How do I find a serial number on an old wooden canoe or boat?

Benson Gray

Canoe History Enthusiast
Staff member
Many old wooden canoes and boats have a serial number on both inside stems and a decal or tag with the manufacturer's logo on the bow deck. The number is usually stamped on the top of the lower part of the stems. The inside stems are the long curved pieces of wood that form the ends of the canoe. You want to look on the part that extends out from under the decks on the bottom of the floor inside the hull. The serial numbers are stamped in each end of the canoe so check both if a single digit is not clear. These numbers in the stern of boats are occasionally on the edge of the center transom brace, on the edge of the transom itself, or on the keelson.

This is highlighted by the blue boxes in the attached images below. They may be so encrusted with dirt, old varnish, and other junk that the numbers are not easy to read. You might need to use a flashlight at a low angle to get a good shadow, some gentle scraping, or even paper and a crayon to do a rubbing like they do on old grave stones. Another option is to dust the area with chalk or some other light powder and then lightly rub off the excess. Sanding is not a good idea since it is very easy to permanently remove the numbers completely. Rubbing on some varnish remover is usually a much better option.

The most common format is a four to six digit serial number followed by a space and a two digit number which is the length of the canoe in feet. You can post this number in a message at to have a volunteer reply with a copy of the original build record.


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Michael Grace has suggested that to get a good read on a serial number:

- clean the stem of dust and debris
- use a low-angle light to get a shadow on the stamped digits
- apply stripper and carefully remove varnish (don't aggressively sand the stem or you risk obliterating the number)
- use pencil and paper to do a rubbing of the serial number.

It has also been pointed out that the digits for ones and sevens along with threes and eights are frequently confused in serial numbers. The image at may be useful to help distinguish these digits.
The Morris Canoe Company of Veazie, Maine is known to have used brass tags for their serial numbers in a variety of locations including the forward port gunwale, inside stem, and bow seat frame as shown below.




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