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Restoring an old Trapper's canoe

Feb 1, 2013
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Picked up a new boat that seems a perfect candidate for a restoration.

Seller was a lovely senior (in her 70s) just north of Peterborough, Ontario. She was the neighbour and caretaker of the original sole owner, who passed away this year at 93. A few years ago she was given the canoe by him and she intended to do a full restoration but had given up on the project. She stated he picked up the canoe in Peterborough directly from the canoe factory sometime in the mid-to-late fifties and that he fiberglassed it himself sometime in the late 1960s.


The bottom of the hull has three keels covered in more sloppily applied glass. When I saw the triple keels I asked if he by chance was a fur trapper. Recalled a post on Dick Persson's old blog about how some local Peterborough trappers would add three keels to protect the hull from the damage caused dragging over beaver dams and/or winter ice during trapping season. She excitedly confirmed that he actively trapped beaver well into his 70s and that his estate was still sorting out some of his old stuff, including his old traps.


Dimensions and build look very much like a Peterbough Mermaid. It seems to identical in shape and dimensions as the Chestnut Playmate restored last year. It's a just over 14' long, quite narrow (30" beam) with a 12" depth. Ribs are the narrow "pleasure" style (1-1/2" spaced 1 1/2" apart). Unlike my existing boat, this one has squarish ash outwales that were never rounded off or spliced. One end looks to have had the inwale tips scarfed with non matching wood, possible oak. The seat caning has long since disappeared but the original holes are there. He covered the stern seat with a board and the bow seat with some sort of rigid metal mesh. Presumably it was better for usage in the colder temps and wouldn't have become brittle like cane. Center thwart is gone and replaced with just a plank.


As you can see, even the interior was coated with green paint at one point. It looks to have been applied directly over the cracking varnish. The good news is these surface coats are easily flaking off and should be simple enough to remove with chemical stripper. The lady I obtained it from said she started sanding one end as part of her restoration. She revealed the replaced deck but also sanded the stem piece. Unfortunately she seemed to have coarsely sanded off most of the model number + serial number combo that would have confirmed Peterborough construction. All I can gather right now is a "59" that has survived her efforts.


Once I told her about the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, our local chapter and my intention to work neighbourhood high school kids to help with the restoration, she graciously threw in 4 vintage paddles, including two very old ones that were heavily used by the original owner. You can see them in the background of the 2nd & 3rd pics. Hoping that by replacing the glassed hull with canvas, getting rid of the triple keels, and perhaps replacing the stern seat with a thwart, I can cut the weight down significantly. Won't be used for trapping anymore but will hopefully have a second life as a nice little solo tripping boat.
The bottom of the hull has three keels covered in more sloppily applied glass. When I saw the triple keels I asked if he by chance was a fur trapper. Recalled a post on Dick Persson's old blog about how some local Peterborough trappers would add three keels to protect the hull from the damage caused dragging over beaver dams and/or winter ice during trapping season.

Murat, it will be interesting to see your restoration, which I assume will reflect your usual high standards of aesthetic functionality.

I'd like to comment on the somewhat mysterious issue of triple keels. It makes sense that trappers would have used them, often covered with iron, to protect the small hulls while dragging them over rocks and hard places. Dragging is still a favored method of portage today (just ask Conk), though it's quite risky with expensive composite hulls.

However, I've seen bilge keels on big freighter canoes and other canoes clearly not used by trappers or other portageurs/draggeurs. Bilge keels are also used on big ships. They provide anti-roll stability in waves while a ship is at sea and keep a ship upright while it is grounded on land or in mud. I believe bilge keels have also been used simply to stiffen the bottoms of canoes. Finally, they can possibly function as tracking aids, especially in winds, for a canoe that is paddled heeled over.

Perhaps others are aware of additional reasons for bilge keels and the history of them.
I woiuld go with the explanation given, that of a local mod done by trappers. The other uses may be legitimate but not on a small canoe like this one. As you can see from the fibreglass and green paint this boat was a work boat, not a cherished gem. It is almost a shame to restore it to something that it never was. We had a playmate and it was really fun to use.
Nice find, it looks used but not abused. Good luck with the restoration.

Those bilge keels do look like they would make good runners for crossing the ice that a trapper could encounter.
That's a great find Murat, fiberglass and paint removal can be a messy job but the end result will be well worth it. I can't wait to see it on the trail with your great outfit, another 14'er, your a lucky guy.
Got some progress done on this canoe. It took a whole day dealing with corroded steel fasteners to remove the triple keels from the hull. This model of Peterborough Canoe (Mermaid) originally came with a wide shoe keel. When the canoe was fiberglasssed in the 1960s, the shoe keel was removed and the holes in the ribs plugged with dowels and covered with a little bit of resin. You can see them in the 1st, 3rd, and 5th ribs below:


It appears the three narrow (7/8") oak keels were mounted to the hull in an amateurish way, each with their own fastening system. One keel seemed to have re-used the old flat-head bolts and nuts from the show keel and some were mounted with steel washers. The centre keel used a variety of Robertson screws to attach from inside the hull through the ribs & planking. Rather than re-use the existing holes from the shoe keel, the owner opted to mount with new holes on alternating ribs. The final keel was attached the other way with the screws drilled in from the outside and the tips piercing the interior of the hull. The intention was likely to hide the tips by embedding them into the ribs, but the original owner missed and ended up leaving sharp, exposed screw tips in the planking. Definitely a hazard when kneeling in the hull! You can just see the rusted tip of one such screw where the awl blade is pointing below:


Each of these stainless fasteners was heavily corroded and/or covered in paint so removing each was a battle without stripping the head. In the end, I ended up patiently heating each up for about 5 minutes with an an electric soldering pen to break up the cohesion and it really did the trick. A heat gun was then used to soften up the resin and cloth applied to the keels. It took a while but slowly and surely the fibreglass layers were removed and the wood keels exposed. All three oak keels were heavily rotted under their glass layer and basically crumbled when pried off the hull. Definitely see why glassing a hull can accelerate wood rot with canvas canoes.


Ended up weighing all the discarded glass covering the triple keels as well as the oak remnants and rusted screws/bolts. Just this little bit of canoe surgery took off 8.5 lbs of weight.

Nice job on the keel removals, patient work pays off. Thanks for sharing the details, the electric soldering gun trick is a good idea.

Have you made any plans to enlist students to help with the restoration and a warm place to work?
Mike Elliot's book mentions using a old screwdriver with a propane torch in order to heat up corroded screws. The soldering tool seemed like a safer bet for my clumsy hands.

Very envious of those who have a warm, dedicated workshop. For now it'll be worked on exposed in the backyard when weather permits. Made arrangements with the local high-school. For covid reasons they require their student placements to be outdoors anyway and the kids will be available to work April to June. Gives me some time to really assess what's under all that glass and paint.
If it was me doing this, I would use a scraper to get as much of the paint off the inside as possible. My reasoning is that it is old and brittle and will chip nicely. The other thought is that if you use chem stripper it will liquify the paint and varnish and coud stain the bare cedar irreparably, and that would be a shame. I stripped an old door recently that had multiple layers of lead paint and it required a lot of product. In the end scraping worked pretty good to get the thick layers off and chem at the end.

A sander with a dust collector may work as well to get rid of the paint if used carefully...not by students. I like chem and scrapers.

Count your blessings that they glassed over the canvas and not directly onto the hull.
Getting rid of the keels is a major step in the right direction. I have had some good success using a heat gun to remove old paint and varnish.
I’m a fan of the heat gun method also. I couldn’t tell you how much paint and varnish I’ve removed in 30 years. Still using the same heat gun too.
Count your blessings that they glassed over the canvas and not directly onto the hull.

Not sure if they did this. I was expecting the cover to peel over relatively cleanly like in other youtube videos I've seen. But when I started peeling back, it looked a wide glass cloth weave. Couldn't see any old canvas. It also seems the original owner applied lots of resin (maybe an excessive amount?) because a lot of it remained on the hull in spots.



Had to spend more time delicately scraping this stuff off without scratching up the planking. Temperatures cooled down quite a bit over the last little while but it was pretty toasty working with the heat gun.


The resin had also soaked into the gaps between the planking. These were a bit of a chore to remove without splitting the plank edges Some of the planks show signs of severe splitting perhaps because there was no room for natural expansion with all the gaps filled with hardened resin.


Anyway, it's been finally cleaned of all that 'glass...10.8 pounds worth.

Looking good, glad it came out so nice. Do you need to replace any plank? Does it have any broken ribs or rot?
No broken ribs that I can see but the inside still needs to be fully stripped to confirm Removing the skin revealed that both stem tops were actually broken from rot. It was layers of fiberglass keeping everything rigid. Good news is that the inwales and deck tip are solid at the joint so only the ash stem needs to have new wood spliced in. Thinking about using some scrap pieces of sassafras since it steam bends well and has better rot resistance than ash.



There are three planks with large holes, a few with full length cracks down the middle and some damage to the planking at the stern so maybe about 8 or so planks that need to be replaced



I also counted 9 rib tops that need to be repaired. There are a few spots where the original owner stabilized the region by tacking in little support pieces to the inwales between the damaged rib tops. These areas will also need to be cleaned up...



All these little repairs don't seem too challenging and might be a great learning experience for the high school students come the spring. Fingers crossed the covid situation doesn't cancel the program by then.

I just picked up on this thread.

You have a Challenge ahead of you !

I'll follow along !

This boat has all of the repairs needed to experience the full gamut of restoration woes. It should be very rewarding.
Been slowly working on this project over the Covid shutdown years and thought I'd update the post. After much elbow grease, the interior was fully stripped of green paint and woodworking repairs begun in the spring of 2021. The hull needed multiple rib-top repairs, splices on the each of the stems and new inwale tips at both ends. Took a while to source some suitable white oak to match the original inwales but it was worth it in the end. Many thanks to Pam Wedd of Bearwood Canoes in Parry Sound who had some stock



Ended up milling my own white cedar planking using a bandsaw and hand planer. That took a lot of extra time to complete the project but our region was still mostly in shut down mode at the time and figured there was no rush. Quite a bit of planking on the bottom needed to be replaced.



Before canvassing, the interior was completely varnished. This worked out well because the existing gaps in in the original planking pattern led to quite a few drop on the other side. Had the canvas been on, there would have been quite a bit of pooling in spots. Ended up canvassing using the upside down method that I've familiar with. This time, some elevated supports were built so that there was less crouching when stapling the fabric to the hull.



After the usual preservative treatment and a week of stinky drying, the fabric was filled and painted. Decided to keep this one green as it was the original color and I already have a red canoe.


With some of the extra paint, decided to get a little creative and paint the each of the rib tops as well as the decks. The decks were not originals and had been replaced by the original owner at some point. Since this is going to be a solo boat, also made a new thwart to replace the stern seat. The original owner had also replaced the broken cane of the bow seat with a sort of metal mesh and painted the whole thing as well. Thought it was a neat feature to retain so the seat was cleaned up and refreshed with paint as well. For the time being, I've kept the plank of 3/4" plywood he used to replace the original center thwart. The plan is to carve out a replacement over the winter and install it next year.


Hoping to post some trip reports with it next season.