Preservation vs. Restoration

Help. New to the forum. Bought a 1939 Old Town HW CS recently in NH from WCHA member Dan Kemp...(thanks Dan for your stewardship). Just arrived here at my NM home. It has its original finish which I want to retain where possible. It shows the honest wear of 8 decades and I don't want the canoe to look too "slick", too new. The varnish has "alligatored", the canvas as well. There are minor patches of bare wood on the gunwales. The dilemma - what the hell to do and keep the old lady as original as possible. The canoe is currently on display (Northwoods in the Southwest) at our local museum. That said, it will be used several times per year on Eagle Nest Lake for museum educational and fund raising purposes. I have read volumes on restoration, preservation. Do this, don't do that, confusing to say the least. As I said, I do not want restoration, rather, stabilization and preservation. I have not had the canoe in the water (9000', winter, Rockies, ice). Dan advises a relatively minor leak. The canoe has a keel. I hope to achieve a balance between use and preservation but need help to determine where to compromise, hopefully the "do no (permanent) harm" philosophy...

Here is the distillation of how I think I need to proceed.

First, I have brushed, vacuumed and cleaned all surfaces with distilled water.
As to the minor leak, clean and sand the keel focusing attention on the keel/hull joint, then apply several coats of a clear shellac/lacquer thinner 2# cut (re:Mike Elliott <lacquer thinner, as opposed to alcohol cut, will not cloud/turn milky>) to all of the cracked/alligatored canvas. Apply two applications of DAP Dynaflex 230 Acrylic/Latex (from forum) into the keel/hull gap, and follow with a couple of coats of Rustoleum Semi-gloss Hunter Green oil-base enamel (close match) to the keel/hull joint. There are a couple of keel screws that run from the keel into the stem from the outside, I will use DAP on those as well (do not want to tamper with keel screws running from this point anyway). Unless necessary, do not want to paint the whole hull, hoping the shellac mix will be a better penetrant in fixing the minor leak. Trust the above will result in a watertight hull, if not, additional coats of shellac?

Have cleaned with distilled water. What is the best next cleaning step - mineral spirits/paint thinner, lacquer thinner, naptha? After cleaning, to stabilize/preserve the look of the varnish, is the shellac/lacquer thinner cut (as above) the best approach?
Thanks, Jack

Greg Nolan

Help . . . a 1939 Old Town HW CS . . . varnish has "alligatored", the canvas as well . . . it will be used several times per year on Eagle Nest Lake for museum educational and fund raising purposes.

“. . . it will be used several times per year . . .”

Photographs of the canoe showing its current condition (the condition you seem to want to “preserve”) would be very helpful in giving advice, as well as any indication you might have that the canoe is in original condition. With them, I might change my thoughts about how to proceed, but - - -

For a canoe that is to be used “several time a year” with usage that apparently involves transporting the canoe some distance each time, I would lean strongly towards “restoration” rather than “preservation,” especially if those who may be using it are not experienced users of wood/canvas canoes.

My chief concerns are with your desire to keep -- “varnish [that]has ‘alligatored’" and "the canvas [has alligatored] as well" on top of which "There are minor patches of bare wood on the gunwales.”

First, it is highly unlikely (though just possible) that the canvas on the canoe is original – for canvas to last nearly eighty years in useable condition is extremely rare. Replacement of canvas is considered a routine maintenance/repair task – so it seems far from certain that what you might wish to preserve is original.

New coats of paint, varnish, and/or shellac are no better than what is under them; any defect that now exists will only get worse, and new defects will develop.

My remarks here are based on several years’ experience with a 1931 Old Town Fifty Pound model that we acquired in 2009. At the time we got it, the paint and varnish were not in good shape, and there was some damage to the wood. However, I did not then have time to repair/restore the canoe, and we used it for several years doing no more than repainting (and recaning the seats and installing a portage yoke). There were no traces of the original red paint, and I am certain that the canvas had been replaced – at least once – although I do not know when.

As bought, the paint on the canoe was alligatored extensively, and there were a number of gouges in the paint/filler.

s 100_2557.jpg

I sanded the hull somewhat smooth, filled the gouges with epoxy or spot putty, and applied two coats of a good porch/deck enamel, working the paint well into the cracks in the paint. The alligatoring was still visible, but much reduced, and the canoe passed the 20-foot test.

sm island rr bridge.jpg

A year later, I decided to paint a design on the canoe, and decided to sand the alligatoring some more (it had increased and some paint chipping had occurred). Here it is with more sanding, spot putty, and two more coats of paint. We used it that way for two seasons, and then I decided to paint a new design, because the overall paint needed serious touching up because of chipping and further alligatoring. More sanding, spot putty, and two more coats of paint -- but alligatoring still visible.

ed 2 100_3499.jpg

Recently I removed the canvas in preparation for a full restoration – replace several cracked ribs, planking, and gunwales, strip and redo the interior varnish, as well as a new canvas.

As can be seen in this photo just before the canvas was removed, the alligatoring (and chipping away in other areas) had continued and had gotten worse.

cr ed 100_4210.jpg

You may temporarily fix leaks, but they will recur, and I would guess sooner rather than later if shellac is your only approach to dealing with the alligatoring – and the boat will suffer from it – Note the discoloration of the planking.

sm 100_4411.jpg

I don’t know when this discoloration occurred, but the water coming into the hull has had its effect, whether from
“cracked/alligatored canvas” or from the hull/keel seem. It probably started well before we got the canoe, but I’m sure it continued at least a bit even with the painting I did. We never had a serious leak – but the canvas got wet every time we paddled, and more than just from the bit of casual splashing incidental to even easy, quiet paddling. Before I recover the canoe, I will likely seal the hull, probably with tung oil/varnish wash to which a mildewcide has been added.

Note – I was unaware of this issue until I removed the canvas. I expect the canoe will have a much longer life span (that is, be preserved) because I have discovered the issue.

If you intend to use the canoe, and the paint is currently chipped/alligatored, I believe you should replace the canvas. Whether this is called repair, restoration, or preservation is immaterial. It is, however, critical to the long-term survival of this canoe if it is to be used.

As to the keel – unless you remove the keel and meticulously remove the old dried and cracked joint compound and paint that is surely present, then properly reseal and re-bed the keel with a good joint compound, you are unlikely to effect a leak-free repair. Wood/canvas canoes flex in use; the hull-keel joint has undoubtedly worked open quite a bit over the years, and sand, dried joint compound and chipped paint are undoubtedly in that joint and will keep it open, even if some new compound is squeezed into the joint. Leaking (or slow seeping) will recur, and in a fairly short time. See picture of discolored hull above.

As to the interior – varnish is not just for looks. It is a critical element in protecting the wood of the canoe. Shellac is not up to that task. It wears away very easily, leaving the wood subject to abrasion, and more importantly, it provides no protection against degradation of the wood from ultra-violet light. If there are bare patches of woodon the gunwales, it is a good bet that it has also worn or chipped away from the edges of at least some of the ribs -- take a good look. Only a good marine varnish (or paint) can provide the necessary UV and wear protection. Further, bare wood. especially cedar, will absorb a good deal of water in even a short period of use, making the canoe heavier and opening the possibility of mold and other problems.

Some people seem ok with varnishing over old, cracked, and discolored varnish, liking the aged look. But old varnish will chip away even if overcoated – though usually not to the extent that paint/filler will. But again, if the boat is to be used, the varnish will be subject to mechanical wear from feet, paddles, etc., and a coat of new varnish will not repair the degradation of the old varnish.

Old, well-used canoes generally have enough evidence of their age from the physical wear and tear on the wood that will be amply evident even after stripping and revarnishing.

The steps you suggest seem to me fine for a canoe that is to be only displayed and kept dry. They seem to me quite inadequate for a boat that is to be used.

The idea of using the canoe in addition to displaying it is great – much better for education than simply displaying. But it must be kept in a condition appropriate for use. Transporting a canoe (trailer or car top) is not easy on a canoe – using a canoe by inexperienced people is not easy on a canoe, and even gentle use takes a toll over time. You need to take steps to keep the canoe in good shape (“preserve” the canoe) so that it can continue to be used. When displayed, there might be a short paragraph noting the steps that have been taken to restore and preserve the canoe.

A 1939 Old Town CS HW is not a rare canoe. It does not warrant the type of museum preservation that a “Sarry Gamp” or similar unique and antique boat should receive, or even a canoe from the 1890’s. In my opinion, for a fairly common canoe that is to be used with some regularity, “restoration” is “preservation.”

My 2¢.

Though the canoe was in great condition for its cracked ribs, no weathering having been stored inside, it had a minor leak, a tea cup full after two hours on the water. My objective was to have a usable 80 year old canoe without having it look like it was a recent build. I wanted it to show its age, its nicks and bangs, its old cracked and alligatored varnish and canvas...but to be used. Though my approach may not be shared by many, here's what I did.

CRACKED CANVAS: First, using a dental pick, I cleaned the hull/keel/bang plate interfaces and the outwale/hull interface of 80 years of accumulated debris. I read on the forum that generally with Old Town the canvas under the outwales was not painted and that was the case here. With the hull inverted I then applied 2# cut dewaxed shellac to the outwale/hull interface, it sucked it up like a sponge until it puddled after 5 coats. I then cleaned the underside of the outwale of excess shellac with DNA careful not to let the DNA penetrated the interface. Moving to the hull/keel/bang plate interfaces I cleaned with a dental pick, then tightened all screws. Then tilting the canoe slightly as I moved from port to starboard, liberally applying two coats of 2# cut dewaxed shellac until it also puddled. Again carefully removing excess with DNA not letting it penetrate those interfaces. Then based on forum recommendations I applied two coats of DAP 230 acrylic/latex waterbase (50 year) caulk to the hull/keel/bang plate interfaces only, carefully removing any excess. I then applied two more coats of 2# cut dewaxed shellac over those interfaces.

Moving to the hull itself, regrettably, latex paint had been applied over the original oil based paint. I used a random orbital sander twice with progressively finer grits and went over the hull thoroughly. That "opened" the cracks but did not appreciably abrade the canvas at those points. Though few, I did use Bondo on a couple of deeper canvas cuts. Then again using 2# cut dewaxed shellac as both a penetrant into the opened cracked canvas, and as a base for the oil paint to come, applied four coats to the hull. That was followed by three coats of Rustoleum Satin Hunter Green oil based enamel. Note that at the outwale hull interface, I allowed a 1/8" bleed of paint onto outwale allowing the paint to seal that interface. The canvas "alligatoring" that I wished to maintain was muted somewhat, but the faceting still remains, and for me at least, is aesthetically pleasing.

Interior: Again I wanted to maintain the patina of the old, cracked, alligatored varnish. First cleaning with water twice, then mineral spirits twice, clean rags came away with no dirt. Sanding then would have worked to counter the effect desired so I used dewaxed shellac to seal the old finish and to provide a bond with the new varnish. Once done, I then applied two coats of Man-O-War gloss spar varnish, lightly sanding between coats and then applied a final coat of Man-O-War satin finish spar varnish.

Though time will tell, the canoe does not leak despite being anchored overnight in the lake. With use, we'll see if the work was worth the time. If not...well those recommendations are well documented in this forum. Fingers crossed. Nothing done that cannot be undone. Thanks to all for the expert advice I have found on this and the wooden boat forums.

Todd Bradshaw

You might want to be careful about "anchoring the canoe overnight in the lake". Your enamel is essentially "topside paint" in marine terms. It will do fine for most typical paddling excursions, but it is not the least bit uncommon for topside enamels to peel on boats left in the water for extended periods. Canoes are reasonably light and made to be portaged. It would be a lot wiser to pull it out to dry land when it isn't in use - especially since you have a base under your new paint which is old and somewhat structurally compromised already.