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Photos of Willits Bros. #813

Discussion in 'Traditional All-Wood Construction' started by bredlo, Jul 11, 2011.

  1. bredlo

    bredlo LOVES Wooden Canoes

    My guess is that it dates to the early-mid 1950's.

    Attached are a couple photos from that period, taken in Bridger National Forest. It's been covered and in storage for years.
    Not available.
    willits813.b.jpg willits813.c.jpg willits813.a.jpg
  2. OP

    bredlo LOVES Wooden Canoes

    Picked up No.813 last week, and have already paddled it in the Pacific Ocean (promptly rinsed afterwards).

    It isn't in perfect shape by any means, but on the other hand has been very loved and cared for as best the owners knew how. I was able to negotiate (what I believe) a pretty good deal, and am happy with it. Just having it on the roof - from Utah through Tahoe and much of California - has struck up dozens of compliments and conversations.

    Problem areas include:
    - a puncture/fiberglass patch port side near the rear seat,
    - a gunwale break/fiberglass patch in the rear starboard area,
    - several-inch-long sections of 5 exterior planks repaired on the rear starboard side,
    - and the rear mahogany deck was replaced long ago, with the replacement looking quite out of place (spruce king plank and stem band seem original).

    Several pounds of varnish and the fiberglass patches will need to be removed before knowing the full extent of work ahead, of course. :)

    Attached Files:

  3. MGC

    MGC Scrapmaker


    Georgeous as always. Willits are fine looking canoes. Every time I see one I suffer from canoe envy. Maybe I need to start looking harder for one?

    That said, for quite a while I've been mulling over whether they are a practical design. In new unused condition they glow and shine like no other. But if you truly use them, they all seem to suffer from virtually impossible to repair damage. It begs the question, is the Willits design fundamentally sound from a maintainability/longevity perspective?

    I suppose that you could immediately argue that they were never intended to be with such a limited and select clientele. Sort of a Ferrari of canoes...costs as much to repair as a new build....

    I know, it heretic to presuppose the Willits is anything but perfection, but these pictures of yet another oddly repaired Willit beg the question.
  4. Dan Lindberg

    Dan Lindberg Ex Wood Hoarder

    While I certainly agree the Willits are very fine canoes, and I agree I wouldn't personally wouldn't take one on a quasi wilderness camp out,
    it has been done.

    I am the lucky owner of one built in 1943 and per the original owner, it has probably been on every lake in the Quetico. The original owner was an old time Charlie Guide (Summers Boy Scout base in Ely) and while he was there, they had and he used a Willits. He decided he liked it so much that he bought one, (mine) when he was done guiding for the Scouts. But he did love being in the BW/Q, and spend the rest of his life padding the area, in his when new Willits. While there are plenty of dings, shallow dents and even a couple "small" missing pieces, there is no major structural damage.

    Oh, I forgot, Brad, congratulations on getting a great canoe and joining the Willits "club".
    And that looks to be a very long drive to get a canoe, Evanston, IL to the west coast.

    Last edited: Aug 6, 2011
  5. OP

    bredlo LOVES Wooden Canoes

    Thank you Dan, that's quite a colorful history for yours - I'd like to think all our old boats are valuable as watercraft, works of art, and as carriers of many joyful stories and memories.

    That last one is intangible and probably too nostalgic for my own good... but I think it adds to their worth nonetheless.
  6. OP

    bredlo LOVES Wooden Canoes


    Great points. Nobody will burn you at the stake for suggesting our canoes may not be made of the most sensible materials available today. They're just not - not with fiberglass, plastics, resins and kevlar available. And I'll leave it to the experts to discuss whether or not the Willits design - in particular - lent itself to easy repairing.

    Still... from Nakwasina going north, to the Blue Flujin, to the campers of Ta-ha-do-Wa, they seem to hold up to major abuse and keep on floating. And as long as we have a great community of restorers, we'll keep turning back the clock on our floating sculptures and maintaining their beauty.
  7. pat chapman

    pat chapman Willits biographer

    Brad - your Willits was very likely built in 1951. The nearest canoe to yours that I have a date on is #818, built in May, 1951. Lon Willits could confirm the date for you, though, since he has the build records.
  8. pat chapman

    pat chapman Willits biographer

    OK, I'll nibble at the bait!

    Because the Willits brothers built their canoes to such exacting standards, they are more difficult for the moderately-skilled woodworker to repair well than a wood-canvas canoe. Shoot, half of the mistakes in a wood-canvas canoe are hidden by the canvas! In a Willits, everything is there to see. It would be interesting to compare the % of each builder's canoes that survive. I'm aware of around 200 Willits canoes that are around, in various conditions, out of less than 1,000 built. So ~20% survival. I know that there are lots more out there, and more come to light frequently (like Brad's #813). How does Old Town, or any other builder compare?

    Willits canoes were built for, and used by a wide-ranging clientele - from huge rental fleets, to scout and summer camps, to modest-income owners, to the country's elite. The brothers made a successful living over the course of about 50 years with their canoes, so I guess they met enough people's needs! I enjoy my Willits, and my Old Towns, and have had to repair them all from time-to-time. I will not set foot in a Coleman...

    I was going to, but on second thought, I'll not argue about the merits, longevity, or repairability of any material or construction method for anything with anyone. After 20+ years of home ownership I've accepted that nothing lasts forever, I usually have to pay someone to fix it correctly, and there is always someone touting the next best thing that may, or may not, be. As with canoes, it's really a dust-to-dust thing!

    And, Brad - glad you got the Willits. To look that great after 60 years - wow!
  9. Dan Lindberg

    Dan Lindberg Ex Wood Hoarder

    Hi Pat,

    I don't know about Willits or Old Town or others, but I do have some insite into Joe Seliga's numbers. :)

    I've tried to determine an acturate number, but to date have only personally accounted for about 30% of his 620 canoes, but of the 30% I've heard of, I've heard of only a handful that have been destroyed. If I had to guess at this time, I would guess something in the 90-95% have survived.


    QUOTE]I'm aware of around 200 Willits canoes that are around, in various conditions, out of less than 1,000 built. So ~20% survival. I know that there are lots more out there, [/QUOTE]
  10. MackyM

    MackyM LOVES Wooden Canoes

    BEING SOMEWHAT NEW HERE; thius anything like Ford vs. Chevy?
  11. H.E. Pennypacker

    H.E. Pennypacker LOVES Wooden Canoes

    Ford vs. Chevy? Not really. The Willits is built in a totally different way from a cedar-canvas canoe. It looks totally different, and some people think they're gorgeous. But the way they're built means repairs require a totally different approach. Whether Willits vs. other kinds of canoes are "practical" is a tough question. There's also lapstrake, the board-and-batten, the vertical cedar rib, the longitudinal strip, etc.- all very different... but that's one of the things that makes this all so exciting! Maybe Old Town w/c vs. E.M. White is Ford vs. Chevy...
  12. MGC

    MGC Scrapmaker

    got a rise o/ \o

    I was hoping...:D

    It's an interesting discussion. The Willits construction is such an interesting process. The canoes are quite obviously far more challenging to repair than wood/canvas. A few weeks ago my son and I cracked a couple ribs in one of our boats (alternative interpretation of DRAW HARD LEFT) and it's really almost inconsequential. Next time we canvas it we'll replace a couple ribs. A similar event in a Wllits might have put it out of commission.

    Imagine the kids at the Darrow Camps paddling Willits. How on earth would any normal livery deal with repairs?

    All of the said, I do suffer from Willits envoy..... they are gorgeous when they are whole.
  13. Benson Gray

    Benson Gray Canoe History Enthusiast Staff Member

    Wooden Canoe Survival Rates

    I suspect that the survival rate of Old Town's wooden canoes will fall somewhere between Dan's estimated "90-95%" for Seliga and Pat's estimated "~20%" for Willits. People frequently ask how many are left and I have never come up with a good way to calculate this. I once thought that the Illinois database of the IDNR's Watercraft Registration / Title Office might be able to help since they include wooden canoes but they never responded to my inquiry. It wouldn't be hard to estimate how many wooden Old Town canoes where shipped to Illinois and then compare this to how many are currently registered. Oh well,

  14. pklonowski

    pklonowski Unrepentant Canoeist

    Interesting thought about Illinois' boat registration database. There is, of course, a great disconnect between the number of registered canoes vs the number that exist in Illinois.... and I suspect that collectors, such as we have in this organization, may not have many (if any) of their vintage canoes registered & titled. Enforcement of the law is spotty at best, so there's little motivation to get collections through the paperwork process, and that paperwork process can be a nightmare, especially for vintage boats. My 1946 Otca already had registration when I got it, but I had to have 5 pages of documentation for the 1918 HW... It's more than enough motivation to convince me to not register some boats, and only paddle them out of state.

    Besides which, that state sticker is ugly as hell... why can't they make them look nice, like the WCHA stickers?
  15. pat chapman

    pat chapman Willits biographer

    "How on earth would any normal livery deal with repairs?"

    At least some of them did their own repairs. Camp Tahadowa, had an on-site repairman who apparently was pretty skilled. So did the University of Washington canoe house. And, while I never was able to see any records regarding them, apparently a significant portion of the brothers' business was repairs. When they were still in business you could buy any replacement part you needed that would fit perfectly because they patterned every piece they made and had all the bending forms necessary. None of that is available to us now, which makes repairs much more difficult.
  16. OP

    bredlo LOVES Wooden Canoes

    Who knows. Maybe the next guardians of the brothers' legacy will allow us to see or even use their customized tools (or faithful replicas). A "permanent loan" of their most unique tools to a working museum like the Foss - perhaps their tack-setting and indexing machines, and the dies to recreate their bronze hardware pieces - would be an incredible resource. It would allow students of boatbuilding to have visual (and perhaps limited, supervised hands on) access to Floyd and Earl's own tools. One can dream, anyhow.

    That said, I've had Paul Miller work on my other Willits, and most of us have seen the impressive restoration work of Pat Chapman on his site. Using their own ingenuity and skills, there's very little these capable guys (and a few others, I'm sure) can't accomplish.

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