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Before you buy a canoe, you need to decide what type of construction materials best suits your needs and your budget.
Basically, there are only seven main construction materials/methods that produce canoes in a variety of price ranges and with several characteristics. These are presented below.
Canoe builders have tended to stick with the tried and true designs and have adapted them to the different materials available.
Weight, tradition, visual appeal, wear and tear, and cost are major considerations.
Check my links to Canoe Builders for an idea of what is available.
Cedar/Canvas (traditional)
The cedar/canvas canoe evolved as an adaptation of the aboriginal birch bark canoe. Planks of cedar are fastened to ribs that are steamed, then bent over a form. The completed hull is then covered by stretching and fastening a single piece of canvas over the canoe. The canvas is made waterproof by applying a filler to seal the cloth and a couple of coats of paint to finish.
The Prospector model has been synonymous with the backwoods throughout Canada. Bill Mason, a Canadian canoe icon, showed a real preference for the prospector wood/canvas canoe.
To build a cedar/canvas canoe takes quite a bit of skill, but fervent hobbyists have done so. Be prepared to invest hundreds of hours! These canoes require a little more care in handling and more maintenance than others, but if you are careful, they will last a lifetime.
See my cedar/canvas restoration page.
Cedar Strip
These canoes are made from narrow strips of wood that run the entire length of the hull. These strips are glued to each other on a form, then sanded smooth and covered with a transparent layer of fiberglass and epoxy glue inside and out. This makes a strong, durable canoe. These are produced either in limited numbers by builders in small shops or by hobbyists who want to build their own canoe.
Building your own is rather time consuming, but requires less expertise and tools than a cedar/canvas canoe.
The appearance of fragility of a stripper is only that - appearance. They are actually quite tough. Because they are constructed from fibreglass, storage out of the sun is a must. The fibreglass will eventually break down when stored in an unprotected location.
Aluminum is the only metallic material used to build canoes. It is an outgrowth of the aircraft industry. These boats were once the most common rental canoe and can still be found at most rental facilities, though they are becoming less popular recently. They require virtually no maintenance, but are noisy to paddle and can be quite uncomfortable due to air and water temperatures tramsmitting through them.
Aluminum will not slide over rocks as readily as other materials.
Using fibreglass in the construction of canoes has reduced their price to where they are affordable by almost anyone. Newcomers to paddling often chose fiberglass as the material for their first canoe but will usually graduate to another material as their needs change.
Fiberglass canoes are among the easiest to repair and require very little maintenance.
There are 3 basic manufacturing methods, which determine the cost and strength of the canoe.
a) Chopped Fibreglass: (16' canoe weighing 27 - 36 kg) Cheaper fibreglass canoes are made by spraying small pieces of fibreglass called "chopped fibre" mixed with polyester resin. Chopped fibre does not give much structural integrity, so the hulls tend to lose their shape and break down quickly.
b) Standard Fibreglass: (16' canoe weighing 27 - 32 kg) Standard fibreglass canoes are the most common. They are made by hand laying long strips of fibreglass cloth & resin. Ribs are added to stiffen the hull, and abrasion areas get extra reinforcing. Excess Polyester resin is removed by hand, and a gelcoat finish allows choice of colour.
c) Premium Fibreglass: (16' canoe weighing 26 - 28 kg) Premium fiberglass are laid up in a mold similar to the standard building method (above) with a couple of important differences. Abrasion areas receive Kevlar reinforcement instead of fibreglass and stronger more expensive Vinylester resin is often used instead of polyester resin. Also, a wet vacuum bag or dry-infusion process is used to get rid of excess resin. Premium fibreglass canoes are more costly, but stronger & lighter than standard and chopped fibreglass ones.
Polyethylene & ABS Canoes: (16' canoe weighing 36 kgs) Polyethylene is very tough, but not very rigid. Canoe buiders have overcome the stiffness problem in several ways. Some brace the inside of the canoe with aluminum struts, making a heavier canoe suitable for cottage use. Others continue to produce canoes from single layer polyethylene by adding a keel to try to stiffen the hull. The most successful solution is multi-layered where a thick foam core is sandwiched between an two layers of polyethylene to provide stiffness. These canoes slide off submerged rocks, and pop into shape better than aluminum canoes.
ABS, used extensively in the plumbing industry, was quickly recognized as a material that was strong and easily shaped. In canoe construction, a five-layer laminate sheet is heated until soft enough to be molded. Seats, thwarts and gunwales are added, making it a low maintenance, very durable craft. Canoes made from ABS are preferred by people who need a tough, long lasting canoe which can be used in white water or on long wilderness trips.
Royalex & Royalite Canoes: (16' canoe weighing 32 kgs) Royalex canoes weigh less, are more expensive, but are not as strong as a "sandwich" method polyethylene canoe. Royalex canoes with vinyl gunwales will take more abuse since they tend to "pop back into shape" better than other materials. Whitewater paddlers who need a canoe which is lighter than Polyethylene, will choose Royalex. Royalite is a thinner, lighter, more fragile type of Royalex.
Kevlar/specialty cloth
Kevlar and other lightweight materials have become popular with wilderness trippers, particularly older folks, who want quality lightweight canoes. They are strong, durable and light (making portages a lot easier). The building methods are similar to those used in making fiberglass canoes, but the materials are a lot more expensive.
Their light weight makes them less stable in the water than canoes made with heavier materials. Kevlar canoes are not built for rocky, whitewater routes.
a) Standard Kevlar: (16' canoe weighing 24 to 25 kgs) Standard Kevlar Canoes are hand built in the same way as Standard fibreglass canoes, except that a stronger, more expensive Vinylester resin is used in the process. A gelcoat finish provides further protection and allows choice of colour.
b) Mid Weight Kevlar: (16' canoe weighing 20 to 21 kgs) Mid Kevlar canoes are built through the elimination of excess resin using a wet vacuum bag or infusion pressure process and an excellent cloth to resin ratio. The diamond shaped foam core bottom gives a smooth, rigid hull. A gelcoat finish provides abrasion protection, while offering more choice of colour.
c) Ultralight Kevlar: (16' canoe weighing 16 to 18 kgs) Ultralight canoes are made with 100% epoxy resin. Instead of the exterior gelcoat layer, a thin UV stabilized vinylester skin coat is sprayed into the mold, allowing the canoe to be eased out of the mold. Colour was the traditional Kevlar yellow, but lately more colour choices are available by using dyed Kevlar cloth. The hull is cured in an oven overnight.
Polyester Dacron
Polyester Dacron is a tough synthetic material manufactured for use in the light aircraft industry. When used on a canoe it offers two significant advantages over canvas.
Its low weight is its primary benefit. Replacing traditional canvas on a 16' canoe with Polyester Dacron removes 4 to 5 kilograms of weight. This makes it extremely popular with trippers who do a lot of portaging, as well as with small or elderly canoeists who are experiencing difficulty in moving their canoe around on land, or preparing it for transport. The second great advantage of Dacron is its rot resistance, guaranteeing a long worry free life span for your canoe's covering.
Folding canoes
These canoes, made from the same type of material used on white water rafts (PVC) should be seriously considered if you are flying in and/or out of a trip. They can be broken down and put into a 'hockey bag' sized package.
Because of their construction, they handle a little differently, but are easy to get used to. They have proven to be tough and carry a heavy load.
My Preferences (2 paddlers, gear & food for at least a week)
Lake travel with few portages - Wood/Canvas
River travel with whitewater - ABS
Lake or River travel with many portages - Kevlar