Restore or leave original?


looks very solid but canvas of course has seen better days. Recanvas, strip,varnish and go paddling.;)
An old canoe in original condition may be rare, but it seems to me that unless the canoe itself is rare and it would benefit history to keep it as-is, restoration may outweigh conservation. One of the nice things about w/c canoes is that they can be returned to like-new (or sometimes even better) condition, to help create memories for another generation of canoeists. A beautifully-restored 100-year-old canoe paddling down a river is a wonderful ambassador for wooden canoes, and may draw more folks into the wooden-canoe-fold than a similar canoe on display, unrestored, in a museum.

One reason some enjoy restoration is the feeling of being in touch with the original builder... of being the first to see what's under the canvas since it was originally stretched in place... or of un-doing the work of those who simply patched the boat to make it functional again. When someone restores a canoe, they may learn more about that canoe and its builder than they would studying a canoe in a museum.

Personally, I feel that if a canoe is purchased to be a decorative "hanger", it makes sense to leave it as-is if it's in original condition. If restored, it makes sense to use the canoe, at least sparingly, and create a few more memories involving sunny days and water and wind and fresh air...
This is a great question and I hope that it continues to collect such good responses. I did not bid on this canoe but I might have if it was not so far away. My preference is to use my old canoes so one that leaks badly will usually get the canvas replaced. This also usually involves repairs to any structural problems as well as new varnish and paint.

This topic is particularly timely for me as it relates to a similar canoe that I recently purchased. See the thread at for more details. The keel, seat cane, and canvas do not appear to be original but most of the rest of the canoe is. I was able to remove the keel yesterday without tearing the canvas so now it will need some new paint. One outside gunwale has an old repair using roofing tar so I'm inclined to fix that also. The bad news is that most of the original decal is gone. I have inspected it closely and find that the identifible parts are slightly higher than the missing parts so this implies that it is not simply obscured by old varnish. Oh well, Happy New Year!

One of my other passions in life is music, and though I can understand the rationale behind it, sometimes I fail to grasp why an unrestored original condition 1957 stratocaster is worth $50,000, and one that's been refinished and/or updated is worth much less. I say that within the context of knowing that a vintage beat up guitar that plays well still looks pretty cool...

The value of canoes from the beginning, it seems, has always been their functionality, and the modular/repairable manner in which they are constructed. In restoring a canoe and utilizing this capability, you are participating in what has made wooden boats valuable to begin with. Weathered decorations are one thing, and certainly have a great timeless quality, but for me, a boat that looks and performs as well at 100 years old as it did in year 1 is where it's at.
Kathryn Klos said:
One of the nice things about w/c canoes is that they can be returned to like-new (or sometimes even better) condition

This point is exactly why I asked the question actually. It is so easy to over restore these old boats. I have seen so many classic canoes that look better than they did when they were built. It really makes me wonder if it's not an even more compelling statement about wooden canoes that they can indeed survive in original condition for as long as this one has.

That said, a canoe should be paddled. A resting place hanging on a wall or as book shelves is a sad ending for these boats. That suggests that the canvas needs to be fresh. Then the question becomes, where do you stop? That's actually the conundrum. Canvas needs to be fresh, canvassing invites restoration..........hence original condition boats end up restored to better than new.
I personally get more excited to see these boats the way they were built and un-tampered with......................than "improved" beyond original.
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A vote for conservation

Restore or leave original? While I don’t disagree generally with anything written in response to this question thus far, most responses are in one form or another “fix it up and use it”, so I’ll argue the other side of the coin.

In various ways, it has often been said that a canoe’s value lies in its capacity for use. But outside our group of users, builders and restorers, there are other issues that may be much more important. Value is a very subjective concept and for some people, the value of a canoe, a chair, or an electric guitar stems largely from its function. For others, however, value lies in preservation of the past, in appreciation of craftsmanship and history. A canoe (or whatever else) that has been restored, however the term “restored” is applied, is no longer original. I have no problem understanding why an original, unrestored guitar or a piece of furniture has far greater market value than a comparable restored one. Some say "condition is everything", and condition surely includes whether the item is original or not. Removing the original finish from an antique piece of furniture can lower its value by 90% or more in the antique furniture market. The antique canoe market is of course different. It may never develop into the same kind of market as exists for waterfowl decoys or Chippendale chairs or other such antiques, if for no other reason than canoes are BIG items (witness the dramatic rise in prices of salesman’s sample canoes!). But then the antique canoe market simply may be in its infancy. One thing is for sure- for every canoe that gets restored, the pool of pristine originals grows one smaller. This alone will certainly someday increase the value of unrestored canoes relative to restored ones.

Like many others here, I restore canoes regularly, sometimes because they are in poor condition, sometimes because they have long been and continue to be used- they can’t be used in disrepair or they will continue to deteriorate. But if I were to be offered an original canoe in reasonably good condition vs. a well-restored one with spliced gunwales, new decks and a few replaced ribs, I’d take the unrestored one in a heartbeat. This isn’t because I want to be the restorer (well, this may be true, too); it is because the unrestored canoe with its original character is much more interesting, more exciting. We have some canoes that will never be restored- at least not by us! And this isn’t just me- the public agrees. At one of the shows we attended last spring, we showed several carefully, beautifully and accurately restored antique all-wood and wood-canvas canoes- all 1800s to very early 1900s, all in near perfect structural condition (no new wood), and all with detailed historical information. We also brought along one unrestored canoe- good condition, but clearly unrestored and with no documented history. This one lowly canoe garnered far more attention from the visiting public than any of the other canoes!

Of course value and "rightness" for restoration both depend upon condition as found. A canoe from a large maker, well-used and with some rot and broken parts doesn't have high intrinsic value and would be well worth restoring- this is true for other antiques as well. But a rarer canoe (maker, model, age, etc.) in structurally excellent condition is already rare and is a very different problem. Given today's wooden canoe market, monetary value of most old wooden canoes is unlikely to be hurt by restoration, but what about the future? Again, for every canoe that gets restored, one less original exists. Surely those that survive in original form will someday greatly increase in value relative to those that have been restored.

As for the circa 1910 Old Town mentioned above, it is obviously in great condition for its age. Whether to restore or leave original, hmmm… until seeing it in person, it would be hard to say. Old Towns are the most common old wooden canoes in the US, but a truly remarkable example is still well worth preserving/conserving.

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And to further muddy the waters... What is "restore"? How far is too far? Is something that would have been routine upkeep on a usable canoe considered restoration? New varnish or paint? Re-canvasing? Gunwale replacement? Seat re-caning? Re-gluing a seat frame? On and on to the veritable quote of "give me one original rib and I can build a boat around it!"

I have yet to hear anything in the above post that I dis-agree with under any particular set of circumstances - So far, there has been no mention of epoxy putty molded parts or fiberglass!

Great discussion - let's keep it going.
Restore or...?

Great food for thought. I'm a newbie to restoration, and have a 1946 Otca (CS grade) awaiting the effort. Canvas, rot at the gunnel/deck tips, and whatever surprises (adventures?) await after the effort starts, will need to be addressed. It has been re-canvassed, and has had two thwarts replaced, modified for the traditional paddle-rigged portage yoke. Also, the seats are in severe disarray, and will need to be taken completely apart, split rails repaired/replaced, & re-dowelled, or else just completely replaced. Traditional caning will be used.

I've been assuming that a '46 Otca isn't of particular historical interest (it's not much older than me), and thus made a good boat for my first attempt. Also, I was thinking that (when I get around to it), I might actually do some upgrades, really get it gussied up, including cherry or walnut gunnels, thwarts, & seat frames, bookmatched curly cherry or walnut decks (or maybe bird'seye or flamed maple, for contrast), and adding a sailing rig & associated parts. It will get new canvas, not 'glass.

Obviously, this wouldn't rate as a "restoration" any more; it's a "repair-and-upgrade" job. I'm interested to hear what people think about that? Am I morally corrupt? (well, yes, but that's a different issue... :D ) Does this fall within the "it's my boat and I'll do what I want" concept, or would I be way out of line doing this?
I think a couple of things must be considered. First, who owns the boat, and why?

If the boat was bought by someone intending to use it, then generally anything necessary to make it useful is acceptable. If bought by a museum, why did the museum buy it -- to preserve an item that is unique because it is the only one of a kind, or because its history was special, or to display as an exemplar of an old boat, or to restore in order to practice/teach restoration techniques, or ??

But there is a prior question that ought to be asked -- is this boat suitable for being used, or is it too rare, too unusual, too historical, too ?? (you name the attribute) to be thrown in the water and paddled away, no matter who the owner is?

To answer that question, I think you have to consider what the item is --

1. one-of-kind (or very nearly one-of-a kind) objects in original condition (even if seriously dilapidated)

2. one-of-kind (or very nearly one-of-a kind) objects in non-original condition, that is, on which repair, renovation, or other post-creation work has been done in the ordinary course of using the item

Note: an item might be unique because, even though it is a common item, is has a special history -- an ordinary birch bark canoe owned by FDR, for example.

3. rare, but not unique or nearly unique, items in original (or near original) condition

4. relatively common old items in original condition

5. relatively common old items in "used" condition

6. everything else, that is, commonly available items, new or old, in whatever condition.

Class one items should usually not be subject to ordinary use and the wear and tear accompanying ordinary use. Sometimes, though not always, they should be kept as is, except perhaps for very careful cleaning by someone with curatorial conservation training. However, even with such items, sometimes keeping things as is can actually be destructive, and intervention is necessary to preserve the object, even if it means introducing new materials or removing original. Preserving a building often means new paint, replacement of rotten sills and other wood, repointing masonry, and even replacing spalling bricks and stones. Preserving a painting may mean, in addition to cleaning, the removal of an original coat of varnish, or the relining of the painting, or after repairing a rip, cut, or other damage, adding paint to conceal the damage. If an item was flawed to begin with (Wright's Falling Water is a building that comes to mind), substantial new work and material never envisioned by the original builder/artist may be needed (unless the point of keeping the item is to educate and to demonstrate how bad design or execution may lead to failure). Class two items should probably be treated much the same as class one items.

Hopefully, any WCHA member having a very rare boat in these categories would recognize it and treat it accordingly.

The owner of items in class five and six should feel free to use the item as is, or repair or restore it in any way desired. I have a number of Stanley Bed Rock planes on which I have cleaned all the unjapanned metal, flatten the soles, ground and honed the blades, repaired and reinforced cracked totes, refinished the scratched and blistered paint and varnish on both wood and metal parts, and generally converted them from well-worn and/or damaged pieces of near junk into useful, attractive tools. These were not museum pieces to begin with, and leaving them in as-bought condition would have served no purpose whatsoever. While not common, there are plenty of Bed Rocks around, almost none of which are of museum quality. Most of the canoes that are seen on eBay or are discussed in the forums fall into these categories.

But the treatment of items in classes three and four is more problematic. A museum should have a policy, determined by its mission, on how to handle such items. Most, I would think, should probably have preservation strongly in mind in determining what to do with such an item. But I think a private person should feel free to take most any course of action with an item of this sort -- and if stripping and refinishing a relatively rare canoe makes other, similar but non-refinished canoes rarer and more valuable, so be it. I think it acceptable for a private person to chose present actual use, utility, and beauty rather than setting something aside in hopes of a possible future increase in value. This seems to be a zero sum situation -- the "loss" in value by using or restoring such a boat now is offset by the increase in value of some other untouched boat.

The eBay canoe that is the subject of this discussion appears to be rare, but not unique, in that it seems to have its original finish and canvas. From the evidence available on eBay, the purchaser is someone who fishes (and also collects antlers, has an interest in archery, and in Navaho Rugs). If he plans to use the canoe for fishing, he probably should re-canvas and revarnish the canoe -- not just for looks or for better performance, but for the protection of the boat itself. An old canvas cover with cracked paint and filler will likely leak, and the worn and weathered varnish will provide little protection from water and UV damage to the wood. But if he's just going to hang it in his hunting lodge, his sporting goods store, his restaurant, or his bar, it would be easier, and maybe just as well, to leave it as is.

But if the buyer is not going to display the boat, there is no reason in my mind why the boat should not be put into whatever condition that will serve the owner's purpose and sensibility.

The reality is that in our individualistic society, an owner can do pretty much what he wants -- hence canoe bookcases made from Peterboroughs and coffee tables made from Rushtons -- and the ignorant and insensitive will do unfortunate things unless and until they can be educated. The blockheads will do unfortunate things no matter what. All we can hope for is that we ourselves will try to be aware that there are issues to be considered, keep from being blockheads ourselves, and maybe along the way educate others about the values we see in wooden canoes.
Restore or not

Heres my 2 cents. I restore and enjoy doing it as most of you do. Leave the rare ones original, at all costs if possible. If you need to fix them, take great time and care while doing it. Do it right!!! I've seen plenty of canoes that were restored incorrectly, although this club has shown great craftsmanship over the last 15 years. I have even seen a "Pro" do a gunwale splice job using dissimilar woods!! When I went to my first Assembly, back in the early 80's, the quality wasnt anywhere near it is today, some of your restorations just blow me away. There still exists a real danger in botching up a historically good canoe, then what? You cant take back patina in an old rib or another pc of the canoe. Thank God for this club and the great knowledge it brings!! SAVE THE CANOES, but "Friends Dont Let Friends Screw Up A Restoration Job"!!!! Keep the public educated. Keep people going to boat shows representing the WCHA!!! Gil Cramer, Russ Hicks and a bunch of others have done a ton out here in Michigan. A canoe that was restored incorrectly is a bigger shame than the abuse it originally took, dont even talk to me about a "pair" of canoe shelves, when it could have been saved. I do understand the shelf made of a canoe hit by a truck or something catastrophic like that. I also restore without hiding wood behind stain to match the original. I think that the restoration is part of the history of the canoe and shouldnt be hidden, although I do know that this is strictly preference. I added new ribs and planking to an old EM White 20 years ago and now you can barely tell, and no stain. Bottom line, lets be responsible and do our restoration work carefully, ask questions!!!!!
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There are many great points in the discussion above. I think I am an authenticity geek. For about a decade or so, I belonged to an re-created 18th century British regiment. One of the ones that perhaps fired the shot "Heard round the World". Many folks spent years of their lives researching exactly what this unit looked like, how it worked, and what it used for equipment, ate for food, used for tools, and utensils. The emphasis on authenticity was very appealing to me. I learned a great deal. I think authenticity is important for learning alone.

I live in a house built probably prior to 1700. Probably one of the oldest houses in America. I stress about this very same question a lot. One rule I have come to live by is, "DON'T DO ANYTHING THAT CAN'T BE UNDONE".

Canoes - I dunno. I use the same woods and try to match the pieces being replaced. I "DON'T DO ANYTHING THAT CAN'T BE UNDONE". The varnish has usually outlived it's use as a protective layer, so has the canvas. Aren't canoes similar to antique autos = most antique vehicles are junk until they undergo a "frame up restoration", right?

I think there is the truly very rare canoe that may benefit the public by being preserved, but otherwise most deserve a frame up restoration or repair that puts it in the water again, right?

By the way, that ebay canoe would make a great paddler, based on my first half-assed restoration that I did to a 16 foot OT Charles River. Actually, not a really bad restoration, but there are things I would do differently now, and I didn't do anything "THAT CAN'T BE UNDONE".

It is one of my favorite boats, but when I canvas it again.........

Actually, re-reading this post, it is probably the stripping and re-varnishing of antique canoes that has the potential to be the issue "THAT CAN'T BE UNDONE". Those twin brothers on the Road Show would likely scream the loudest, but old cars are refinished, why not old canoes?

it's a "repair-and-upde" job. I'm interested to hear what people think about that

This, in my opinion, is middle ground between "restoration" and "as found". Museums want artifacts "as found" to show the builders methods and skills, or lack of them, and so they can trace what happens to aged artifacts. They would have you build a replica if you want to actually use the item. There are also examples of museums doing restorations, but using traditional skills and materials to keep those skills alive. (read Charles W. Morgan at Mystic Seaport.)That's fine. Others believe, as has been mentioned, that it's worthwhile to restore an old item to new or like new condition to show that it can be done and that the item has "enduring value", and can continue a useful life. That's fine too.

I, personally, like the idea of an old item that has been used, in some cases abused, but that has been cared for enough to be repaired and kept in a useful condition, with all it's warts, bangs, bruises and patches showing. that attitude wouldn't get me far at a show with an antique car or mahogany runabout, but does on the river. The idea that a boat has 23 new ribs in it (that show), but is still going intrigues some folks and draws as much comment as the perfectly restored boat. My current project, a 1929 Kennebec Guides canoe, needed new decks and a center thwart. It got them, in mahogany. The thwart is now a yoke type. All you knowledgeable people will know this boat isn't original, but has been cared for and kept usable. The rest likely won't care. I'll have an old canoe that's perfectly usable and distinctly mine.
My 2 cents.
A repair makes it usable.
A restoration is as true to original as possible.I point out that Peterborough never used more than 3 or 4 coats of Varnish.
When I'm asked Value,I respond that value is based on what you put into it.
Some boats however have Historic Value which says to me don't dick with it any more than absolutely necessary.
Value can also be sentimental,aesthetic,or I need a good boat.
The point in a repair or restoration is that if the canoe is restorable then it is still a boat.
Some of the Runabout Restorers replace everything.I say take the lines and build a reproduction.There seems some confusion as to whether a boat 90% replaced at one fell swoop is the same boat.I think Old Ironsides would qualify as the 90% was spread over a period of time but I digress.
A boat not usable in the water is a flower planter,a decoration,or kindling.
A Canoe is not a Settee

Among the interesting things that come from "Antiques Roadshow" is the degree to which "the market" dictates if and how a particular item should be restored/conserved. If restoring a canoe to usable condition made it less valuable (money-wise) than what the eBay buyer paid for it (and his blood runs cold and beads of sweat form as the Keno twins shake their heads and begin with, "with shreds of original canvas and signs of old varnish, this canoe would have been worth...") what, then, becomes of the market for old canoes? Seems to me that canoes fall into the category of antiques that permits all of what has been mentioned in this thread-- a lot of personal decisions based on the boat itself and the owner's desire. If anyone hauls a canoe into the Roadshow for evaluation, my guess is that someone who posts here would be asked to evaluate it rather than the Keno brothers! WE are "the canoe market".

A boat not usable in the water is a flower planter, a decoration, or kindling.

I couldn't disagree more with this statement. If what Kathryn says is true ("WE are "the canoe market"."), then maybe Greg's statement is reasonable. But we- WCHA members, Assembly attendees, regular website users- are NOT the entire antique canoe market, and we never will be the entire market. These old boats certainly aren't just users, planters, decorations, or kindling... they are artifacts from the past, they are connections to craftsmanship that no longer exists. And there is value in this, whether monetary, sentimental, aesthetic or whatever. I'll readily admit that a late 50s-era Peterborough, Old Town or Huron doesn't thrill me. I feel no deep emotional stir when I see one. But when I see a mint-condition all-original varnish-and-all long-decked E.M. White from ca.1910, I get excited. Should this canoe be "restored"? Absolutely not, in my opinion. I'm sure it would float as is, probably with no leaks at all, but I wouldn't put it on the water. But neither would I strip the old varnish, throw away the gold-leafed canvas, or remove the original cane from the seats. To me, it's not a user, but neither is it a planter, decorator, or kindling!

Granted, canoes such as this are truly and recognizably rare, but there are many others that don't deserve head-long "rip-and-strip" restoration complete with deletion of keels, sponsons thrown away, sheer lowered, fancy new decks of exotic hardwoods, etc.

Don't get me wrong- I'm not promulgating draconian rules here, just proffering my opinion. Gil said it well- if it's your canoe, you're free to do with it whatever you will. And while I don't hold onto canoes hoping for an increase in monetary value, it is comforting to know that the ones I choose not to restore will remain as they were a hundred years ago for at least a few more decades.

One final point- Gil and John mentioned mahogany runabouts as a comparative example. It is clear that even the mahogany runabout mind-set is no longer a “set”. Owners of runabout also fall into two general classes- restore vs. preserve, and even the Antique and Classic Boating Society has followed suit- it now promotes judging in two categories for each boat type- "restored" vs. "preserved". And again, the general public and antique boat enthusiasts agree- at the 2007 Mt. Dora ACBS show, where hundreds of amazing boats were displayed, two boats were consistently singled out in discussions at the show, in publications after the show and elsewhere- one was a completely original Chris Craft runabout, and the other was a completely original early raceboat. Everyone ooohed and aaahed over the gleaming freshly varnished mahogany all around (with many antique boats having been fully re-planked and re-decked in new wood), but the real amazement was reserved for those two rare originals.

So do what you want with your own boat. I'm sure that most of the antique canoe enthusiasts here entered the antique boat world by first entering small boats as paddlers. Hopefully we all get out and paddle wonderful wooden boats now and then (I'll be out there tomorrow- yippee!). But our interest in paddling shouldn't discourage us or others from appreciating an untouched old boat. As long as some originals remain, we all have the best of both worlds- boats to paddle and boats that wear their original varnish. Maybe just knowing that original ones exist in museums is enough for some people, but I absolutely love walking by those pristine antiques and filling up my senses with their musty history as I head out for another paddling adventure in a lovingly restored old wooden canoe.
I agree with John Hupfield. WCHA as great of an organization of people as there can be, is creating a potentially harmful situation by creating an enhanced value in old canoes. Canoes are meant to be in the water. They were built, whether yesterday or 130 years ago to travel in water. I think about all those birch bark canoes hanging in rafters in museums that are now dried out and cannot be placed in the water again.
Restoration using original techniques and materials is the way to go but how many canoes can be dry stored in a museum?
I've been to the museum in Peterbough a couple of times and hope to return. There one can see a very complete historical record of the evolution of the canoe. And it is located in the historically significant town of Peterbough. Appropriate. Would the 1946 Otca fit in that exhibit? I don't think so. That Otca would fit better on my shoulders portaging Staircase Portage in the Boundary Waters then it would in the museum.
While it is nice to try to match the patina of the ribs after a couple of new ones are installed, how important is that to the original purpose of the canoe? If the canoe is used properly, the patina will begin to blend. If the canoe is hanging on your wall, the new ribs will stick out like a sore thumb.
I am getting into this as a hobby that blends very nicely with my interests; woodworking and paddling. Even if I got lucky and acquired a truely significant canoe, restored it, I would paddle it. If I didn't like the way it paddled, I would sell it. If I liked the way it paddled, I would keep it to paddle. I would never restore it and take it to Antiques Roadshow.
One of Bill Mason's red canoes sits in Peterbough. This canoe is significant only because Mason paddled it. It is not the canoe, it's the man, a Canadian icon who paddled and made films. Same with Pierre Trudeau's fringed jacket. This also sits in Peterbough. The jacket is not significant. What's significant is the Prime Minister wore it while paddling.

Great thread, here. Question everything!

A boat not usable in the water is a flower planter,a decoration,or kindling.
Restore or...

This statement struck me: "...connections to craftsmanship that no longer exists. "

I certainly don't make any claim to canoe craftsmanship, but I suspect some folks in this forum may take issue with that statement. The top practitioners may be few, but if this discussion wasn't interesting enough, I think it will be soon!

You misunderstood my meaning. Of course there are outstanding craftsmen and craftswomen out there building spectacular boats today. But how can you argue that the summ of tools, techniques, and materials that existed 100 or 150 years ago still exists today? It simply doesn't. Craftsmanship is alive and well, but there is no shop out there today building double cedar hulls in the manner that Herald did using 12" wide clear white cedar. In fact, even Rice Lake's double cedar canoes built a couple of decades after Herald's death are different from Herald's. Gerrish's craftsmanship died with him. Old Towns canoes of today are very different from those of 1910. Many of those big (and not-so-big) names in today's wooden canoe world know that I and most others truly admire them and their work. Dan Sutherland builds wonderful Rushton replicas that anoyone would be proud to own and happy to enjoy on the water, but they simply are not Rushtons. None of this makes either the old boats or the new ones better- they are just different. But the craftsmanship that existed 100 years ago lives on in the boats that still survive today.

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