New James Bay Railway Travelling Canoe     

Spring 2018

In 1911, Henry Wicksteed, a civil engineer and yacht designer from Coburg, Ontario drew up a set of plans for a 14-foot canoe with extreme rocker and sheer.  Perhaps inspired by the 'crooked canoes' built by the Cree of Northern Quebec, he designed what looks very much like a modern whitewater playboat, except in cedar and canvas.   Wicksteed was the chief surveyor for the contractors building the Canadian Northern Railway and he designed the boat for the job of surveying the railway lines through northern Ontario.  It had to be small enough to fit easily into a railway car, yet be fast, carry a heavy load, and handle the rapids of Northern Ontario rivers.  He named his design the James Bay Railway Travelling Canoe.

Wicksteed sent his design to Chestnut Canoe company in New Brunswick, then the largest canoe company in the British Empire.  Chestnut built a mold from Wicksteed's plans and delivered a few of the canoes for the summer of 1912. After the railway surveying crews tried them out,  Wicksteed's letter praising the design was printed in the 1913 Chestnut Canoe catalog:

From 1913 to 1921, Chestnut offered the canoes to the public by special order under the name Canadian Northern Railway Canoes.  The Chestnut canoe factory burned down in 1921 and the mold for Wicksteed's canoes were destroyed. None of the original canoes are known to survive.

Luckily, Wicksteed's original plans are held in the collection of Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.  Roger MacGregor tells the story of  Wicksteed and his designs in his book  When The Chestnut was in Flower.

This project was to take Wicksteed's original 1911 plans and build the canoe as closely as possible to how Chestnut Canoe Company might have built it in 1912.  Here's how it was done:

Step 1,  Research

After studying Wicksteed's  plans, the next question was 'what would the craftsmen at Chestnut build if they were given these plans?'  A couple of trips to the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough for an up-close look at their collection of Chestnuts gave many answers.  The museum has two pre-fire boats, a closed-gunwale sponson canoe from 1910, and Ca Ira, the Trudeau family's 50-Pound Special from 1918.  With the generous assistance of  curator Jeremy Ward, these pre-fire boats were inspected closely for details such as the tapering and beveling of the ribs, the shape and fitting of the decks, the nailing pattern of the tacks holding the planking to the ribs, and the layout of the gore strake and sheer strake joints.  afterwards, all the other Chestnuts in the collection got a quick look over to get a sense of the details that define the company's workmanship.

(Ca ira was the anthem of the French revolution in the 1790's)

Step 2,  Lofting the plans

Lofting is drawing a set of lines full size to make sure they are 'fair' - no kinks, bumps, flats or hollows - and that they line up in all three views.   The completed loft drawing gives the shapes of all the moulds.

First the outlines of the boat are drawn in the profile and plan views, then a series of lines representing the intersection of various slicing planes with the surface of the hull is drawn and checked against each other in the profile, plan, and end views.  These lines are called waterlines, buttocks, diagonals and station lines.

Here's the sheer line being drawn in the profile view.  These lead spline weights, or 'ducks' speed up the job and save having to drive nails into the battens or lofting table.

Here's a buttock line being drawn in the profile view.

The main final product of lofting is a 'scrieve board' - a board with the transverse sections or 'station lines' drawn on it.  Here's a station line being drawn on the scrieve board.

The plans and lofted lines are drawn to the outboard face of the planking. The final shape of the molds is worked out on the scrieve board by deducting the thickness of the planking, the ribs, and the form sheathing from the station lines.  In the middle of the hull, where the skin is roughly 90 degrees to the station lines,  just adding the those three dimensions gives the amount to deduct.  Toward the ends, you need to work out the deduction on the loft drawing in order to determine changes in dimension resulting from the increased angle of the hull to the station lines.  Cut spacers to these dimensions and use them to plot the mold lines like this:

The molds are notched at the sheerline to hold the gunwale backers -  one-inch square lengths of spruce to which the inwales will be clamped during construction.  The inwales need to be plumb on the inboard face, beveled on the outboard face to match the tumblehome of the hull, and tapered towards the ends. The depth of the notches have to be worked out like this:

And then marked on the scrieve board at each station line like this:


Step 3,  Building the form

The scrieve board was drawn on thin plywood so that the shapes of the moulds could be transferred to 3/4" plywood by punching holes through with a sharp awl.

The maximum bevel of each mold was taken off the loft drawing and set on the bandsaw

Completed molds were laid on the scrieve board to check for accuracy.

And then attached to a strongback.

The vertical strongback  was laid out from the loft drawing. It was cut to rough size and allowed to spring before final dressing and cutting to final shape. It was checked for accuracy by laying directly on the drawing.   The ends of the strongback are cut back to provide a recess in the form for the stems.

The strongback is slid into the notches in the molds...

Until all of the reference lines are in alignment.

The form is sheathed with strips of 7/8" pine screwed to the molds.

When sheathing was complete, the form was faired.  Lightly spraying the sheathing with spray paint helps guide the fairing process.

The form is faired with a smoothing plane until the paint was almost gone, then given a sealer coat of polyurethane.

The rib spacing was laid out down the centreline of the form and 22 gauge steel bands were fitted at each rib location.

Completed form.

Step 4,  Preparing the materials

White cedar grows all across eastern Canada, but finding large boards free of knots is a challenge.  Luckily this yard in Madoc has a good stock of it.

Boards are selected for vertical grain sections that can be resawn into planking, and flat grain sections that get resawn into ribs.  Planking is sawn to 3/ 16" x 3 1/8"  and dressed to 5/32" x 3".  Ribs are sawn to 7/16" x 2 1/2" and dressed to 3/8" x 2 3/8".

The form is measured for the needed rib lengths and ribs are sorted and cut to needed lengths and quantities.

Rib details were copied from  the pre-fire Chestnut canoes that we measured at the Canadian Canoe Museum. They have a rounded 35-degree bevel on the straight side and a flat 25-degree bevel on the tapered side. Big thanks to Jerry Stelmok for the design of this brilliant reversible dovetail-sliding tapering jig which makes it possible to quickly cut the beveled taper on both ends of the ribs without changing the table saw settings.  with the blade tilted to 25-degrees, one end of all the ribs are pushed through the saw with the sliding wedge like this:

Then the sliding wedge is reversed to cut all of the other ends of the ribs at exactly the same bevel and taper:

The stems are pre-bent on a bending jig, which is the same profile as the canoe form, but with a little more bend in the curve. 

When steamed wood is taken off the form, it relaxes, or springs back a bit.  The challenge is to guess how much it will spring back, and make the form with that much extra curvature in it. 

When in doubt, overbend - steamed wood can easily be unbent once its cold, but it can't be bent more.  The stems are white oak. Ash is easier to bend, but it rots easily.

Step 5. Building the hull on the form

Rib offcuts and knotty cedar was used to build this rack to keep ribs organized in the steam box.

After steaming for 20 minutes, ribs are slid under the strongback and clamped to the inwales.

Two 1" nails hold the ribs to the spruce inwales.  The tapered edges of the ribs go toward amidships, the straight edges go toward the ends of the hull.

At the ends, the ribs sit in notches in the stems.  The stems are recessed in a groove in the form.

The end ribs are nailed into the stem with bronze ring nails

When all the ribs have cooled and dried, they are faired with a longboard with 80 grit sandpaper on it to make sure the surface is fair before planking goes on.

Planking starts with the garboards, lined up with a chalkline down the centre of the hull.  Planks are nailed on with 3/4" brass canoe tacks. The strongback has been temporarily replaced with nailed battens while the garboards are installed.

Boiling water and a hot iron help wrap the garboards around the stems.

Planking is nailed to the stems with 5/8" bronze ring nails.  After both garboards are nailed to the stems, the strongback can go back in place to hold the ribs tight to the form.

The taper of the gore planks was marked with this other brilliant little jig, also thanks to Jerry Stelmok for the design.

Three gore strakes cover the bulge between the relatively flat bottom and topsides.

They join up with one plank at the ends.   .

Except for the most recent ones, all of the chestnut canoes inspected at the Canadian Canoe museum used the same tacking pattern for attaching the planking.  The pattern looked  counter-intuitive, but once we tried it,  the logic behind it was revealed and it all made sense. It looks like this:

Ready to pull off the form.

Off the form.  Temporary braces hold the gunwales together until the decks and thwarts are installed.

Step 6,  Completing the hull

After coming off the form, the stems are joined to the inwales.  As pointed out by Dick Persson at Buckhorn Canoe Company, the craftsmen at Chestnut Canoe Company used an unusual joint for this area in the earliest years of the company.  The first step was to make a mock-up of the joint to figure out the details.

With a working mock-up in hand, the joints were cut on the inwales and stems and then fastened together.

After the inwales are attached to the stems, the ends of the canoe are reinforced with decks. These decks were designed using a pattern traced from Ca Ira.

The top of the decks are crowned with a camber.

The underside is beveled to make the deck appear only 1/4" thick when installed.

Bedding compound is applied to the mating surfaces and the decks are fastened with bronze screws.

Cant ribs were installed in the ends of the canoe following the measurements taken off the pre-fire Chestnuts at the Canoe Museum.  The sheer strakes fit around the swelling at the top of the stemhead  and into a rabbet in the bottom edge of the inwale tips.

When all together and cleaned up, all of the surfaces come flush at the stem face so that the rabbet on the outwale can be completely planed off at the stem face.

Almost all of the Chestnut canoes inspected at the museum used exactly the same planking layout detail, with the sheer strakes all butting one rib toward amidships from the ends of the gore strakes.   Again, it seems counter-intuitive to boatbuilding practice, where butts are shifted as far apart as possible from each other in adjacent planks, but it all made sense once we tried it.  Here's what it looks like:

Seat and thwart details are from Wicksteed's plans.  The thwarts have stopped champhers.

The bow seat is a rounded 2-inch wide board notched into oak cleats.  The stern seat is a 3/4" x 8" board held in two cleats.  The cleat details are given on Wicksteed's 1911 plans for a larger freighting canoe.

Step 7,  Canvas and filler

With the hull complete, the planking was sanded fair with 60 grit paper on a longboard before sealing the outside of the planking with boiled linseed oil and wood preservative.

Extra heavy #6 duck canvas was stretched with canvas clamps and a come-along.  Chestnut used #6 duck for their most rugged work canoes. 

The hull was placed in the canvas 'hammock' and pushed down from the ceiling with 'go-bars' while tension was applied with the come-along.   3/4" tacks hold the canvas to the top of the planking at each rib.

The ends of the canvas are fastened to the stems with 1/4"copper tacks.  A bradawl is used to make a hole for the tacks in the hard oak stem.  Here's the last view of that pre-fire stem detail.

When the second flap of canvas is pulled over the stems, canvasing is complete.  A thin bead of waterproof glue was run along the stem before tacking the second flap.

The nap of the canvas was scorched with a blow torch and then the entire skin was soaked with zinc naphthenate preservative and allowed to dry outside.

When dry, three coats of filler were brushed on and then rubbed into the weave of the cloth with a canvas mitt until the surface was completely smooth.

When the filler is dry - in four to six weeks, the canoe will be ready for outwales, paint and varnish...

Step 8  Outwales, Varnish & Paint

After drying for four weeks, the filler was sanded and painted with a coat of marine enamel primer.  Then the spruce outwales were installed.

The spruce outwales were brushed with wood preservative prior to steaming.  then clamped in position and fastened with brass screws.

Five coats of Le Tonkinois varnis.

Brass seat brackets were made to match the ones shown on H.K. Wicksteed's plans.

And installed with brass screws & bolts.

 Five thin coats of Epifanes yacht enamel were rolled on and tipped with a brush.

Brass stem bands were installed with #4 x 3/4" brass screws

Brass ring bolts fabricated to match original Chestnut Canoe Company painter rings.  Ready for silver soldering & threading.

And installed in the bow deck.  The canoe is complete.

Ready to be picked up.

And Launched.

With 4 inches of rocker, 11 inches of sheer and full, buoyant ends, this is a very capable whitewater boat - for experienced whitewater paddlers.