Being a discriminate canoe consumer is tough because the marketplace is
flooded with a great variety of products. There are red canoes and blue canoes,
used canoes and new canoes, wood canoes and tinny canoes, quick canoes and slow
canoes, and boats that don't deserve the name canoe.
Choosing a canoe would be easy if the least expensive items
were the worst quality and the most expensive the best; unfortunately, this is
not the case. There are as many products of differing quality and construction
as there are products of varying design and shape, and one cannot depend on the
retailer to make the right decision every time.
retail "salers" lurking out there in retail land who will sell you the most
expensive item - whether you need it or not - sometimes through some whacko
sales pitch, but more often through consumer ignorance - buyers who have not
seriously considered what type of canoe they would like to own.
At one time, the only canoe available was made of wood and bark.
Demand for canoes eventually saw the bark being replaced by canvas which canoe
builders stretched over the traditional frame of wooden ribs (usually cedar),
Wood/canvas canoes reigned supreme until the
end of World War Two, when the technicians in the now-quiet Grumman Aircraft
Company turned their aluminum airplane fabricating talents to canoe building.
The advent of the aluminum canoe marked the beginning of a revolution in the
construction of canoes which continued with various incarnations of the
fiberglass canoe, the plastic canoe and now Kevlar canoes and canoes made from
other exotic, space age fibers such as graphite, carbon and Royalex.
Canoes made solely of wood are readily available in today's market. They
are perhaps the most aesthetically appealing of all canoes, but, with looks,
usually comes price. Lapstrake canoes built along the lines perfected by
classic canoe craftsman J. Henry Rushton are still available, but the time and
expertise necessary to fashion wooden planks into a wooden hull is such that
these boats are prohibitively expensive, not to mention fragile. Wood canoe
building kits are available for ambitious home handy persons to build
"stripper" canoes which are similar to the all-wood canoes of the past, except
that the thin planks of cedar are covered with transparent layers of
fiberglass. Though homemade strippers are cheaper than commercial ones, they
are still fragile and suitable only for careful paddling in quiet water.
At one time these canoes were used for all purposes, from whitewater
paddling to ocean freighting. Because they are more easily damaged with rough
use and because they require yearly maintenance, wood/canvas canoes have had to
share the market with canoes made of other materials for some time.
Aesthetically, however, these canoes are perhaps the most enjoyable as they are
quiet in the water, stay cool in the hot sun and are steeped with tradition.
Shapes like the Peterborough Champlain and the Chestnut Prospector, are still
in great demand for those who are prepared to pay the price for quiet elegance.
Aircraft technology has given canoeists nearly indestructible canoes made
from identical halves of moulded aluminum alloy joined by a keel with stem
plates riveted over a longitudinal seam. Aluminum by itself is too soft for
canoe construction and so other metals are added to give the light metal
hardness and strength. Better aluminum canoes are made from alloy 6061-T4, a
material containing magnesium and silicone which is heat hardened and
considered to be the best for aluminum canoe building. Cheaper boats are often
made from a cold-formed alloy called 5052-H32 which is softer and weaker that
the heat tempered alloys. No matter what alloy is used for construction of an
aluminum boat, a characteristic of all canoes of this type is a tendency to
stick to rocks. Additional drawbacks include being cold in the spring and hot
in the summer and noisy all year round. They are flat bottomed and have slow,
unattractive lines; yet, in spite of all of these disadvantages, and in the
face of stiff competition, aluminum canoes are the most popular of all canoes.
Fiberglass is a generic term describing canoes which are made from
plastic resin reinforced with fibers of glass and other materials. The cheapest
way to build a canoe from these materials is to mix short strands of chopped
fiber into a plastic resin and then to spray the mixture into a mould. For
anything other than the kindest cottage use, these chopped strand fiberglass
boats are not recommended because they're heavy and not very strong - price is
usually the only attractive thing about them.
When resins - usually polyester, inyl or epoxy - are used in concert
with woven cloth, high quality canoes can result. Fiber cloth offers a higher
glass-to-resin ratio and tensile strength than the chopped strand and when laid
into a mould and impregnated with resin can result in a light yet strong canoe
with sharp lines. The number of layers and weight of cloth varies from
manufacturer to manufacturer as does the type of resin, the weight, amount of
labour and materials.
Fiberglass was the first cloth used with resin to make canoes. It
allowed manufacturers to produce inexpensive, low maintenance canoes and thus
contributed largely to a rise in the popularity of canoeing. During the boom
years of canoeing every fiberglass shop that had some spare production time
began producing canoes. A few companies had good moulds, but most canoes were
poorly designed and poorly constructed resulting in abominable canoes with
glossy exteriors and low price tags. If low price is a priority for your
purchase of a canoe, fiberglass is a good bet - but check the layup (how the
fiber and resin are used in construction) to make sure your new canoe will
A lot like fiberglass, Kevlar is woven from a fiber developed by the
Dupont company as a tire cord. Kevlar 49 provides the canoe manufacturer with
seemingly the best of two world's: strength without weight. Gram for gram,
Kevlar 49 is as strong as steel and in addition to canoe manufacturing, it is
used to make bulletproof vests. It is expensive though - as a raw material and
as a cloth it is difficult to work with. Different companies vary the number of
Kevlar layers in their layups and some have experimented with sandwiching
layers of fiberglass between two layers of Kevlar to reinforce the bottom of
their hull and reduce the price. These factors are reflected in the varying
prices and weights of Kevlar canoes on the market. Kevlar's major features are
its light weight, abrasion resistance and its resistance to tearing. It can be
punctured and damaged, however, just like most other cloths - a fact which when
combined with its high price makes it an overated product.
The plastic industry's gift to whitewater canoeists, Royalex is the trade name
for a wonder material made by Uniroyal. In trade language, Royalex is an ABS
(Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) plasticcore sandwiched between two layers of
winyl to protect the ABS from the destructive effects of ultraviolet light.
Uniroyal makes Royalex sheets especially for companies like Mad River and Old
Town, who in turn heat the material and mould it by vacuum wrapping around
their chosen design. When gunwaled with wood or vinyl-covered aluminum these
canoes can be bent, folded and generally abused with only minimal hull damage.
Royalex canoes are in the same use category as aluminum and like aluminum
canoes they're nearly indestructible. However, unlike aluminum boats, ABS
canoes are flexible and tend to slide, rather than stick to rocks. They tend
to be heavy on land and slow in the water, but the durability ot Royalex canoes
make them the most popular in whitewater and canoe tripping circles.