I'M CONSIDERING PURCHASING A NEW CANOE AND SEE THAT YOU CAN GET A CANOE WITH WOOD, ALUMINUM, OR VINYL GUNWALES. WHICH IS BEST?
It depends on your priorities. Each system has its disadvantages and advantages.
- Wooden gunwales offer aesthetics, moderate weight, good balance between flex and stiffness (particularly for Royalex hulls), require the most upkeep and maintenance, and are more expensive.
- Aluminum are the stiffest and lightest but are lacking in aesthetics, and can crimp rather than flex.
- Vinyl gunwale systems (with or without aluminum inserts are the heaviest, require the least upkeep, and are the easiest to replace if damaged.
WHY DOES MAD RIVER USE ASH FOR GUNWALES INSTEAD OF SPRUCE OR MAHOGANY OR OTHER WOODS?
Let's talk about the alternatives first. We don't use mahogany because it's a rain forest hardwood in decreasing supply. Before 1991 we used mahogany in deck plates but replaced it with butternut as the impact of the depletion and exploitation of tropical hardwoods became clear. Beyond the "political" implications, mahogany tends to be a short grained wood that is subject to cracking and splitting if stressed. It's also heavier than ash.
Spruce does have the advantage of lighter weight than ash but its not as strong nor as flexible. Additionally, it is not as resistant to weathering as ash. Spruce is a soft wood and does not offer the strength and integrity of a hard wood. It's easily dented when bumped and will fracture if significantly distorted.
On the other hand, most hardwoods are too stiff to bend easily. Their grain structure is too dense to allow the wood to follow the hull contours of a canoe without being steamed or otherwise manipulated. For the most part, hardwoods also tend to be heavy as well. Maple or oak would make a right tough gunwale system except it'd probably add 10 or 15% to the canoe weight and wouldn't flex well if canoe was wrapped.
You could say that ash is a soft hardwood. Its characteristics kind of fall between soft and hard woods. It's a limber hardwood, capable of being bent to a canoe without requiring steaming or being prebent. While it's heavier than spruce or cedar or other softwoods, it is nowhere near as heavy as hardwoods such as maple or oak. Ash also has the advantage of being comparatively readily available as ash is a northeastern hardwood and quality ash is relatively convenient to our Vermont production facility.
Ash is a hardwood which translates to superior resistance to weathering compared to softwoods. It also tends to have a long straight grain structure which lends strength and more importantly, the ability to flex and bend without fracturing. In our archives, we have numerous testimonies from paddlers marveling at how the ash gunwales on their canoes remained intact even when their boat was caught in an end to end wrap or pin. This resilience is a trademark characteristic of ash and is a capability that often makes ash the gunwale system of choice for wilderness paddlers venturing hundreds of miles and multiple weeks from home or help. Ash is just about the only gunwale material, natural or synthetic, that can stand such severe distortion without fracturing or cracking.
WHAT ARE THE DISADVANTAGES OF ASH?
Foremost is probably the fact that it is not as rot or weather resistant as other hard woods. Left unprotected, ash will deteriorate and rot fairly quickly. It does require periodic treatment to preserve its integrity and elasticity.
Compared to a wood such as spruce or a synthetic rail system such as aluminum, ash is heavier. It's up to you to figure out which feature is more desirable-- weight savings or flexible strength.
WHY ARE GUNWALES OILED INSTEAD OF VARNISHED?
Canoe gunwales are subject to incessant flexing as the boat is handled and paddled. A certain amount of flex occurs every time you take a stroke. It's also inevitable that a gunwale will be bumped or scraped.
Varnish is great for use on static pieces of wood like furniture. It is a surface protectant that provides a barrier coat against the elements. Canoe-wise, you'll find varnish used to coat seat frames, yokes, and thwarts. These pieces are very static and rigid and not subject to flex. Flex causes problems for varnish as varnish is not very dynamic or giving. Repeated flex will create a series of minute stress cracks in a varnish coat. Bumps and scrapes will also crack or abrade the varnish top coat. Once that surface coat is cracked, water can creep underneath and affect the wood. This is evident by the gray discoloration that shows up on worn varnish coated products. Take a look at the edges of a used wooden canoe paddle and you'll see signs of water penetration via surface cracks or dings in the varnish.
Oil on the other hand is a penetrating finish that in effect is soaked up by the wood and then hardens to preserve the wood. As such, it is far better suited for use on canoe gunwales. As the oil has penetrated the wood, a bump or scrape doesn't remove the finish either.
The disadvantage to oil finishes is that they need to be periodically touched up and replenished.
HOW MUCH MAINTENANCE DO WOOD GUNWALES REQUIRE?
It's really not that demanding, especially if you start taking care of them right away. Generally, you need to re-oil them at least twice a year, preferably three or four times, especially if your canoe is stored outdoors.
WHAT IS THE RECOMMENDED METHOD OF TREATING AND PROTECTING ASH GUNWALES?
Basically, the periodic replenishment of protective oil is all that is involved. The frequency of application depends on the frequency and type of usage your canoe experiences, the means in which it is stored, and even where you live. If your boat is used regularly and lives outdoors, you should anticipate treating the gunwales a minimum of three times a year, preferably four. If you live in a humid warm climate, you can expect to treat your gunwales more frequently than if you live in an arid area.
Regardless of where you are, the procedure remains much the same:
- Clean your gunwales to remove any dried on debris or residue. Often a quick wipe down with a clean rag will do.
- If your rails are badly soiled or you want to do a more thorough job, lightly sand the gunwales with 100 grit sandpaper. This will remove surface scum and will open the wood's surface pores to readily absorb the oil finish. Don't forget to treat the underside of the gunwales. If you're going to sand the gunwales, it is recommended to run a length of masking tape on the hull below each side of gunwale to protect hull finish from abrasion by the sandpaper.
- Using a brush or soft rag, wet the gunwales with Gunwale Guard or your choice of oil. Don't forget to coat the underside of the rails and to get under the decks. If your boat has a deck fixed to the top of the gunwales by screws, take the time to remove the deck and treat the rails underneath. Due to the canoe's shape, this area tends to collect and hold water more than anywhere else.
- Let sit about 5 minutes and then wipe off excess.
- That's really all there is to a basic maintenance program. If you want to restore your gunwales to showroom condition you can: Using 220 grit sandpaper, wet sand the rail surface before removing the excess oil. Make sure the sandpaper stays wet as you sand. After waiting a few minutes, wipe off excess and buff with soft cloth.
All in all, a preventative rail treatment shouldn't take more than an hour at a time which really isn't too much of a commitment, is it?
THE ASH GUNWALES ON MY CANOE ARE ALL GRAY AND ROUGH, NOT THE LIGHT BLOND THEY WERE WHEN I BROUGHT MY CANOE HOME. WHAT SHOULD I DO TO RESTORE THEIR ORIGINAL COLOR?
Gray shows the natural weathering of ash from exposure to moisture and to sunlight. To remove the gray you can sand the rails, clean them with a cleanser such as GB-60, or in worst case, use a diluted solution of household bleach in water. Sanding is the longest lasting remedy and will also remove the roughened surface.
I KNOW YOU CAN GET "STAINED" RAILS AS AN OPTION. IS THERE ANY FUNCTIONAL ADVANTAGE OF THIS TREATMENT?
Not really, it's mostly a cosmetic choice. A dark stain, such as the walnut used by Mad River, will hide the graying of the rail to some degree but the same process is going on and the result is that you will still need to preserve your gunwales.
As the walnut is basically a stain, it is recommended that you finish your rails with a protective oil such as Natural Gunwale Guard as the last step in your rail treatment. This will not only provide maximum protection for your gunwales but will also protect the stain as well.
MOST OF MY GUNWALES ARE IN OKAY CONDITION BUT THE ENDS OF THE RAILS ARE STARTING TO GET ROUGH OR SPLIT. WHAT SHOULD I DO?
The very ends of the gunwales are the most prone to weathering. In the first place, the ends are the most open grain on the gunwales, providing the least resistance to water penetration. Additionally, when you turn your boat upside down water follows the natural curvature of the gunwales towards the ends, providing more exposure and more opportunity for the gunwale end to absorb water. Any time the canoe is inverted on the ground, the gunwale ends also come into contact with soil and dirt which can be caught in or around the end of the rails. Dirt holds moisture, thereby again increasing the likelihood of extended exposure to moisture.
First thing to do is to pay special attention to the rail ends when treating your rails. 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.
If the damage is extensive enough to be beyond restoration, you may need to remove the damaged rail end and splice in a new one. Mad River does provide 4' splicing sections for "spot" repairs of damage. The cost is real reasonable and the procedure is not too involved.
I'VE GOT ONE CRACKED RAIL ON THE OUTSIDE OF MY HULL. DOES THIS MEAN I HAVE TO REPLACE THE WHOLE GUNWALE?
Not by any means. Mad River offers 4' splicing sections for partial repair. Basically, you cut the existing rail at an angle on either side of the break, unscrew screws in that section, and remove. Cut the splicing section to fit, clamp in place, drill and screw and get back on the water.
IS THERE ANY DIFFERENCE TO GUNWALES FOR MAD RIVER ROYALEX® CANOES COMPARED TO FIBERGLASS OR KEVLAR®?
Yes, there is. Gunwales for Royalex boats are flush sided and install in sandwich fashion with the top edge of the hull showing between the inside and outside gunwales. Gunwales for composite or laminate boats have a lip (or kerf) on the ouside gunwale that caps the hull edge and butts against the inside rail.
CAN YOU USE GUNWALES CUT FOR ONE MATERIAL ON THE OTHER?
It is possible to use gunwales for Royalex canoes on composite boats as long as the sharp hull edge is sanded flush and smooth with the gunwale surface. You can't use composite rails on Royalex hulls as the Royalex hull is quite a bit thicker than a composite hull and the kerf will not reach the edge of the inside gunwale.
WHAT'S INVOLVED WITH REPLACING MY WOOD GUNWALES?
All in all, it's not too bad a process. In simple terms, you remove the existing gunwales (save the hardware), clamp new rails in place, trim to fit, and drill and screw them to attach them to the hull. There's no steaming or prebending necessary.
The most important part is making sure you've got the right gunwales and parts to start with. When ordering or buying gunwales, you need to buy gunwales that are longer than your canoe to compensate for the fact that the gunwales take a curved route from end to end rather than straight down the middle. Be aware that each gunwale actually consists of two rails, the inside (inwale) and outside (outwale). Thus, you will need 4 pieces to perform a complete gunwale replacement. Make sure you also know what material your boat hull is made of to be sure you get the appropriate gunwale and gunwale screws. If you have a fitted deck, you'll most likely need to obtain replacement decks as well. If your boat has a "capped" deck you're probably spared that problem. Last, while MRC's stainless steel hardware is tough stuff and corrosion resistant to boot and most can be reused, it's wise to obtain some spares just in case. Gunwale screws are available in packs of 12 from your Mad River dealer.
As for tools, you'll need about a dozen clamps. C-clamps work fine but you'll find a couple of spring or bar clamps helpful when first positioning the new gunwales. You'll also need a phillips screwdriver, (a reversible variable speed drill with phillips head bit makes a lot of sense too), measure, marker, a drill with several drill bits, saw, a couple of wrenches, rubber mallet, and some glue if you're replacing your decks.
Probably the trickiest part of the procedure comes when you get to the ends of the canoe, particularly if your boat has fitted decks. Fitting new decks isn't terribly difficult, it just takes a bit more time and measuring. If you're moderately handy with tools, the complete job can be done in a day.
IF MY FITTED DECKS ARE STILL GOOD IS THERE ANY WAY I CAN KEEP THEM INTACT WHEN REPLACING THE REST OF THE GUNWALE SYSTEM?
Yes, you can splice the rails behind the decks using the technique described in installing splicing sections.
I'VE GOT DAMAGE TO ONE SIDE, THE OTHER'S FINE. DO I NEED TO REPLACE BOTH OR CAN I JUST DO THE SIDE THAT'S BAD?
You can replace one side if desired but be prepared for something of a mismatch cosmetically. Most likely you'll also end up short splicing the new rail to preserve the existing decks.
MY CANOE HAS SQUARED GUNWALES WHILE I SEE THE NEW BOATS HAVE ROUNDED RAILS. CAN I GET SQUARE RAILS STILL?
No. In 1985 Mad River switched to rounded rails and square rails are not available. Rounded rails will work just fine in replacing square gunwales.
CAN I GET REPLACEMENT MAHOGANY DECKS FOR MY OLDER BOAT?
All decks are now made of butternut. Just as with replacing squared rails with rounded ones, butternut decks will work fine. Even if your canoe design is no longer in production deck blanks are available that can be used with minor reshaping required.
WHAT IS INVOLVED WITH REPLACING ALUMINUM GUNWALES?
The procedure is pretty much the same as working with wooden gunwales. Instead of removing screws, you'll need to drill out the rail rivets and you'll need a rivet gun to install new rivets.
WHAT IS INVOLVED IN REPLACING VINYL RAILS?
Vinyl rails are pretty simple to install. Like aluminum rails, you'll need to drill out the rivets but the vinyl gunwales are flexible enough to tolerate being bent into place as you go. It's important that you make sure the rails are completely settled in contact with top of hull before you drill and rivet new rails in place.
CAN I PUT WOOD GUNWALES ON SYNTHETIC RAILED CANOE? OR VICE VERSA?
Certainly, but anticipate what's needed as far as fitting decks, seats, yokes, and thwarts. Generally, wooden and vinyl gunwales are compatible as far as hanging seats and crossmembers but aluminum rails require different attachment systems.
WILL MAD RIVER GUNWALES WORK ON OTHER MANUFACTURERS' BOATS?
Wooden gunwales will work fine. You do need to obtain proper length and pay attention to the hull material and order appropriate gunwales. Aluminum gunwales can be trickier due to variations in hull laminations between different manufacturers. It's probably best to stay with the original manufacturer for these gunwales. Vinyl gunwales are more universal and if used on Royalex or polyethylene hulls, the hulls can be shaved if need be.
I NEED TO REPLACE MY SEATS AND YOKES AND THWARTS. WHAT SHOULD I ANTICIPATE?
Replacement seats and cross members are sold "uncut" to avoid confusion with all the different models of canoes and changes to models over the years. Measure your existing parts and order the size seat(s) or cross member(s) longer than needed. Use old parts as templates to cut the new ones and to locate holes to be drilled for hardware. Remember to coat the newly exposed wood surfaces where cut with varnish for protection before installation.
CAN I REPLACE JUST THE CANE PART OF MY SEATS?
Yes, you can. Cane panels and splines are available from different sources. However, once paddlers realize how little a price difference there is between a complete new seat and the cane components and just how time consuming removing and installing new cane is, the majority choose to replace the entire seat.
CAN I ORDER REPLACEMENT GUNWALES DIRECT FROM THE FACTORY?
No. You need to order through your local dealer. Gunwales are too long to ship UPS and require transport via common carrier (truck). Be aware that that freight costs will apply. You can order gunwales through your local Mad River dealer for pickup at the dealer, which usually reduces the shipping charges. Another option is to consider a temporary repair using splicing sections as these can be shipped UPS.
MY CANOE NEEDS NEW GUNWALES BUT I DON'T HAVE THE TIME OR I DON'T THINK I CAN HANDLE THE JOB. CAN I GET THE WORK DONE PROFESSIONALLY?
Yes. A lot of dealers will perform this job. Please contact your local dealer to see if they perform this service.