Canadian Canoe Routes

Cedar Stripper Restoration -- A First Hand Account
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Author:  rerdavies [ September 9th, 2001, 3:59 pm ]
Post subject: 

Cedar Stripper Restoration -- The Tale of 42.

Having just finished restoring a cedar stripper canoe, and knowing that there's precious little material on doing cedar stripper restoration, I wanted to get this document out on the internet for others who are contemplating a similar project. (CCR forum articles do end up getting picked up by major search engines).

In 1990, I received a cedar stripper canoe as a wedding present from my parents. My now-ex wife and I were passionate canoists, at the time, I couldn't have imagined a more perfect wedding present. The canoe was a 17 1/2' custom built cedar stripper canoe, built by a company called Cedarglass, then located north of Toronto, but now out of business.

The canoe, as are all cedar stripper, was a truly beautiful boat; however, I have to admit that, after a few wilderness trips, I was less than happy with it. The canoe was built using polyester resin fiberglass over cedar, and it quickly became apparent that the canoe was more of a cottage showpiece canoe than a practical tripping canoe. It was exteremely fragile, and even by the end of the first season, the fiberglass had started to delaminate from the wood. Delamination is deadly for a cedar stripper: without a strong bond between the fiberglass and the cedar strips, the strength of the canoe is greatly compromised.

After ten years, the fiberglass had delaminated in many places. There were several places where the planking had been severely damaged. (It doesn't take much to fracture the planking once the fiberglass had delaminated). It also leaked badly. When I discovered, after taking the canoe out in the spring of 2000, that the gunwhales had rotted out on one side, I was pretty much ready to put the canoe out on the curb with the garbage. It hardly seemed worth it to get the gunwhales repaired.

I was on the verge of taking the canoe for it's last portage when I stumbled across a copy of *Canoecraft*, by Ted Moores ( in a local bookstore. *Canoecraft* is considered by many to be the bible for those wanting to build a cedar stripper canoe from scratch. Flipping through the book, I began to wonder whether it might be worthwhile to try restoring the canoe after all.

I began to look for sources on restoration of cedar stripper canoes, without much luck. I talked to people at several local canoe stores. None of them were willing to take on a restoration project of the magnitude that would be neccessary to get my canoe back on the water. The internet also failed to provide any help. Canoecraft had a fair bit to say about cedar stripper repairs, but again, the scope of repairs neccesary to get my canoe back on the water was far beyond the kind of repairs discussed in Canoecraft. In the end I decided that, since the canoe was headed for the trash heap anyway, I didn't have much to lose.

There wasn't much point in trying to repair the existing fiberglass. It was in terrible shape; and my discussions with local canoe repair technicians had made it clear that the historical experience with polyester fiberglass systems had been poor. The polyester systems had been found to have a tendency to delaminate over time (pretty much as my canoe had done) because the cedar under the fiberglass exudes resin under the fiberglass. Since the natural cedar resins aren't compatible with the polyester resins, the fiberglass ends up coming loose from the wood.

This tendency to delaminate turned out to be a saving grace. I quickly discovered that I could easily strip the fiberglass off. Starting with one of the nastier gashes in the fiberglass, I found that I could rip the fiberglass off in long strips. This step would probably have been a nightmare with an epoxy resin system fiberglass, although, I do understand that expoxy fiberglass can be removed using a heat gun (fumes from heated epoxy fiberglass can be exteremely dangerous, though). At any rate, within a matter of hours, I had managed to strip the entire canoe back to bare wood! There were a few small patches of leftover resin; but a few more hours work with planes and cabinet scrapers cleaned these up.

Removing the fiberglass skin was a major breakthrough. Having done so, I was now back into the realm of the known and documented. I spent the next five weekends following the instructions in *Canoecraft* for constructing a cedar stripper canoe from scratch, starting at the point at which the wooden hull had been completed.

There were a few additional minor challenges not covered by Canoecraft. There were two fairly major breaks in the wooden hull where planks had split, and a 3 foot section where one of the cedar planks had rotted. The splits in planking were dealt with by injecting expoxy resin into the split with a syringe. Canoecraft describes this procedure in the section on repairs, and it seems to have been very succesful. The rotted plank was repaired by chiselling out the rotted sections, and filling the gap with expoy resin-based fiberglass filler. (See notes later on about that I would have done differently for comments about the plank replacement).

Some discussion about replacing the fiberglass skin is probably appropriate here. The canoe-building system described in Canoecraft uses a the West System epoxy fiberglass resins ( The epoxy resin used for epoxy-resin fiberglass systems is truly scary stuff. There are pages and pages of documentation on safe handling and use of the resins, since the uncured resin is highly toxic. Before contemplating a restoration project like this, I would strongly urge you to read all the safety precautions at the West System web site (as well as the equivalent precautionary sections of Canoecraft) before deciding whether you're willing to handle epoxy resin. I spent a long weekend covered from head-to-foot in tyvek overalls, gloves, goggles, and good quality masks, and I seem to have survived. However, epoxy resin is definitely a substance that deserves suitable care and respect.

Safety precautions aside, the process of stretching the fiberglass cloth over the canoe, and painting it on with resin really wasn't that difficult. After the cloth is applied, two more coats of fiberglass resin need to be applied, and they need to be applied according to a strict schedule. My third coat ended up going on at eight oclock the following morning. It should have gone on at three o'clock in the morning, but the air temperature had dropped below the minimum working point for the resin. Fortunately, the end product seems none the worse for this.

I should also describe how I dealt with replacing the gunwhales. In my restoration, I chose not to replace the inner fiberglass (which oddly enough seems to have stood up ok). To get the outer fiberglass layer on, the outer gunwhales needed to be removed. I was somewhat concerned about accidentally twisting the hull out of true, so I kept the inner gunwhales and thwarts attached to the canoe while I was applying the outer fiberglass. If you were building a cedar stripper from scratch, the outer fiberglass skin would go on while the canoe was still on the form. I don't know whether this is truly neccesary, but I would recommend this approach anyway. If the inner gunwhales are still attached, then the thwarts and seats help to keep the hull in the correct shape, and the inner gunwhales themselves probably strengthen the hull at least a little. Going through all the work of refinishing a cedar stripper only to end up with a twisted canoe would be a great tragedy.

Accordingly, the gunwhales were replaced outside gunwhales first, and then inner gunwhales in a separate pass. In retrospect, this step seems unneccesary. Once the fiberglass shell has had a chance to cure, the hull is definitely adequately rigid, as I discovered while replacing the inner gunwhales and remounting the thwarts and seats.

Finding a source for canoe gunwhales may prove to be a challenge. Not many lumber stores carry 18' sections of clear ash, molded to appropriate shape. If any. In Ottawa, the Trailhead repair shop will machine gunwhales to your specification. Bring along a fragment of the old gunwhale, and the Trailhead technicians will be happy to produce a correctly moulded set of gunwhales for you. I also ended up buying new decks from Trailhead. The new decks aren't as nice as the old decks, but getting the new gunwhales to fit neatly with the old decks proved to be beyond my modest woodworking skills. When I got to it, Trailhead was also able to provide a very nicely tapered keel, also machined to my specifications.

Canoecraft recommends buying dozens of C clamps to use while applying the gunwhales. I managed to get by with 6 2" C clamps (which are relatively inexpensive). Applying the gunwhales in my case was simplified somewhat because I replaced the gunwhales in two passes. The Canoecraft technique is to C-clamp the entire lenght of both gunwhales, from end to end, and then fasten them with screws. In my case, I started at one end and worked to the other, screwing as I went. With one gunwhale in place already I was less concerned about twisting the hull out of true as I applied the gunwhales than I would have been had I needed to apply gunwhales on a bare hull.

Surprisingly, the most time-consuming part of the entire project was applying varnish. The Canoecraft book recommends at least five coats of varnish, each of which needs 12 to 18 hours to dry. I currently have 6 coats of varnish (and applied a seventh this afternoon to cover up all the scratches that a half-season's worth of tripping has produced).

I can't begin to tell you how thrilling it was to see the canoe as the coats of varnish went on. Throughout most of the construction, the canoe existed in various phases of being sanded and covered in fiberglass cloth; but as the varnish went on I started to get my first clue as to how beautiful this canoe would be when finished. The color of the cedar has deepened as it has aged, so the canoe is even more strikingly handsome than a brand new cedar stripper.

I have had my refinished canoe on the water for about a month now, and I am ecstatically pleased with it. The West System fiberglass is much stronger than the old polyester resin fiberglass; although I don't have the heart to really abuse this canoe, it has taken a few fairly nasty knocks without ill effect, and takes the usual scrapes and nicks that are inevitable on any wilderness canoe trip with at least as much indifference as any other canoe. Cedar stripper canoes built with expoxy fiberglass are supposed to be virtually indestructable; I have no intention of testing this proposition, but experience so far has been good.

Furthermore, the canoe is once again beautiful. I've had at least a dozen people come up to me in parking lots and gas stations specifically to comment on how beautiful the canoe is.

The weight of the canoe doesn't seem to have been adversely affected. I haven't actually weighed it, but I would guess it's somehwere in the 65-75lb range. I have actually done oone-hop 800 meter portages (with a 30lb solo pack as well) without breaking a serious sweat, so I know that the weight is still in the range of the reasonable. Sure it's not as light as some of the new kevlar canoes; but then again, my canoe isn't ugly, so I'm willing to live with a few extra pounds. Call me vain, but it's true.

The most interesting lesson of the restoration of Fourty-Two (which is what she has been rechristened as) is that old cedar strippres that have been fiberglassed with polyester resin can be very successfully refinished with expoxy-resin fiberglass. I was worried that there would be chemical reactions betweeen the two resin systems, or that the expoxy fiberglass wouldn't bond properly. It became very clear when the old fiberglass skin came off that the polyester resin hadn't really penetrated the wood at all. Once the old skin was removed, I ended up with a wooden hull that was probably as clean and ready for expoxy resin as it was on the day it was assembled. Although Fourty-Two has only been in the water for a month and half now, there are (so far) no signs of bonding problems in the new skin.

The greatest pleasure this newly beautiful canoe has brought me is that having been through the process of restoration together, the canoe and I have bonded to a remarkable degree. The pleasure of tripping in a canoe that contains a significant portion of my own handiwork is a pleasure that's hard to describe to anyone who hasn't restored or built their own canoe; it is a very real pleasure that I experience again and again, every time this canoe hits the water. On the other hand, every scrape and scratch is like a high-voltage shock applied directly to the pain center of my brain; but I expect I'll get over that eventually.

Final cost: about $800 including supplies and tools, and about 5 weekends of work. Tools required: a very good sander (Canoecraft recommends a random orbital sander, although I made do with a palm sander and finishing sander); lots of brushes; a finishing plane (not really required) and cabinet scrapers; a power drill (I had two: one to predrill holes, one to drive the screws); not much else. I ended up using only one gallon of resin (very expensive: about $200/a gallon including hardener) since I only refinished the outside, but I ended up using the very very last ounce of resin. Plan for at least a gallon plus a liter if you're going to do it yourself; two gallons if you're going to try to strip the inside too. A little extra resin is probably a good thing to have for future repairs, and I suspect I'll end up buying that extra liter one of these days anyway. Major expenses: $200 worth of resin; $108 for new gunwhales; $40 for new decks; $50 for brass stem bands; $20 for brass screws; and lots of brushes, sandpaper, mounting bolts, solvents, protective wear, screw countersinks, and bits and peices that all add up. Interestingly, all my restoration expenses ended up on my credit card so I can state wit certainty that the restoration cost was not a penny less than $800 (and a few extra pennies as well) when all the bits were included. On the other hand, have you seen what a good canoe goes for these days??!

Things I would have done differently.

1) Following the lead of the original manufacturer, I used brass screws rather than stainless steel screws to fasten the gunwhales, and brass hardware to remount the thwarts, and seats. Brass screws have a nasty tendency to snap off as you're driving them in, and the cosmetic difference isn't worth the effort. Go with stainless steel: they're slightly more expensive but worth it, and look just as good if not better. I ended up using stainless steel screws to fix the decks in place anyway, because I couldn't get a 2" brass screw into the deck without snapping it. Drilling out snapped brass screws is no fun at all.

2) While remounting the gunwhales, I followed the original manufacturers lead and drove the screws in from the outside of the gunwhales toward the inside. The current fashion is to drive the screws in from the inside toward the outside, leaving the outer gunwhales smooth. This is a much more sensible way to mount gunwhales. Don't bother trying to save the inner gunwhales as I did. The additional cost of the inside gunwhales is $54.00; and the final fit and finish of having matching inner and outer gunwhales is worth at least $54.00. That being said, I do think replacing the gunwhales outside first, and then inside second was a good idea. Just make a mess of the old inner gunwhales, knowing that the you're going to replace them shortly. Or follow the Canoecraft procedure, and remove all the wood trim before you start mounting gunwhales.

3) I repaired the rotted plank with white expoxy fiberglass filler, and then hand-tinted it with acrylic paint, trying to match surrounding wood. The match really isn't that good. The West fiberglass system does have a tinted wood-colored fiberglass filler. Next time I would use the wood-colored filler, and not bother trying to tint it to match. In the end, the repair is below the water line, anyway, and probably not that noticeable to anyone but me. But still...

4) Some of the wood around the nastier gashes in the old fiberglass skin has blackened due to exposure to water. I found out, too late, that oxalic acid will remove the water stains, but obviously, the treatment needs to be applied before the fiberglass goes on.

5) I had a nasty scare recently. Some kids stole my canoe in the middle of a long weekend while I was away. Fortunately, it turned up a couple of days later on the Rideau River, a few yards from my back yard. Obviously it had been taken for a joy ride. The lesson learned was that during the process of restoring the canoe, I had removed all manufacturers marks and serial numbers, so describing the canoe to the police was difficult. Simple questions like what color? ("Cedar". "No. What color?". "Um, cedar."), what make? ("umm. It doesn't have one."), serial number? ("Umm. No.") any distinguishing marks ("No. None. Well... [lengthy description of the fumbled plank repair which nobody would notice anyway]"), and so forth were difficult to answer. This weekend, while applying a final coat of varnish, I took the opportunity to give the boat a name ("Fourty Two -- a Douglas Adams reference for those who have read Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy), sign the boat and give it a serial number on the front deck. These have all been safely covered with a coat of varnish, so that if it should get stolen again, I'll be able to identify it easily. Sure, Cederglass, the original manufacturer might have deserved some credit, but if they wanted credit, they really shouldn't have finished the canoe with a polester fiberglass system.

5) Hull deformations. There is a spot on the hull just below the rocker which is ever so slightly concave. The concavity came about as a result deformations around one of one of the split planks prior to the estoration. I was very worried about this while restoring it. I chose to try to repair it by stuffing the canoe from the inside out with bags between the thwarts and the hull in order to keep the hull concave while the fiberglass skin was being applied. This procedure was mostly succesful, although there is still one section of the hull that is slightly concave. As it turns out, the expoxy fiberglass skin is extremely strong, so I think I'm ok. Before the repairs, this section of the hull had a nasty tendency to flop about, but it appears to be strong, and immobile now that the expoxy fiberglass skin has been applied. All the same, I continue to worry that this section of the hull has been needlessly weakened. I think a better way to address the problem would be to take it to a canoe repair shop, and get them to fit temporary cedar ribs on the inside while the outside skin is applied. You could screw the ribs into the hull if you had to. Trailhead charges $12 a rib, including installation, and two or three would have been adequate.

(c) Robin Davies, 2001.

Placed into the public domain, out of a desire to ensure that other fine cedar strippers don't suffer needless deaths.

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: rerdavies on 2001-09-09 19:17 ]</font>

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: rerdavies on 2001-09-09 19:36 ]</font>

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: rerdavies on 2001-09-09 19:56 ]</font>

Author:  Bill P [ September 10th, 2001, 8:45 pm ]
Post subject: 

Robin ,had the same problems. Biult the canoe ourselves but didn't use the west system, we had major delamination after two years. Like you said the fiberglass stripped off easily.Didn't cost as much as your repair becuse all we had to buy was the fiberglass and resin. I only put on two coats of varnish because every year I lightly sand the hull and revarnish to take out all the scratches received the year before. After the fix we took the canoe down the Spanish and cracked the hull and broke the outer layer of fiberglass, the repair is invissible because the west system repairs easily. We found the canoe very strong as I have never broken through all three layers.The west system sells small repair kits about $20.00 for small packets of resin and hardner, good for small repairs and to take along when tripping. Anyway thanx for the long post, printing it out and putting it in my files for future reference.

Author:  madkanuist [ September 10th, 2001, 9:08 pm ]
Post subject: 

I built a spruce strip kayak in the late '70's using polyester resin. The resin was supposed to bond better to spruce than cedar but it still delaminated after several years. It was also quite brittle compared to epoxy right from the start. Any little bump on a rock would cause fisheye type damage.

I re-did the inside of the kayak after a couple of years because I had rushed construction in the first place & made quite a mess. The wood must have picked up some water over time. It shrank with the inner glass removed. When I put the deck back on, the hull was a few inches too narrow but deeper than before. I had to remove glass from the top few inches of the outside of the hull in order to get it to flex outward & meet the deck.

Author:  Georgi [ September 10th, 2001, 9:23 pm ]
Post subject: 

Yes, thanks for the welath of information!

I just came across a cedar strip needing some extensive repairs and would like to get it as a project canoe.

Just need to convince the owners to reduce their value for the condition being "a restoration necessity".

WE'll see, but there is hope!


Author:  johnnie [ September 14th, 2001, 10:08 am ]
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I finished a cedar strip this spring. It was a very interesting project. Thanks for the info. I will add this to my collection for future reference.


Author:  2dogtripper [ September 14th, 2001, 9:58 pm ]
Post subject: 

As I write this I'm waiting for the 2nd coat of epoxy to setup on the outside of the hull of a 30 year old Ellery Ultralight that I'm repairing for my sister. Believe me it's not fun restoring these things! The polyester came off okay but there was a lot of rot along the keel line as well as the sheer line. Also had to splice a new end on one stem.

Author:  rerdavies [ September 15th, 2001, 8:57 am ]
Post subject: 

> not a lot of fun restoring these things

Agreed. There's nothing romantic about fiberglass and epoxy. Scary stuff. However, in my case, the end justified the means. Let us know how it turns out.

Author:  red pine [ June 16th, 2020, 12:12 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Cedar Stripper Restoration -- A First Hand Account

Sure wish I had internet in 2001! This would have changed everything!
I've 'repaired' grandpa's stripper canoe a bunch of times...Now taking it out of a 10 year storage period to get it ready for the water again.
I'll let you know how it turns out...

Author:  Mike McCrea [ June 16th, 2020, 1:54 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Cedar Stripper Restoration -- A First Hand Account

2dogtripper wrote:
As I write this I'm waiting for the 2nd coat of epoxy to setup on the outside of the hull of a 30 year old Ellery Ultralight that I'm repairing for my sister. Believe me it's not fun restoring these things!

rerdavies wrote:
Agreed. There's nothing romantic about fiberglass and epoxy. Scary stuff. However, in my case, the end justified the means. Let us know how it turns out.

I beg to differ. There may be no WC “romance”, and resurrecting old RX and composite boats to new life may be a lot of work, days of sanding and prep and epoxy and cloth, and even materials cost. But the end results can be so satisfying that I want nothing more than to do it again, and again, on something different, with new learning challenges.

I just finished the third coat of EZ-Poxy paint on the much abused and oft repaired vee bottom of a Current Designs Nomad, and paint a scum line bottom on an ancient, getting vinyl-chalky pre-90’s MRC Explorer. Both well used and well loved boats, good now for some years to come.

Both look 100% better with fresh glossy bottoms, and in a day or so I’ll flip them over and do some outfitting refurbishment.

I’ll be a week in the shop with just those two boats (I’m shop slow, with no reason to rush), and have again, like every hull, learned some new tricks. Beyond being out paddling I can’t imagine a better place to be than diddling with boats in the shop.

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