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Reviving an old friend: Recorder photographer Paul Franz restores old canoe to former glory

  • Photographer Paul Franz takes his restored canoe out on Barton Cove in Gill on Wednesday. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Photographer Paul Franz takes his restored canoe out on Barton Cove in Gill on Wednesday. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Photographer Paul Franz takes his restored canoe out on Barton Cove in Gill on Wednesday. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Photographer Paul Franz takes his restored canoe out on Barton Cove in Gill on Wednesday. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Photographer Paul Franz takes his restored canoe out on Barton Cove in Gill on Wednesday. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greenfield Recorder photographer Paul Franz paddles his restored canoe on Barton Cove’s quiet water Wednesday. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Steve Soszynski runs one of the two long ash gunwales through a router table, rounding the four corners, in his Guilford, Vt., work shop. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Nylon webbing was woven and stapled onto the original ash frames. Each piece was cut, or rather melted, using a soldering iron to keep the nylon from fraying. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • One of the gunwales screwed onto the Kevlar hull gives the boat its graceful curves. Notice the thin slit, basically the width of the table saw blade, cut most of the way into the inwale to accept the Kevlar sidewall. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Looking down on the old rotten gunwales. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Clamping the gunwales in place and wetting them helped the fibers conform to the curves. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • The neglected canoe and the big ash board head to the wood shop last winter. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz



Staff Photographer
Friday, August 10, 2018

There is many a material thing that is meant to be used, and that will lose its purpose and worth if allowed to sit idle, sometimes to the point where those objects are looked upon with disdain and eventually discarded.

In this case, I am talking about my long neglected canoe.

It had been hanging from the eaves of my side porch of my Greenfield home for years — battered but not completely broken, in need of more than just a little routine maintenance. It still functioned, but I was afraid using it in its condition could bring on its death knell.

But what good is a canoe if it never sees water? What purpose does it serve except to remind one of its potential? It would collect pollen in the spring, rock in summer’s thunderstorms, collect road dust in the fall and contract in winter’s cold, year after year.

The problem arose because I failed to store the canoe properly. If I had taken care of it in the first place, it would still be in good condition and would not have lost years of trips on the local ponds and down our rivers.

I first acquired it some 15 years ago after I bartered for it with advertising photos for American Traders, an importer of canoes, furniture and other products from Canada that used to do business out of Greenfield, and later moved to Brattleboro, Vt.

It was incredibly light with a Kevlar hull and beautiful ash gunwales (the trim around the top edge of the canoe extending from bow to stern), an ash yoke (the crossbeam in the canoe’s center designed for structure and to aid in carrying) and woven seats on ash frames. At just over 14 feet long, it weighed less than 50 pounds and I could easily hoist it over my head, resting the yoke on my shoulders to carry it just about anywhere, no need for a boat ramp.

Although the green canoe with a cream interior was built for two, I usually took it out solo, sitting backwards in the front seat for more level paddling. Early on, I brought it up to Bruce Lessels of Zoar Outdoor, who cut two custom foam kneeling pads and glued them to the interior hull. This allowed me to kneel almost at the center of the canoe at its widest beam. This allowed for level paddling and really locked my body into the structure, increasing control and responsiveness.

Dipping my wooden paddle in the water would instantly propel the sleek, light vessel forward with the slightest effort. With no keel underneath, the boat glides and turns with ease. Alternating strokes or J-stroking on a single side moves it along almost silently.

Quiet. Water. Paddling. Joy.

I should have never put it behind the garage. But that is where my other canoe lived and I never thought much about it. Now my other canoe, bought used some 20-plus years ago for $100, is a plastic tank of a canoe with aluminum gunwales and framing. It will probably be here long after I am gone. I have bashed that thing over rapids in the Deerfield River, bounced it hanging halfway out of my first pickup and flipped it while fishing in November, and it still just keeps floating. But it is a slog to paddle; the flexible, plastic hull conforms to the water and it’s long keel makes it no fun in the rapids.

For my Kevlar canoe, ironically, water was its downfall. Unprotected from the elements behind the garage, water seeped under the wooden gunwales, and they slowly rotted. The Kevlar hull is incredibly thin and strong, the same stuff they make bulletproof vests out of. The fabric is gel-coated on the exterior to give it rigidity, but the ash gunwales are the structure of this vessel.

I purchased some clear oak and replaced the worst 5-foot section seven or eight years ago using angled scarf joints, and it seemed to work well. At least for a season. Then, the rest of the wood rimming the canoe, which the seats hung from and the center yoke was bolted to, started to fail. The joints were the weak point and flexing, and I feared one unfortunate turn would crack the hull.

So up to the eaves it went, many years ago. And every time I glanced up at it, I had an uneasy feeling that something had to be done.

I made up my mind that I was going to repair the canoe correctly next time and get my friend back out on the water where she belongs.

An inspirational and informative photo shoot a few years ago at a local wooden canoe builder and repair facility, Salmon Falls Canoe in Shelburne, armed me with enthusiasm and a plan. The entire wooden frame of the canoe was to be replaced. The nice people at Salmon Falls Canoe could have repaired it for me, but I wanted to do the work myself. I neglected her, I should fix her.

Step one was finding raw materials. It turns out ash is the wood of choice for gunwales. It is also expensive and hard to find, at least in the clear, long lengths I needed. Another local business came to the rescue, Forest Products Associates in north Greenfield. Their employees knew exactly what I was talking about and what I needed, but they didn’t have it in stock.

I left them with my phone number, though, and months later, I got the call I had been waiting for — a harvest of white ash boards had arrived. I went up and picked through the pile of extra long, mostly clear white ash boards and found one that was 16-plus feet long and had one perfectly clear side. Remarkably, it cost me more than that plastic canoe.

Step two was to find a place to do this project during the winter. I have a nice amateur workshop in my garage that has sufficed to help me repair and improve my 100-year-old house, but a canoe would take up a lot of space, space I would need to run long boards through machines. Enter my good friend Steve Soszynski, my former housemate and an engineer. He recently relocated near Greenfield and set up a wood shop in his old dairy barn, a place with plenty of room and good tools. And, more importantly, he offered two hands to help, and some additional knowledge of woodworking to guide me (plus good beer in the fridge).

Since neither of us had tried a project like this before, we decided to make three sets of gunwales so in case we messed one up, we wouldn’t have to go back to the beginning, but we were careful and didn’t need it. We ripped 1- by 1¼-inch, 16-foot lengths of the ash board, then surface planed them to perfection and ran them through the router table to round out the four edges.

Each gunwale is split on the table saw, creating an inwale and an outwale, so they can be screwed back together on either side of the Kevlar every 4¼ inches, making for 44 stainless steel screws on each side. A small slit is cut 4/5-inch into the bottom, inner side of the thicker inwales to accept the thickness of the Kevlar sidewall of the canoe. The wood meets at the top of the gunwale and the matching grain makes it hard to tell it was ever split.

The difficulty is getting the wood to conform to the shape of the canoe, bending sideways and also up at the ends. Two extra hands were necessary as we wrestled each side into place. Time being on our side — it being the middle of winter — we left the gunwales clamped in place and kept wetting them down to help the wood fibers conform to our wishes.

In the meantime, I discovered the woven web seats had dry-rotted and needed be replaced. I reused the original ash seats, weaving and stapling new webbing in place. The center carrying yoke with its ergonomic curves to meet ones shoulders was also rotten where it hung from the gunwales, so I cut and shaped a new one out of more ash.

Finally, in early spring, we screwed the new ash frame in place one screw at a time. Pre-drilled holes on the outwales helped guide me, and Steve held the long ash pieces in place while I pre-drilled each new hole through the Kevlar into the inwales and screwed them together. I started with a screw gun, then carefully tightened the screws by hand.

Next came hand sanding, first with 150 grit sandpaper and then with steel wool to smooth the edges and hide the seam on top of the gunwales. I hung the seats and center yoke off the new sturdy wood, and replaced the end caps that covered the ends of the gunwales. Four coats of spar varnish and a bead of silicone caulk to seal the Kevlar to the wood, and it was ready to go.

I don’t know if it was the satisfaction of doing it myself or saving the canoe from the dust of times, but that first paddle on Barton Cove in Gill this spring was even better than the first time I paddled it so many years ago, very likely also on Barton Cove.

Maybe I am older now and can appreciate it more. Maybe it is just that nice to paddle. Maybe I just love being out on the water at the end of the day, gliding off into the twilight with my old friend again. Quiet. Water. Paddling. Joy.

Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for the Greenfield Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at pfranz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.