Choosing Your Canoe: Materials

From natural birch bark to modern composites, a wide range of materials and constructions are used to build canoes today. Each has its advantages and disadvantages and no one material does it all well. The choice of material, along with canoe shape (which we'll cover in another article), are the result of compromises.

Canoe designers balance material, shape, and cost, with expected use. For example, it's possible to build a very lightweight canoe, but it will be more fragile; a skilled designer would not draw such a canoe with a shape suited to rocky whitewater rivers.

Take into account your paddling use and budget, when considering the different canoe materials available.

Natural Materials

Birch Bark


An undated Algonkin birch bark canoe (Image: National Anthropological Archives)

Birch bark is the classic canoe material and it’s still being used to build canoes. Both aboriginal North Americans reconnecting with their culture and other craftsmen still build birch bark canoes by hand.

A birch bark canoe is not just birch bark, but a frame of white cedar ribs and planks covered with birch bark and sewn together with spruce roots.

Though they are often seen hanging in museums, birch bark canoes are still a practical craft. They are lightweight and paddle well. However, they are expensive, fragile, and require constant maintenance.

Pros: Lightweight, paddles well, beautiful to see and use, classic canoe material

Cons: Less durable, requires constant maintenance, very expensive

Best for: Fans of classic craft, with the budget to match

 


Wood and canvas Morris 16' canoe (Image: Motorrad-67/Wikipedia)

Wood and Canvas

This was the material first used in the late 19th century as a replacement for birch bark. Originally, wood and canvas canoes were built in canoe factories, sometimes producing thousands in a year. Today, though they are still being built, they are produced in limited numbers by a few small companies keeping the tradition alive.

Built in a similar way to birch bark canoes, wood and canvas canoes are made from cedar planks and ribs, with a waterproof canvas skin. They're built on a mold for a standard shape.

Wood and canvas canoes are much more durable than some modern canoeists claim and are easily repaired. They are capable of difficult rivers as well as flat water and are a joy to paddle.

With time, wood and canvas canoes can become quite heavy as water soaks into the wood. Though not as fragile as birch bark canoes, they must be treated with a degree of care that more modern materials don’t require. Though expensive, their price isn’t out of line with the more expensive composite canoes.

Pros: Beautiful to see and paddle, moderate strength

Cons: Moderately heavy, requires routine maintenance, expensive

Best for: Enthusiasts who want a flat water or moderate whitewater canoe of natural materials

 

Wood Strip

Wood strip canoes, often called “strippers,” are built on a mold and usually have no ribs. They are covered with a plastic resin and usually at least a single layer of fabric to increase their durability. Strippers are usually built by do-it-yourselfers at home.

Though the resin and fabric covering makes these canoes more durable, a puncture in the outer layer will compromise the wood strips and without immediate repair the structure can be permanently compromised.

Wood strip canoes are relatively light. Though mainly useful for flat-water touring, they also are capable of being padded on easy rivers.

Pros: Very beautiful, lightweight, nice shapes possible

Cons: Requires routine maintenance, not suitable for
whitewater, moderately expensive

Best for: Flat-water touring

 

Wood Planked


Antique wood planked/stripped canoes in Adirondack Museum. (Image: Mwanner/Wikipedia)

Although these are sometimes called wood strip, they are considerably different than a modern stripper. The method of construction is nearly identical to wood and canvas canoe construction, with the difference being that the planking is fitted tightly with no gaps between the planks, making a final outside layer of canvas unnecessary. They were produced in some numbers in the late 19th and early 20th century. Beautiful, often quite heavy, wood planked canoes were primarily intended for flat water paddling at lodges and resorts.

Pros: Beautiful antique, paddles easily

Cons: Heavy, requires frequent maintenance, not suited to moving water

 

Skin on Frame

This type of construction has been around for thousands of years for various types of boats from the Welsh coracles to Inuit umiaks. A lightweight frame is covered with a waterproof skin. They can be lightweight. Canoes with this method of construction are quite uncommon and almost always built by a home builder.

Pros: Easy to build by skilled home builder, lightweight

Cons: Very fragile, requires frequent maintenance, construction hinders smooth shape

 

Folding

Folding canoes have been around since at least the end of the 19th century. Similar to skin on frame, in this method, the skin can be quickly removed and the frame broken down into smaller pieces. Modern folding canoes are moderately durable, capable of white water.

Because they flex more than other more standard canoe materials, folding canoes have a different feel and are not as fast as a similar rigidly constructed canoe. They are often used by expedition canoeists who need a canoe that can be easily carried aboard a small bush plane.

Pros: Lightweight, compact when folded or packed, capable of moderate white water

Cons: Nearly as expensive as a similar composite canoe, slower than a rigid canoe

 

Modern Materials

Aluminum


Aluminum canoes lined up at University of Washington. (Image: Joe Mabel)

First utilized as a canoe material after World War II by the Grumman Aircraft Company, aluminum canoes are still being produced, though not in the numbers they once were.

Aluminum is virtually maintenance free and quite rugged. Though used for many years on both flat water and whitewater boats, aluminum has some disadvantages when compared with more modern materials.

Aluminum canoes are constructed in two identical halves riveted together. Because of the manufacturing process, aluminum canoes often have less desirable shapes than canoes built of other materials. While lighter than wood, aluminum is heavier than other modern materials, making it harder to maneuver in the water and harder to portage. Aluminum canoes tend to hang up or stick on rocks, an issue in river and whitewater travel.

Aluminum also is noisy. It will be hot to the touch on sunny days, and will pull heat from your body on cool days. Aluminum canoes usually require floatation bags in moving water, or they will sink if capsized.

Pros: Very durable and strong, little maintenance needed, lighter than wood, medium cost

Cons: Noisy, sticks on rocks, hot surface on sunny days, saps heat from body on cold days, heavier than modern materials, manufacturing process limits complex hull shapes

Best for: Casual recreational paddlers on flat water who want a no-maintenance canoe, some expedition trippers who prefer its durability

 

Polyethylene


Mad River Adventure 14 made of polyethylene

Polyethylene is a type of plastic that is thermo molded, much like Royalex. However, without substantial reinforcement, polyethylene lacks stiffness. Like Royalex, Kevlar, and fiberglass canoes, polyethylene canoes are very slippery, allowing them to slide over rocks easily.

Canoes built from polyethylene are low cost and durable, but also quite heavy. Repair can be more difficult than with Royalex or composite canoes. They can be warped by the sun.

Though similar in many ways to Royalex, the majority of polyethylene canoes being made today don’t have the nice shapes available in Royalex or composite canoes. Many northern outfitters use polyethylene canes as they are inexpensive and durable.

Pros: Very inexpensive, durable

Cons: Heavy, manufacturing process limits shape more than composite canoes, difficult to patch, should be protected from UV exposure

Best for: Casual recreational paddlers and trippers looking for an inexpensive, durable boat

 

Royalex/ABS


Old Town's Penobscot 16 is made with Royalex

In its standard form, Royalex, along with its lighter weight cousin Royalite, is a very durable and tough material. Though not strictly a composite, it is made of different laminations of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) with a foam cell core and a vinyl outer skin. Its cost is on par with fiberglass, and its weight is similar.

Because it is thermoformed in a mold, the shapes possible are not as fine as can be achieved with a composite canoe of fiberglass or other material. Consequently, Royalex canoes tend not to be as fast as many composite canoes, given a similar design. However, their durability and reasonable cost make them the choice for many canoeists, from wilderness trippers to white water fanatics.

Canoe builders specify the number of layers and reinforcements from the Royalex manufacturer, currently Spartech, for different models. This is probably the most ubiquitous canoe material being used today. As with other canoe materials, Royalex is subject to degradation from UV rays, so a protective coating should be applied at least a couple of times a year.

Pros: Durable, easy to patch and repair, good all-around, moderately inexpensive

Cons: Moderately heavy, manufacturing process limits shapes more than composite materials, should be protected from UV exposure.

Best for: Serious whitewater paddlers and all around paddlers

 

Composites


Clipper Escape available in a Kevlar or fiberglass layup.

With composites canoes, fibers are formed in a mold and bonded with resins in a specific layup, or laminate schedule. The layup refers to the specific multiple fabrics that go into building a composite canoe. A layup could include up to seven layers of material (such as fiberglass or Kevlar), along with extra material or foam core added for strength in certain areas.

For example, the first layer usually is the gel coat, which is the color coat and is often brittle if put in too thick. Next, there might be an S Glass, a type of highly-impact resistant fiberglass. Next, could be a layer of Kevlar. Then extra Kevlar at the ends, and perhaps the bottom, for added strength. Spectra, another type of fiber cloth might come next. Then another layer of Kevlar. Finally, a final layer of S Glass.

The laminate schedule also may specify different weaves of the different materials, such as mat, roving, and oxford weaves. The builder also will specify resins depending on the properties of each and how they bond with the materials.

Fiberglass


Clipper 17 Ranger available in fiberglass or Kevlar layup.

The earliest type of composite canoe, fiberglass is among the most common materials used today. Fiberglass composites are made from either woven cloth or chopped fibers infused with resin that is either hand laid or sprayed in a mold.

Hand laid models are generally lighter, though consequently slightly more expensive. Fiberglass composites are easily repaired and require little maintenance. Protection from UV rays will increase the life of the canoe substantially. While more suited to flat water, they can be used on easy rivers with some care.

Avoid sprayed fiberglass canoes as they are quite heavy, though very inexpensive.

Pros: Relatively low maintenance, moderately durable, easy to repair, good shapes possible, relatively inexpensive

Cons: Rivaling wood and canvas for weight, less expensive construction (chopper gun) yields questionable strength, can crack on impact, unsuitable for white water above Class 1

Best for: Paddlers on flat water to easy rivers who don't mind a moderate to heavy canoe

 

Kevlar 49


Kevlar racing canoes at the Adirondack Canoe Classic in Saranac Lake, N.Y. (Image: Mwanner/Wikipedia)

Kevlar, developed by Dupont, is light and strong and used in bulletproof vests. However that doesn’t mean you should shoot at a canoe made from this material.

Early all-Kevlar canoes didn’t work out well, as Kevlar is flexible and has no impact resistance. Modern Kevlar canoes usually employ a combination of materials with Kevlar to make a composite canoe that is both strong and light.

How strong and how light? The lighter a composite Kevlar canoe is, the less strength it will have. It is possible to find tandem tripping canoes under 45 pounds, but these are more suited to lake trips with lots of portages than running rivers. Conversely, a tandem composite Kevlar canoe weighing 65 pounds can be a strong boat, light enough to portage but capable of running fast rocky rivers.

Another factor to consider is what other materials are used. Frequently S-glass or Spectra are used in combination with Kevlar to increase strength and impact resistance. Kevlar's maintenance is similar to fiberglass and Royalex.

Pros: Can be very lightweight, durable, good for portages, complex shapes possible, heavier layups are as strong as Royalex

Cons: Expensive, lightweight layups sacrifice strength, should be protected from UV exposure.

Best for: Whitewater paddlers who want a boat with the highest strength-to-weight ratio.

 

Carbon Fiber


Hornbeck Boat's Ten model is available in Kevlar, carbon fiber and Kevlar, or all carbon fiber layups.

Carbon fiber composite canoes are also being produced. Though light, an all-carbon canoe will be stiff to the point of being brittle. Some canoe models are available in a choice of carbon fiber or carbon fiber with Kevlar layups.

Carbon fiber canoes are quite expensive, at least as much as the higher priced Kevlar composite canoes.

Pros: Lightweight and durable

Cons: Expensive, can be difficult to repair

 

Inflatable canoes

Also known as I-Cs or rubber duckies, inflatable canoes are more akin to rafts perhaps, than canoes. Identical to I-Ks(inflatable kayaks except for paddles and paddling position), they are outfitted for kneeling with thigh straps. Paddled with a canoe single bladed paddle, they are capable of Class 3 and 4 white water. They can be deflated for easy storage. Because of their design, they are wet, so dry suits or wet suits are recommended in cold water.

Pros: Lightweight, capable of Class 4 white water, durable, moderately inexpensive

Cons: Limited capacity, very slow on flat water, dry suits or wet suits recommended except in warm water conditions

Others

 

There are a number of brand name materials used in various canoes. For example:

Barracuda is an aluminized glass fabric.

Tuf-weave is an interwoven fabric made of 50 percent polyester and 50 percent fiberglass.

Twin-tex appears to rival Royalex for strength and yet be lighter. Its cost is about the same as Royalex.

 

Resins

Resins are discussed much less than the materials used in laying up a composite canoe, but resins are a key player and are selected by builders for their different properties. How much and what type of resin used determines how heavy the canoe is, how flexible, and how strong.

Resins originally referred to plant secretions, usually from trees, used as adhesives or varnishes. Now synthetic resins, artificial chemical substance such as a thermosetting plastic, are used.

Different resins have their adherents and the jury is largely still out on the attributes of each. Arguments include how well the resins bond to the material being used and how the resin and composite materials are combined.

For many years there was substantial waste and over-wetting of the materials, which increased the weight of the canoe being built. Currently there are a number of systems being employed by canoe builders to reduce the amount of resin used. These include vacuum bagging in which the molded canoe material is essentially squeezed to push out excess resin, and infusion in which a vacuum is created in the dry materials and a specified amount of resin is injected into them.

GRP

Fiberglass canoes are actually GRP, or glass reinforced plastic. This means that the fiberglass is the reinforcement and the resin is the actual plastic from which the canoe is made.

Epoxy

Epoxy resins are more expensive and harder to work with than polyester resins, but yield greater strength.

Polyester

Polyester resin is the cheapest type of resin used and is commonly found on many fiberglass canoes.

Vinylester

Vinylester resins are sometimes chosen over epoxy and polyester resins because they are thought to bond better with some fabrics. They are arguably as strong as epoxies, and nearly as difficult and expensive to work with. They are more flexible than epoxies, making them less rigid, an advantage in paddling difficult whitewater rivers.

 

Up next: Canoe Shapes and Curves »

Filed under: Buyers' Guides

Related Content

Canoes and Canoe Reviews

Comments

BigRed
REVIEW CORPS
316 reviewer rep
664 forum posts
May 18, 2011 at 10:11 p.m. (EDT)

ALthough they not as common modes of construction for canoes as for kayaks, there are also skin-on-frame and stitch-and-glue (plywood-fiberglass composite) constructions out there. Both are relatively easy/fast ways to build your own, at least on the kayak side (I have built two stitch-and-glue kayaks from kits and a skin-on-frame from scratch). And let's not forget folding canoes!

Erich
TOP 25 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
708 reviewer rep
875 forum posts
May 19, 2011 at 12:41 p.m. (EDT)

Hi BigRed, In the series of articles, I purposely omitted some of the less common materials and types of construction to purposely reduce confusion. Certainly there have been skin on frame canoes, there are also I-Cs and the original, dug outs. Folding canoes are there and have been for over 100 years. Of course, are folding canoes actually skin on frame canoes and since they are stiffened by inflation, are they also hybrids? Also among the variations are the log canoes of Chesapeake Bay and certainly various other types of sailing canoes, and paper canoes. Neither did I mention that in Europe kayaks are called canoes. While stitch and glue is not uncommon in kayak construction, I only know of one or two in canoe construction. Conversely, I don't know of any kayaks that are strip planked. Finally, there were the Willits Brothers of Tacoma who built some very beautiful canoes that were essentially cold molded.

BigRed
REVIEW CORPS
316 reviewer rep
664 forum posts
May 19, 2011 at 7:33 p.m. (EDT)

Yeah, I realize that you're talking mostly about canoes (and not so much kayaks) that you can buy rather than than build, but it does seem like Pygmy's S&G canoe is a worthy craft, and I think Morris' SoF book has plans for at least one canoe. Honorable mention?

Is "strip plank" different from "stripper" construction? If not, then there are some gorgeous strip kayaks out there: Guillemot kayaks and Rob Macks' Laughing Loon boats -- but you must be aware of those already? Some of them look too beautiful to paddle!

Erich
TOP 25 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
708 reviewer rep
875 forum posts
May 20, 2011 at 2:53 p.m. (EDT)

BigRed, There is a difference between strip planked and stripper in the modern usage. The former refers to boats built by BN Morris and other builders in which the boats were essentially built carvel planked, but without caulking. There were also clinker built canoes as well. This series is for the commonly available canoes, and for beginners.

Erich
TOP 25 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
708 reviewer rep
875 forum posts
May 21, 2011 at 12:54 p.m. (EDT)

BigRed, I should add that there is some argument on the term "strip planked". To some, it is the same as "stripper". While the latter is somewhat of a modern slang term for "strip planked" boats built of thin narrow strips of cedar or other wood, glued together and then covered with(usually) fiberglass and resin, for many of us "strip planked" refers to the boats built in the late 19th and early 20th century that were built like wood and canvas canoes, but instead of canvas, the planks were fitted tightly and tacked down with canoe tacks, just as with the planks on wood and canvas canoes. On these boats, ribs were employed, and the planking was wider and thicker than the modern strippers.

300winmag
447 reviewer rep
277 forum posts
May 22, 2011 at 12:07 a.m. (EDT)

For expedition canoeing I'd choose Royalex. I had a beautiful Kevlar canoe get a cracked stern keel in Ontario while coming down a fast stretch on a side creek to the French River.

 

I repaired it but was VERY careful of rocks after that experience.

Erich
TOP 25 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
708 reviewer rep
875 forum posts
May 22, 2011 at 2:03 p.m. (EDT)

300winmag, Royalex is one of the most common materials for expeditions. However, there are kevlar layups that are as strong as Royalex and lighter. There are ww playboats being built in Kevlar laminates, and some very tough expedition boats in Kevlar laminates. I have a Hemlock Eagle in an expedition Kevlar layup, as well as a Clipper 14 Prospector in Kevlar/Duraflex a proprietary layup. Hellman also makes very tough Kevlar laminates.  With any laminate it is the laminate schedule that determines strength, not just the material used. A Kevlar boat can be made 20% or more lighter than a fiberglass boat of the same design, but it will be no stronger. I am surprised that even a lightweight Kevlar boat would crack as easily as yours obviously did. What kind of boat was it?

derjoser
0 reviewer rep
12 forum posts
May 22, 2011 at 5:24 p.m. (EDT)

Sorry for disappearing for a bit. Those pesky tornadoes took down the high lines and also the redundant high lines (high lines are those huge power cables). Not where I live, of course, we had almost no damage. But our power was shut down and was redirected to cities. And then one of our mares had trouble foaling....

Anyway, I bent a 17' Grumman Canoe in half on some Class IV water on the Upper Gauley near the New River Gorge in W. VA. The next day I took my Mad River Kevlar solo open, cane-seated canoe on the same run. Tore up my skid plates, but nothing else was damaged. I figured I just got lucky or the Mad River really did ride high on its shoulder, making it pretty slim. I've always found Royalex heavy and not nearly as responsive as Kevlar canoes. My only modification was to two skid plates, side-by-side and to run them the  full length of the keel.

I've only had a demo paddle in almost still water with a proprietary system of adding several extra layers of Kevlar at so-called vulnerable points. It may been X% stronger but it tracked miserably.

We spent the third day wrestling the Grumman out of the river and then alternately jumping up and down in it and heaving baby boulders into it until it vaguely resembled a canoe again. The "leader" (as such) was one of the guys I worked with. After he ran Great Falls in a C-1, I refused any further adventures where he in charge. This guy didn't just have  a risk-gene, he had go-full-out- till you die-gene.

I've never paddled or even seen a Kevlar boat which weighed less than a fiberglass job. What's it like to paddle one?

derjoser

Erich
TOP 25 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
708 reviewer rep
875 forum posts
May 22, 2011 at 8:53 p.m. (EDT)

derjoser, which Mad River open solo? I'm a little confused by the need to add continuous skid plates. Usually, skid plates are added only at the ends, and on my Outrage X, which is now quite long in the tooth, I have not added plates yet. Because of their substantial rocker, playboats usually don't have wear issues and require skid plates as a normal course. Boats with flatter keel lines, especially tandems do have wear issues. One needs to be aware that the more material one adds to the keel at the ends, has the same effect as decreasing rocker. They also will slow a boat down. Depending on usage, the kevlar that many builders supply is often overkill IMHO. I usually use a thinner material to keep the weight down. As far as extra reinforcement, quality builders will use a laminate schedule that adds reinforcement during construction. Clipper, for instance, will put a layer of kevlar in the ends, even on their fiberglass canoes.

Kevlar boats weigh less than their fiberglass counterparts. A white water kevlar laminate will be perhaps 10-15% less, a light weight laminate will weigh significantly less. In rare cases, a white water kevlar laminate might weigh nearly as much as a light weight fiberglass counterpart, but the strength will be world's different. It is important to understand a builder's laminate schedule and design criteria. Otherwise, comparisons are very much apples and oranges. A light kevlar boat will, of course, have a much livelier feel than it's heavier kevlar counterpart.

Erich
TOP 25 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
708 reviewer rep
875 forum posts
May 23, 2011 at 2:50 p.m. (EDT)

For an example of the weight savings of kevlar laminates, as well the apples and oranges that every laminate is different, take a look at Millbrook Boats. Kaz has been a national champion in white water more times than anyone else by far.

http://www.millbrookboats.com/

derjoser
0 reviewer rep
12 forum posts
May 25, 2011 at 12:56 a.m. (EDT)

Erich said:

derjoser, which Mad River open solo? I'm a little confused by the need to add continuous skid plates. Usually, skid plates are added only at the ends, and on my Outrage X, which is now quite long in the tooth, I have not added plates yet. Because of their substantial rocker, playboats usually don't have wear issues and require skid plates as a normal course. Boats with flatter keel lines, especially tandems do have wear issues. [snipped]

 Hi Erich,

I honestly don't recall the name of my Mad River solo. It's 14'3" long and dates from the late 1970s-earlier 1980s. Early Kevlar. I added my gerry-rigged skid plates after misusing the canoe for 15 years. It never had anywhere near the rocker of more modern solo boats; it was basically configured along the lines of the Explorer.

Adding the skid plates seemed like my only option: I'd torn up the gel coat badly enough that, despite regular maintenance, it looked like only bondo would fix it.

Since I'm now ancient and have one forearm and wrist that is held together by a metal implant, I rarely use it for anything demanding. I'd love to someday get a newish play boat though I'd honestly probably use it on flat water or very mild whitewater.

You are so right about the wear on flatter keel lines. My Mad River Northwoods (same era) needed skid plates almost immediately.

Thanks for all the information -- I learned a lot.

derjoser

Erich
TOP 25 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
708 reviewer rep
875 forum posts
May 25, 2011 at 10:07 p.m. (EDT)

derjoser, you are very welcome. Your boat sounds like the MR Guide, which was renamed the Freedom. I've paddled them, and they are OK, but I would not say they are good at anything above Class 2. They are very wet in moderate to large Class 2 waves(two to three feet). They are also a little slow in flat water. I consider them somewhat of a compromise boat. There are other designs out there that I think perform better in both areas, particularly some small tandems, and the Super Nova from Novacraft.

Regarding your thoughts on a playboat. Playboats, as you know, have extreme rocker, even the more tame ones. I would not recommend anything that calls itself a playboat for your intended use. There are a number of small solo tripping boats that would perform better on flat water and still be capable of white water to Class 2+, the Clipper 14' Prospector being one example and the Hemlock SRT being another.

Share Your Thoughts

July 28, 2014

Please sign in to reply