Skip to content
header image

Canoeing 101


Wood Gunwale Replacement for Royalex Hulls

Canoes with fine woodwork are a tradition at Mad River Canoe. The rails, seats and thwarts on your Mad River Canoe are native Vermont straight-grained ash, chosen for its resiliency, strength and aesthetic appearance. Unlike aluminum or plastic materials, white ash will not kink upon impact and cause undue damage to the canoe hull. 

Installing wood gunwales does require a bit more craftsmanship than attaching synthetic gunwales. This makes this section a bit longer than the corresponding instructions for other types of rails. Don't let the length of this document intimidate you but it is strongly recommended that you review the instructions in their entirety before beginning the project to make sure you are comfortable with all steps. 


Ordering replacement ash gunwales 

Rails can be ordered from an authorized Mad River dealer. Replacement ash rails are available that will fit all Mad River Royalex canoes regardless of age. Due to their length, ash rails cannot be sent UPS. The best alternative is to coordinate an order for replacement gunwales with a boat delivery to your dealer. 

A full set of rails has four pieces: two inside (inwales) and two outside (outwales) parts. The rails are not pre-bent or pre-drilled but are flexible enough to follow the shape of the canoe by just clamping them to the hull. 

It is possible to replace a single outwale or inwale or the gunwales along one side if desired. Specify what rail you need (inwale or outwale). For best results, however, it is recommended that you replace a complete set of gunwales. A better job results if all the rails are of the same age and moisture content. Older rails, especially if they have not been re-oiled, will be brittle and can break more readily than new ones soaked in a penetrating finish such as Gunwale Guard. 

It is necessary to order rails longer than the length of your canoe to accommodate the curvature of the hull. The length of a canoe is usually measured down the center along the keel line. That is the shortest distance between the two points. The gunwales take a more circuitous route from end to end. To re-rail a 14' or shorter canoe you will need 15' gunwales, 15' or 16' canoes will require 17' gunwales, etc. 

Wood gunwales milled for Royalex canoes are flat sided and are installed flush to hull on each side with top of hull material exposed in center. Think of it like a sandwich with the gunwales as the bread and the hull the fillings. 

If your dealer has in stock wood gunwales with a narrow lip at top of gunwales, these are kerfed gunwales and were originally designed for use with composite hulls. These gunwales can be used with Royalex if that kerf is removed. 

Mad River ash gunwales can be used on canoes of other manufacturers. It may be necessary to make adjustments to accommodate existing deck designs. 

Slotted inwales are available at additional cost. 


Prior to 1985, Mad River Canoes were outfitted with square gunwales. At that time, Mad River switched to a rounded rail system for a more elegant, finished look and lighter weight. Replacement rails are available only in the rounded format. This system is very suitable for replacement of squared gunwales but may necessitate replacement of the decks as well. 

Decks on Royalex canoes have been made of different materials and different woods over the years. However, Mad River has always used a “capped” deck system on Royalex boats wherein the decks are screwed to the top of the gunwales. 

Replacement decks are only available in current material and current models. It is possible that those available can work with older models or it may be necessary to get creative, particularly if you need a wider deck than available. You may have to fabricate your own deck. Hardwood is the preferred material. Current Mad River Canoe decks are made of beech. In past, walnut, butternut, cherry, and mahogany have been used. 

It is always good to retain original decks if you can. If beyond use, they can still serve as a template to make replacements or to confirm fit with factory decks. Mad River Canoe has been manufacturing Royalex canoes for over 35 years and during that time, changes have been made in various models, new molds have been brought into use, etc. All of these situations can result in changes to deck size such that the deck for a 1978 Explorer can vary significantly from that for a 2008 Explorer. Keeping your old decks can ease the “pain” of having to come up with a replacement if current factory parts do not fit. 

Older Mad River canoes also used ¼” hardware to suspend seats, attach yokes, etc. The hardware was changed in the late 1990’s to 3/16” to allow for double bolting yokes for stability and saving weight. The easiest way to tell which size your boat has is the ¼” hardware is crowned with a carriage bolt head whereas the 3/16” is a Phillips head. 

You can use your original hardware or convert your canoe to current standards. The one thing you may want to be aware of is that ¼” stainless steel hardware is not available from Mad River Canoe and if you encounter some damaged hardware, you may end up with a “mixed bag” of hardware. 

NOTE: In all cases, the serial number from your canoe can be very helpful in determining the original gunwale system used on your boat and determine necessary replacement components. 


The rails are already dipped in a penetrating oil at the factory. Additional sealing with penetrating oil such as Gunwale GuardTM before installation is recommended, especially on gunwale surface that will be installed against hull surface. Replacement rails are finished natural. If you wish to replace stained rails, it is best to stain them to match existing rails before installing them on the boat. 

Mad River Canoe does NOT recommend varnishing the gunwales. Varnish is a surface coat protectant and is adversely affected by the natural flex in canoe gunwales in normal use. This creates hairline fractures in the varnish that will continue to expand and will admit moisture under the varnish top coat. This in turn leads to deterioration of the gunwale from within. 


  • Gunwale Guard of appropriate finish 
  • Disposable or foam 1” brush 
  • Dry rags 


  1. Support gunwales at waist height. Dip brush into Gunwale Guard and apply to gunwales from end to end. 
  2. Rotate gunwales to allow access to other sides and repeat process. 
  3. Make sure to coat the ends of the gunwales and if during installation you trim the ends, to coat the newly exposed surfaces. 
  4. Allow 5 to 10 minutes for oil to be absorbed into wood. 
  5. Wipe down gunwales with dry rag to remove excess oil. 

In most cases, the original rail screws are reusable as they are stainless steel and resistant to corrosion. It is recommended that to minimize the chances of stripping the screw heads, first back them out manually with a screwdriver and then remove with reversible drill with a #2 Phillips head bit. On the average, 80 screws are required to refasten a 16' canoe. It is recommended to have a package (12) of screws available should you inadvertently strip a few. Royalex hulls require 1 1/2" #8 screws to secure gunwales to hull and 1” truss head #8 screws to secure deck to gunwales. 


  • Gunwales of appropriate length: 1 to replace single inwale or outwale, 2 to replace gunwales along one side, 4 for complete re-rail. 
  • Decks, either original or replacement 
  • Gunwale Guard 
  • 80 1 ½” stainless steel screws, original or replacement (attachment of gunwale to hull) 
  • 12 1” truss head stainless steel screws, original or replacement (attachment of deck to gunwale) 

All above materials are available for order via your local Authorized Mad River Canoe Dealer. 


  • Variable speed reversible drill        
  • Tapered 11/64" bit 
  • 1/8", 1/4", 3/16” 5/16” bits        
  • #8 Counter sink        
  • #P2 Philips Screwdriver bit        
  • #2 Phillips Screwdriver 
  • 6- 12 "C" or Welder's Clamps*         
  • 2 or 3 quick action spring or bar clamps are helpful 
  • 20' Tape Measure            
  • 3/8" & 7/16" Wrenches 
  • 80, 120, 220 grit sandpaper      
  • Palm sander is helpful 
  • Saw                    
  • Pencil 
  • 4 Home-made “S” Hooks**        
  • Wax pencil or similar non-permanent marker 
  • Gunwale Guard               
  • Gunwale Guard Stain (if appropriate) 
  • Mild Cleanser                
  • Rubber mallet 

*C-clamps with round clamp surfaces can tend to walk off the gunwale as you tighten the clamps. Take some scrap cardboard and cut into 2” squares and put squares of cardboard between clamp and gunwale to provide better grip and reduce tendency to walk. 

** “S” hooks can be made easily from a wire clothes hanger. Cut off about 12” of wire and bend into an S shape with each bottom curve of S large enough to fit around the gunwale to be used as an outwale. Bend the opposite curve at a slight angle to the bottom. You will use the S hooks to hold the ends of the gunwales close to the hull as you begin to clamp them at the middle. Hang the top curve over the side of the hull and put the outwale in the bottom curve. 


Prior to removing original gunwales, the locations of the seats, yoke, thwart, etc. need to be marked on the hull before removal. The new gunwales also need to treated with a fresh coat of oil. Existing gunwales are next removed from hull with care being taken to protect original hardware upon removal. Original Decks will lift off of hull with the old gunwales. Depending on model of canoe and date of manufacture, decks may be glued to gunwales or released when screws are removed. 

New gunwales are then clamped to the hull and tamped down to ensure they are properly seated. New screw locations are marked on the gunwale and countersunk holes drilled at marks. Screws are driven through hull and both inside and outside gunwales to secure gunwales starting from center of canoe and working towards one end and then the other. 

Once the gunwales are in place on the hull the new or original decks are fitted into place and secured with 1” screws. Seats, yoke, thwart or carry handles are then reinstalled at original locatons and finally a coat of oil is applied for maximum protection. 


  1. Apply Gunwale Guard to all surfaces of new rails. This is the time to make sure that the surface of the rail that will be against the hull will be thoroughly treated with Gunwale Guard. If stained rails are desired, stain rails prior to installation for best results. 
  2. Mark location of all thwarts/yokes, seats, carry handles on hull of canoe with marker. Trace outside of seat hangers to provide accurate reinstallation. All these fittings are hung from existing 
  3. rails, removal of those rails will result in loss of position of original fittings. 
  4. Remove all thwarts/yokes, seats, decks, etc. from canoe. Canoe will become flexible once eats and thwarts or yokes are removed. This is not a problem. If you are concerned with maintaining shape especially if gunwale replacement may take extended period of time, make a brace from a 2 x 4 notched at same width as canoe's original beam and slide over top of hull. Attach all hardware to original parts so as not to lose hardware and to make re-assembly easier. 
  5. Run tape measure around hull under existing rail. Mark center point on each side of hull below gunwale. These marks will serve as centering points for new rails. Also trace line of bottom of rail on hull. These lines will help assure that the new gunwales are seated properly on the hull. 
  6. Mark rail screw locations on inside of hull just below the rail, except at ends of canoe where marks will have to be made on outside of hull. 
  7. Starting from one end loosen and remove screws along one side of canoe. Leave other rail 
  8. intact. You will be doing one side at a time. 
  9. Remove old rails from canoe. 
  10. Clean newly exposed hull surfaces with GB-60 or a good household cleaner. Be careful not to wipe off any reference marks made in steps #4 and 5. 
  11. Match new rails into pairs. Using tape measure, locate center point of one pair of new rails if replacing both or on single rail if only one new rail is being installed. Mark center point with pencil on top and side of rails. Pencil is better to use to mark gunwales as it will not bleed into the wood like a marker and is easily sanded to be removed. 
  12. Position new rails on hull by aligning center marks on new rails with mark on hull. Clamp rails 
  13. to hull at center point. Use of spring or bar clamps can be helpful at this point to temporarily 
  14. secure rails to hull. Use C-clamps to finalize positioning. Hang “S” hooks over hull at each end and place ends of rail in bottom curl. 
  15. Working towards one end, align rails even with top of hull. Clamp rail as needed, usually every 24-30". The use of cardboard squares inserted between the clamp and rail will lessen the compression of rail by the C clamps and provide easier clamping. 
  16. Lightly tamp down on top of rails with rubber mallet to seat rails flush with top of hull. Check to see that bottom of new rails are even with line traced on hull in step #4.  
  17. The inwale will need to be trimmed to fit inside end of canoe. Holding the rail in place over stem of canoe, trace contour of stem of canoe onto rail with pencil so that rail will conform to hull shape. Make straight line at end of rail by sighting down to opposite end of canoe along keel line. Set saw just inside lines and trim off rail to form rounded end with straight side at center of canoe stem. The first inwale installed MUST be cut to fit flush against hull contour as well as along a center line INLINE to the "keel" line of the canoe. The second inwale must be cut to fit against this centerline and hull contour. It is best to cut conservatively and hand shape with file or sandpaper to achieve best results. Set inwale in place at end of hull and clamp. 
  18. Once you’ve reached end of canoe, return to center point and repeat procedure to opposite end of canoe. Step away from canoe and sight along rail to make sure it runs fair. Adjust position as necessary. 
  19. To determine new screw locations, run tape measure along inside of rail and mark rail at midpoint between old screw locations marked on hull. It is recommended to drill new holes evenly 
  20. spaced between the old, as it is a hit or miss proposition to accurately drill through old holes. It is preferable to drill new holes rather than enlarge existing holes. On Royalex hulls, space screw holes at 6" intervals. 
  21. Starting at center point and working towards first one end and then the other, using drill with 11/64" TAPERED bit and countersink, drill holes as marks along the rails. Set countersink to length of screw being used (1 1/2" for Royalex hulls). Place point of bit at center of vertical side of rail and drill horizontally. Let countersink bore slightly into gunwale but be careful not to drill all the way through rail. As you approach end of canoe it will become necessary to drill rails from outside of hull when hull is not wide enough to allow drill to align properly. 
  22. Start screws in holes and run up tight with Phillips screwdriver or drill fitted with P2 bit. Be cautious not to strip screw heads. For best results run screws to just snug with drill and finish tightening by hand. 
  23. Repeat steps #9-17 on opposite rail. When fitting the ends of inwale inside stem, trace not only shape of stem of hull but also mark where other inwale will contact and cut accordingly. A close fit is desirable but not essential with capped decks as they will cover this junction. If you do achieve a tight flush fit between the inwales, it is recommended that you drill a 1/4" hole through intersection of inwales where they contact end of hull. This hole will encourage drainage of water when canoe is inverted for storage or transport. 
  24. Transfer marks on hull defining locations for carry handles, seats, yoke, thwart(s), etc. to top of gunwales with pencil. 
  25. At marks, drill 1/4" holes if using 3/16” hardware and 5/16” holes for ¼” hardware. Center the holes in the inwale and take care to drill vertically so that hardware can drop through holes and will not contact inside of hull. 
  26. For maximum protection of your new gunwales, dip mounting hardware in Gunwale Guard before inserting into gunwales. The coating of oil will help seal the newly exposed wood in the holes as the bolts pass through. 
  27. Reinstall components. It’s usually easiest to start with yoke first and work towards the ends. It is likely you’ll need to squeeze the sides of the canoe together to fit the yoke in place. This is normal as the hull tends to spread when components are removed. Tighten hardware firmly but do not over torque as it is possible to sheer off stainless steel if over tightened. When using older style ¼” hardware run up lock washer and nut on bottom until just starting to get snug and then lightly tamp the head of the carriage bolt to set the square throat below the bolt head firmly into rail. Snug up nut until lock washer is aligned flat. On 3/16” hardware, place dimpled finish washer over bolt before inserting into gunwale and secure at bottom with flat washer and locknut. 
  28. Once components are secure, place deck over end of canoe and judge fit. Ideally, the outer edge of the deck will overlap onto the outwale, concealing the top edge of the hull. Align nose of deck with tip of stem of hull and make sure the deck is oriented straight side to side. Lightly trace end of deck on top of gunwales. 
  29. Mark point centered 1/2” from point of deck and then ½” from rear end of deck on each side. Align rear marks so that screws will drive into either inwale or outwale rather than hull. Using tape measure, measure distance between screw at point of deck and the rear screws. At point halfway between the two make mark for center screw on each side. Repeat for deck at opposite end. 
  30. Drill holes at marks with tapered bit and countersink. Remove decks from gunwales and oil underside of decks as well as the exposed wood from the countersink. 
  31. Reposition decks on canoe and drive #8 x 1” Phillips head screws into gunwales below decks to secure decks. 
  32. It is recommended that you provide a way for water to drain from an inverted canoe to prolong the life of your decks. You can do this by drilling a ¼” hole vertically through nose of the deck and through the gunwales below or you can drill ¼” hole at an angle through the top of the stem of the canoe. Angle bit so that the interior end of hole will be just below the bottom edge of the inwales. 
  33. Wipe down hull and remove any reference marks remaining on hull. 
  34. Sand top and sides of gunwales and decks with 120 grit sandpaper to smooth finish and remove any pencil marks. Wipe clean and apply Gunwale Guard as described above. Remove excess and spillage from hull immediately. 

If additional information is required, contact your Authorized Mad River Canoe Dealer or call Mad River Customer Service @ 888/525-2925.