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Willits #358

Discussion in 'Traditional All-Wood Construction' started by Jim Kirk, Jun 28, 2005.

  1. Jim Kirk

    Jim Kirk Jim Kirk

    I found this canoe in my neighborhood over the weekend. It will be needing some repairs and refinishing.
    These canoes are planked with two plys of Western Red Cedar and have cotton fabric and glue bonding them together. Clinched copper tacks also secure the cedar layers.
    If there are members who have restored these canoes, I will be having numerous questions and will very grateful for advice.
    A couple of questions to start with: Are build records or the date of manufacture available for Willits #358? Will the use of a chemical stripper damage the bondline between the planking layers? If so, I would assume that the old varnish is best removed by sanding?
    I will try to attach two photographs. One of the canoe and the other of the serial number which is on both inside stems and is very clear.

    I have long dreamed of owing and paddlling an all wood canoe, and I am extremely excited by this find.

    Thank-you very much,
    Jim Kirk
    Long Beach, California

    Attached Files:

  2. Dan Miller

    Dan Miller cranky canoeist Staff Member


    I suggest you contact our resident Willits expert Pat Chapman at McFarland Lake Canoe Co. (contact info in the builders directory). He has probably restored more Willits canoes than anyone other than the Brothers themselves, and his book about the Willits is just about to be sent off to the publisher.

    Some of our other Forum members have Willits canoes, and maybe they will chime in as well. (Mark, that's your cue....)

  3. Mark Adams

    Mark Adams all wood nut

    I'm not sure I have whole lot to contribute, but here is what I do know.

    There are no build records available, but Pat will prpbably be able to give you a good ballpark on when yours was built.

    I stripped mine with JASCO paint and epoxy remover. (the gel type). Mine leaked like a seive before I stripped it though. From what I understand from Pat, the layer of muslin between the layers will have long since surrendered it's moisture barrier abilities. (I have #909 and #618 BTW). Nothing as early as the one above.

    DO NOT sand the old varnish off. this will do really nasty things to the tacks. (like sand off the clinch or the head, leave the heads proud, etc.)

    I'd not worry about the possibility of damage since the damage has already been done. I would NOT use a liquid stripper though. when you refinish, you'll probably end up using a thickened varnish between the planks anyway, so just concentrate on getting everything as clean as you can. I wish either of mine were in as sweet a condition as yours!

  4. Michael Grace

    Michael Grace Lifetime Member


    This Willits appears to be in fine condition. Was your canoe not built with a front seat? And has there been any previous work? Some of the inner planks are much lighter than others, which may have been natural variation, but there is more contrast in this canoe than in many other Willits.

    As Mark said, you can't really worry about the fiber layer between the inner and outer planks- it is what it is. I've also used strippers on Willits (semi-paste or gel types) with great results.

    Re history, last time I searched (a few years ago), cursory build records did exist, at least for the earliest Willits canoes. They are not easy to access, however. Email me directly to discuss.

  5. OP
    Jim Kirk

    Jim Kirk Jim Kirk

    Thank-you for the replies.
    Yes, there are some new planks on the inside. They are nice, quarter grained WRC. I do not know the history of the repairs. All of the external planks are old originals.
    It appears that the boat was built with only a stern sear. The front thwart seems too far aft for the bow paddler, so I will probably want to make a bow seat in the future. What is the thinking behind the two thwart configuration as opposed to having a center thwart?
    So, the restoration plan would be: Striip the varnish with gel type stripper, bleach the wood with teak cleaner, make repairs, sand lightly, don't cut through the tacks and varnish. Right?

    Jim Kirk
  6. pat chapman

    pat chapman Willits biographer

    Looks like you've got a fine example of a Willits canoe. #358 was built in 1928. The Willits family has the log book of all the canoes the brothers built and can tell you the exact date. Contact me directly for details.

    Does the hull have any holes near the bilge that would be where the bow seat was hung? I've not seen any other Willits that had only a stern seat as original equipment, but they would produce set ups to special order so it's possible that's the original set up. They never made a canoe that I'm aware of that had a permanently mounted center thwart. In later years they did offer a clamp-on center yoke for portaging. So if you want to stay true to the Willits design do not mount a center thwart on this canoe.

    You don't have much choice about stripping the old varnish. I regularly use gel stripper, even on canoes with gaps in the planking showing the muslin between the planking layers. The Willits brothers chemically stripped canoes that came back to their shop as well. You will remove the marine glue from the exposed muslin doing this, but what can you do? Following stripping I sometimes bleach the wood, but don't overdo it because you'll want to not damage the grain very much. I also usually reclinch all (7,000+ !) tacks, VERY lightly sand, then fill all the gaps with a mixture of wood flour and varnish, and then varnish with as many coats as I can stomach. I've had very good success doing this, but don't know how long the varnish will keep the canoe watertight. It will be key to keep the varnish intact because that is really your only defense against the water.

    For more details about the brothers and their canoes stay tuned for my book...

    Enjoy your canoe!
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2005
  7. Paul Scheuer

    Paul Scheuer LOVES Wooden Canoes

    Years ago I heard a story about Willits canoes. Maybe someone here can confirm it.

    The story is that when planking logs arrived at the Willits factory they were immediately sawed in half and all subsequent sawing and drying was organized so as to produce book-matched planking for port-starboard symetry when the boats were assembled.

    It's still a good story, even if it's not true.
  8. Mark Adams

    Mark Adams all wood nut

    Hey Pat,

    When's the book due out? I have been patiently waiting!

  9. pat chapman

    pat chapman Willits biographer

    Wait just a little bit longer, Mark. I'm wrapping up the final details of my book about the Willits brothers and if everything goes as planned, will send it off to the publisher next month. They tell me the book will come out 9-12 months after that, so look for it sometime in mid- to late-2006. If it were a tell all book about Michael Jackson or some other celebrity it could be out next month! As we get closer to publication I'll post a notice on the forums.
  10. Randy Johnson

    Randy Johnson Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Willits Canoe book

    Dear Pat,
    Count me in on purchasing one of your books on the Willit Canoe. I have been interested in buying one for a very long time,... and have even considered trying to build one from scratch, using an existing Willit canoe that a friend of mine has for a study plan/pattern.
  11. Dan Lindberg

    Dan Lindberg Ex Wood Hoarder


    Thanks for this string, as the proud (and still unbelieving) new owner of Willits #696, any help with revarnishing and repairing is most welcome.

    Sorry Pat, the price got so attractive I couldn't turn it down. And yes, I'd like a book also, just let us know when it's available.

    I did get a chance to talk to the guy who originally bought it in 1943. He was a Sommers canoe base Charlie Guide (boy scouts) and thought that this canoe has been (in his woods) on all of the lakes in the Quetico, and it has enough scars that I believe him. I didn't see any broken wood though. It was used for many years for Q trips and was in the Q as recently as last year on a trip.

    Looking forward to seeing she stripped and with a new coat of varnish.

  12. dboles

    dboles LOVES Wooden Canoes

    Dan, there was some discussion about centre thwarts.Coming from the Boundary/Quetico country your canoe should have one for the portaging.Does it?
    Beautiful canoes! As usual any pictures
  13. Dan Lindberg

    Dan Lindberg Ex Wood Hoarder

    No, there is no center thwart in mine, or I believe evidence of a temperary thwart.

    Here are the only 3 pics I have of this canoe.


    Attached Files:

  14. frostyscot

    frostyscot Guest

  15. Mark Adams

    Mark Adams all wood nut

    The thwart pictured is not Willits. It is something someone added at a later date. Willits made a portaging thwart, but from what I understand, it clamped into place. I'd LOVE to get my hands on one of those!
  16. pat chapman

    pat chapman Willits biographer

    Mark's right about the center thwart in the photos. It is not original - Willits canoes never had a permanent center thwart. The carrying thwart that the brothers built clamped onto the outwales and are very uncommon. I've only seen a couple of them.
  17. frostyscot

    frostyscot New Member

  18. Cliff Ober

    Cliff Ober Enthusiastic about Wooden Canoes

    Rob, I get a 403 error (forbidden) with that link...

  19. Mark Adams

    Mark Adams all wood nut

    Hi Rob,

    I am guessing that was a typo. I did have one at one point that was not in my possession, and I never actually took delivery of it. I don't remember the particulars of it anymore. If you ended up with it, GREAT! I had 3 at one point, and now just have 2, Nos 585 and 8C147. 909 got sold to a friend, and I kind of wish I had hung onto it. It was a camp model, no seats.

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