18′ Old Town Guide Restoration

Here is my inspiration, my desired end result (or at least something close):

That is what a professionally restored Old Town Guide looks like. Courtesy of Northwoods Canoe.

I’ve got quite a long way to go!

May 30-31, 2009

The weather finally cleared with enough consistency to retrieve the patient from its resting place on the bank of the pond, reinforce it with some additional screws, and carefully strap it on the Jeep for the trip across town.


The stem bands came off without a problem. The keel, which had been glassed on, took some effort with a hammer and chisel.

No more keel!

The outer rails came off in pieces but the inner rails held so we start on the dreaded fiberglass with a painter’s scraper. For the most part it pries off in chunks the size of dinner plates but not without sickening ripping, popping, and cracking noises!

Some spots are stubborn and pull off more wood fiber than I want but usually that happens in the weak spots that will end up being replaced anyhow.

The planking is holding up surprisingly well given what it looked like from the inside.

The ends are rough as expected.

Previous patch repairs are now obvious.


The other end is even worse but that plank would have been replaced anyway.


The naked hull in all her run-down glory. It took two people to load it but stripped of the glass cover I can easily maneuver it around single-handed.


The bad part is past, the hull survived the rather violent process of unsticking the fiberglass and I can look forward to the nasty task of stripping the old varnish.

All things considered it wasn’t as bad as I expected and the hull didn’t collapse – off to a good start. It appears that the planking is Western Red Cedar, which I can get locally. Good think because I think my original estimate of 50% replacement might have been optimistic.

June 1, 2009

Got a response from Old Town today. The canoe was built in 1937 and sold to a man in Virginia so it’s a few years older than I thought based on the serial number. Not that it matters. Spent some time this evening pulling tacks from the top row of planking to gain access to the ends of the ribs. It was mindless work since the upper planks will be replaced but it gave me a chance to work on the mental plan at the same time. Bad news is I think I’ll have to replace the stem and most of the ribs attached to it in the bow which will require completely opening up that end without benefit of a form to rebuild it on. The bow and port side of the mid section where 5 or 6 adjacent ribs are broken at the turn of the hull represent the largest challenges to restoring an accurate shape to the hull without any bulges. I’ll get some visual aides up tomorrow.

June 2, 2009

Here are your visuals to go with yesterday’s comments:

First row(s) of planking pulled and tacks removed. You have to gain access to the top of the ribs which are attached to the inner rails with ring nails. The upper edge of the top planks is usually in bad shape anyway.

Here’s the mid section with several broken ribs. The breaks have caused a bulge which means the usual procedure of bending replacements on the outside of the hull won’t work. You can pull it back into shape using battens screwed across the ribs but that requires good ribs to pull the bad ones back into line. I’m thinking for this area we may have to order pre-bent ribs from Old Town that have been steamed and bent over a 18′ Guide form.

Here’s the other problem area – the bow. You can see where the rib ends were cut off to remove rot and shaped blocks glued in their place. Likely due to rotted planking as well, the entire bow profile was cut down. These ribs will all have to be replaced which means…

The stem that they were bent around has to come out which requires the planking under it to be pulled. The entire end has to be opened up (I could splice the stem like I’ll have to do at the stern but since I have to open up the end to replace most of the ribs I might as well replace the stem).

Here’s the stern. Notice the last few inches of the stem are gone. Rot got it but I can splice an end on it and avoid replacing the whole stem.

The skeleton of a canoe is made up of the inner rails, stems, ribs, decks, and thwarts. If these components are not properly positioned and fastened relative to one another the original design will be trashed.

June 14, 2009

Not much has happened in the shop lately. What little time I’ve had has been used in research and planning. Seems that any lumber in excess of 16′ is hard to come by down here nevermind 18′ clear, straight/tight grain, in species suitable for building canoes. Spruce? Never. Cypress? Plenty of 16′ stuff but I really don’t want to splice the inner rails.

So, does anyone know of a source in the Southeast for 18′ (+) clear Cypress? And mahogany for the outer rails would be nice. I’ve posted on the forum over at Wooden Canoe Heritage Association as well hoping someone will come through!

Pulled some more tacks today while contemplating how to deal with restoring the original shape of the hull while replacing 32 ribs (that’s a little over half of them).

June 16, 2009

Found a local source for perfectly clear Western Red Cedar that I’ll rip and resaw into planking stock but the rails are still a problem. Looks like I’ll be scarfing shorter lengths to come up with the needed 18′.

June 23, 2009

Ripping 10′ to 16′ lumber in your garage requires some setup time. Back the Jeep out, move all the stuff that was stored under the Jeep, push the saw out so that the outfeed end clears the workbench on the rear wall, set and adjust roller supports, and then wiggle all the long lumber out from various stash points. Once you go to all this trouble you run as much lumber as you can so you don’t have to go through this circus again tomorrow. I had intended to rip the cedar to the 3.75″ width that Old Town planked the Guide with (too bad it wasn’t 3″ I could have netted 30% more planking from the 1 x 10″ stock) and then switch to the band saw to resaw the 3/4″ boards into 3 individual planks each. Instead I kept going with the setup I had and ripped some scrap mahogany and 5/4 ash board into 1″ x 1″ rail blanks. After way too much effort locating and pricing 20′ stock for full length rails I’ve decided to utilize a scarf joint and shorter stock to come up with the rails. Time to get on with it!


Really poor composition here – the Jeep isn’t being used to push or support anything!


The Western Red Cedar I found was almost perfectly clear. There are a few very small knots but they can be strategically hidden behind ribs.

Next step is to resaw it and make a scarf jig for the rails.

June 28, 2009

Making little boards out of big boards – I resawed the Western Cedar down to a thickness just shy of 1/4″ and then ran it through the planer down to the desired 5/32″. Unfortunately the original thickness of the lumber was a little under 3/4″ and uniform thickness is difficult to control on a bandsaw so I had a couple of the third planks that ended up too thin but I think I still have enough to do the job. I know where there’s more if I need it.



I also finished milling down the rail stock. As soon as I get a scarf jig fabricated I’ll glue up full length rails. I should have stripped the old varnish off the interior today but it was too hot (for me).

July 3-5, 2009

Picked up some stripper and in between holiday fun I’ve been working on removing the old finish along at one end while carefully removing select bad ribs from the other. There are many places with multiple ribs in a row that need to be replaced but I’ll have to do the ribs in stages or risk completely losing the hull shape.



I got the scarfing jig made up – it allows me to cut a 10:1 angle on rail stock.

Also made a glue-up jig and did a trial run using short scraps of maple and cherry for contrast to make it easier for you to see what I’m describing.

Here’s the glued scarf – the diagonal joint is easy to see with the contrasting woods.

Destructive testing using 210 lbs of accelerated mass (propped the ends up and jumped on it) showed that the wood failed and not the joint. The mid section may look like the joint failed but there was a thin layer of cherry still attached to the maple.

July 8-9, 2009

The environmentally friendly stripper worked but it was slow and the results not quite what I thought they ought to be so I switched to Strip-ez. Nasty stuff but you could see and smell it go to work immediately. Pulled a few more ribs and worked up a material order. I’m looking forward to the rebuilding stage.

July 25-26, 2009

After a break involving the annual Wooden Canoe Heritage Association Assembly and recovery from a pulled back muscle, I’ve been able to work my way back into the shop. I’ve done some more stripping and found that a curved cabinet scraper is about the best tool for removing the loosened finish. Straight scrapers, putty knives, etc. work great on the straight, flat areas but their corners tend to dig into the wood when working the curves.

The Assembly was well worth the trip (along with bonus time coming and going at the farm with the parents). I found an intact Guide to pull lines from, learned many tips and tricks, realized that this Guide is not the basket case I thought it was, figured out there is no “right” way to build a canoe, and met lots of wonderful people. Did I mention the highs were in the 70’s? Camping in July and actually needing the sleeping bag is not normal in the south.

One of the reasons I went to NY was to pick up materials that I can’t get down south. I came back with enough rough white cedar to mill rib stock for the Old Town and another Cheemaun. Buying rough lumber instead of cut rib stock cut my cost in half but meant the better part of Sunday was spent amid dust and noise making small boards out of big ones (plenty of breaks for the back, plus daughter and grand-daughter were over).


Cutting down to 60″ length (or in some cases whatever usable length I can get out of the board).

Ripping to a width of 2-1/4″ in two passes. When milling material for furniture you must first straighten and square up a board but this is boat building with curves and when you get done with multiple passes over the table saw the stock is pretty straight. Plus you end up rounding and sanding all the ribs before they get bent in anyway. All those extra passes through a jointer are unnecessary.

Resawing (splitting on edge) the 1″ boards into two 7/16″ boards. I was tempted to use the bandsaw’s thinner blade and squeeze three ribs out of each board but with a desired finish thickness of 5/16″ and the variance in the rough lumber there just wasn’t enough material in most of the boards. Besides, the table saw is much faster and gives a better edge.

After a couple of passed through the planer we have 100 pieces of rib stock ready to be sanded, cut to length, beveled, and edged. Some of the rips are still large enough for half-rib stock so I saved them for another boat since the Guide didn’t have them originally.

And lots of scrap!

August 2, 2009

More stripping… almost done with this phase. I found that a curved cabinet scraper does a good job without digging into the wood (no corners!). I milled the cut-offs from the rib stock down to the proper dimensions for half ribs for use in future boats. That doesn’t count as progress on this project but it did get another pile out of the way.

August 8-9, 2009

Yet even more stripping. That and milling rails down to 7/8″ square (when I cut the bevels I’ll take the width down to 3/4″). Once I had them down to 7/8″ I cut the scarf joints and started gluing them together. You have to look very carefully to spot the diagonal joints on the Ash inner rails. The grain patterns matched almost perfectly.

Gluing up a scarf in the clamping jig.

If you look closely between the pencil marks you can see the diagonal joint. This is how we get 19′ rail stock when the longest material around is 16′.

August 20-21, 2009

Spent some more time pulling tacks and bad planking to gain better access to the ends of the boat. Having decided against replacing any of the end ribs that cross under the stems I started cutting scarfs (long diagonals) so I can splice new ends on the ribs. They were either rotted, damaged, or too short to meet up to the new rail when installed in the correct position.

The first two ribs are cant ribs (false ribs) that don’t bend around the stem so they will get replaced rather than spliced.



The piece of wood clamped to the rib is used as a guide for the pull saw. It’s cut at the desired angle at the top and I pull the saw along it using a thumb to keep the back of the blade against the angle. Once the cut has a good start I remove the clamp and wooden guide and finish free-hand.


If you look in the hole just above the clamp you’ll see what’s left of a tack. Sometimes they break off in the wood when you attempt to remove them. If the sound of the saw changes suddenly when you near an old tack hole, stop and dig out what’s left of the tack before you start losing teeth on your saw blade.

August 22-23, 2009

More work on the ribs and stems getting ready to splice new wood where rot had to be removed. Bleached all the original ribs and planking that will remain using a two-part product called TE-KA. Also tested stains to see what will get the new wood close to the color of the old.

Milled the new rails to their finished dimensions and beveled them to account for the tumblehome on the sides of the Guide – about 8 degrees. The Mahogany outer rails were also milled to accept the top of the planking and canvas.

Here you can see the ash inner with bevel, a rib between inner and outer, and a scrap of planking fitting up into the lip of the outer rail. I clamped these together so you can see how all the pieces relate to one another.

Tumblehome: the sides are not vertical, they curve back in – the reason for the bevel cut in the rails.

Rigging the saw with featherboards etc. didn’t take nearly as long as it did to move the saw and configure the garage to get 19′ past the blade without hitting anything.

Oh, and I ran all the planking plus all the rib stock through the sander. Boring work but it beats sanding by hand. There will still be plenty of that later.

August 29-30, 2009

Made a bending jig for use with the decks and ends of the gunwales. On my first canoe I tried bending the gunwales (rails) on the form and it didn’t go so well. In this case I don’t even have the option since it’s a restoration job and there is no form. The jig seemed to work fine – no snapping sounds from the rails. I soaked the ends for a few hours and then stuck them in the steam box for another hour to make sure they were good and ready to bend.


Bent on a few ribs while I had the box cranked up. There’s too many broken ribs to replace them all at once. The plan is to get the ends tied back together, replace a few in the middle, and these along with the remaining originals will be enough to replace the rails. Then I’ll go back and replace the remaining bad ribs. Something has to hold the old boat together while I doctor her up!


August 31, 2009

Fired up the steam again and bent the other end of the rails plus glued on a few more rib ends.

Here we have the custom steam box which uses a gas burner and turkey pot to generate the steam. Note the ends of the rails pre-soaking in the orange bucket.

With shorter stock like ribs I open the door and stuff the racks full…

…but with long stock like rails I use these ports and stuff a rag around the opening to help retain the steam.

Here’s the bend I did on Sunday. After 24 hours on the jig the Ash will hold this new shape.

While waiting on the rails to cook, I glued a few more rib splices…

…and worked on the stem splices.

September 5-7, 2009

Continued splicing rib ends, sanded the inner rails (again) where the steam raised the grain, and finished milling the replacement ribs – cut to length/beveled/edged/sanded.

Sliding bevel jig to taper the ends. First the ribs are cut to their approximate length and then the bevel is cut on both ends.

A pass across the router curves the edges.


And this is what we end up with (plus a few spares just in case).

Got the decks finished also.

September 10, 2009

Glued some more rib ends and put a first coat of varnish on the inwales and decks. I learned on the first boat that there are several areas that are very difficult to reach and/or seal properly once all the pieces are in place! The inwales and decks will get several coats prior to installation but the tops will get sanded down and revarnished during the finishing steps.

September 12-19, 2009

It’s been a confusing week with rather mixed results. At this stage in the reconstruction there are many things going on at once. The inwales are varnished, all the rib splices in the ends of the boat have been completed, several ribs replaced and, after a setback involving staining to match old wood, some planking has also been replaced. Normally the process of restoring a canoe is straight-forward and follows a logical pattern: new inwales followed by replacing a few ribs and then replacing a limited amount of planking. I can’t replace the inwales until I get enough good ribs in to have something to fasten to and I certainly can’t pull all 30 bad ribs at once. Improvise, adapt…

Here I’ve screwed a support piece under the old inwale where it was spliced and in danger of snapping under the strain of bending ribs around it.

View from opposite side clearly showing the old tongue and grove splice.

Bent a few more ribs. The chunk of granite comes in handy as a third hand.

September 20-21, 2009

Took a swig to calm the nerves and pulled a rail off. It went surprisingly well but next time I think I’ll leave a little extra meat at the ends of the new rails to work with (yep, I almost cut them too short after all that work of splicing and shaping).

Old rail separated from the ribs.

New rail in place.

I used the old rail as a brace and some straps to keep the hull from spreading out.

Bronze ring nails are used to fasten the old ribs that will stay and the new ribs. Right now I’m temporarily fastening them with one nail and not driving it home since I’m sure I’ll need to reposition some of them.

September 23, 2009

Made some cradles out of scrap so I can rotate the hull into more comfortable positions as I work.

Leveling the rails. Lots of fun! The small bullet level establishes a baseline, level the bottom of the hull then the rails are adjusted midships with the yellow level. These two remain constant and I move the red one toward each end raising or lowering the rails as appropriate before nailing ribs into them locking their position. Sounds simple enough in theory. The actual process is a test of patience!

September 24, 2009

Cutting the tenon joint by hand where the tip of the stem meets the rails and deck. One the deck pulls it all together the end of the stem will be trapped. I’ll drill through the rail ends and stem for a copper ring nail for extra insurance.

September 27, 2009

Here you can see the effects of previous repairs that involved sanding the rails down and quite possibly some twist in the hull. The ribs on the far side are close to level with the new rail while the near side rail had to be lowered a good bit to get the rails level with each other crossways.

September 28, 2009

More juggling of levels. The yellow one is level horizontally midships, the red one is level vertically and I’m using it to eyeball the stem for plumbness. The deck is attached to one rail and by slightly shifting the position of the loose rail you can push or pull the stem into true vertical as judged by eye sighting past the level.

Bow deck installed! (Yes, I almost trimmed the rails too short.)

October 3, 2009

Added more replacement planks to help give more support to bend in yet more new ribs. The compound curves at the end require steam but since steaming long planks isn’t practical we do without the box and simply apply boiling water directly to the area of the bend.




Since it takes three hands to nail these areas, one to hold the clinching iron against the inside of the rib, one to hammer, and a third to hold down the plank, I needed help. Tried to train Moose to put his bulk to productive use but that didn’t work. I’ve found that tie-down straps are invaluable for the planking process when doing it solo.


October 18, 2009

Last week I continued replacing parts of the planking in preparation for bending in some more ribs. I also replaced a few ribs by bending them in place on the inside of the hull staying away from areas that had joints or not enough planking to support the forces involved. Sunday I fired up the steam box again to bend a few more on the outside of the hull.


While I had everything rigged up and hot…

… I bent on a full set for Cheemaun number 2 that I’m building for a dear friend. I only snapped four! The form with ribs, rails, and stems clamped and nailed gets pushed back in the corner so the shape can set up. Meanwhile, back to the Old Town…

October 20-31, 2009

Nothing major to report. I’ve been fastening in the ribs I bent and adding planking here and there. Lots of driving tacks from uncomfortable positions so most of the work has been done in short stints due to age (mine not the canoe’s). More pictures soon!

November 1-12, 2009

Down to the last replacement rib. There will be a celebration with pictures! Had to refasten a couple of areas that didn’t shape up correctly.

November 14, 2009

The last rib gets tacked in…


November 15, 2009

Added second ring nails to all the rib ends that only had a single nail (more than I remembered!) and trimmed the ends down to just above the rail. Shaped, boiled, and installed the cant ribs (false ribs in the ends that don’t actually pass under the stem) – two pairs for each end of the boat.


Once all the ribs were nailed in I carried the boat out into the sun to document the progress. Over 30 of 57 ribs replaced, all the ribs that pass under the stems had new ends spliced on, new decks, new rails, and over 60% of the planking has been replaced.



Note: the inside of the new planking was sanded and stained so that once everything gets oiled and varnished it should come close to matching. The contrast between new and old on the outside is rather drastic.

As you can tell from the shadows and the image above, there is still some planking to be done just below the rail but that’s easy stuff. No compound curves, twists, or bends – just filler pieces.

You can still see some contrast between old and new planking. The new being darker due to the stain. However, when boiled linseed oil is applied to the old dry wood it soaks it up like a sponge and gets much darker. The entire boat will get a coat of linseed oil thinned with mineral spirits to help seal the wood (and put oil back into the stuff that dates back to 1937 – it’s very dry and brittle).

Getting the final result to match up is part chemistry experiment and part SWAG since the new and old parts absorb oils, stains, and finally varnish at different rates resulting in different shades so we won’t know if I was right until the very end.

While her lines reflect the graceful form they had over 50 years ago, the replacement of so many ribs left the old ones badly outnumbered. The Guide originally had a very flat bottom but all the new ribs are pushing bulges along her bottom (we’ll leave that one alone). Something had to be done to attempt correcting her shape.

I figured boiling water and weight in the ends might flatten out her bottom.


Each end got a 50 lb bag of sand, 5 gallon bucket filled with water, plus a couple of granite scraps for a rough total of 100 lbs in the bow and stern. Then I dumped 5 gallons of boiling water in the hull about 1/2 gallon at a time. By the time I had a second pot boiling she had settled over half an inch as measured from stem tip down to the concrete. Applied the second 5 gallons and let her sit in the driveway until after dinner. Then I pulled the weight out, moved the boat into the garage, and put the weight back in. Hopefully she’ll have a flat butt after sitting a couple of days – I know I would!


If you compare this picture with the unloaded one below where the boat is resting on the grass you can see the difference between the ribs in middle of the boat. If she ends up with a little bit of a rounded bottom that’s fine as long as the shape is consistent from end to end. Alternating between flat and round won’t do!


November 16-23, 2009

Finished planking the sides and then went over every single tack with hammer and clinching iron to make sure they all got seated properly. This is a painfully important step because once the hull gets covered there’s no going back with the hammer! A tack that isn’t tight will show up like a pimple under the filled and painted canvas. Plus if the sharp end didn’t curl back into the rib on the inside it’s tough on hands and feet! Once that was done I mopped boiling water over the outside of the hull. This swells the hammer dents back out.



After the hull dried out I went at it with the fairing board, sanding diagonally both directions to round out the new planks and knock down any high spots. Chiropractor here I come!


December 1-13, 2009

Several coats of thinned boiled linseed oil applied to both inside and outside plus a coat of varnish applied to the outside just to seal the planking prior to canvassing. Next I’ll put a couple of coats of varnish on the inside as soon as the oil quits seeping out from under the ribs. I’m varnishing prior to canvassing because on my first boat I had some issues with tiny blisters along the planking seams under the paint and I think it may have been due to varnish that seeped between the planks and got under the canvas.

December 14-16,2009

Varnished the outside of the planking to seal it – that was easy since neatness didn’t count (it will get covered). This evening (12/16/09) I did the first coat on the interior. One down with at least two to go with sanding in between.



December 18-22, 2009

Sand, varnish…. sand, varnish. Nothing to see here. Santa’s coming. Better get ready!

February 8-10, 2010

January was a bit slow. Snow (in Alabama!) and generally nasty weather induced several rounds of illness and kept me from setting up for canvasing outside so I worked on Alicia’s boat when I wasn’t incapacitated. Finally the cold(s) broke and we set up in the driveway for canvasing the Old Town.


February 18-19, 2010

Finished the canvas job by closing up the ends and applying the 3 coats of filler. Now she sits as the filler cures out. At current temps in the garage it’ll take a month or so.

May 2010

Not much excitement in the shop. I’m currently wet-sanding the third coat of paint in preparation for the final coat. I decided on Kirby’s “bottle green” and it seems to be close to the Old Town guide service green.

June 13, 2010

After a 3rd coat of paint, the canvas got trimmed and rails fitted. The ends are getting tapered in then I’ll seal the inside surfaces and install them.

June – September 25, 2010

The above date is noted in my building journal as “finished” – obviously a lot happened between June and September but not all the activity involved this boat. Several things happened that delayed completion but the primary factor was the gracious move by the owner who gave me the boat. The problem with the transfer was that it bumped the Guide to the bottom of the priority list. There was also one of the outside gunwales that decided to crack after it was completely installed. That made me put the boat in time-out for a while. I tried to repair the crack but it let go when I bent the rail back into position so it got cut back, scarfed, and reworked. Here are a few pictures of the final steps that completed the rebuild of the old Guide:

And here’s the end result:

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