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Canoeing 101


Maintaining Your Wood Gunwales

Multiple coats of Gunwale Guard are applied to wood gunwales during the canoe building process. Particular attention is paid to oiling the surface of the gunwale that will be against the hull once the canoe is assembled as it’s obviously tough to get to that surface once the canoe is built. 

We recommend that you apply a fresh coat of oil before you use your canoe. There’s no telling how long the canoe may have been on the shelf at your retailer or to what temperatures and humidity it may have been exposed to since it was built. These are factors that can wear down an oil finish. 

Natural finish Gunwale Guard can be applied over dark stained finishes. The only time you might need dark stained Gunwale Guard is when you want to darken or re-stain the gunwales. Natural Gunwale Guard is the preferred final finish. 

For a quick oil wipe down


  • Gunwale Guard 
  • Brushes and dry rags 


  1. Position the boat upright at a convenient height. 
  2. Use dry rag and wipe down gunwales to remove any dust. If there are any wet spots use a hair dryer to dry those areas thoroughly. 
  3. You can use a paint brush, foam brush or a rag to apply Gunwale Guard. Give the can a light stir before using (do not shake as this traps air within the material). 
  4. Beginning at one end, apply an even coat of oil. It helps to have a dry rag on hand to wipe up any drips that might drop down on the hull. Apply oil to both gunwales. Do not oil seat frames or yoke. 
  5. Let oil sit on gunwales for 5 to 10 minutes. Wipe off any unabsorbed oil with dry rag. 
  6. Put canoe in the water. 

Down the Road

It’s inevitable that you will need to freshen the oil on your gunwales. What will determine when needed will be a combination of use and exposure; how much the canoe is used and how and where it is stored. The trick is how to tell……. 

Left untreated, ash naturally weathers to a grey finish. Left too long and the surface grain will become increasingly rough and raised as more moisture is absorbed and then evaporated. That’s one good indication that some attention is needed. Another is to try a variation of the old “splash-some-water-on-the-car-and-if-it-beads-up-the-wax-is-good” test: drip some water on your gunwales. If the water is absorbed it’s time to oil. If the water runs off the gunwale your protection is probably good. 

Please note that canoes stored indoors for a lengthy time, particularly in a place with low humidity are likely to have dry rails. Such rails will readily absorb moisture if exposed and will not have the elasticity of oiled rails. It’s just as good an idea to oil rails in this condition as those overexposed to the elements. 

If you’ve been diligent in keeping your rails oiled, it’s likely the quick wipe procedure described earlier will do the trick. If you’ve let your gunwales go for awhile and let Mother Nature have her way a bit too long, you’re facing a bit more complicated process to restore your gunwales to original glory. 

Let’s assume your canoe has been neglected for longer than you want to admit; the rails are grey and the grain has raised some due to absorption of water. The following process is well tested and proven to bring the gunwales back to showroom condition and beyond. 


  • Gunwale Guard               
  • Dry Rags 
  • Brushes                
  • 80, 120, 220 grit sandpaper (400 grit optional)    
  • Palm sander (very helpful and time and sweat-saving. If not available, a sanding block is a necessity) 
  • Hair Dryer  (if gunwales are damp)    
  • knife with sharp point 
  • Dust mask                
  • Masking tape 


  1. Set boat upright at a comfortable height to work on gunwales. 
  2. If gunwales are damp dry gunwales thoroughly with hair dryer. Ideally, storing the boat inside for several days prior to oiling will help dry out the gunwales as well. 
  3. Test gunwales for rot or weakness by trying to poke the point of the knife into the most worn areas. Even if discolored, gunwales should resist the knife point. If knife can be easily pushed into gunwale this indicates that there is rot in the gunwale and no amount of oiling will restore the gunwale’s integrity. Time to consider a re-rail. Be sure to test the underside of the gunwale as well. 
  4. If working on a Royalex canoe with top-mounted decks, back out screws and remove decks from canoe and set aside. 
  5. Wearing an approved dust mask, put 80 grit sandpaper on sander or sanding block and sand top of gunwales. Depending on condition of gunwales you may want to loosen and remove the hardware securing the seats, yokes, thwarts, etc to allow sanding of the area under and immediately around the hardware. Keep sander moving and keep sanding until all discoloration or grey is removed from top of rail. 
  6. 6)    Carefully continue sanding the sides of the gunwale. Watch that the sander does not contact the hull as scratches will result. 
  7. Flip canoe over and apply masking tape along side of hull along gunwale. The tape will give you some protection while sanding and also serve as an early warning system if you get too close to the hull with sander. I have had success carefully positioning the sand paper on the sander pad just slightly inside of the edge of the pad. This gives me the margin of error for the pad to bump against the hull but not the sandpaper. 
  8. Switch sandpaper to 120 grit and sand again. If you want fine finish, switch again to 220 grit. Flip boat over to upright position when finished on underside and repeat the progression. You can leave tape in place at this point. 
  9. Once sanding is complete, wipe down gunwales with dry rag to remove dust. 
  10. If you are staining the gunwales as well as oiling, this is time to apply stain. Lightly stir the stain to even the color and apply with brush or rag to gunwale. Make sure to apply stain to top, sides and underside of gunwales. Wipe up any drips that occur. 
  11. Allow the stain about 10 minutes to soak into the wood then wipe off excess with a dry rag. This is the time to stain the decks as well if desired. 
  12. Lightly stir the oil (do not shake as this introduces and entraps air in the oil).    Apply a liberal coat of oil to the gunwale. You can use a bristle brush, foam brush, or dry rags to apply oil. Wipe up any drips as they occur. It’s a good idea to have a dry rag in one hand and your brush or oiling rag in the other, wiping up drips as you go. 
  13. Allow oil to soak into gunwales for about 10 minutes. Check periodically for drips and clean these off hull as they occur. 
  14. After 10 minutes, wipe down gunwales with dry rag, removing any unabsorbed oil. 
  15. Apply a second lighter coat of oil and allow to sit for 10 minutes. 
  16. Apply a light coat of oil to the carry handles and seat trusses. These parts are not varnished and will benefit from periodic oiling. If trusses are discolored, remove from canoe and sand surface to remove stains. While they’re out of canoe, take time to sand and oil other side. 
  17. Wipe gunwales down with dry rag. 
  18. Flip canoe over and repeat two step process on underside of gunwales. If working on a composite canoe with inset decks, make sure to reach in and oil the underside of the deck and gunwales. This may be easier done with a small rag and a stick to push the rag up into the nose of the canoe for best coverage. 
  19. Inspect for drips. If you’ve missed a drip and it has hardened, simply brush a light coat of oil over the drip. Give it a minute or so to soften the drip and then wipe off with dry rag. 
  20. If working on a royalex canoe with wood decks, sand decks with grain with 80, 120, 220 grit on both top and bottom. Apply coat of oil to top, let sit for 10 and then wipe off. Flip deck over and repeat process for bottom. 
  21. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious and want a furniture quality finish, apply a light coat of oil to the gunwales and using 400 grit sandpaper, “wet” sand the rails though the oil on the surface. This will also provide deeper, long lasting protection as the force and friction drives the oil deeper into the gunwale’s grain structure. Make sure to keep the sandpaper moist with oil as you sand. Wipe down with dry rag when finished. 
  22. Install the decks if removed during the process.