It’s time! At the first sign of warm weather this week, I dragged my canoe collection out of storage to clean them up and get them ready for the warm season. It’s an all-day process since I own a dozen canoes.

I have no inside storage, so I flip them upside down on multiple homemade canoe racks for the winter, with the gunwales holding up the weight. Sun is the biggest enemy for outside storage. I place them in a shaded area the best I can and never put a tarp over them. The tarp will actually trap heat and moisture and do more harm than good.

I give them a nice wash with soap and water and then buff up the composite outside shell with a high-quality car or boat wax. If they’re any scratches deep enough to stop my thumb nail in its tracts while moving it across the hull, I then consider placing a layer of gelcoat on the weak point. I’ll even consider placing a skid plate on the bow or stern if needed.

photoKevin Callan

Half of my boats have wood trim. It looks nice and feels nice. But it’s a pain to maintain when compared to plastic or aluminum gunwales. If they’ve been varnished, all they need is a light sanding and re-coating every few years. But I prefer to oil mine, which means they needed treated at least once a year.

It’s okay to varnish wooden seat frames, yokes and thwarts. They’re static items. Varnish is like putting a plastic coating on the wood. It’s when a wooden item needs to flex that varnish becomes an issue. Movement creates stress cracks in the varnish coat. Same with bumps and scrapes. Once that happens, water can creep in and start discolouring and rotting the wood. You’ll quickly see a gray discoloration.

Oil is my preference. It’s a penetrating finish that in effect is soaked up by the wood and then hardens to preserve the wood. Every bump or scrape doesn't remove the finish. The only real disadvantage to oil finishes is that they need to be periodically touched up and replenished more than varnish.

Hemp oil is the best. You could use simple cooking oil if that’s all you have. Danish oil is a mixture of other oils. Tung oil is plant-based, clear and quick-drying. It’s one of the oldest and most popular wood finishes in the world and is derived from the seeds of the tung tree in Eastern Asia. Linseed oil, also known as flaxseed oil, is also very popular. It’s great for inside chairs and tables but not the best for canoe gunwales. It allows mold and mildew to set in, so you have to add 20 per cent clear wood preservative. Hemp oil repels mold and mildew. The only disadvantage with hemp oil is that it takes two to three days to fully dry.

photoKevin Callan

Before placing the oil on the gunwales, give them a good sanding and wipe them down with a diluted solution of household bleach and water. This will remove the gray discolouring. Let the wood dry before oiling.

Once the oil is applied, lightly brush the wood with 400 wet and dry sandpaper. Don't sand it—buff it. This heats the wood up a bit and helps draw in the oil. Give it a wipe after—the wood will be thirsty.                                                                       

Don't forget the underside of the gunwales and use painters’ tape alongside the hull to keep it free of the sticky oil. Also, pay special attention to the rail ends. The bow and stern get more contact with the ground and collects more moisture. Make sure to give them a second or third coating.

Go back and apply a second coat of protective oil to the ends. If the damage has been done but hasn't progressed too far, sand the rail end to remove the damaged material until you reach sound wood. This may require loosening the endmost rail screws to allow the rail to separate from the hull to make sanding easier and more complete. Don't forget to treat the section of the rail against the hull while you have the opportunity.


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