Canoe Construction
What makes a Stewart River canoe special?

Stewart River canoe designs are all firmly connected to the long traditions of canoe design, many following the path established by the Chestnut Canoe Company of Canada. One look at a Stewart River canoe will tell you it was built with great care. Not only are the designs graceful and well-proportioned, the woodworking shines under many coats of spar varnish. The canvas-covered hull is smooth and durable under a high-quality marine paint. Stewart River Boatworks offers many innovations in building the wood and canvas canoe.

The canvas-covered wood canoe construction has been around for over a hundred years. It was invented one or two men in Maine in the 1870’s as an alternative to the native birch bark canoes. Substituting the bark, for canvas, but utilizing the wide cedar ribs and thin cedar “planking” between the ribs and the canvas, the result is quite similar to it’s mentor. The building technique, though, was quite different. We still build our canoes much the same way Evan Gerrish built his – on a solid mold over which the cedar ribs are bent and the planking is clench-nailed to the ribs and nailed to the inner gunwale instead of being friction-fit in notches as the natives did.

The result is a very functional boat that can be painted and varnished, to keep water from penetrating the wood, thus increasing the weight and decreasing the longevity of the canoe. The canvas can be fairly easily removed, making way to replace any broken ribs or planking and the boat re-covered, the canvas filled and painted, making it basically a new boat ready for many more years of service. The ease of repairing these craft coupled with their tough, practical exteriors and down-right good looks are some of the reasons this type of construction has survived so many years. 

You may notice the weights of our boats are often considerably less than some other builders’ of this method. We have rethought the traditional wood and canvas canoe and found several places where materials could be pared down without sacrificing strength. For instance, 5/16″ thick ribs, necessary in the middle of most tandem canoe to keep them from “oil canning,” are planned thinner near the ends, thus maintaining the proper stiffness in all areas of the hull. The Ami and the solo designs all start with thinner ribs at midships and end with ribs only 3/16″ thick. The outwales are kept to a low profile and shaped to a half-round, eliminating the corner wood. and the decks, crowned on top are hollowed out underneath. These touches not only lessen the weight but give the canoe a “soft feel” when you pick it up.

We normally use #10 Midlwest Duck, the standard in the industry, and fill the weave with a special oil-based filler that is lighter in weight than the traditional filler used over the years. For lighter weight we offer #12 cotton duck, and even lighter we offer aircraft dacron.

Not only are our boats lighter to begin with, but they also stay lighter. The old timer who tells you a wood and canvas canoe could gain 20 pounds in a week is not exaggerating. Both the wood and the canvas can absorb plenty of water, and water weighs nearly 9 pounds per gallon! At Stewart River, we pre-seal every piece of wood that goes into the canoe with a coat of linseed oil topped with a coat of varnish before it becomes part of your boat, so this will not happen. We also treat the canvas to prevent rot. Your Stewart River canoe should not gain more than three pounds when in use!

In our designs and their execution, we keep flexibility in mind. As materials, wood and canvas are not stronger than fiberglass or Kevlar, but when built right, in most cases a wood and canvas canoe will “give” rather than break when it strikes a rock. Though not indestructible, our canoes are built to be used and are not just for looks.

How to read our measurements
The measurements found on each canoe page are all made to the outside of the hull. The depth is from the top of the gunwale to the bottom of the boat and the widths are to the outside of the hull. The gunwale width is actually to the outside of the hull rather than the outside of the gunwale itself. The rocker is generally measured at 12″ from the end of the canoe or approximately where the stem curve meets the curve of the rocker.

Deciding on a Design
In order to decide which canoe is best for you, it helps to understand the basics of canoe design. The shape of the bottom or the part that is normally in the water, at the midships will define how the canoe feels when at rest. A flat-bottomed canoe will feel very steady and a rounded-bottomed canoe will feel very tippy. Under paddle, in rough water, the feeling may be the opposite. The rounded-bottomed hull will allow the waves to flow around the sides of the canoe with little force applied to the hull, whereas a flat-bottomed hull will be rocked around considerably. 

Between these extremes is the “shallow-arched” hull, a category which describes most of our models. The Chestnut-inspired designs, the Prospector and Saganaga, in particular, have fairly slack bilges, with the Pal bilge being slightly stiffer. This allows a greater amount of final stability and making them feel more stable at a higher water line, while loaded with gear. The Ami and Mon Amie have shallow-arched hulls complimented with harder bilges. The hardness of the bilge will depict how the canoe feels when it is rocked, either by leaning or when rocked by waves. A so-called “hard” bilge, with a small radius to the bilge curve, will stiffen up quickly and add to the feeling of initial stability.

An aspect that our designs take from Chestnut is carrying the bilges into the ends of the canoe, forming what might be called cheeks not far behind the leading edge. This sets up the hull for dealing with bigger water, directing it away from the hull as the canoe moves through the water. It does this while maintaining a fairly sharp water line. These aspects will make for a quick boat in calm water yet will stay dry in a bit of chop as the hull rises from the cheeks. The sharpness at the water line will also aid in helping the canoe track. Famously the Chestnut Prospector looks to achieve this even with a highly rockered canoe. The Mon amie carries this further with a modest amount of rocker and a sharp “V” shape that continues back of the ends.

If you are looking for high initial stability the Mon Amie and Ami are clear choices of our models. If you are looking for initial stability that is well suited for rivers, I feel the Pal is unparalleled, though the Ami and the Mon amie both have an amount of rocker that makes them well suited to moving water (up to class 1 or 2 rapids). The Prospector would be a good choice if you want a canoe that can handle something beyond class 2 rapids. The Saganaga is unequaled as a cruising canoe in lake or river – it is fast, seaworthy and a very pleasant canoe to paddle, especially when carrying a load. Mon Amie offers a great compromise in initial stability/final stability, turning and tracking with a good amount of speed. The Pal and the Ami are the best of our canoes to be paddled either tandem or solo, though the Mon amie works well for a longer canoe and the Prospector is perfect for those who know how to handle her.

The Emily is in a class of it’s own, offering the classic lines of an E.M. White canoe and fine paddling characteristics, too boot.

The solos, of course, are in a category of their own. Both the Unity and the Traveler are indebted to the Emily design and have that same “feel”, though they do feel surprisingly different from each other. The Unity is the epitome of a personal canoe, totally in the paddler’s control. The Traveler is a bit more its own, able to carry more gear with greater tracking ability which makes it less responsive to the whims of the paddler. The Solitude is a mixture of things: a small boat with an ample volume; a short boat with good tracking ability; a boat that tracks, though easily turns when leaned.

The Damselfly and Solitude owe a great deal to David Yost and his Wildfire design, though each is a different take on that design. The Solitude is a bit fuller throughout, with greater capacity and has an easy shallow arch that feels quite fluid when under paddle. The Damselfly has a bit more defined bottom, making her want to sit flat, yet is easily leaned when you initiate it. While less volume, the Damselfly has a greater feel of stability making her feel bigger perhaps than she is. The Firefly is the design I made after many years of trying to make a canoe that paddled like Tom Mackenzie’s Nakoma without copying it. Not sure which one I like best. I like them both!

Please feel free to call and talk with me to help you decide which canoe will best fit your needs.

If you have not yet paddled a wood and canvas canoe, you cannot know the true value of one. I don’t think it is possible to really appreciate these craft without taking one out for a paddle. Of course, you can ooh and ahh at one you see in a store and even a photo of particularly beautiful wood and canvas canoe can describe some of the physical beauty of the boat.

The real pleasure is gained from how they paddle on some nice wooded stream, or how they sound when you set your paddle down and retrieve the camera. The boat is of wood and therefore a kindred spirit to the woodlands you want to visit. A wood and canvas canoe feels like it belongs. It’s native. And paddling one helps you feel like you belong, with no other barrier between you and your surroundings.