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Looking at Stem Curves and Geometry

Glenn MacGrady

Staff member
Oct 24, 2012
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I've been noticing how the stems of different wood-canvas canoes have different stem curve shapes or radii. For example, this 1916 Old Town OTCA was made for Percy Rockefeller, and its stem curve shape is close to circular.

1916 Otca.jpg

My Rollin Thurlow reproduction of a circa 1900 Morris, which I assume is very faithful to the original geometry, shows more of a slightly elliptical stem curve—sort of an inchoate "pointiness" at the nose.

Morris and Mercedes before tie down.jpg

This elliptical radius pointiness seems to reach a zenith in the Old Town Molitor stems, which are sometimes referred to as torpedo shapes.

OT Molitor.jpg

I'm looking for you wood-canvas owners to show profile pictures of your canoe's stems.

Ahhh . . . you can post profile pictures of other types of canoes, too, and maybe we can discuss aesthetic preferences or performance differences of different stem geometries.
Oh boy ... more canoe porn ... love it! My 15 foot prospector has more blunt stems with a a high rake and some flare. I know it helps a lot with shedding large waves, not really sure it it is better or not over other designs ... might be an aesthetic preference. I know I like looking at it a lot.

My 15 foot prospector has more blunt stems with a a high rake and some flare.

Those stems look like they lean just a little back from vertical. I would assume a prospector, which was a working boat on the big lakes and rivers of Canada, would normally have bow flare to help shed waves. The courting or pleasure types of canoes of ye olden tymes probably didn't need that feature. Of course, some could have had flare anyway.
15’ 50 Pounder has more subdued lines.

Well, that's an Old Town and the stem geometry looks pretty circular to me, even though not as high as an OTCA. I wonder if circular stem geometry was prevalent on most Old Towns, other than the Molitor obviously.
I began writing about the flare on Bob's Prospector and couldn't recall whether my Morris had any flare behind the stems. No, it looks as if it is sort of hollow behind the stems.

15' BN Morris Day of Purchase2.jpg
Early Old Town Charles River waiting patiently for restoration.
View attachment 134082

Missed this picture. Did you edit it in later? Anyway, I can't quite make out the stem curve geometry. Very curious to know whether it is more circular like the OTCA and 50 Pounder or tending toward the ellipse of the Molitor. More pictures needed.
Does a 5’ model count? Definitely has that Molitor ends.

Yes, some pictures of the decks and interior details could help with the identification. Does it have a serial number on the inside stem and/or short rail caps? The stem shape is similar to a Skowhegan.

The most elongated torpedo stems are commonly found on canoes from the Charles River area. I was always told that the origin of the torpedo end canoes was for the canoe races on the Charles River. An elongated stem was an easy way to make a faster and longer canoe on an existing form.

The oldest Morris and Old Town canoes had very little curve in the stems but this increased steadily over time. The stems on Glenn's canoe are the later style. Most Old Towns have a very round stem profile. Their early Molitors from the 1920s have stems like a Morris. The later Molitors starting in the 1960s have stems like a Charles River canoe.

Stems can also be elongated vertically to create unusually high tips. These were most popular in the Belle Isle area near Detroit. Old Town had a MC model with these but there aren't many around.

The short summary is that almost every imaginable combination of stem curves and geometry has been used on a canoe at some time. The Kootenay or sturgeon-nosed canoes have one of the most radical shapes with no curve at all.

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The Kootenay or sturgeon-nosed canoes have one of the most radical shapes with no curve at all.

Had to see this. Even @yellowcanoe may not have one of these. Herewith a picture and article:

Keetenay Sturgeon Nose Canoe.jpg

"The purpose of the design was for the nose to part and glide through the bull-rushes in the valley’s delta. It’s unique nose shape was derived from the sturgeon fish, commonly found in the Kutenai lake and river."

20’ EM White Guide. I love the boat, but not the stem or sheer line.

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Here you go Benson. I have not found any numbers or marks, only the remains of what could have been a decal on the deck.

Glen, the Indian Girl is top of the queue two Old Town canoe after that. I might be able to get started on it next fall. More work needs to done on the barn before I get into it.
Early Chestnuts had some high stems, here’s my 1922 Moonlight (?),


Here’s a later (50’s?) Chestnut Cruiser,


Here’s a 50s Chestnut Pal, not much of a sweep on the Pal,


Chestnut Chum, a little more sweep,


A factory fiberglassed Old Town Trapper (?)


A Thomson Brothers with a nice profile,


Two unknowns at Schuyler Thomson’s shop,


A 20’ Old Town Guide,


The unmistakeable 17’ Chestnut Prospector,

only the remains of what could have been a decal on the deck.

My guess is that you may have the small version of a Kennebec Torpedo. They were known for making five foot long models. I just checked their records but didn't see any reference to a model with torpedo stems. The 1923 catalog page is attached below along with what the deck decal may have looked like. Enjoy it,




The link below has more information and pictures of other model canoes from Kennebec.

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William English canoe; circa 1921: A rather upright, nearly vertical upper stem profile. The camera lens makes the stern stem profile appear to 'lean' back more, but that's an illusion. It mirrors the bow profile. I believe this to be the Otanabee model.

William English canoe; circa 1921

That's a new name to me. Here are the Wooden Canoe Museum pages for that builder:

The English Company started in 1861. At that time, I assume he was making all wood canoes. The fall 2022 issue of the WCHA's Wooden Canoe journal makes a strong case that: E.H. Gerrish in 1875 was the first to commercially make canvas canoes, but using the same outside-in construction as native birch bark canoes, just substituting a canvas skin for bark; and that B.N. Morris in 1887 was the first to commercially make the modern inside-out "solid-planked shell" wood-canvas canoes we know today.

The WCM page says English made two wood-canvas models in 15'-18' lengths, the Algonquin and Otanabee.

I wonder if that English originally had all thwarts and no seats. It has long decks and a mast hole. I further wonder if vertical stems are preferred for a sailing canoe as opposed to raked stems or recurved stems.