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Varnish and seam seal on a Willits Canoe

Discussion in 'Traditional All-Wood Construction' started by asc67, Apr 19, 2009.

  1. asc67

    asc67 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    My brother has and old Willits boyscout canoe serial # 618 that he got from his Father in law and wants me to get it up and running. He took it out on the lake the other day and was impressed with how it handled. It did however leak a little bit..probably about and 1/8" of water on the floor after about an hour. He wants me to give it a couple of coats of spar varnish and I was wondering what is the proper method of filling the seams before varnishing ? Also is spar varnish the best thing to use or is there something better. Here are some pictures of it.

    Thanks ,
  2. MikeCav

    MikeCav Restorer/Videographer

    Before doing anything, let it sit in the water for a few days. You may find that the dried up wood needs to swell a bit. Maybe some of the leaks will disappear.

    And yes... a good spar will do wonders.
  3. frostyscot

    frostyscot Guest

  4. MikeCav

    MikeCav Restorer/Videographer

    Beautiful boat - good luck with it!
  5. Todd Bradshaw

    Todd Bradshaw Sailmaker

    I'm not really too familiar with the construction methods used on Willitts canoes, but I believe some of them were laminated with glue. If that's the case here, soaking it may temporarily stop the leaks, but it's also a very good way to ruin the boat and/or promote rot. There are certain types of wooden boat construction that benefit from "taking-up" water and swelling, and other types where it is a very bad idea. Usually, the boats where you do want water absorption are lapstrake or carvel-planked boats with cotton calking packed inside the plank seams and joints.

    The planks expand, the calking compresses and the leaks stop. On boats where the hull's layers are glued together (or the planks are glued together) the wet planks swell and there is nowhere for them to expand and they crack and/or break their glue bonds. Water then gets in and has a hard time getting out - eventually forming rot inside the lamination. Before you soak any boat that is seamed tightly enough to work without an additional outer skin (canvas, etc.) you want to be sure you know how it's held together and whether or not that's the proper fix. Anything that uses glue bonds and/or a layer of saturated fabric (tar, glue, varnish or other similar goo-saturated) between layers was intended to be used "dry", not soaked until watertight. Your best bet if it is such a boat is more varnish and maybe a bit of marine sealant if you have small spots where the planks have shrunken, cracked or been damaged.

    Maybe someone who knows more of the specifics about Willitts boats will check in and help, but I suspect that this boat was built "dry" and supposed to stay that way, rather than soaking up a bunch of water.
  6. Mark Adams

    Mark Adams all wood nut

    As the owner of 2 Willits, I'd NOT recommend soaking. Apply a couple (or 3 or 4 or...) coats of varnish. If the planking seams are gapped out, I would recommend a thickened varnish to fill the gaps, then varnish over the top of that.

    Willits are obviously built with 2 layers. In between the layers is a muslin cloth layer, bedded in marine glue. This was originally what provided the leak proofing, but in most cases it has long since quit doing that. What keeps the water out now on a Willits is varnish, and lots of it.

  7. pat chapman

    pat chapman Willits biographer

    Definitely don't rely on soaking a Willits to get it watertight. You really need to deal with the reason it is leaking. Usually it's because one or more of the 7,000 tacks is loose or the tack heads have been ground off, the planking gaps have opened up, the varnish is no longer intact, or the waterproof muslin between the planking layers has deteriorated. While the Willits brothers called the muslin coating "marine glue" in their catalogs, it wasn't glue at all. It was a compound composed primarily of pine tar. It was not meant to hold the planking together. Rather it simply was to provide a waterproof layer. They also used the same pine tar compound to bed the keel and outside stems.

    Unless you took one layer of planking completely off the canoe, there is no way to restore deteriorated muslin, so you have to rely on varnish to keep the canoe watertight. I prefer to avoid any glues or sealants that will permanently adhere to the canoe. Rather, I use varnish thickened to a paste with red cedar flour and force it into cracks and gaps. Let it dry for several days and then coat with as many coats of high quality marine spar varnish as you can handle. Of course, you'll also need to replace or reclinch the tacks. That should do it.
  8. Todd Bradshaw

    Todd Bradshaw Sailmaker

    Which (at least in my twisted mind) brings up the question: "If you are going to fill gaps with thick applications of wood-flour-filled varnish, which really isn't it's intended use, why not use epoxy - which is actually intended for and formulated for such uses, and which is mechanically-speaking, far superior in that role?" I'm all for tradition, but a traditional material, used non-traditionally doesn't strike me as being any more appropriate than using a modern material to fix the problem - especially when cosmetically they will look the same.

    The other option that is often used on plank gaps on bigger boats is to open up the space just enough to get two clean parallel sides and glue a wooden spline in to fill the gap.
  9. Dan Miller

    Dan Miller cranky canoeist Staff Member

    This is a case where greater flexibility and future reversibility are much more desirable than a superior mechanical bond - the boat is held together just fine, it's just leaky. I would consider epoxy, with or without splines, in repairing split planks, but not in the spaces between planks.
  10. pat chapman

    pat chapman Willits biographer

    There are times when "tradition" wins out for me over modern materials or methods. Repairing wooden canoes is one of those. I much prefer reproducing original materials and methods to the greatest extent possible, particularly on a Willits canoe (call me sentimental) for a couple of reasons.

    One is because that is what the Willits brothers would have done, in my opinion. They changed very little in how they built or repaired their canoes in over 50 years of production, and it worked. I've seen many canoes that sported repairs done by the brothers, and they are masterpieces of fit and function, and, with the exception of when they sistered in pieces in a gunwale, were accomplished without glue.

    Another reason is that by using original methods and materials I'm usually not doing something that is irreversible. Using epoxy to seal a joint, while effective, will not allow anyone to do anything to the wood in that area without removing it altogether and replacing it. Maybe not a real big deal in some cases, but perhaps so in others. The Willits brothers recommended dealing with minor leaks by forcing their "marine glue" into the cracks, then cleaning up the excess with gasoline. I've tried that a couple of times, but have been unsuccessful in plugging the leaks that way, hence the varnish and sawdust method, which has worked for me.

    Of course I don't go to extremes here, either. I don't use machinery that is driven by a central belt drive like Earl Willits used for milling parts, and I haven't tried to reproduce the now extinct varnish brand they used (although I have tried to reformulate their pine tar compound). On the other hand, I don't go to the other extreme of sealing leaks by encasing a canoe in fiberglass and resin, which at least in the short run, is very effective in solving the problem.

    In dealing with all things wooden canoe-wise, I follow the medical adage of "first, do no harm".
  11. Mark Adams

    Mark Adams all wood nut

    As far as I recall, Rushton advertised that the "planking seams are bedded in a special thickened varnish". I agree that the greater elasticity over epoxy is desirable, and like Pat, I am a bit of a traditionalist.
  12. Todd Bradshaw

    Todd Bradshaw Sailmaker

    What makes you guys think that once your thickened varnish actually dries (which in reality takes weeks or months, not two or three days) that it's any more flexible than many types of epoxy resin or any easier to remove, repair, etc.? What you are doing is final varnishing over deep fills that are not yet dry or cured, and assuming that they're going to stay that way. I'm not suggesting that anyone fiberglass a classic boat, or slather it all over with epoxy, but at the same time, the reason that some of these materials were invented and gained popularity is because they do a better job - better for the quality and durability of the repair, and quite possibly, better for the lifespan of the boat. Is manufacturing a similar substance from materials that clearly have lower, adhesion, lower strength and less ability to keep moisture and rot out of what was supposed to be a dry hull construction better? Do you think the original builders would not have used better stuff for a similar job if they had had it available?

    I can see that this obviously isn't a line of reasoning that will fly here, or a battle that I will win, but at the same time, there are places on most wooden canoes where a little bit of epoxy is clearly the best choice if the quality and durability of the repair itself is the issue. What is thickened, wood-flour-filled varnish? It's not really varnish any more, it's a primitive sort of home-made resin, chocked full of tiny holes because it's not 100% solids and because a substantial portion of the non-solids are evaporating solvents which migrate out, leaving small pathways for moisture to enter. If you are one of those folks who can't stand epoxy, the best traditional bet for such fills might be to varnish the hull, leaks and all, and then go in and plug the gaps with clear pitch. It's the untimate in "traditional" and quite possibly far superior mechanically to thickened varnish.

    Just food for thought. I'll go back in my corner now, out on my aluminum foil helmet (hand-hammered from a hunk of a wrecked Grumman) and wait for the mortars to start falling. :)
  13. Todd Bradshaw

    Todd Bradshaw Sailmaker

    "Allows for future restoration" is a term that gets tossed about rather loosely here. From what I've seen here on the forum, there really isn't much that doesn't allow for future restoration - even including the dreaded bookcase scenario. One thing that has to be near the top of the list though, would have to be rot down inside a laminated, monocoque structure. Rot needs air, moisture and food to grow. The wood itself is the food, so we can't eliminate that one. The best we can do is to attempt to eliminate air and moisture from entering. There is nothing (including epoxy resin) that is 100% moisture-proof, but it's right up at the top of the list and well above any type of varnish or coating containing evaporating solvents (and the idea that varnish or paint "breathe" letting moisture in, but then can let it out before it does damage is pure hogwash).

    If you are attempting to repair, restore or preserve such a structure, it would seem to me that careful use of the most impermeable materials would go the farthest in preventing rot and minimizing the need for future repairs, or the possibility of future damage in the same spot - especially if the epoxy repair looks almost exactly like the "approved" traditional method. There is nothing about epoxy resin that makes it non-repairable or non-removable, it just may take more work because it does tend to be more impermeable. Again, I'm not talking about smearing epoxy all over a collectable classic boat, but simply doing the most to aid the survival of problem areas.

    I was a sculpture major in college and had one instructor who worked in wood and bronze, one that worked in polyester resin and two who worked in epoxy resin - so I got a pretty good dose of resin technology. I've always been tempted to teach a course in resin use for traditional boatbuilders, just so that if nothing else, when they complain about its shortcomings or its inappropriateness, they can at least do it accurately. Considering how many hundreds of gallons of epoxy resin are used every year on boats, it's really unfortunate that a huge percentage of the people using it really don't know what they are doing and haven't bothered to find out before they start slathering it on.
  14. Mark Adams

    Mark Adams all wood nut

    I don't pretend to know about building a stripper, or using glass cloth on a boat. I do use epoxy when splicing a stem, or a rib end. That is the extent of my epoxy usage. I have worked on several canoes that were glassed and I have to say that single sided epoxy application does terrible things long term to a canoe. I feel that it is the impervious nature of epoxy that makes it a poor choice when used as a gap filler.

    I have used fiberglass extensively in an aviation setting. I have done vacuum bagging and hand layups of structural and non structural components. Epoxy and polyester resin are wonderful substances.

    I guess it falls onto the individual doing the restoration to make the choice. I'd sooner be emasculated than let epoxy be used as a gap filler on one of my Willits. I see nothing wrong in using a technique that is 100 plus years old. Perhaps I am staid in my practices, but I am content with the results.
  15. OP

    asc67 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    How do you create a filler with spar Varnsh and what's the best way to apply it to the seams ?
  16. Mark Adams

    Mark Adams all wood nut

    I prefer to avoid any glues or sealants that will permanently adhere to the canoe. Rather, I use varnish thickened to a paste with red cedar flour and force it into cracks and gaps. Let it dry for several days and then coat with as many coats of high quality marine spar varnish as you can handle. Of course, you'll also need to replace or reclinch the tacks. That should do it.

    that was lifted from Pat's reply earlier in the thread. Making wood flour is easy. Grab a chunk of red cedar, and sand it . Use a sander with a dust collector and you'll have "flour". I don't know of anyone that has ready made red cedar flour,perhaps Pat will chime in again.

    To apply, I just use a bondo scraper. (The soft plastic kind) squeegee it into the seam, and remove the excess.

  17. OP

    asc67 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Thanks for the info
  18. Mark Adams

    Mark Adams all wood nut

    Hey Steve, where are you located?
  19. OP

    asc67 Curious about Wooden Canoes

    I'm in Minneapolis, MN. and my brother Rob ( who has the Willits) is in Roseville, MN. his handle on the forum is frostyscot.
  20. Todd Bradshaw

    Todd Bradshaw Sailmaker

    "I'd sooner be emasculated than let epoxy be used as a gap filler on one of my Willits."

    I think that's actually the key to the issue. It's a perception thing, not one based on results or the capabilities of the individual products. What is thickened varnish? It's basically home-made resin, and not a particularly good one by testing standards. Epoxy's impervious nature is exactly what is going to keep moisture out of your dry-cored boat and preserve those problem areas the longest.

    I can certainly see the case for restoring an antique boat with period materials, just to keep everything period correct, but at the same time, those materials may not be the best currently available for doing the job and extending the life of the hull - and varnish used as filler resin is one of those techniques that is far more prone to fail than the same repair done with modern materials. If the cosmetic issues are pretty much the same (which they are in this case) I'd just as soon fill the gaps on my boats with something I can trust.

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