1935 Thompson Hiawatha

Thomas Baumberger

Curious about Wooden Canoes

I recently purchased an excellent 17' 1935 Thompson Hiawatha Canoe :) . The canoe had been in the same family since it was bought prior to WWII by a young man who sailed and paddled the canoe on the Lake Waubesa on the Madison, WI chain of lakes. This young man was a Sea Scout, prior to his enlistment in the armed services. He was killed in action on the beaches during the allied invasion of Sicily.

The canoe belonged to the uncle of the lady who sold it to me. It had been mainly in storage over the last 73 years and saw very little actual use. All the lines and curves on the canoe are true, with no broken ribs or planking and very little varnish buildup. The stems, decks, and gunwales are also in excellent condition. The canoe came with a sailing rig, and has a full length keel.

I am planning to strip and refinish the wood and re-canvas the hull. My use of the canoe will be as a day/weekend tripping family canoe. Much of my paddling will be close by on the Lower Wisconsin River. Consequently, I am considering removing the keel and tapering the external stems down on the bottom. Currently, the stems meet up the the standard keel on the bottom. My main reasons for considering this are that I am not a huge fan of keels, expecially for river use, and I am concerning about potential damage to the hull and new canvas from impacts with underwater objects or when pulling the canoe up on the shore. I see Martin Ferwerda does not put keels on many of his 18' Hiawathas, so perhaps my 17' would be fine without them as well.

Any input you folks have on my Hiawatha, and its restoration, would be much appreciated.

I also own a 16' Cedarwood Prospector, a veteran of many BWCA/Quetico trip and various river trips :) . This May I will become the new owner of a 17' wood canvas Stewart River Saganaga :cool: . Hopefully, this too will become a veteran of many trips as our 3.5 yr old boy and 2.5 year old girl mature;) .

Hi tom

and welcome.

There was a thread awhile back on keel vs No keel. The current consensus is for no keel. I am in that camp. But a review of the Old Town serial number searches reveal that, as I recall, about 90% of Old Towns had keels. No reason to believe other companies were different. I use broken ribstock as material to cut half inch plugs and then drill the screw holes out and plug them. With no broken ribs you may want to glue (varnish) in the washer and head of the screw so as to not have the holes show inside. Or you could just leave 'em.

Regards, Dave.
1935 Thompson Hiawatha Restoration

Thanks for replying Dave,

This will be my first restoration project:eek: . I'll try to get some photos of the Hiawatha to post in the next couple days. I do have the two Wood Canvas Canoe books by Thurlow and Stelmock for reference.

I found a "stripping" business (V&L Stripping) in Appleton, WI that strips up to 60 wood canvas canoe hulls per year, so that will be a no brainer for me, as I would just a soon avoid the chemical exposure. They recycle their solvents as well:) .

Is it really necessary to re-clinch all the tacks in the canoe before refinishing and recanvassing:confused: ? Or do you just look the hull over and re-clinch the "bad ones" ?

I'm planning to use Epifanes Spar varnish after careful sanding and thinned linseed oiling of the hull. Sanding will be no easy task as the interior hull of a Hiawatha is quite complex and tight with all those half ribs. Is there any easier way of doing the modest/careful sanding of the interior?

As you know, Epifanes makes some high quality Yacht enamel paints as well, that I plan to use on the filled canvas.

It sounds like the best way to refinish the interior is to do everything but your final varnish coat on the interior, and then place the finished seats, and thwarts back in the canoe prior to canvassing. Thus, leaving the final interior coat to be done after the painting is complete. Does this sound correct to you?

Yes, if I remove the keel, I would want to find the most aesthetically pleasing way of dealing with the old keel holes in the ribs.

Perhaps I shouldn't mess with modifying a vintage canoe like this, but just restore it as original as possible.

I guess a compromise might be to replace the standard keel with a shoe keel, since these are reported to be better for river use. However, I would still have to screw those holes through the new canvas:eek: .

If I leave the keel out completely, do you think the tracking of this big flat bottomed canoe will be adversely affected?

Only other tricky part will be repairing the broken rear seat where on of the short bars broke out and re-caneing the seat.

I am currently power tool deprived, but have a friend with a good wood working shop nearby. I'll probably end up doing my refinishing and canvassing in his shop.

My wife and I live in the country on 40 acres, but we had to take down the old crumbling barn, so currently all I have is a old shed to store canoes and equipment in. We are hoping to build a nice garage/workshop sometime in the near where I can work on many more wood canoes in the future.

The Thompson Hiawatha canoes have a long water line, as the canoe has no rocker at all, so they track fine without the keel. I always do all the varnishing before canvasing, this eliminates the issue of varnish seeping between the planks and possibly affecting the filled canvas or gluing the canvas to the hull where it seeps through, but if you are only going to do the final coat after the canvas is filled and painted then those issues should be minimal. If you give the exterior hull a light sanding, that should give you an idea of how many tacks are proud and have to be re-clinched, but I would probably give in and just re-clinch the whole thing as hopefully this is the last time for a long time you have the canvas off.
Hi Tom,

I respect Dave's opinion, but let me give you the alternate view. I'm not too familiar with paddling qualitites of the Thompson Hiawatha, but in other antique wooden canoe models (granted, sometimes of very different hull shapes), I find little difference between a canoe with and a canoe without a keel. This may be paddling style- those small keels don't offer a tremendous amount of effect, particularly when he boat is heeled over a bit.

And your worry about the keel being a problem with underwater obstacles and when pulling it up on land? This sould be a problem only if you're striking objects laterally or pulling the canoe up laterally- otherwise, the keel should actually protect the bottom of the canoe.

Finally, you are considering the historic value of the canoe. Thompsons are neither exceptionally rare nor exceptionally valuable, but this one is clearly important to you (as it would be to most of us). Drilling out and plugging the keel screw holes would forever alter your canoe, as would feathering the ends of the outside stems where they formerly met the keel. If you ever wanted to restore the canoe to original specs later, you'd have to replace or scarf the stems. All in all, these wouldn't be radical modifications of a canoe, but they are significant. Many canoes get passed up on Ebay and elsewhere by potential buyers specifically because of such modifications.

But as is often said on these forums, it's your canoe. If it is a paddler- not a canoe that you admire for its construction and history- and you're not worried about structural changes, then do what you think will make it a better paddler. If only you could find a keel-less Hiawatha to try in order to see whether the keel really makes a big difference to you.

Just my $20 (was 2 cents, but you know how things are these days...)

I have to agree with Michael. I would not mess with it. It wasn't really designed as a river canoe to begin with, and trying to make it into such is like trying to turn an apple into an orange. To replace the existing keel with a shoe keel wouldn't really work either, as the screws for a shoe keel are staggered to the sides of the center line. The Hiawatha is a beautiful canoe though. Perhaps you might want to consider getting getting a w/c canoe that was designed for river use, and use the Hiawatha with the family on calmer waters.

Just my 25.00 worth. (cost of living is higher out west!)


I'd trust Mark, Michael and Martin's opinions if I were you. :-]

Once you drill and plug the keel hole, you're stuck with it. If you go keel-less and glue in washer and screw head only then it is not forever changed. And if you go keel-less you may want to leave off the outside stem. Those changes would not forever alter the canoe.

Ebay canoes with variation from original do not bring high prices.

Consider not using boiled linseed oil. It changes color over time and is said to be food for microbes, or mildews. It was common use on the outside of the hull under lead-filled canvas.

Mostly, it depends on your own personality and choices. Showboats are stunning. Workboats are utilitarian. I try to do each boat a little better than the one before it.

"Perhaps I shouldn't mess with modifying a vintage canoe like this, but just restore it as original as possible."

That could be your answer.
Hi Tom,


If this was the canoe listed on ebax recently, you have a nice canoe.

As for the keel, do that you want, put it on leave it off, it doesn't matter, assuming you are doing it during a recanvas. If you leave it off, just ignor the holes in the ribs, then it's completely reverseable.

As for the oil, I use tung oil on the inside to avoid the potenial darkening problem.

Most importantly, get it back on the water and have fun with it.

If you paddle in the lower Wisconsin, there are few if any underwater obstructions.
I paddled my Thompson Bros. Indian, with the keel, on the St. Croix. I loved the way it responded through the riffles and rapids but, it was the keel that struck a rock and knocked me a bit sideways - I was able to quickly recover but without the keel, I would have run all the riffles and Vs without hitting anything.
I still regret, a little, selling that canoe. If I kept it long enough to re-canvas, I would have removed the keel.
Have fun!
1935 Thompson Hiawatha Restoration

Sorry for the delay in getting back to your replies. I'm currently remodeling our front porch:p .

I think that I would be best to restore the canoe to the original configuration, i.e. with the keel on. The main river use of the canoe will in fact be on the Lower Wisconsin River, a very sandy, shallow, wide river:) . I believe that the original keel is still very sound and I may be able to reuse it, if not I'll make one up of white oak.

I'm a bit surprised at the concern over using thinned, boiled linseed oil to restore some moisture and resilience to the canoe hull after stripping and sanding. After oiling and sufficient dry time, I will be spar varnishing the entire hull as well. How can fungus, get a hand hold on the hull under these conditions:confused: ? Many of the best of the current wood canvas canoe crafters use boiled linseed on their new hulls, before spar varnishing them:cool: .

The only thing that surprised my in your various responses, was that a 1935 Thompson Hiawatha is a common older canoe without much value:eek: . I was under the impression, that a canoe of this vintage, with its fine construction design, and given the excellent condition of the hull and woodwork would be a valuable antique canoe:) . Especially so, once properly restored.

A few notes on construction design: the Hiawatha has open gunwales all the way to the stems, a feature which prevents moisture damage to this sensitive area. Another unique feature of the Hiawatha is the tapered rib ends, a design modification that prevented splitting of the rib ends. This is a very handsome canoe with mahogany trim, half ribs in the bottom, a beautiful sheer line along the gunwales, and nicely recurved stems:cool: . Thus, the overall length of 17' is considerably longer that the length from stem top to stem top. The canoe also came with the sailing kit.

Personally, I would think a Thompson Hiawatha would be much more valuable than another vintage Old Town or a Chestnut, which are extremely common:rolleyes:.Sorry if I'm sounding a bit defensive here, but I really don't think Thompson canoes of this vintage and condition are common or of low value.

I'll look forward to your feedback.
Concern over boiled linseed oil is that it can support fungus and that moisture between the canvas and outside of the hull will provide a nice place for the fungus to grow site unseen. If you are going to varnish over the oil, then it should not be a problem. If you plan to oil the interior of the hull as well before varnishing, be aware that the linseed oil will probably darken over time.

As for the value/rarity of Thompsons compared to Chestnuts or Old Towns, pretty hard for me to comment, as I have not seen many Thompson out here in the Pacific NW, so I cannot say much about the quality of construction or materials as compared to other canoe companies. I would assume that they would be more common in the Midwest. Thompson does not have the same name brand recognition, and there are more Chestnuts and Old Towns as these companies were in business longer and concentrated on canoes, as Thompson mostly focused on outboards. Thompsons main run on building w/c canoes seems to be the years from the 1920's to WW2, after the war they seemed to have only produced Ranger until 1956 based on the catalogs. When you look at the catalogs, Thompson for the most part was mainly selling two designs the Ranger, and the Hiawatha/Indian, which were essentially the same design. It would be interesting to know roughly how many canoes Thompson produced in those years....
Hi Tom,

Since I mentioned value I'll respond to your latest, first by saying that I didn't intend to denigrate your canoe or its value. I'm sure almost anyone here would be happy to have a canoe like your Hiawatha. The point was not that it is worth less than an Old Town, Chestnut, or whatever, and the point was not that yours isn't a nice canoe of quality construction. Here's the point: most old canoes don't seem to hold the monetary value than most of us would like to place on our canoes.

A new Old Town- built today- sells for far more than the average old canoe, even if that old canoe is in excellent shape. Part of the reason new Old Towns sell is name recognition, and for this same reason, people appreciate old canoes with name recognition. Thompson also has excellent name recognition, especially in the midwest. Many outstanding small shops produce some of the most outstanding wooden canoes today, but they also may find it hard to match the realized price of a new Old Town.

But the real point is the difference between new and old. For some reason, most old canoes just don't realize the value that we might place on them as antiques. The average sales price realized for all old wooden canoes on Ebay recently is about $600, while the average reserve (if one was posted) was about $2000. Thus, many people value their canoes at a higher level than they actually realize in sale. Some canoes fetch far more $$$, but they are generally of rarer type and/or from a celebrated builder like Rushton, or they are in fantastic condition, they've been effectively marketed, and that rare high-$ buyer has been located.

So most of us have canoes from builders like Thompson, Old Town, Cestnut, etc... what do we do? I don't get so caught up in monetary value, but rather enjoy the boats for what they are- wonderful pieces of craftsman ship and history. I could get caught up in worry that my special old boat can't fetch the price of a new Old Town, but I'd rather not go there. Better to enjoy restoration and using it on the water.

I apologize if I was too blunt earlier about your canoe. When I said "Thompsons are neither exceptionally rare nor exceptionally valuable", I didn't mean that your canoe is "common or of low value". Everyone reading this thread is probably happy for you and appreciates your enthusiasm. That's what this organization is all about. At least to me, monetary value is of little importance- I can't ever seem to part with one of my canoes anyway... maybe by the time I do, they'll finally be worth what I think they are!

1935 Thompson Hiawatha Restoration


Thanks for your feedback! I shouldn't have posted a reply so late at night, I tend to get a bit cranky:eek: . I did spend a few bucks on this old canoe, but no where near what I am spending on my new Stewart River Saganaga, so I guess I shouldn't feel to bad;) .

If I do a good job on the canoe restoration, the main reward will be the enjoyment of paddling this historic craft, and the looks and questions I'll get from curious onlookers:cool: .

The canoe is very solid, but will require some diligent restoration to bring it back to it's former glory. This canoe will fill the empty niche in my growing canoe fleet for a big, stable, flat bottomed canoe for fishing, duck hunting, and other family outings,. It will be perfect for our two little up and coming canoeists (1.5 and 3.5 yrs old):D .

Funny thing is, that your analysis of the canoe value has parallels in other antique sporting items. Even if the item was common, if it has name recognition it will garner a higher price than higher quality items with lesser name recognition.

On another topic, will tongue oil condition the cedar as well as boiled linseed oil? I am going to seal the bottom of the hull with spar varnish after sealing it with oil, so that should prevent microbial growth.

Thanks to all for your input!:)
Photos of 1935 Thompson Hiawatha

Here are some photos of the Hiawatha from the seller's advertisement.


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Beautiful canoe!

Thompson Bros. Boat Mfg. Co. was NOT a small shop. They were one of the largest boat builders in the world. They typically made 5,000 watercraft annually. 8,000 were made their peak year. That's over 30 per work day! And this is just at the Peshtigo, WI factory - not including the Cortland, NY factory.

And Thompson Bros. Boat Mfg. Co. made wood/canvas canoes until 1962. 1956 was NOT their last year for having canoes in their line. The canoes were included in price lists up to 1962, even if they were not pictured in the brochures.

And in 1966 they offered a 16 ft. Royalex canoe.

Andreas Jordahl Rhude
Thompson Antique & Classic Boat Rally, Inc.
a nonprofit corporation
Hi Thomas

Followed the eBay auction for your canoe and am glad it went to someone who appreciates it... and its interesting history. It's one of those "time capsule" canoes, that remained hidden-away and didn't suffer countless repairs needing to be undone.

It makes me smile whenever folks here speak of taking their young children/grandchildren out in a canoe... please share pictures of smiling faces too!


Yup, that's the one. :)

I was also bidding on that one, ended up number 2 or 3 IIRC, you got a very nice canoe for a fair price. (And if you ever what to part with it....)

But as you should see by now, Thompson was one of the large manufacturers and here in the midwest they are common, 2ed only to Old Town. Counting the one I just parted with, I had 4 of them, all projects no where near as nice as yours.

As for value, a T just isn't a valuable as a nice OT, (name recognition?) or a Morris, or even maybe a White here in the midwest. This is not to say they are not built as well, as they are well built canoes. True historic, collector canoes; Rushton's, Gerrish's, and the long deck courting canoes are in another league entirely.


Oh, yes, Tung oil works as well as lynseed oil, it just doesn't darken with time. Of course it also costs lots more too.
Congrats on the Thompson. I was watching the auction, too.
Don't be dismayed about Thommy's..........
Your canoe will be a real "head turner" on the highway and on the water. As well as a sheer joy to paddle.
Having owned and restored a few Thompson's, including three that I have in the shop for restoration, I can tell you that Thompson canoes are of excellent quality. The one thing that I recognize on most Thompson's is that the planking does not shrink much for it's age. The planks are quarter sawn for the most part. It isn't so with other makers that I have encountered, at least as consistently as it is with Thompson's. (only my opinion....not looking for a debate.....)
I use a Thompson Indian, trimmed in mahogany, c. 1938 for guiding clients for fishing, etc. in the back country lakes here in N. Wisconsin. I also paddled it in Quetico last June. What a pleasure it was!~
1935 Thompson Hiawatha Restoration


Thanks everyone for all your valuable input!

I have noticed that the planking in my Hiawatha is still perfectly tight with no gaps what so ever. I see in the catalog description that they used beveled edges on the planking.

You know, my Dad used to use tongue oil to seal his furniture and woodwork restorations before putting on his coats of varnish. If he wanted to give the woodwork a real hand rubbed quality, he would take some fine powdered rottenstone (the whitish or grayish variety) and put a little on a soft cloth dampened with linseed oil and do a final rub down after the final coat of varnish had dried. He was using the old fashioned varnishes, not polyurethanes. All I know is that his wood refinishing quality was second to none:cool: .

I also recall him raising the grain after stripping, and before sealing, by wetting the wood with a little water, allowing it to dry and then sanding the raised grain smooth. It seems he may have even raised the grain more than once in this manner, but I can't remember for sure.

The place that I am going to take my canoe to for stripping (V&L Stripping) in Appleton, does a power wash after stripping. This will certainly raise the grain for sanding, once it is dry. Perhaps I'll do a follow-up light water moistening/drying to raise is once more and sand again.

Thanks again for your feedback:) . Hopefully, I can get past these home improvement projects :p and get on to my Hiawatha canoe restoration this winter.

External woodwork & canvas removed on Hiawatha

I have completed the first step in restoring my 1935 Thompson Brothers Hiawatha. I removed the keel, external stems, outwales and canvas from the canoe. The planking, ribs, decks, and inwales are in very good to excellent shape. I'm only concerned about the tops of the ribs and outside of internal stems where multiple screw and nail holes may weaken the rib ends:( .

Getting the keel was pretty straight forward, but the stems, and outwales were very tough to get off. After getting the screws off the external stems, I found that multiple nails in each and had to work them off little by little by prying with a putty knife and pry bar (mainly for removing nails). Same for the outwales, they had one or two nails in the top of every other rib (ones that weren't screwed in. Whew! But got them off without any damage other than a slight crack in one of the mahogany outwales:eek: . The keel and the external stems showed no rot, but with so many holes and some little cracks in the ends, I think it would be best to replace them with new.

The outside of the internal stems also have a lot of holes from nails, screws, and tacks, althought the stems are very solid other than that.

With so many nail holes and screw holes in the top of the ribs and outside of internal stems, I think I'm going to borrow a page from Thurlow and Stelmocks book and use some liquid epoxy to firm up the outside of the internal stems before re-canvasing. I'll need a firm purchase for all those tacks, and the screws from the external stems.

Also, probably use some liquid epoxy on tops of ribs where outwale will screw back in, because of so many nail and screw holes. I'm thinking of using the next size wider diameter brass screws when putting outwales back on so as to firm up the purchase of the screws. I am a little concerned about cracking the old cedar though. But, perhaps the wood will be more resilient after conditioning, sealing and varnishing. Old screws came out relatively easy. When putting the outwale back on, I am going to skip the nails, that were used on every other rib, needles to say.

Overall though, I am amazed at the excellent condition of the hull. There is no rot, no broken planking or ribs and the wood, although probably a bit dry is in excellent condition. The mahogany decks are also in perfect condition.

I am a bit concerned about the very top of one of the internal stems. A very small bit of wood came off and it seems a little fragile. I hate to have to remove planking to repair/splice less than an inch of the top of the stem, so perhaps liquid epoxy is the answer here as well.

I'm going to take the canoe up for professional stripping sometime in the next week or two.

I'll post some photos, when I get them downloaded from the camera;) .

Any advice you can give would be welcome:) .