Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Canoe Gods and Penance.

In some previous posts, I've alluded to two B.N. Morris canoes that I've done restoration work on. There's a bit more story to tell about the first one.

The first Morris that I dealt with was a canoe that belonged to my Scoutmaster when I was a teenager. While I don't know what particular model it was, it looked like the one in the picture above and had belonged to someone in his wife's family. (The one in the picture is a reproduction from the Northwoods Canoe Company) The canoe had Mahogany trim all over. This boat was in pretty nice shape with the exception of the rot that seems to be typical on the ends of the stems at the bow and stern and the canvas was shot. I should point out that the B.N. Morris canoes had closed gunnels like in the picture below:

This allowed the water trapped in the canoe when it was stored upside-down to travel down to the tips of the stems and cause rot in this area. I should note that most people are more familiar with open gunwale canoes like the Old Town in the picture below. Water can come out through the scuppers created by the spacing that the ribs create between the inwale and the outwale. A little bit more to follow on this detail later.

My father offered to help him restore this canoe for a trip that we were planning in the summer. We started off by removing the rotten wood and scarfing in new sections of Cedar ribs, stem, inwale and planking. Some new pieces of Mahogany were scarfed to the ends of the trim pieces that covered the top of the gunwales and made up the outwale. We also had to scarf in some sections of new deck. Once the woodwork was done, we stripped the old varnish and re-varnished the interior. Seat cane was replaced and new floorboards (AKA "duckboards") were fabricated.

Now comes the sin.

I should note that canoes with closed gunwales like the Morris are very "early" designs. Bert N. Morris started building canoes in his home in Veazie Maine around 1882 and finally opened a successful factory there. It was one of the largest canoe companies with a widely known name until a fire destroyed the factory in 1920. After the fire, some canoes were still built under the Morris name for a short time, but as I understand it, ultimately Morris went to work for the Old Town canoe company. The canoe we were working on was both very old and sought after. Other than the small amount of rot at the tips, it was really in pretty pristine shape.

Right until we fiber-glassed it.

Fiberglass should really never be put on a traditional rib and plank canoe. It's just not right. For the most part, I have to say, "Forgive us, because we really didn't know any better." -the owner and my father didn't really know this at the time and figured that they were saving the canoe. I know my father had expressed some interest in re-canvasing the canoe, but the owner figured that the fiberglass was a final solution. (It is, but not for the best...) Worse still, we used forest green tinted Polyester resin. I can still smell the Styrene. Overall, we did a pretty good job with the Polyester and the canoe looked and paddled OK, but it was still the wrong thing to do.

I figure that due to this event in my past, I am doing my penance to the Canoe Gods by researching, building, and writing about traditional and semi-traditional wooden canoes. One of the reasons that I took a Cedar and Canvas Canoe building class at WoodenBoat School was to do a good job of restoring the second Morris Canoe that I've gotten my hands on - a boat I found by the side of the road with some rot at the tips and pink Polyester resin on the outside!

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