War canoe restoration, visit to the boat shop. photo courtesty Jim Luton

Preserving a Classic – The Restoration of War Canoe One

By Jim Luton

By the end of last season, it became evident that our classic Old Town war canoes were not going to go much further without some serious attention. Many years of well-intentioned but misguided repair efforts and inadequate storage conditions have rendered both boats nearly unusable. I’ve done some wood and canvas canoe restoration myself, and I know enough to be wary of undertaking a project like the complete restoration of a boat as large as these are, so Steve Welch took it upon himself to research and select a professional shop that we might hire to do the work.

Steve found a canoe shop up in northwest Connecticut run by Schuyler Thompson and Frank Cristinat. Schuyler, a former schoolteacher, has been both restoring and building new canoes for thirty five years or so, after heading up the canoeing program at Camp Keewaydin, which he attended himself as a kid. Schuyler and Frank also now teach kids to build the canoes, over various forms that Schuyler has acquired over the years. They will load up Schuyler’s Volvo wagon with the form, a bunch of materials, and a steam box, and head to camp, where they build the canoe over the course of a summer. The Norfolk Now online news magazine from Norfolk, Connecticut states, “At Chewonki Adventure Camp for Girls, in Maine, the campers have now built five 15-foot canoes. Campers at Camp Becket, in the Berkshires, have built a 25-foot-long war canoe, and the camp has promised to get rid of an old plastic boat for every wooden one they build”. It is evident that passing on these skills to others is a big part of their agenda at the North Norfolk Boat Shop.

But let’s take a closer look at our canoe. What is she exactly, and where did she come from? From the serial number engraved into the stem, Schuyler was able to request a facsimile of the original order form for our boat from the Old Town Canoe Company, in Old Town, Maine. There is, remarkably, a database of all the boats ever built there, for as far back as their records go. The work order lists all the dates particular to the process of canoe building, like when the stems went on the form, when it was planked, when canvassed and filled, when painted and railed (gunwales). Our boat, #1 for lack of another name, was started in 1962, canvassed in February of ’63, and shipped on April 24th to Al Musial right to our address here on Paerdegat Ave! Some of us were disappointed that the boat was as “new” as it is, but I find it quite interesting that she was shipped here, in the early days of our occupancy of the Brooklyn property, and that she has had no other home for the past 54 years! We’ll see what the date on the other turns out to be, when the time comes.

Our #1 is twenty-five feet long, with a beam of 44 inches, a depth amidship of 14-1/2 inches, and weighs 180 pounds when dry (and relieved of many, many coats of thick polyurethane). She’s a wood and canvas canoe, a type that is structurally quite similar to the Native American birchbark canoe, and though constructed differently is most certainly derived from the native craft.

Wood and canvas canoe building lends itself well to ideas of multiple production (I hesitate to say “mass” production, because it’s not exactly an assembly line). A rugged form is built for each particular model from wood strips over many station molds. A steel band is installed at the location of each closely spaced rib, against which the nails from the planking are clenched over automatically as they are driven. The stems and inwales are steam bent and fitted first, then the ribs are removed from the steam box, slipped underneath a keel beam, and bent over the form and nailed to the inwales. Thin planking is fitted to the boat, and clench nailed to the ribs. The canoe is removed from the form, thwarts and decks installed, and the boat is well oiled before slipping into an envelope of cotton duck canvas (our war canoes use pretty heavyweight, #8 canvas). The canvas is nailed off and trimmed, then a proprietary filler is rubbed into the canvas with, appropriately, a canvas mitt, and allowed to dry for a few weeks before painting. The rubrails and outer stems are installed, along with the seats and whatever else, and the boat is varnished. Then she’s ready to ship!

Last spring, Schuyler drove down from Norfolk, Ct. and met with Steve and I to look over the two boats. We picked one and Schuyler made a topical survey, then worked up an estimated budget to repair the boat. We counted 20 broken ribs, knew we would have to replace both gunwales, noted some stem repair at the tips, and discussed changing out some of the rail-hung thwarts for lower seats (not traditional, but a worthwhile modification designed to lower the center of gravity in use). Luckily these boats had never been fiberglassed, which ruins the planking. Schuyler warned us that more serious damage could lay unseen beneath all the polyurethane that was gooped on over the years.

His estimate of $5,500 seemed light to me, and in fact proved a bit low. Canvassing a canoe like this is a big job, and comprises almost half of the budget. As I write this, I’m not sure where we will end up, but I think it will be around $7,000. Still, these boats are a significant part of our history and our legacy, not to mention a valuable asset for training youth and adults alike, and we all believe that the money is well spent.

Back in March of this year, a group of us made the trip up to Norfolk to have a look at the canoe undergoing restoration. Frank Cristinat, who does most of the shop work these days, had the old covering (wasn’t canvas) off, the varnish stripped, thwarts out, and had identified 26 broken ribs. A big problem we found was that most of the brass clench nails were completely deteriorated due to years of salt water use, with inadequate washing out afterwards. This will be one of the “must do” things for us, a thorough rinsing of the interior with fresh water after every use. The planking was in pretty good shape, if a little dried out and brittle, but most of it would have to be refastened with new tacks.

There was a pile of sawn up old gunwales under the boat. They had to come out in pieces. A lot of this was from previous attempts at repair. This kind of repair work is not hard, but it does help if you have some experience or instruction in this type of boat building. We had a good look at the canoe, and spent a nice couple of hours looking around the property at all the boats there. They had just completed restoration of another war canoe for a summer camp, and we got to see what our boat would look like when completed.

So now we are looking forward to having the restored boat back at the club. We’ve picked a color (I’ll let that be a surprise), but we still need to construct a proper storage shed. That won’t happen until we get Canarsian out of the shop, but we’ll make do in the meantime. With a beautifully restored canoe, we look forward to expanding our team paddling, and war canoe rescues, plus we just want to show the boat off! It’s been a long time coming. I’d like to thank Steve Welch for pursuing this idea, and for realizing that this was not something we could handle presently ourselves. Also, thanks should go to the Board of Directors for recognizing the value in this restoration, and approving the budget to do so. And thank you members, for continuing to support our magnificent, one of a kind boat club. There’s nothing else quite like us anywhere!

1 Response

  1. Denis Sivack says:

    Jim:

    As to the cost on this, it is not money spent on an old boat but money invested in preserving our club’s (and boat history’s) heritage and preparation for the future. Who knows, without the necessary restoration, people might just look at the “old canoe” and shrug shoulders.

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