Wood

Although it may seem that wood is an impractical construction material in this era of indestructible synthetics, this is not the case. The wooden canoe will never die - there is just too much tradition associated with the art of canoeing for this to happen. Wooden canoes will also stay with us because of aesthetics - there is no fiberglass or Royalex canoe that can match the beauty of a well-maintained wooden boat. Wood canoes fall into two main categories - strippers and wood-canvas models.

Strippers are constructed of long, thin cedar strips that are stapled to the outside of a form. The edges of the strips are glued together as they are installed. After the glue has dried, the staples are pulled and the hull sanded and fiberglassed on the outside. The boat is removed the form and the process is repeated on the inside. After trimming, the result is a lightweight wooden canoe with no ribs - just a smooth surface of clear fiberglass with the glow of cedar showing through. Although a stripper is quite expensive to purchase, they can be hand-built by anyone with reasonable carpentry skills and a bit of patience for a reasonable cost.

Stripper Canoe - Photo Credit : J Joven

Cedar-canvas canoes are made with a different construction technique. Ribs are bent to shape and fastened over a form. Cedar planks are fastened to these ribs with copper nails, then the hull is covered with canvas and painted. This is the traditional canoe - the one that many of us learned to paddle in. There are many of these canoes still in active service after generations of use - they are much tougher than many of us imagine. Watch Bill Mason's "Path of the Paddle" videos and watch how he calmly bumps a cedar-canvas prospector through Class III rapids.

Langford Cedar-Canvas Canoe

Aluminum

Aluminum Canoes are constructed by placing sheets of aluminum into a large press where they are squeezed between two molds into the shape of half of a canoe. The canoe halves are tempered and riveted together, then trimmed out with gunwales and stem bands.

The aluminum canoe industry was spawned by the end of World War II, when the Grumman Company realized it needed business to replace the dwindling need for aluminum aircraft bodies.

Marathon Aluminum Canoe

At the time they were first manufactured, they were a revolutionary innovation. They were sturdy, corrosion-proof and they were the boat that made whitewater paddling safer and more accessible to a wide range of paddlers. All outfitters and the vast majority of serious wilderness trippers used to paddle in aluminum canoes.

The advantage of aluminum canoes? They are the only canoe that can be thrown out back of the wood shed for the winter and completely and utterly ignored. They do not have to be protected from sunlight, and they last pretty much forever. 

Disadvantages? They are noisy - waves slap against the hull, and a knock from a paddle will send a booming echo across the lake. They also heat up quickly in the sun, cool off quickly in the cold; and unless the bottom is painted flat black, tend to glare into the eyes. The most serious disadvantage, however is the tendency of aluminum to stick on any rocks they encounter. Aluminum is a soft metal, and a bump against a submerged rock usually means that you will be rocking the canoe back and forth to free it.

Fiberglass

The most common type of canoe in use today, fiberglass boats are constructed by laying sheets and strips of fiberglass cloth into a mold and saturating the fabric with resin. This is a very simplified explanation of the construction process - there are a multitude of fabrics, resins and processes that may be used to "fine-tune" this way of building canoes.

Quality of fiberglass boats ranges from excellent to horrific. Some of the best wilderness tripping canoes are constructed from fiberglass layups. Unfortunately, the cheapest, ugliest and heaviest canoes are also constructed from the same material. It's certainly worth doing some research and trying out a boat before you buy it.. Unless you are travelling in the far north on extended wilderness trips; or intend to paddle serious whitewater on a regular basis, a good quality fiberglass canoe will probably be a good choice for you.

It is worth noting that some fiberglass boats are made using "chopper gun" techniques, where shredded fiberglass is sprayed from the nozzle of a gun and saturated with resin.  In general, these boats are heavy and weaker than cloth layups, and should be avoided.

Kevlar

Kevlar canoes are manufactured exactly the same way as fiberglass canoes. The only difference is the fabric used. Kevlar 49 is a fabric manufactured by Dupont which has a much higher tensile strength than fiberglass fabric.

Does this mean that boats with Kevlar layups are always stronger than fiberglass layups? Not necessarily. If we built two identical canoes - one with fiberglass and one with Kevlar, the Kevlar boat would definitely be stronger. What is often done though, is to put less material into Kevlar canoes, since the material is stronger. Because there is less material, the boat is nice and light. For the same reason (less material), the boat is probably about the same strength as a good fiberglass canoe. Kevlar is tough, but don't be fooled into thinking that it's indestructible. Kevlar boats will "wrap and snap" just as easily as a fiberglass canoe, and are more difficult to repair. Who should buy a Kevlar Canoe? A paddler who does mostly flatwater trips linked by lots of or long portages. If light weight is your primary consideration, this is the material for you.

ABS

Canoes used to be made from pure ABS, but the result was not good. ABS canoes were heavy and not very strong, and designs were not great. 

Modern ABS boats are constructed from laminates - a foam core with tough, slippery plastic skins inside and out. The most common brand of this material is Royalex, manufactured by Uniroyal. The material is fabricated in sheets and is thermoformed on molds.

This type of canoe is about as close to bulletproof as any canoe will get. It is almost impossible to put a hole through it, it slides quietly and easily over submerged rocks, and it pops back into shape even after being crushed and folded into impossibly contorted configurations. Royalex canoes have established themselves as the canoe material of choice for paddlers who need absolute reliability or who paddle serious whitewater on a regular basis.

Royalite is a thinner, lighter version of Royalex for those who are willing to sacrifice some durability and toughness for a lighter boat.

Polyethylene

Polyethylene is tough, but not particularly rigid. 

There are a couple of ways of solving this problem. 

  • Coleman's solution is to brace the interior of the canoe with aluminum tubes and struts, which makes of an "ok" canoe for the cottage, but one which is too heavy and clunky for wilderness tripping.

  • Old Town Canoe Company makes a lay-up with an expanded polyethylene core and polyethylene skins, and the result has been quite successful for them.  

A number of other manufacturers (for example, Langford Canoe and Paluski Boats) have adopted this type material for their plastic boats, but as a sandwich-type material similar to Royalex™.

The material, commonly known as "triple dump plastic" is made into canoes using a rotomold process.  Polyethylene is injected into a hull mold, which is turned and rotated to leave a thin skin after curing.  A second dump of polyethylene (this time with a foaming agent) is dumped into the same mold, which adds a foam core bonded to the initial skin.  A final layer is added in a third dump which puts the skin on the other side of the foam core.