cracked canvas sealer

Michael Leone

You call that a sail?
I just aquired a 17 foot OldTown from it's original owner,
it was his when he was a boy and it has been in the garage of his
families lake house for 50 years.
It apears to be in exelent condition except for a large crazing pattern
all over the cavas sealer.
I don't want to strip the canvas because I want to keep it completly
So what can I use as a clear sealer to assure that the boat is watertight.
this canoe will be in the water regularly.

Mike Leone
Time for new canvas?


I don't know of a clear sealer that can be used. Others may chime in.

You might get away with giving the paint a good thorough sanding and repainting with good quality marine enamel. We did that with my dad's canoe that had the original canvas and we got a couple of dry seasons out of it. You could still see some of the cracks/crazing, but it was water tight - for awhile. It's getting new skin soon.

If you are going to use the canoe a great deal, you'd probably better think about re-canvasing. The canvas has a lifespan and you've probably reached it. If it has a fancy original paint job, you could document it easily enough and reproduce it. The canvasing job is not hard to do and lots of folks on this board can help if you decide to go that way.

Best of luck with your canoe.
I refinished my original canvas and if I had the time to re-do it; I would replace the canvas. I scraped down al the loose paint, sanded the filler & used auto body 'acrylic' spot & glazing compound to fair the filler. I got good results, but in hindsight I did alot of work, maybe more than just R & R the canvas & re-filling.

If you want to use it for a while before restoring the canvas; the spot & glazing compound will sand real thin and adhere well but you will still need some paint to cover it. If you only intend to use the canoe a few years, 'Porch & Deck' enamel is a good choice on old canvas.
Try Orange shellac

I've been "getting by" with badly cracked paint/filler for years now, by giving the hull (below waterline) an annual coating of orange shellac. It leaves the paint with a somewhat "dirty" appearance, but the alcohol-based shellac readily flows into, and seals, tiny craze lines that enamel paint will not penetrate. The shellac dries fast, so you can do this whenever you need to seal against seepage.

I do need to recanvas this 1929 OTCA - last time was 1974, with a homemade filler that is now badly cracked. But before a new canvas job, I need to do a lot of structural repair. No time for that now, so when I want to head to the BWCAW, I just slap on more shellac and off we go! Cracked ribs and damaged planking notwithstanding, she still gets me there in style.
You’ll find two camps in the old boat world- one that insists that because boats were built to be used they should be maintained (which includes “restored” in all the various meanings of the word), and one that believes in keeping old boats completely original. But many people pitch their tents somewhere in between.

Your Old Town canoe was built to be used, it was used, and it still can be used, but it should be used with proper maintenance. Water and time are the enemies of canvas and wood, so to use a canoe without great fear of it slowly rotting in front of your eyes, wood must be re-varnished (or painted) and canvas must periodically be replaced. As others have said here and before, canvas does not last forever, and once you start to see deep crazing, it is near the end of its useful life.

On the other hand, some people truly cherish their old canoes, not as users, but as family heirlooms and/or wonderful reminders of the past. Hardcore “boats are meant to be used” types have suggested (sometimes flatly stated) that the only determinant of a canoe’s worth is its capacity for use. Clearly this is not true; otherwise, institutions like the Antique Boat Museum would not exist. It would be a tragedy, in my opinion, to restore some fantastically well-preserved and very rare canoes that are out there today (see the recent thread here and the Wooden Canoe article about the old Gerrish, for example). Furthermore, it is a logical conclusion that with every old boat restored or otherwise altered, original ones become more and more scarce, and presumably this will eventually translate into increased value of the rare unrestored ones.

That said, Old Town canoes are among the most numerous out there. You would think that, with the advent of the internet and the successful history of the WCHA, original canoes would be getting very hard to find by now. They are still out there, as your experience shows, and Old Towns are found frequently, sometimes in truly pristine condition. Thus, it certainly wouldn’t be a crime to re-canvas your canoe.

Bottom line? You should do what feels right for you. Old wood-canvas canoes, even in very bad outward condition, can be restored to spectacular beauty- just see many photos posted on this site for examples. By restoring yours, you’ll gain a much greater appreciation for what went into the construction of these wonderful little craft, and you’ll have a product that you can be proud of as you use it for many years to come. If you don’t want to alter the canoe with fresh canvas and varnish, however, you’d be best to keep it out of the water. The rate of decay goes up exponentially over time. But if having it out of the water as a nostalgic reminder of the past is what floats your boat, don’t let anyone talk you out of putting it on a pedestal and enjoying it. It is your canoe, after all. Do what feels good.

[see attached photos for two examples: an unrestored E.M. White- not a rare make, but a rare and pristine original example- and an Old Town that deserved restoration and, I believe, wears its restoration well]



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Thanks to everyone for there well thought out replies, and special thanks
to Michael Grace for a most eloquent reply.
My desire to maintain the integrity of this old canoe is not because I am a total purist, and I certainly appreciate a beautifully restored canoe, but for me
the charm of a old wooden canoe is that it looks like an old wooden canoe with all of it's warm patina and telltale signs of many years of faithful service.
So all that being said, my plan is to give her thorough cleaning a fresh coat of vanish on all the wood, and take my chances with the canvas for a while
and replace it when it becomes unserviceable.

thanks again and happy hollidays to all Michael Leone
Michael Leone said:
for me the charm of a old wooden canoe is that it looks like an old wooden canoe with all of it's warm patina and telltale signs of many years of faithful service.
So all that being said, my plan is to give her thorough cleaning a fresh coat of vanish on all the wood, and take my chances with the canvas for a while
and replace it when it becomes unserviceable.

Make sure to use NON Polyurethane spar varnish for your freshining. Urethane is alot harder to strip/remove later...A couple applications of shellac each season will help, guideboats often had that onthe filler below the waterline instead of paint. Sort of a wear surface that was self-healing but short lived...