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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Uncle Kunkel’s Chestnut

The first step to get this project off the ground was to find a canoe. As I mentioned in the previous post, Tom had a very unique canoe (Chestnut Cruiser, probably) that is no longer manufactured. And he painted it himself with an odd concoction. Kijiji to the rescue. I spent about a week searching for a Chestnut cedar and canvas canoe online. I found quite a few, mostly in the range of $2000 – $5000. A little out of my budget. Then I came across this ad:

A little small to read here, but it says, “This Prospector Canoe by the Chestnut Canoe Company is the same make & model used by Group of Seven artist Tom Thompson.” There are 3 inaccuracies in that description, but let’s not be snobbish about it. This was THE canoe. It had to be. So early Sunday morning, I woke up Blake, packed him in a rented pickup truck, and headed to the Port Perry Yacht Club to meet the owner.

I think the members of the “Yacht Club” must have a good sense of humour. When we arrived, I had the sense of being in a trailer park on the edge of a marsh. No captain’s hats, white pants, blue blazers, or ascots here. We were greeted immediately by a rugged looking fellow who emerged from his trailer ready to give a crushing handshake. He went right for Blake.

“Hey Buddy, I’m your Uncle Kunkel!”

Uncle Kunkel. Photo by Blake, using a Nintendo DSi. Nice shot, bud.

I knew right then that we had come to the right place. Todd Kunkel was the owner of the canoe, and a proud owner he was. I carefully explained the project to him, trying not to sound like too much of a fruitcake, and I assured him that the canoe would not be harmed in making of the project. We talked about Tom Thomson, and I told him about the research I had done on the identity of Tom’s canoe, based mostly on the fine work of canoe expert Mike Ormsby, who will appear often in this blog.

Blake's perspective of the canoe.

After a gentle round of haggling, I strapped the canoe to the roof with the help of a friendly neighbour named Nick. Then we hit the 401 for a harrowing journey back to Kitchener.

"Dad, do you think it will fly off on the highway?"

Who hired this photographer?

The next step, even more harrowing, is to paint the canoe. Let the paranoia begin.

Chestnut Prospector awaiting paint job in driveway.

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Tom’s Canoe

What a horse is to a cowboy, a 16-foot canvas-covered canoe is to Tom. (Dr. R.P. Little, “Some Recollections of Tom Thomson and Canoe Lake”)

Tom Thomson came paddling past
I’m pretty sure it was him
And he spoke so softly in accordance
With the growing of the dim
He said, “Bring on the brand new renaissance
Cause I think I’m ready . . .” (Gordon Downie of The Tragically Hip, “Three Pistols”)

This blog documents the creation of an installation called “Myth of the Steersman,” which is based on Tom Thomson’s legendary canoe. What follows in this post is an excerpt from the proposal I submitted, which won the Gamble Award.

Perhaps the only thing more Canadian than Tom Thomson — and equally mysterious — is Tom Thomson’s canoe. We’ve seen it painted in “The Canoe” and “Canoe and Lake, Algonquin Park.” More poignantly, accounts of Thomson’s legendary death begin with an overturned greyish-blue canoe, floating ominously on Canoe Lake. But what do we know about this mythic vessel that vanished along with its owner? Thomson and the canoe are metonymically intertwined, a symbiotic icon of Canadiana. “Myth of the Steersman” resurrects this vessel with a spirit of adventure and pioneering inspired not by Canada’s pristine lakes, but by the vast and equally mythic expanse of cyberspace.

Canoe and Lake, Algonquin Park

"Canoe and Lake, Algonquin Park," 1912

While debates about Tom Thomson’s death and the location of his remains are a facet of the Canadian myth, debates about his canoe are less well-known. What kind of canoe was it? Where did it end up? Was it somehow responsible for Tom’s death? All we know is that the vessel tipped over at some point, and Tom was found with a suspicious head wound and an even more suspicious length of fishing line bound around his left leg 17 times. There was a campaign to recover the canoe in 1930 at Camp Ahmek, but none of the canoes investigated were Tom’s. This seems to have been the last attempt to rescue the vessel. More recently, the mystery of Tom’s canoe was revisited online in the forum of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association. This discussion yielded some noteworthy information. For example, written and photographic evidence suggests that Tom’s canoe was a 16-foot Chestnut Cruiser or Guide’s Special, which he purchased in 1915. We also know that Tom painted the canoe himself with a concoction of grey canoe paint and a $2.00 tube of cobalt blue artist’s paint. This makes the Chestnut itself a lost Thomson canvas of immense value. Such details might serve to demystify the legendary canoe that has reputedly been sighted in the wee hours of the morning, gliding across Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. On the other hand, Thomson’s quirky repainting of Canada’s most popular brand of canoe adds to his mystique as a cultural re-inventor.

Catalog Ad for Chestnut "Guide's Special" 1935

Cultural re-invention is one of the primary goals of “Myth of the Steersman.” The canoe, known as the proud bearer of Canada’s first people and the vehicle of national expansion for fur traders, shares a place with Thomson in the cultural consciousness of Canadians. In fact, the canoe has become a cliché of Canadian culture, right alongside the buck-toothed beaver and the awkward Mountie. These quaint caricatures belie Canada’s contemporary status as a nation of technological innovation. One way to right this situation is to refashion the canoe as a contemporary icon of digital pioneering. The term cyberspace, after all, comes from the Greek word kybernetes, which means steersman. Thomson’s work with paddle and brush might even be considered as the effort of a canoe-man cybernetic organism — one that reinvented the Canadian landscape in luminous colours and brilliant spots of light, foreshadowing our current spectacle of digital displays.

Tom Thomson in his canoe, ca. 1916.

“Myth of the Steersman” revisits the myth of Tom Thomson through the lens of this canoe-man cyborg, producing an electronic sculptural object that is at once tactile and ethereal; an evocative object that technologically refashions the themes of solitude, mystery, and sublimity found both in Thomson’s painting and in cyberculture.

What will this project look like? I can’t wait to find out. But I do have a plan, as outlined in the rough sketch below. Note that this project will NOT involve the use of iPads. More on that later. The rest of this blog will likely be less formal, as I document the process of giving life to “Myth of the Steersman.”

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