Paint Job

Canoe restoration hero Pam Webb, carefully working the canvas.

The extent of my canoe painting knowledge before taking on the project was limited to Tom Thomson’s recipe: a tube of cobalt blue artist paint mixed into a can of gray canoe paint. So before tackling the paint job, I searched the web for advice on how to get a good finish on a canvas canoe. What I found was quite intimidating. There are hundreds of entries about this topic on the Wood Canoe Heritage Association forum. I read a dozen or so entries and my head started spinning as if I had just sucked in a lungfull of paint thinner. Then I went to a page from the Bearwood Canoe Company. Here is a sampling:

Now I am ready to start with the colour coats. And again with each of these coats a thorough hand wet-sanding between is the secret. I use 220 wet paper for the early coats and 320 before the final coat. I find a total of five coats of paint are necessary, two primer, and three colour coats, to give the finish I expect on a Bearwood Canoe.

Five coats? Wet sanding? I hit rock bottom. I’m not even sure if this canoe will float. There’s a big crack in the keel, and the canvas is stapled roughly to the stern since there is no metal strip to keep it tacked down. Did I really want to put five coats on a vessel that might need new canvas? The real problem of course is that of time. If I followed the advice above, it would have taken at least a month, maybe two, to paint the canoe. This wouldn’t work since my secret goal is to “christen” the vessel at Canoe Lake before the snow flies.

I decided to confide in my newfound canoe mentor Mike Ormsby. Mike sent me a number of files and links, including one to the Bearwood Canoe Company site. What really scared me were the articles on canoe refinishing written by Pam Wedd at Bearwood. This woman is the Michelangelo of canoe painting. I’m afraid she might read what I have to say here and attempt to rescue the canoe from my garage before I do any more damage. Fortunately, Mike also pointed me to the blog of “canoeguy,” who gave me the confidence to take on the job. I pretty much followed his advice step by step.

Step 1: Sanding.

I couldn’t get my hands on a random orbital sander, but I could get my hands on some 220-grit sandpaper. And so the fun began.

The best way to get muscular finger joints. And hand cramps.

I sanded for about an hour or so, making sure to remove what was left of the glossy finish on the Chestnut. Essentially, this step simply ensured that the new paint would adhere well. The hard part was removing all the dust from the canoe one I was done sanding. I’m still not sure I got it all.

Step 2: Mix the paint.

This was the fun part. Mad science with Tom Thomson. As advised by Mike Ormsby and canoeguy, I used gray Tremclad rather than canoe paint, and I added one ingredient to Tom’s blend: half a cup of paint thinner.

This canoe will never rust.

Adding the paint thinner. Sniff sniff...

Tom's secret blend, mixed up in a coffee can.

Step 3: Paint it.

I used a soft bristle brush for the painting, and I attempted the “tipping” method outlined on the web sites listed above. This involves applying paint vertically and horizontally in small sections before smoothing it out with an even horizontal stroke. The entire process took about 2 hours, which is a long time considering the small surface area of this canvas.


All done. This might look better in Canoe Lake . . .

I was so pleased with the finish that after consulting with some expert painters in the neighbourhood, I decided to stop with one coat. After all, the plan is to bring this beast to Algonquin Park and see if it floats. I may have to repaint it anyway after the expedition.

Before signing off, I should make one thing clear. There is a certain reverence with which one approaches a wood and canvas canoe. These are living and breathing beasts. The folks who contribute to the WCHA forum use religious terms when they discuss their canoes. Some people will spend years carefully restoring an old Chestnut that has been abused or neglected. It’s a labour of love, and I don’t want to diminish that with my quick and dirty approach to this job. I really got close to this canoe during the painting process, and I’m starting to dread its transformation in the weeks to come. Screens, fishing string, cables, speakers, lights. Did I mention that the installation requires the drilling of holes? I’ll be looking over my shoulder for Pam and Mike . . .

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2 Responses to Paint Job

  1. Mike Ormsby says:

    For the record, I’m not sure I can call myself a “canoe expert”(to me an EXPERT is an EX-SPURT or “former drip under pressure” LOL LOL). I am certainly not in the same league as others such as Pam Wedd (of Bearwood Canoes) and Mike Elliot of (CanoeGuyBC as well as Kettle River Canoes) mentioned in this post regarding the painting of the canoe.

    It was the colour of Tom’s canoe that first got me wondering what type of canoe it might have been….grey was a colour used on some Chestnut canoes. So I posted a query online in several canoe related forums, including the WCHA forum, the results of which I then posted to my blog, and later used to write a short article in Canoeroots (Summer/Fall 2010).

    I look forward to watching the development of this interesting art project centered around Tom Thomson’s canoe.

  2. Mike Elliott says:

    Nicely done on the paint job. I hope you are happy with the result too. For the record, Chestnut “grey” (at least from the 1950’s on) was a light lichen green. I don’t know what it would have been in the 1910’s.

    I’ll create a link to this blog on my CanoeGuy’s Blog. Keep up the good work.

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