Canoes were first made from cedar and canvas in the US/Canada in the 1870’s. They are the direct descendants of native American birchbark canoes and second only to a well-made birchbark in terms of visual appeal. There is just something about the beauty inherent in the rib and plank construction of both birchbarks and wood-canvas that makes these canoes look stunning. Wood-canvas canoes are structurally the same as birchbarks except that canvas replaces the bark and brass tacks are used in place of spruce root lashings. They were developed largely in response to the explosion in recreational canoeing in North America around 1880. The supply of birchbark could not keep pace with demand, and many people rapidly tired of having to re-gum leaky birchbark canoes. Equally importantly, wood-canvas canoes are made on a mould or form which allowed more rapid construction and a much more consistent hull shape and quality. Many wood-canvas canoe builders sprang up, notably in Maine and Ontario, and their canoes have become classics which today change hands for rather large sums of money.
The fact that some of these canoes are still around today and still being paddled testifies to their durability and illustrates an important fact about this type of construction: all parts are replaceable and so the canoes can be continually refurbished virtually as new.
A wood-canvas canoe having a hard day traveling upstream on the Hubbard expedition to Labrador in 1903
Also, the hull is held together by opposing forces: the ribs are springing the planking outwards and the stretched canvas is constricting it inwards. The resultant balance gives a very strong and resilient hull structure. Wood-canvas canoes were used to explore many of the wilderness regions in Canada - a sure testament to their durability.
However, a wood-canvas canoe will not withstand the level of punishment that you can give to a plastic canoe. Depending on the type of canoeing you want to do, this might well be a drawback but you can also regard it as a good thing. It encourages good canoeing technique and a respect for your boat. It is unlikely that the old-time canoeists would recognize the spectacle of a plastic canoe bouncing from rock to rock down a rapid as having much to do with canoeing at all.
We portage rapids where we judge that our skill level is not sufficiently high to give a reasonable chance that we will not hit a rock. Also when landing on a rocky shore, we get out of the canoe before it grounds on the bottom. Other than this, the boat does not need special handling and can be dragged out onto sand or shingle, as you would with any other type of canoe.
The 16ft Peterborough model weighs approximately 68lbs; comparable to many plastic canoes. However, all wood-canvas canoes put on weight as they take up water and can gain 5-10lbs on a wet trip. This water will dry off when the sun comes out.
Owning and using a wood-canvas canoe
Many people feel drawn towards wood canvas canoes for their looks, their natural materials, and rich historical connections that plastic canoes simply do not have. However, they are relatively rare in the UK and so are something of an unknown quantity. Based on our experience of almost 20 years using our wood-canvas Peterboroughs, here is our impression of their performance.
Durability: Wood-canvas canoes are much more rugged than you might expect from looking at the materials used to build them - very thin cedar strips and canvas cloth. Their strength comes from the construction - no parts are rigidly fixed - which allows movement so that impacts can be absorbed to some extent into the hull structure.
Packed up and ready for a three-day round trip up Loch Maree to climb Slioch. Some Munros lend themselves to approach by canoe.
Maintenance: Wooden canoes require some maintenance - they don’t thrive on neglect - but it is not particularly onerous. We wipe over the gunwales with boiled linseed about once a month, and keep up with any deep scratches in the filler with a touch of Plastic Padding. Your wood-canvas canoe will probably need a new canvas every 10-15 years or so if used heavily in rocky environments, but much less frequently if used only very occasionally, or only in deep water. We strongly recommend keeping your canoe inside in a place with good airflow. Having your canoe remain wet for long periods of time will greatly reduce the life of the canvas. All the parts of a wood canvas canoe can be replaced, should they become damaged.
The Peterborough Design
Our design is the standard 16ft x 32" x 12" model that was produced by the Peterborough Canoe Co (and forerunners) with little modification from around 1888 until at least 1941. It was their most popular model having the "size, proportions and shape considered an optimum compromise to satisfy most canoeists looking for a general purpose canoe". When we were looking into the origin of the design, we received a very nice letter from Gerry Stephenson (grandson of John Stephenson one of the original Peterborough builders and holder of the original patents), which filled in some of the historical details. The design figured in the catalogue of the Ontario Canoe Company (which in time became the Peterborough Canoe Company) as Model no 44, and cost $50. It became Model 604 by the 1909 Peterborough catalogue, and Model 1427 "The Canadien" by 1941. The earlier canoes had numbers rather than model names apparently because most canoes at that time were given names by their owners that were painted on (this could be done in the factory if desired). The 32" beam model was advertised as being suitable for "avid" canoeists whereas the wider 34-36" flat-bottomed models were considered more suitable for ladies and children.
The 16ft Peterborough is one of the all-time classic canoe designs. It has a round bottom and modest rocker. We chose this design because it is a fast, attractive canoe that has enough volume for tripping for two, but not so much freeboard as a Prospector, which unless well laden, is apt to catch the wind. Also, the Prospector looks a little boxy to some tastes. If the Prospector is the Workhorse of the North, then the Peterborough is the Thoroughbred.
Please note that owing to time constraints, we are not currently building Peterboroughs to order, but rather schedule them around other jobs and sell one from time to time when they are finished.
A Moosehead Peterborough