One Off W/C Construction

Jim Wilson

WCHA Member
I've got a boat to build this winter/spring, and it will be a one off. I was planning on building it as a stripper, but I've never liked doing the glass/epoxy thing. Then I remembered Alex Comb's article in Issue 134 of Wooden Canoe. Maybe I don't have to deal with all that nasty stuff after all!

Has anyone tried out this construction yet? (Other than Alex, of course) I looked over the article this morning, and it seems pretty straightforward. Not much different than standard w/c canvas building, but a lot more work with a clenching iron. That's a great trade-off for not having to build a standard solid form.

Maybe I'll need to make a phone call to Minnesota in the near future.
Hi Jim

Open form method had some followers in Michigan. Brian Baker and his dad used that method. Another person I knew of used it as well.

One thing about it is that the tacks don't need to be re-clinched becaue they can be set well enough the first time.

Alex's article is significant. I think the solid form may have been a development persuant to the open form but I do not know. i would like to know more of the history of these things and the interest in old canoes has encouraged many to study these things and i am guessing more information is yet to be preserved about (one more time) these things.
Hi Jim,

Early builders in Canada used solid forms that were actually dugout canoes- the original canoe served as the form. Later, molds were built from scratch for canoe construction. Herald's patent double cedar canoe was the first known to be built on a form with metal bands for clinching tacks, and the forms for wood-canvas canoes surely derive from Herald's invention. Other early buidlers joined planking first to form an un-ribbed hull, and then inserted steam-bent ribs (i.e. Rushton and others). When and how the open form you're referring to came about, I don't know, but it seems to me that this was concocted perhaps in the 1940s or so as a quick method of short-run construction.

Alex built an open form canoe at the Assembly in 2006. He had a fair amount of help from those of us who were in attendance. I have a form for Alex's version of the Chestnut Pal and know how much work is involved in making the form. My guess is that you would be way ahead timewise to build open form if you are only planning on one canoe. In the few days of the Assembly, Alex left with the canoe hull pretty well completed. It's not nearly as convenient as building on a form, but with a few work arounds, it comes out just fine. My guess is that you'll have a completed canoe in about the same amount of time it would take you just to build the form.
OTOH, the extra work clenching could be put to solid form building(a nice extension to canoe building imho). you would then have the ability to build again,have a valuable form,experience and the desire to build again will come with a form calling to you.:cool:
there is no downside. form building is a great experience.
I have resisted building a form because then I'd be only building 1 design, and I like building/paddling different designs. And in fact, this is partly why I've stuck to restoring rather then building new. In general, all of my canoes are different then the others in some way.

And as a side note, building 1 off's w/o a form isn't new. Years ago, Joe S built a lightweight 15 ft'er (I think) over a Chestnut. He removed the outer gunwales and keel, attached the new inner gunwales, and bent the ribs over the Chestnut. After they were all nailed and dry, (and I assume sanded smooth) he removed the new work from the Chestnut and added planking. He did say it was a lot of extra work and he wouldn't do it again but the canoe did get built w/o a form.

I've already got a couple of solid forms knocking around here, along with 10 or so canoes. I don't have room for another solid form, and I doubt if I will be building many, if any, more of these. If I do go with Alex's ideas of a form and decide later that I want a solid one, I should be able to put the temp back together and build a solid form on that.

The offsets that I have for this boat are for strip built construction, so I will have to make some adjustments there. Now I have to decide if I can just reduce the stations by the approriate amount, or will I need to loft it to be sure of accuracy?
I have enough issues storing all my canoes, so the 'open form" as I think it is refered to', is great, as you collapse the molds after the project is finished. I also like to do different patterns and play with the lines a bit with each new project yet have a wood and fabric construction. I keep the stations and remake the form as needed (on the 4th rendition of one currently).
Mostly completed a one-off - and it works

Ron Root and the Upper Chesapeake Chapter guys at the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum have nearly completed a one-off using Alex's method. We got forms for a strip-built English 20, lengthened it a bit and have just recently taken it off the open form. It worked really well, and looks like it will be a nice canoe. One issue was the distance between the ribs - remember you have to put your hand and a clinching iron between them. We are currently installing decks and plan on putting dacron on this spring.

If you have any questions please ask.

The spacing of the ribs to allow the clinching iron is only important if the hull is deep and beamy enough that you can't reach around from the outwale to the inside. Not an issue for the 9, 12, or 17 foot molds. however the large freighters (23 ft) need enough space to get the clenching iron in (actually not a problem) although the first time I left out every 10th (or so) rib so I could reach inside when planking, then re-insert it after the planking was complete. I learned to use the width of the clenching iron as a (functional) rib spacer for the next ones. I would be interested in what routine you are using to coat the dacron.
Michael Grace said:
Hi Jim,

Early builders in Canada used solid forms that were actually dugout canoes- the original canoe served as the form. Later, molds were built from scratch for canoe construction. Herald's patent double cedar canoe was the first known to be built on a form with metal bands for clinching tacks, and the forms for wood-canvas canoes surely derive from Herald's invention. Other early buidlers joined planking first to form an un-ribbed hull, and then inserted steam-bent ribs (i.e. Rushton and others). When and how the open form you're referring to came about, I don't know, but it seems to me that this was concocted perhaps in the 1940s or so as a quick method of short-run construction.


I would have to take exception to the comment that Herald was responable for the delvelopment of the forms for the wood and canvas canoes. E.H Gerrish of Bangor Maine was the first commercial builder of wood and canvas canoes using a form with metal bands in the mid 1870's. He was a woodsman, a guide, a bark builder and busnessman. There has never been any connection between the boat building going on around the Bangor area and what was happening in the Peterbourgh area. The buiders of the Bangor area had been experimenting with using canvas instead of bark for their birch bark canoes for a long time. Using forms and clinch nails was already being used on many of the different small boats being built on the Bangor waterfront. It would not be difficult to see how a enterprising builder could marry the all the different methods to come up with a new building method.
E.M. White credited to seeing a Gerrish canoe being used on the Penobscot river and decided he could build that kind of craft also.
The builders in Maine were responding to the needs of the people working in the woods who needed needed a larger supply of durable craft for their work.

The open form building method has been around for some time. There was a very popular artical by R.O. Buck in a 1940 issue of Popular Mechanics that gave directions for building such craft. A good number of that style of boats have been build over the years, with various degrees of success. Alex's design is certainly much more refined than the Popular Mechanics boat and he has certainly renewed interest in this building style.

Maybe this should all be moved to a Gerrish thread, but here goes anyway- Let’s talk about the history of the wood-canvas canoe a bit more. I agree that I over-reached by suggesting that Herald was the progenitor of wood canvas canoes everywhere. I don't know this for a fact, but rather was speculating that this seemed reasonable to me. But is there really any concrete evidence to the contrary?

According to several sources (none of which reference the basis for the statement), Gerrish began building wood-canvas canoes in about 1875 or 1876:

“…Gerrish… was the first commercial builder of the wood-canvas canoe. …moved to Bangor in 1875 to… manufacture fishing rods and canoe paddles…. By 1878 he was building about 18 canoes per year.”
- T. Moores (2002) in The Canoe: A Living Tradition, p. 182

“E.H. Gerrish was probably the earliest, setting up shop in Bangor in 1875.”
- H. Bond (2002) in The Canoe: A Living Tradition, p. 208

“Evan (Eve) H. Gerrish started building wood-canvas canoes in Bangor as early as 1875”
- J. Stelmock and R. Thurlow (1987) The Wood & Canvas Canoe, p. 150

“Gerrish began building the first wood and canvas canoes in 1876”
- L.A. Meyer (2004) Wooden Canoe 27(6):8

Gerrish’s 1898 catalog indicates a date of 1875 in the header of its title page as the inception of his company, and Gerrish states “Twenty-three years’ experience has given the inventor the only perfect filler…”. However, none of this gives a clear indication of either his actual start in building wood-canvas canoes or the techniques used to build his earliest wood-canvas canoes were built. People (maybe Gerrish, maybe not) often stretch the historical boundaries of their activities when it is lucrative to the purse or to the ego. So, is material available that fleshes out Gerrish’s early history? Perhaps in a Maine museum or other historical archive? It would be fun to see it if it exists.

In any case, the patent diagram of Herald’s patented building form was drawn up at least by the spring of 1870, which means that Herald was likely working on this kind of construction at least as early as 1869. Thus, there was at least a 6 year time span between Herald’s development in Ontario and the time that Gerrish began building wood-canvas canoes in Maine. While it doesn’t seem unlikely at all that multiple builders could have hit upon the same idea for building canoes over a metal-banded form, it does seem unlikely that over the course of 6 years, word of Herald’s technique wouldn’t have spread beyond the confines of Peterborough and perhaps to Maine. The border was certainly porous, and we heard at last year’s Assembly the intricate connections among Peterborough, Maine, New York and Boston builders.

I’m not disagreeing with you, Rollin- just thinking out loud- and I’m sure that your knowledge of Gerrish equals that of anyone. But is much really known about this very early Maine canoe history? Is there any concrete evidence for the development of the tools and techniques in Maine? It would be just as interesting to know how Maine builders (Gerrish) may have independently developed their building techniques as it would to know for sure that there was influence from Peterborough. Of course this is being said by someone who has no lifeblood in either Maine or Ontario!

The building dates and comments on builders tending to exaggerate their early history are all correct. Its just that Herold was building a much different canoe than the bark canoes or the wood and canvas canoes that the builders in the Bangor area were interested in. In the begining, Herold did not see the use of his form to build a wood and canvas canoe and there is no evidence that Gerrish saw the use of the solid form to build a all wood canoe.
In that time period of the the early 1870's there is no evidence that Herolds solid form was headline news that swept the sporting news journals or that the invention was so powerfull that word of mouth spead the construction details throughout the boat building world. In fact the opposite could be said. The popular press that might of reported on such items looked down upon the canoe as a primative craft that were inferior to the modern craft of the white man.
The Stephenson family history reports one of their family members moved to southern Maine sometime in the time period, maybe. Even if that is accurate, for him to of slipped up to the Bangor area or somehow for Gerrish to find him in southern Maine, exchage canoe buiding secrets and then never speak of it , seems a bit hard to belive.
Gerrish never claimed to of invented the building method of the wood and canvas canoe, only to "perfecting" it. It is not hard to imagine that with all the boatbuilding going on in the Bangor area, the history of bark canoes, the need for more durable canoes and the many builders in the area that the solid form in the Bangor area evolved among the area builders and Gerrish was the one that perfected the system enough to make a commercial success of it.
Stephenson family!

Thanks for the information Rollin. George Stephenson settled in Norway Maine and opened a canoe and snowshoe business at the turn of the century. I have been by his site and am currently trying to find where he finally settled In Lovell near Kezar Lake...When he left after the great fire, he turned his equipment over to a HH Hosmer..I have located a relative of Mr. Hosmer who also moved eventually to Lovell..In the spring I am going to locate a big barn over there where there is reportedly a collection of hand carved wood pieces,including a working Merry-go-round....My hopes and thoughts are to see if there are still an existing form from either gentlemen..
I believe that Dick Pearson has a lot of information on these two families also.
My only input to this is the great debate over which came first....THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG! it must be nice to be able to sit back under a palm tree and quote from the many books about who did what first...Its the guys who have tapes, discs, books, and Information that they share on HOW to make, use, care and repair them that teaches me this fine craft and art. Thanks for sharing Rollin
I am busy right now, but I will share some more knowledge in regards to the form/mold issue as well as the early Gerrish history later. However, the following is a short summary of what is known about George Stephenson:

George Stephenson was the second son of the Peterborough pioneer canoe builder John Stephenson. He had worked in his father’s shop in Peterborough and in the start-up of Ontario Canoe Co. On one of his many visits to his Peterborough relatives, Charles River canoe builder J.R. Robertson met George Stephenson and offered him a job in his new shop in Auburndale. After a year with Robertson, Stephenson was lured away by higher wages and went to work for the H.V. Partelow & Co., who had factories in both Boston and Auburndale. A couple of years later he established his own canoe building business in Auburndale. In the early 1890’s he moved his business to Norway, Maine. In the Norway fire of 1894 a fire destroyed the building he operated out of as well as material, tools and finished boats and canoes. George continued to build canoes in the Norway area until his death in 1945. George primarily built canvas covered canoes and small boats. After his death, one of his employees took over the business. The business changed name a couple of times and finally closed sometime in the mid to late 1950’s.

Dick Persson
Headwater Wooden Boat Shop
All of Canada’s pioneer canoe builders; Dan Herald, John Stephenson, Thomas Gordon and William English early on successfully and very astutely promoted their canoes internationally.

Herald won medals in the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1877 Dominion of Canada Exhibition, 1877 Sydney Australia Exhibition, 1883 Fisheries Exhibition in London UK, 1893 World Exhibition in Chicago and the 1901 Paris Exhibition.

Indeed there was quite the stir and discussions in the press of the time about his canoes and methods of construction, especially after his exhibit in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876.

We may never know for sure, who did what, influenced who or exactly how. However, the available facts from city directories, newspaper archives and censuses reveal the following:

-The 1880 census and Bangor Maine city directories 1882 to 1890 list E.H. Gerrish as a maker of fishing rods.
-It is not until the 1890 census and 1891 city directory he is listed as a canoe builder.

Obviously, he didn't see himself as a canoe builder or a reason to call himself that until late 1880's early 1890's.

In the summer of 1883 the ACA met at Stoney Lake outside Peterborough. I am pretty sure that many a canoe builder and canoe fancier took the opportunity to check out what their Canadian brothers were doing, especially so after the reports about the builders and the area in the press leading up to the event. I have not found any indication that Gerrish attended the meet, but some of his “sports” or customers were likely in attendance and could have spread the word.

However, newspaper reports from Maine shows that Gerrish indeed built canoes before 1890, but so far I haven’t found much of anything before 1885.

In the fall of 1885 it was reported that; “….Mr. E.H. Gerrish a rod maker and canoe builder of this city displayed two canoes. The inside woodwork of the crafts is very polished and the best we have seen in this rude type of craft………………”
and later that fall; “…..Mr. Gerrish of this city shipped 3 handsome five oz trout-rods to Cinncinatti last evening. He has also received an order for four salmon and two trout-rods. He is devoting all his time to filling rod orders and is doing very little canoe work………..”

In 1886 the local paper mentioned Gerrish seven times, accounting for a production of twelve canoes. It seems clear that, E. H. Gerrish built canoes by 1885, but is there any solid evidence for Gerrish building wood & canvas canoes and/or using a form as early as 1875?

I am still digging!

Dick Persson
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:) To bring this tread back to where it started - Questions about the open form - when and how the open form came about?

Around 1898 – 1900, John Stephenson, Peterborough came up with a new canoe building form consisting of a series of steel loops with open space between. The loops were welded to a keelson receiving channel and a sheer clamp receiving the ribs. The builders could work both sides of the form simultaneously. The new form was never put into production.

Dick Persson
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