Chestnut in Georgia -- fairing question

John Carswell

New Member
I’m from the south; I had never seen a wood-canvas canoe until someone donated this Chestnut to a Satilla Riverkeeper fundraiser. A fellow dropped $1000 in the collection plate and took it home…said he was going to restore it. It sat in his garage for three months and he wised up and asked me to fix it up to be put in service in low-country blackwater rivers, swamps, and salt-marsh estuaries. I seem to specialize in projects that I don’t know how to do so I took it on.

I bought the Stelmock/Thurlow book. I got encouragement and materials from Rollin and Peter at Northwoods. The boat is not in bad shape -- I am replacing 7 ribs, canvas, and varnish. At this point, it is stripped, sanded, and the last new rib is setting.

My question regards fairing but first I want to ramble a few lines to elicit advice and comments.

Lessons learned:

1. The inspiring beauty of these boats I have seen in Wooden Boat photos gave me a false impression of craftsmanship. This boat is a wonderful expression of design evolved over centuries and a testament to the engineering it took to produce thousands with unskilled labor. It is not a fine piece of work. There was little quality control – the ribs were not sanded between the saw and the boat -- both edges of the ribs show deep blade marks; some of the planks used for ribs should have gone in the stove rather than the boat; some ribs are reversed and one rib is upside-down!,the iron nails fastening the ribs to the wales are regrettable, the square-head steel screws spun in their rust when I tried to pull them; the varnish was all on the surface like no thinned sealer coats had been applied. This is the low-end aluminum jon-boat of the early 20th century.

2. The wood has to be hot to bend. Makeshift steamers don’t work as well as towels and boiling water. You have to work fast, especially if you are single handed.

3. Varnish that stalls in high humidity never recovers and has to be stripped to bare wood. ( I live on a barrier island not far from the Okeefenokee Swamp)

4. Staining new ribs to disguise them among the originals is difficult. After three 30 mile trips to buy $6 half-pints of Minwax stain-sealer I gave up. I boiled three Lipton family-sized tea bags in two cups of water and brushed it on; 5 or six applications gave me what I hope is a reasonable result. I have three coats of varnish on one rib in place and it looks ok even in sunlight. Tea dries fast, does not seal the wood so it is adjustable, and it’s cheap. I don’t think it is possible to get a really good match because the wood I got from Northwoods is so open; the original ribs have much tighter grain and much more sapwood showing.

Now for the fairing question:

I read on the Canoe Builders Guild website that “the hull shall be faired and hammer-blossoms wetted out” – hammer-blossoms indeed! This boat was faired with a coarse rasp. It has deep scratches where some poor soul took a few licks to take the worst edges off the planks (he did not wet-out the hammer blossoms).

I am thinking of using an epoxy-glass bead fairing compound. I don’t like the idea of putting a lot of plastic on the boat and I have no idea what will show through the canvas. The boat has a few little bumps and humps, nothing serious but the planking is rough as a cob.

1. Is it worth it to apply fairing compound?
2. Is there any alternative to two-part/glass-bead compound?
3. Should the outside of the hull be sealed and with what?

I'd say your assessment is accurate. But mind you, Chestnuts are always beloved. Not so much for the craftsmanship. the fairing marks you see I also have seen on Chestnut. Brings to mind a farriers file. hammer blossoms probably don't show through. AS you know, steel is not so good due to rust and rot.
I'd avoid using a fairing epoxy or any kind of plastic or epoxy for most rebuilds/restores. You may use epox for splices but not to seal anything. Actually, you can use any thing or method you like, but what I've found is that the tried and true methods are best, and for good reason, otherwise they would not be used.

You can use linseed to seal the hull exterior or you can even use thinned varnish. or nothing at all. Anti mold and mildew treatment is important. Use it in the wood, but especially in the canvas some way. Pre treat or in the filler itself.

Your false sense of craftsmanship is not false. Many builders and hobbyists have elevated canoe building and restoring to an art. I cannot hold a candle to some of the stuff I've seen. You will see a wide variety. I always try to do better each project.
...did not mean to imply

Dave, I did not intend to include one-off, craftsman-built boats in my comment about quality control. Knowing nothing about these canoes until about a month ago, it was a learning experience for me to see the way the mass-produced, factory-built boats were made.

I have no hope of developing the skills I see demonstrated in wooden boats, large and small. ...but it wonderfully pleasant to keep trying.
Hi John,

As the Chestnut Canoe Co ended its days it turned out some pretty poor canoes. It's a shame that your first experience has to be with one of theses. Those canoes don't do justice to the thousands of fine canoes that Chestnut made nor to the 90% of the other makers canoes. There's a book "When the Chestnut was in Flower" by MacGregor that you should fine interesting. Its available at the WCHA Store or you could probably get it through your library.

I do repairs and restoration and a great part of the joy is working on canoes and boats that were so obviously made with the care and pride of craftsmen.

Dan Eaton
Thanks Don. I am enjoying this boat for what it is. We can also respect the situation of builders squeezed by rising costs in a declining market. We will replace the iron with bronze fasteners from Northwoods, get a couple of good sealer coats on before we build up the varnish. The boat will not turn out as nicely as one restored by an experienced hand, but I think it will be better than new.

I still don't know how much effort to put into fairing.

My Dad and I were working on a steel motorsailer years ago and I was being fussy with the topside paint. My Dad said, "She's an old lady, she's entitled to a few wrinkles". This old Chestnut may end up with a few wrinkles but that will be part of the charm.
My experience with recovering a chestnut was to do as much faring as you dare with the sander then accept whatever you have. A heavy canvas and the filler, was the best camouflage for all the construction imperfections.
HI John

Here's the Chestnut I did last year. The canvas is Number 12. Number 10 will cover better yet. I agree with Peter, just fair it best you can.


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