might want to do to spiff up the hull.
    You will want to wash it with a soft brush and TSP. You might want to strip the varnish. You may want to TSP again and also give it a wash with Teak-nu. All of these steps involve water and the last one involves an acid. All of these are possible triggers to restart the decay of the tacks.

    Don't sweat it. Before you do any of this you will test a few of your tacks to determine the extent of the damage. Planking and ribs rarely get completely soaked through so the blooms that you see may only be highlighting decay near the surface of the wood. Once you are certain that the tacks are in reasonable shape (worry about them if they are brittle) you can carry on with finishing the hull for recanvasing. Take your time once it is stripped and be sure that it is really dry before you apply good quality spar varnish on the inside and a sealer on the outside. A warmed blend of mineral spirits, boiled linseed oil and turpentine works well for this. Some use spar varnish on the outside of the hull. Considering the need to prevent further damage to the brass (by sealing it from moisture) you might want to consider this for your boat.
    The key at this stage is to determine the extent of the damage to the brass. You can find out quickly by picking a couple of the worst looking ones to pull out or to re-clinch. Pulling them will allow you to see how extensively they are corroded. Clinching them will tell you if they are brittle.
    If you are lucky you might not need to do anything special. If you are not lucky you might need to replace large numbers of tacks. I have heard of folks replacing over thousand tacks on a bloomed hull.

    WRT soaking the entire canoe to remove the glass, I have tried that once. I have not done it since. If you do decide to soak it, I would suggest that you remove the decks and thwarts before you do. These bits do not enjoy being submerged. Also, expect the boat to weight a ton when you try to pull it back out.
    Last edited: May 20, 2021
  7. OP

    Duncan Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Interesting thoughts on the dezincification being reawakened by moisture. I guess my initial thought on soaking was that it would get residual salt out. I re-clinched a few tacks and they didn't disintegrate. Pulled out a loose one and seemed solid. The bolts holding the keel on however were quite crumbly but those are a bit easier to replace. I was afraid I would have to re-tack the whole boat but so far it seems like I'll be alright.

    Decided to start stripping the whole thing as it seemed like that would be the best way to get at the stains and blooms under the varnish. Here's some images to show the extent of what I'm dealing with. To me it looks like the varnish peeled away around the bloomy areas wherever this boat was stored and left those spots exposed to UV, moisture, mildew etc. causing discoloration. Also supposedly the zinc discolors the wood? Tried a little bit of oxalic acid on one of the stripped areas and that seemed to brighten the dark outer rings but I'm still left with a splotch thats lighter than the surrounding wood. Anyways, hoping to improve the current state of this wood as it isn't the prettiest sight to be seen. Perhaps I'll try some light sanding post strip.

    IMG_0415.jpg IMG_0424.jpg IMG_0427.jpg

    Any chance of TSP, wood bleach, other acids harming the boat?

    Attached Files:

  8. chris pearson

    chris pearson Michigan Canoe Nut

    I retacked an entire boat with the same problem. TEDIOUS! But well worth it.
    MGC likes this.
  9. MGC

    MGC Scrapmaker

    First, wow to Chris re-tacking a whole boat. That is a major job.
    Duncan, you must also avoid chlorine in your cleaning efforts as that is another of the chemicals that will intensify the failure of the brass.
    Thanks for sharing the "post strip" pictures. It helps to highlight the condition of your boat. The way that the failing brass leached into the wood is beyond anything I have encountered. You should remain really suspicious about the condition of the tacks.
  10. MGC

    MGC Scrapmaker

    Chris, how did you go about that? Did you leave the old tacks in place?
  11. Michael Grace

    Michael Grace Lifetime Member

    Hi Duncan,

    You and Greg have the right idea. Soaking your canoe in water can only help, and it’s going to be exposed to water anyway. Any salt that is in your canoe now got there dissolved in water, and water can remove it again. This is the most basic chemistry that there is - solubilization and osmosis. If water takes salt into remote places, freshwater can get into those same places, solubilize that salt, and by osmosis the salt moves out. And in any case, your canoe will be exposed to water as you restore it and use it. In fact, it’s exposed right now. Moisture in the air means moisture in your wood. Dezincification may still be happening right now at a low rate.

    About the salt blooms, I have restored a number of canoes with serious salt blooms using the techniques that you are thinking about - stripping, TSP, two-part teak cleaner/bleach, light sanding and varnish. The salt blooms were reduced to a very acceptable level. No one seems to notice that they were there except for me.

    Finally, re-tacking is very doable. In fact, like Chris I recently re-tacked an entire canoe, a 15/50 like yours, only it was built with iron fasteners during the war. The fasteners were completely rusted away and the planking was literally falling off of the canoe. As you can imagine, I couldn’t remove all of the original fastener material, but I removed as much as I could and re-tacked the entire canoe. It was tedious but very doable. Remember, the original builders tacked the entire thing; so can you.

    Hope this helps,
    chris pearson likes this.
  12. OP

    Duncan Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Alright, thanks for the replies. I'll definitely remain suspicious of the current tacks as I move forward. Is it just a matter of time? It would be quite the bummer to restore the canoe only to have the tacks fail in a few years or so. If I don't do a full re-tack perhaps I'll do some add-on tacks all around for peace of mind. I do plan on oiling or varnishing the underside of the hull before canvassing, seems like that could only help.
  13. chris pearson

    chris pearson Michigan Canoe Nut

    My opinion, and thats all it, is to add tacks. And to answer your question, I left tacks that seemed to be solid, and pulled ones that were not. Tack the entire boat, then pull tacks after. Dont leave it up to crossed fingers, take the time to tack the whole boat and feel good about it when its all done. Just do a plank or 2 a day or a couple ribs a day, you will be surprised how fast that goes, especially on a 15 footer. Its a great paddling boat BTW, its always my "go to" user. Jerry Stelmok once said that its one of the nicest designed canoes out there.
  14. Michael Grace

    Michael Grace Lifetime Member

    Second to Chris’ opinion on re-tacking, and agreed with MGC’s suggestion to coat the exterior of the planking. I was thinking that if everything seems solid, why not just get it all back together and go canoeing, but if you are at all worried about it just go ahead and put in those new tacks. If you haven’t done it before, you’ll learn very quickly and it is s very easy. It’s only tedious because there are so many. And coating the outside is very helpful whether you replace the tacks or not.

    Also, while water can reduce any salt load, I just can’t believe can you own a pile of salt masquerading as cedar. You probably know that fasteners living near the ocean can start to corrode just from the salt air, and that salt load is probably mostly on and near the wood’s surface unless someone somehow left your canoe submerged in salt water for a while (hopefully highly unlikely). I really doubt you need to do you anything other than rinsing thoroughly (plus whatever water you use on it during restoration), and restoring including perhaps re-tacking and definitely coating of the exterior.
  15. Steve Bartlett

    Steve Bartlett Curious about Wooden Canoes

    My 1964 OTCA has similar looking spots in the rib varnish, although not to the same degree. The spotting in my canoe is mostly in the two feet or so in from both the bow and stern, and not so bad in the middle. Our family used the canoe in Cape Cod salt water for years, and as children my brother and I probably were not meticulous about rinsing with fresh water after each time out...

    I am curious what other damage you have found. I found a number of problems only after I removed the canvas and the mahogany gunwales.

    I will be replacing a couple of ribs that were gnawed on by animals. Could the salt in the wood have attracted them?

    Hopefully, when I remove the damaged ribs I will have a better idea of how much corrosion has affected the planking tacks. Regardless, I plan to put in many new tacks.

    Are your stem tops and inwale ends in good shape? Before I removed the canvas I had no idea that these areas were rotted. In my canoe the tops of the stems and the first couple inches of each inwale must be replaced.

    With the canvas off I learned that my canoe was not the finely crafted vessel I had imagined it to be.

    Old Town used lot of steel nails in my canoe: two or three attaching each rib to the inwales, small finish nails through the inwales into the stems, and larger nails in the bottom which appear to have been driven into the sections of the stems at the bottom of the canoe. All of these nails have rusty heads. I may put a dab of rust reformer on the nail heads hoping that it will do some good, but I am wary of replacing all of the steel nails. They have held up pretty well for the last 57 years, the shafts of the nails I have removed are intact, and removing the nails that seem to be holding pretty well might create more issues than leaving them in.

    Some of the joinery was disappointing as well. The stems, decks and inwales were joined by nothing more than a couple of flimsy, steel finish nails

    Are these construction shortcomings common in Old Town canoes?
  16. MGC

    MGC Scrapmaker

    Steve, What interesting observations about these old boats. First of all, context is important when we consider your points. These hulls and many of the building techniques evolved directly from the construction techniques used to build birchbark canoes. Those were constructed with on hand materials without the use of any hardware and lashed together with spruce roots. Many properly stored boats have survived.
    When canvas canoe builders evolved the construction techniques used by Old Town and most other builders they carried forward many of the assembly concepts already in place and improved upon them with more suitable construction methods. I have often wondered how a steel nail in rib or a single one through a stem could have survived in place for 100 or more years. The answer although somewhat obvious does not really jump out until you consider the construction of the bark canoe. There the ribs were trapped in place by the lashings.
    In your boat those nails hold things in place so that they can hold shape on the form as the hull is built. The inside and outside rails and the (brass) hardware pulling these in place secure the ribs once the steel nails have done their job. The hundreds of brass tacks then secure the rest of the rib to the hull, the planking.
    On the stems the same simple concept plays out. The nail or nails hold the simple joints where tips come together long enough for the brass screws securing the decks and the many tacks holding the planking provide the actual holding force that keeps everything in place and distributes the loading across the many planks and ribs in the hull.
    What Old Town and others did in their construction was elegantly simple and presuming proper storage, totally effective. I recently passed along 1906 Old Town that was entirely original and perfect with every old nail and tack still in place. I have many other canoes that also have held together despite the seemingly simplistic construction.
    One further point. The simple construction allows these boats to be easily maintained and restored. Consequently if a part breaks, fails or rots it may be easily repaired or replaced.
    Last edited: May 26, 2021
    Benson Gray and chris pearson like this.
  17. chris pearson

    chris pearson Michigan Canoe Nut

  18. chris pearson

    chris pearson Michigan Canoe Nut

    Hey, thats a very good point!
  19. Steve Bartlett

    Steve Bartlett Curious about Wooden Canoes


    You've given me a lot to think about.

    I had assumed that the reason Old Town used just a couple of nails to join the stems to the inwales/decks was either carelessness or that this part of the canoe isn't stressed much, and so a strong join really isn't necessary. A robust joint might not be needed but, as you said, it's important to understand why that is so; it's distributed loading and the many connections working together that give a canoe its strength.

    I will be using conventional joinery (and perhaps just nails as Old Town did) to join the stems, inwales and decking together on my canoe, but based on my experience building a skin on frame kayak I briefly wondered if a lashed joint might be better. Lashed joints have their drawbacks, but they are remarkably strong - much stronger than even well constructed wood-to-wood joints.

    I thought the worst I did to the canoe was when my brother and I, teenagers at the time, put a hole in it when we hit an underwater timber. My father took that in stride and replaced the planking and recanvassed the canoe even though it was only about ten years old at the time. That canvas lasted fifty years. It turns out that it was lack of careful storage that was more damaging. It surprises me that there is stem rot since the canoe was stored indoors for most of its life, but I can't be sure how it was handled by my brother as I have had custody only for the last five years or so. I've kept it well covered by tarps and always off the ground. It was under my watch, though, that rodents gnawed the ribs.

    Now is my opportunity to right the wrongs. Replacing a few ribs, stem ends and sections of the inwales and recanvassing are manageable jobs , proving to me that indeed one benefit of this form of construction is its repairability.

    I see little mention of treating rot vulnerable parts of a canoe to prevent rot. Would I be wrong to treat the replaced and old parts with a rot preventer such as Timbor, which I understand is friendly to metal fasteners? When repairing cracked window sills I often treat the cracked wood with Timbor before consolidating soft areas with low viscosity epoxy.

    It's remarkable how much lighter the canoe is without the canvas. I might take a closer look at covering the hull with dacron or look into using Nylon. Some very tough finishes are being used on nylon covered skin on frame boats. Lightness is critical if we are to use the canoe, as my wife and I now have a hard time lifting it onto our car. Or maybe the wiser route would be to use traditional canvas and modify my small sailboat trailer to carry the canoe .
  20. Benson Gray

    Benson Gray Canoe History Enthusiast Staff Member

    I suspect that proper storage will do much more to prevent rot than Timbor, low viscosity epoxy, or anything else. My experience is that a good trailer is usually the best solution to canoe lifting issues as you get older. Good luck,


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