Restoring a 17' Racine Chippewa


Curious about Wooden Canoes
I picked up a 17' Racine Chippewa at a garage sale in July and am starting the restoration. Its in fair shape with just a couple of broken ribs and a small amount of rot at the tips of the gunwales and stem. However, before I get too far along, I have a couple of questions for those of you in the know.

1) She had sponsons when I picked her up. After removing them, I really prefer her lines without them. I understand that sponsons were options and none of the photos I have seen on this forum have had them. So, I am assuming that the canoe will remain historically correct if I do not replace them. Any thoughts?

2) The Racine Boat Company decal is visible, and readable on the bow deck, but it is in poor condition. As I have found no one who has replica decals, I would like to preserve the remains of it when I refinish the wood. I was thinking of covering the it with epoxy before stripping the old varnish to preserve it. Has anyone done this? Any other suggestions?

3) As luck would have it, one of the broken ribs is the one with the serial number stamped into it. I clearly need to replace the rib, but I am going to lose the serial number in the process. Would it be appropriate to find a way to stamp the new rib with the serial number? Or, should I simply save the old, stamped rib for posterity?

4) Does anyone know what woods were used by Racine Boat Company? They appear to be cedar ribs and mahogany gunwales. Anyone know for sure?

5) Any suggestions on replacing the copper rivets when the time comes? I know I can get the materials for the rivets, but I have never riveted before. I have visions of a line of dimples from the clinching hammer all the way down the inwale.

I have restored a 1951 Drycraft cedar strip row boat and a 1953 Thompson wood and canvas cartopper, but never a canoe and certainly nothing this old. Its pretty neat to think of this old girl gliding through the lake next summer after all these years. When I pulled off the canvas, I found (as many of you suggested may be there) where the builder had written 17' Chip with, I assume, his name - Gilberts. I wonder if Gilberts ever imagined that almost 100 years later someone would still be using the boat he built?
Howdy, fellow Racine Chippewa owner!

We have a 16 footer and an 18 footer--- both came off of the same local lake and we believe they date to the early 1920s. A friend had a 15 foot Chippewa... so, imagine collecting all these boats like the Russian nesting dolls...

1. It is always the owner's option whether to restore a sponson canoe as such, or leave off the sponsons. I highly suggest keeping the sponsons someplace, however.... especially for a less common canoe, where some day, some where, someone may want those sponsons. You will have to plug the holes created by removal of the sponsons. You will have a much lighter-weight canoe that you can car-top.

2. Even if reproduction decals are available, I personally believe it's a mistake to scrape-away the remains of a decal in order to put something pristine in its place. Racine probably only had one decal type, and it may not be of immense historical importance to retain little bits and pieces of an old Racine decal.... however, it has been very important in regard to the decals of Old Town, Morris, and other boat builders where several versions of the decal were made, and those tiny remains can help date which decal is appropriate.

This may not seem like a big deal to a lot of people, but to some [like me I suppose] history kooks, I'd rather have no decal than have the wrong one. The Racine decal is cool if you have that single-petal deck, where the decal fits right in the center.

Someone else can chime-in with decal-preservation suggestions. I think we've discussed this before, so using "search" (above) may bring up something. The main goal is probably to protect the decal from the sun.

3. If you can save the rib itself by bracing it from behind, that would be a fine fix and you'd retain the s/n. Use the "search" function for discussions of this method of rib repair, which works for ribs not too badly smashed-up which are in locations that don't get as much stress. Generally, you'd be removing canvas and planking, and perhaps in-letting some wood, held with epoxy. Get someone who really knows what they're talking about to explain it, though... I am a reader, and not necessarily a do-er.

If the rib can't be saved, save it as a memento hanging on your wall. Do not lose the serial number. Although company records are lost, it's amazing what information can be gleaned if someone keeps track of all known canoes and their serial numbers.... Our Racines have 4-digit s/ns. I'll hunt them down later and post.

4. I will post pages from the 1922 Racine catalog, courtesy the Historic Wood Canoe and Boat Company Catalog Collection CDs available from and on the web.

I'm thinking the Chippewa didn't have any mahogany, because it was their first-level canoe... the other two models were the Seneca and the Navajo, and they were long-decked and fancier. But I only know the two boats in our barn, and I missed the Assembly where Racine was the topic! By the way, it may seem I'm posting a goodly portion of this catalog, but there's a lot more to it and more catalogs too. The text should help with some of your questions.

There are back issues of "Wooden Canoe" devoted to the Racine--- I know there are two issues with a lot of information--- you may want to check the WCHA store, and see if they have these back issues.

5. I know people have "faked" rivets in order to have an historically-accurate restoration. Maybe information can be found, using "search"... or wait for someone to jump in here, who knows. You don't have to actually rivet anything...

Pictures? I'll post some too...



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Thaks Kathy for the information. Very helpful. I will keep the sponsons, just not on the boat. Finding storage space in my workshop/garage will be a challenge, but I couldn't toss them. If you ever hear of someone looking for a pair, just direct them to me.

Your comments on the s/n committed me to find a way to preserve in in the canoe. If nothing else, I can laminate the section with the numbers on top of the replacement rib.

I'll keep the remnants of the decal in place. You can clearly read it, but it is a bit chipped. Perhaps if I can gently get the old varnish off it will be clearer.

Good to know about the rivets. It is the only part of the restore that is keeping me up.
I love epoxy resin, but there are times to use it and times to avoid it. I don't think I'd use it to coat a decal. It really needs to have a base of bare wood to do its job properly. In this case, it would be sitting on top of old varnish and old decal film and I doubt it would function as anything more than a rather thick, somewhat lumpy layer of varnish-like stuff that will be more susceptible to UV damage than its surroundings. I think I'd preserve what I can, coat it well with new varnish and do my damndest to protect it during the rest of the restoration process.

I don't know whether I've ever even seen a Racine boat in real life, but if they used typical boatbuilding copper rivets, installing them is generally quite easy and far from traumatic. They have the advantages of being sort of a through-bolt-like system for strength, require only a small hole through the wooden pieces and installing them is more a matter of tapping than hammering. Typically, it's done the rounded end of with a very light (4-8 oz.) ball peen hammer. You do need to find the proper size and length rivets and it really helps to have the proper tool for setting the roves, but the process is nothing to lose sleep over. Once you do a few, it makes you wonder why they weren't used a lot more on canoes. The best source in the USA for all things riveted is Chip Stulen's company "Faering Design".
Thanks for the thoughts Todd. I had come to the same conclusion as I thought about it some more. I will simply try to clean up the remaining decal as best as possible, then simply varnish it.
After painfully slow progress over the winter, I am finally getting to replacing the broken ribs on my Racine Chippewa. In anticipation, I bought a number of 5/16" cedar ribs. However, as I was trimming them to replicate the width and edge shape I realized the that the old ribs are actually 3/8" thick (despite the catalog specs saying they used 5/16"). So, the question is, do I use the 5/16" ribs, or find some 3/8" material? Will the difference in thickness be noticeable? The two visible ribs I am replacing are in front of the bow seat. Any thoughts?