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Wood in various forms has defined the canoe. At times every component of classic indigenous canoes came from the forest; bark for the hull, cedar and other woods for planking and gunwales, spruce root for lashing and lacing. In many ways, the North American bark canoe was far ahead of its time. Consider that the attributes that typified the bark canoe are akin to those we seek in our contemporary canoes: light weight, versatility, durability, high capacity. In many ways the bark canoe can still compete with modern counterparts.
Wood has largely been displaced from use in canoe hulls by new synthetic materials (and some older ones such as aluminum). A lot of this had to do with cost of handcrafting wood hulls but a lot also came down to the necessity of maintaining wooden hulls. Wood requires considerably more time and diligent maintenance than most other materials. Increasing numbers of users found they had neither the time nor the skills nor the inclination to put the necessary time in to maintaining their wood hulls. The lure and appeal of care-free modern materials offering increased durability has consigned wood hulls to a small part of the canoe market.
Yet wood remains a viable and often preferred option for other parts of the canoe, from gunwales to yokes to seats and trusses. In these applications wood remains a strong player and justifiably so. The inherent give and take of wood makes the material the material of choice for things such as yokes and often seats. Wood also lends the canoe a classic and classy refined look that synthetics such as aluminum and vinyl simply can’t match. There’s something special about a hull of the most sophisticated modern materials trimmed out in one of our most traditional materials. One might think the two simply wouldn’t complement each other but in practice they do so, very well.
Of these components, wood gunwales are the most imposing and striking, get the most notice and make the biggest impression. Yet like a wood hull, wooden gunwales require additional care and TLC that aluminum or vinyl gunwales do not. Some may ask the question: Why then wood?
Wood gunwales not only look classic but they do offer some performance advantages over their synthetic counterparts.
Wood has “memory” and will flex under stress and then rebound when that stress is removed, doing its’ best to assume their original shape and form. This tendency can protect a canoe hull from further damage as wood will spread and dissipate the distorting force over a wide area rather than concentrating it.
Wood is not prone to “kinking” upon impact or sustained pressure. Wood will bend on a broad radius under greater force than either aluminum or vinyl. Synthetic gunwales tend to focus this force at one point. The result is a cracked or crimped gunwale. With that force focused on a relatively small area, the hull can be at risk as it has to absorb the energy released when the gunwale gives way. The result can be a torn or fractured hull. As wood flexes along its grain, it absorbs a lot of that destructive energy over a longer area of the hull and this can eliminate or minimize hull damage. Wood is the most easily repaired in the field if disaster strikes. Wood is warm to the touch and quiet when bumped.
Wood is also the most easily repaired gunwale material, particularly in the field or the bush. When wood fails, it is rare to find the break to be entirely perpendicular to the wood grain. Wood tends to splinter along the grain, often leaving two halves with considerable matching surfaces. The amount of surface area is significant as this determines how well the break can be lashed or laced together or glued back together. Synthetics that break 90o at the point of impact are virtually impossible to structurally repair, there is no overlap, no surface area to mate to. In most cases, the best you’ve got to work with are trying to mate up the ends of each piece of gunwale, there’s no overlapping pieces of gunwale to mate together.
Wood is also a quiet gunwale, tending to absorb noise rather than broadcast it. This can be a critical factor to a sporting or photographing paddler stalking fish and game and relying on stealth to get into the best position.
Wood is undeniably a green material compared to the synthetic alternatives, if the species of wood used is available on a sustainable basis. Wood is also quite green at the other end of the life cycle, posing no issues in terms of disposal; use it for firewood (try that with aluminum or vinyl!) or leave it in the woods to rot. The “life” cycle of wood basically is the definition of recycling.
Wood is warm to the touch, there’s not the chill that comes from grabbing an aluminum gunwale when it’s 40o out. It’s also far more comforting and comfortable to the touch than its’ synthetic counterparts. It just feels right to run your hands along a smooth wood gunwale while gazing down river or across a lake.
Wood is also warm to the eye. There’s an elegance and a heritage to it that a synthetic simply can’t hope to match. With wood gunwales, every canoe is a bit different, a bit unique. The more you paddle that canoe the better you come to know it and sense its’ uniqueness. Wood just helps bring that awareness to light.
Obviously, wood’s not a perfect material for gunwales. If it were we wouldn’t have synthetic alternatives to consider. Just what do synthetics bring to the table?
One big advantage to aluminum or vinyl gunwales is simple longevity and lack of maintenance and upkeep. Simply put, these gunwales are “easy”. Once in place they require very little attention. They may fade over time but any impact on integrity from such fading is way, way down the road. They really don’t deteriorate very much over time, needing very little attention or concern. You can pull your canoe out of winter storage for first spring trip without having to think about the condition your gunwales are in. A quick wipe with a rag and maybe some UV protectant if you’re feeling generous, and you’re ready to go for another season.
Another advantage of aluminum gunwales in particular is lighter weight and greater stiffness. These attributes are particularly meaningful if you’re paddling an ultralight touring or tripping canoe where ounces are critical and efficiency the highest measure of performance. An aluminum railed canoe can be as much as 5 lbs lighter than a wood gunwaled counterpart depending on specie of wood used. A differential of 2 to 4 lbs is more commonly achieved.
Aluminum is stiffer than wood and can provide the necessary rigidity via a smaller cross section of gunwale than can wood. Less surface area equates to less mass to less weight, especially when the stiffness necessary to eliminate hull flex is achieved. If this is your priority, aluminum gunwales are a prime choice.
Vinyl gunwales are pretty weight comparable to wood gunwales so no real advantage there. They require minimal maintenance which is often considered an advantage and they have some flex to them, making them better suited to royalex hulls and whitewater/down river canoes than aluminum. So when it comes to canoes of this type, required maintenance is the key differential.
Wood gunwales on a royalex hull can increase the chances of cold cracks IF they are not maintained. I don’t know if this is a disadvantage of wood gunwales so much as it is a matter of lack of diligence of the canoe owner. If you go into the game knowing the rules, you’re far more likely to succeed and not encounter problems than if you don’t know or ignore the rules. Face it, wood gunwales require some TLC; not much but definitely more than the synthetic options.
Wood gunwales are also usually more costly than synthetic alternatives. These costs are usually tied to the processing and shaping of the wood stock and the craftsmanship required to properly install a wood gunwale. It’s a bit more complex and challenging than riveting or screwing a synthetic gunwale in place.
All these rationale and reasonings are based on the fact that we’re comparing wood gunwales in good condition to synthetic alternatives. All bets are off if wood gunwales are allowed to deteriorate. They lose their flexibility and resilience, two of their primary attributes worthy of consideration. If you do opt for wood and do not opt in for the necessary maintenance, you will be disappointed with the performance and the results. If you treat the gunwales right, you will be rewarded for your choice. Maintenance will likely require the commitment of a ½ hour or less several times a year. When you think about it, that’s not exactly an overwhelming demand on your time is it? Nor are the skills required confined to woodworkers or artisans. A bit of sanding and in effect, painting, is all that’s usually required if you stay with the program.
Mad River Canoe has relied on native white ash for gunwales since the company first started producing canoes in 1971 in Vermont. The fact that Northern White Ash is endemic to the forests of the Green Mountains was a fortuitous coincidence. Ash has a multitude of characteristics that make it near ideal for this application.
Ash is a straight and long grained hardwood, allowing it to be used in long thin strips such as a gunwale, without losing strength or flexibility. It’s not uncommon to see Mad River canoes where you can trace a grain line from bow all the way to stern. This is desirable in that fractures tend to follow grain lines and the longer the grain the less severe a fracture can be as the energy is dissipated over the course of the grain.
Ash also has a relatively low incidence of knots which cause a disruption and distortion in the grain and potential weak point in the wood structure. A knot is like a natural stress riser in the wood, creating a weak point that allows concentration rather than dissipation of stress or force.
Ash is a hardwood so it has decent resistance to impact and is not inclined to dent. Hardwoods also tend to be stiffer than softwoods and more rot resistant. As ash is a softer hardwood than maple or oak, it is not as decay resistant as harder hardwoods but is considerably lighter and more limber.
Ash is not as light as softwoods such as cedar or spruce but is considerably stronger and more durable. It is more abundant and sustainable than cherry as well as straighter grained.
Ash is also very green in that it is readily available on a sustained basis. The majority of ash comes from certified sustainable forests in the Northeast and does not require lengthy transportation as would be encountered with an imported hardwood or wood that has to be shipped across the country.
Mad River Canoe has used penetrating oil as the protective finish on our ash gunwales since the early 1970s rather than a varnish or shellac finish. Due to their both their dimensions (long and skinny) and their application, canoe gunwales flex constantly while in use. This comes from the “give” built into canoe hulls to make them able to absorb impact and abrasion as well as the simple length to width ratio of a gunwale. Any wood cut into a strip up to 20’ long by ¾” thick will have some whip and flex to it. Even getting your canoe to and from the water creates flex and vibration in the gunwale as it rides on top of your car or on a trailer and then on your shoulders as you walk.
That flex is deadly to a surface coat such as varnish. A varnish is essentially a barrier coat to isolate the underlying wood from exterior moisture. As such, it relies a solid consistent unbroken surface layer to do its’ job. The constant flex of a canoe gunwale in effect attacks that top coat, creating a multitude of small fractures in the varnish. These cracks allow moisture to seep through the varnish coat and be absorbed by the wood underneath. This in turn leads to deterioration from within as that moisture then cannot be evaporated back into the atmosphere as the varnish creates a barrier coat in reverse.
Left untouched, this process results in ever widening fractures and fissures in the varnish as the moisture penetrates further into the gunwale, lifting the varnish and exposing more of the gunwale to the atmosphere. The trapped moisture discolors the gunwale and worse, basically rots the gunwale from within.
You can try to re-varnish the gunwale to restore the protection but to do so properly you have to sand off the original coat and also address the discoloration and moist wood beneath it. This is a lot more time consuming and frustrating than renewing an oil finish.
MRC’s Gunwale Guard is a penetrating oil that soaks into the wood structure to provide water resistance. Because it is absorbed into the wood fibers, it moves in concert with them when they move. As such, it is far more tolerant of flex and change than a varnish finish. It won’t have the luster or sheen of a varnish but it does provide a deeper degree of protection than a varnish finish and it is more readily and easily renewed than a varnish.
Another advantage of the oiled finish is its’ durability in terms of bumps and impacts. A sharp impact can easily fracture the varnish top coat on a gunwale, such as banging the gunwale on a river rock or even dropping the boat onto it’s side at the end of a portage. Even seemingly slight abrasion such as might be encountered by dragging the canoe on its’ side prior to hoisting it onto your shoulders for a carry can compromise the varnish barrier.
Gunwale Guard is specifically developed for a marine environment and for use on canoe gunwales. Oil finishes such as linseed oil offer similar protection but are not as durable or long lasting as Gunwale Guard.
Varnish is an appropriate and effective finish for these components simply due to their size. There is far less comparative flex in a yoke or seat frame than there is in a gunwale. As they are positioned in the interior of the canoe, they are also much less susceptible to bumps and bangs than are the gunwales so that the varnish top coat remains intact.
For information on maintaining your wood gunwales, click here.