Wood and Canvas Canoe DIYWH (with help)

By Margie Lavender

My husband, Morgen, and I bought a country house in Northwestern Connecticut. I wanted to get a canoe, specifically a basic plastic or Kevlar one that we didn’t have to be precious about – my husband is also an architect and is meticulous and I didn’t want canoeing to be a stressful experience. 

He asked around and found out that our neighbor, Schuyler Thomson, owner of Thomson Canoeworks, restores Old Town wooden canvas canoes and suggested we take a look. I didn’t even want to see them, because I knew we’d love them and that didn’t fit into my ‘it’s okay to hit a rock’ narrative. He talked me into just looking because it would be interesting to meet the neighbor and see the shop where he also builds new wooden canoes, even if we weren’t planning to leave with one. 

Once there, of course, we quickly decided we had to have a wooden and canvas canoe, but being architects, none of them were just right. We liked the color of this one, but the shape of that one, and so on. After a lot of vexing, we asked him to build us a new one. Wisely, he suggested we build it ourselves with his assistance. 

That was the start of a productive and truly memorable winter project. On our weekends in Connecticut, we would trudge through the snow to his cozy shop with its wood-burning stove, listen to the radio, chat with Schuyler, and work on the canoe. We got to do all of the fun parts, and he’d fill in some of the blanks between our visits (like the additional 6 coats of epoxy and sanding). 

Schuyler had three forms for building new wood and canvas canoes. We selected the 17’ form. The forms had metal straps so you can nail the ribs against them without nailing into the form. We would steam the ribs then bend them over the form and secure them to the gunnels. 

Then we nailed red cedar planking to the ribs 

Trimmed the ribs to the top of the gunnel

Trimmed the cedar planking and secured the ends to stems

Trimmed stem

When the wood form is complete you turn it over, varnish the interior, and then hang it in a sheet of canvas to make the exterior skin.

The canoe if filled with rocks to really get the canvas to stretch around it. 

Later we staple the canvas to the inner gunnel, and install the outer gunnel which is mahogany because it is both rot resistant and strong. The canvas is then painted and epoxied with many coats and sanding in between (the least pleasant part of the experience so we were very glad for Shuyler’s help between these visits)

Me making finish touches

We chose a sailboat color for our canoe – Kirby Green Tint #3. At first a controversial choice but Shuyler came around to loving it. 

We even learned to cane our seats (that’s my husband, Morgen, hard at work)

On the water – it works!