By Don Bivens,  circa 1971

Waubeno Wigwam Director, 1967-1973 

Edited by Brian Back

 Ed. Note: The pipe-smoking Bivens wrote this unique, 12-page, 5 1/2 by 8 1/2 booklet on a manual typewriter. He was at Keewaydin during the last years of two Mattawa guides who were passing on their canoe skills to those who paid attention: Jack McIsaac, the canoe foreman, and Nishe Belanger, former Bay guide and Bivens guide in 1967. This was also a time period in which canoes were neither getting re-built as often as needed, nor were new ones purchased fast enough to keep the fleet in prime condition. Those new Chestnuts that did arrive at the front dock were often poorly built. Staff and guides had to hone their repair skills and they had excellent teachers.  

"Our canoes can be repaired, even nearly put back together, with materials which can be either found in the forest or brought along..."

Cover photo: Field Repairs on Canvas Canoes by Don Bivens

The traditional wood- and- canvas construction has, for our purposes, at least one merit far beyond any other consideration: our canoes can be repaired, even nearly put back together, with materials which can be either found in the forest or brought along conveniently. Some of the old guides can tell you horrendous tales of bad luck and canoe repairing in the middle of nowhere which, even discounting a little prevarication, are impressive indeed.

 All operations described herein have been either performed or witnessed by the author, and are, therefore, genuine, bona fide, and all that. Naturally, not all the repairs described are going to turn an old wreck into a brand-new boat, even a tight one, but it'll beat hell out of swimming.

Of course, the best maintenance is prevention: it is much better not to pile a canoe up than to patch it, however well. Ideally, the bottom of your canoe should never touch anything but water.



After each traveling day, all the canoes in the section should be checked for breaks in the canvas or damage to the sheeting, ribs, gunwales or other structural members. This includes asking the campers about any leaking or any other troubles. They will usually volunteer such information, since they do not like getting their gear wet, nor does the sternman care to have his canoe weight the extra 20 or 30 lbs.

When not in use, the canoes should be stored high and dry, and securely. It is not very good for them to fall off a perch and bounce around on rocks and such. About the best place to store them is on bare rock, unless, of course, you really want to make a canoe rack.

On rest days, the canoes can be inspected more rigorously. If the canoes sun for a while, they will be quite dry, at which time little scrapes in the paint that do not leak yet can be smeared with Ambroid (or paint, if you have it) and made quite watertight. Any canoes that might have been soaked will dry nicely if left in the sun, right-side up, for a few hours.

Of particular importance are the bang plates. Check carefully to see that they are securely screwed on and that they are securely sealed to the canvas.

Photo: Jack McIsaac, canoe foreman, 1978, in the canoe shop repairing canvas.

Jack McIsaac, canoe foreman, 1978, in the canoe shop repairing canvas.



Photo: Brian Back


Small Punctures

Small Punctures that have no associated damage to the wood in the canoe, can be sealed easily by simply "flowing in" Ambroid, and letting it dry. A good way to do this is to stick the tip of the tube into the hole, and to squeeze gently until a little gob of it goobs over.

Abrasions and Small Rips

Abrasions and Small Rips require a patch. Since the patch is going to become the canoe's skin, it should be a good, strong material, perhaps a bit more than half the thickness of the canvas. Awning material is about the best material you can get, although denim from someone's jeans is very good also. If you can find lightweight, regular, canoe canvas, by all means use that. Do not use hankies, flour sacks, or certainly wool, skivvy shorts, or any stretch material, or one that is bulky ó  it won't be watertight or strong.

To patch: With a knife, scrape the paint from the canvas around the 'boo-boo,' about an inch in every direction. Take care not to cut the canvas. If the canvas is wet under the paint, keep scraping until you come to dry canvas. If leisure time allows, sun the canvas until dry; otherwise, see below under 'Burning On A Patch.' Cut a patch to fit the scraped area, and unravel the ends so that there is a fringe all around. Smear Ambroid on the bared canvas on the canoe around the damage, and while it is drying (or, anyway, setting), smear more on the canoe-side of the patch. Stick the patch on, smoothing it out well. Use light pressure to squeeze out excess Ambroid from under the patch. Smear a thin layer on the outside of the patch. This layer must penetrate the patch to seal it and waterproof it. If the Ambroid is drawn in quickly and the patch feels dry, add more until the exterior stays wet with a thin layer of glue. Let dry plenty long: an hour isn't too much, and overnight is best.

Not all the repairs described are going to turn an old wreck into a brand-new boat, but it'll beat hell out of swimming.

Burning On A Patch

Burning On A Patch describes what you do if there is a wet hole in the canvas that needs patching in a hurry. Scrape around the damage as usual, and prepare the patch. Smear some Ambroid on the injured part of the canoe, and light it.  Do not let the canvas scorch: this requires pretty rigorous attention. That should dry the canvas. Put on the patch in the usual manner, smearing plenty of Ambroid over it. Light that, let it burn maybe 15 seconds, and blow it out. Apply a thin smear of Ambroid, and let it dry in the usual way.

Double Patches

Double Patches are needed when you get a big rip, or one associated with structural damage. In this case, you put two patches on the canoe, one under the skin, and one over. This is the situation in which you want the patch to be somewhat stronger than the original skin. The inside patch is the hardest. Smear plenty of Ambroid on the patch on the side that will be next to the canoe's canvas. Work in under the tear with a knife blade, being careful not to cut it. If you put on plenty of Ambroid, it will take long enough to set for you to get the patch in and smoothed. This last is important: the underpatch must be flat without any folds. Once it is in, you simply put a patch over the area in the usual fashion. Allow extra time for the glue to dry the inner patch.

Extensive repairs to a canoe damaged in whitewater, including re-attaching the canvas to the canoe and re-securing the bow bang plate, 1978.


Photo: Brian Back

Photo: Extensive repairs to a canoe damaged in whitewater, including re-attaching the canvas to the canoe and re-securing the bow bang plate, 1978


Cracked Sheeting

Cracked Sheeting is a fairly common mishap, especially since Chestnut canoes are not built from the best materials available.* It is important to patch broken sheeting, as the canoe's shape can be altered (adversely) if something isn't there to hold it. In camp, galvanized sheet iron is used to patch sheeting, out in the bush, lids from empty cans do as well.

The technique is to select a can lid of close to the right size to cover the break and fit under the ribs on either side of the crack. The edges of the lid can be flattened by using one axe head for an anvil, another for the hammer.  The lid can be 'cut' to fit along your chosen cutting line by bending back and forth repeatedly until broken. Gently bend the sized patch to look like this ^ when viewed from the side. Fit the edges under the ribs, and gently pound flat with your axe. Watch out for tacks between the ribs and the sheeting. The tops of the tacks will be visible in the ribs. Try to avoid them. Forget about pulling any out: you can't. Back at base camp, can lids should be replaced with galvanized iron, as the cans rust eventually.

Broken Ribs 

Broken Ribs are very bad news indeed. It is important that broken ribs be repaired soon, as the canoe can lose its shape and strength, with disastrous consequences, if such damage is ignored.  Maybe you happen to be the provident sort of staffman or guide who has provided himself with about a dozen small (3/8" or so) brass screws, or maybe you can 'borrow' a few such screws from one of your more thoroughly used canoes. The technique is quite simple. Carve a piece of wood. I prefer green birch for strength, though others recommend cedar for reasons I've never been able to figure. In any case, use green wood, since it bends better, to fit over the rib. It should be about 6 or 8 inches long (unless you have several cracks, then cover them all). Drill a few holes in the splint, if you can, and screw it firmly to the rib.

If you don't have any screws, try flowing some Ambroid into the crack and letting it dry. Treat the canoe very gently until you get back to camp, as this sort of repair is not strong at all.

It is important that broken ribs be repaired soon, as the canoe can 

lose its shape and strength, with disastrous consequences.

Bang Plates

Bang Plates are aptly named as they are what take the brunt of the blow when you bang into something. This armor plating for the stems of the canoe is critical, since that is where the canvas is merely tacked onto the canoe. If a bang plate screw is pulled loose, the technique is to cut a small softwood plug to fit the screw hole (you may assume, as I have, that the wood has been stripped around the screw), smeared with a little Ambroid, and inserted. Then the screw is re-screwed (O.K., so it's not the most elegant diction) as if into new wood. Best to sklitch a little Ambroid under the plate also just to be on the safe side.

A break in the bang plate can be jury-rigged by putting a long patch over it, securely glued to the sides of the canoe. First, you glue the patch to one side, and allow it to dry. Then smear Ambroid under the broken parts of the plate, and glue the patch to the other side. You will have to pull it plenty tight, and hold the second side down about 10-15 minutes until the glue sets. A messy business, but it will get you back to camp, and dry, if you do it right.

Broken Gunwales

Broken Gunwales had better occur plenty close to a campsite, since using a canoe so damaged could break it in two. Once again, if you are a provident fellow, you have a few long brass screws, or at least some nails. Thus armed, your technique is quite simple: cut a piece of birch (dry spruce will do well enough if you find a good piece) as a splint. It should be a 1 by 1 by 2 feet. Drill six holes in it: one at each end, one on either side of the break and the last two halfway between the two sets of  holes already drilled. You should have three holes on each side of the break. Screw or nail it onto the gunwale with the break about in the middle. If the break is on the outwale (the gunwale piece on the outside of the canoe), put the splint on the outside; if it is the inwale (surely you can figure out what that would be), put the splint inside. If, horribile dictu, both the outwale and the inwale are broken, you will have to make two splints, and figure out a way to bolt them together over the break. Let's try not to have several such breaks on the same canoe.

Broken Stems

Broken Stems are sometimes encountered, usually in rapids, when you ram a rock at pretty good speed. Before you tend to the bang plate (which in such cases will invariably be involved), straighten the stem (you might have to use the flat of an axe), and splint the stem with a piece of birch 1 by 1 by 2 feet. Use green birch, since you'll have to bend it some. Thus, dry spruce is contra-indicated.

A large hole can happen if the section has been taken 

under fire by some nut in a tank.

Stove In

Stove In is a rather crude way to describe a situation in which the canoe has a rather large hole in it, with shredded canvas, splintered wood, and other unpleasantness. It can happen if the canoe is dropped on a stump or rock on a portage (most likely when the canoe is dry), if a thin rock or snag is encountered head-on in the water at high speed, or if the section has been taken under fire by some nut in a tank. The splinters are cleared away as much as possible, and the skin is double-patched. Then a dinner plate is flattened out and cut to fit, and placed between the skin and the rest of the wood, glued to hold it in place. It may be easier to put in the metal patch first, before patching the canvas. A couple of thin battens can be carved from cedar, as replacement sheeting. These should be glued in. Finally, carve a splint for the rib(s) involved, and screw it down to the sound part. This will get you back to camp (which is something). If you have time to do the job carefully and you have plenty of Ambroid, the canoe will likely stay dry inside.

Broken Thwarts

Broken Thwarts must be repaired immediately. The strength of the canoe depends on the thwarts, and if you try to use a canoe with a broken thwart, you will convert it into a pile of rags and splinters rather quickly. The easiest way to fix a thwart is to splint it, if the break isn't very bad. If the thwart is really buggered, you will have to take the axe and Swede saw to carve a new one. Be very careful to make your new thwart to fit exactly (remove the same thwart from another canoe, see if it fits, and if it does, use it for a 'pattern'), using good, dry spruce. Also, cut the new thwart somewhat thicker than the original, which was ash, and much stronger than spruce. This operation, obviously, is major surgery, and you had better have a rest day in which to do it. Don't over-carve your thwart: the idea is to get the rig to hold.


Seats serve the same purpose as thwarts, as well as serving as a place to sit. They rarely break up, and if they do, they can be tied together if necessary. Structurally, they hold the sides apart (as opposed to thwarts, which keep the sides from flopping out), and therefore, do not absolutely need to be bolted, as they tend to "wedge in." Enough string, rope or leather to hold the paddler's weight will be quite adequate to fasten it to the canoe.


Paddles should checked frequently. Make sure the boys get any cracked blades over to the guides when you are in camp. You probably can't get any staples for your own use.

If you lose or break a paddle, then you must make your own. This is time-consuming, but not really very difficult, to carve with an axe and a knife. The best material is dry and sound spruce, a piece about six-feet long and at least eight inches around. First thing is to make a board out of the log. Make chips in the log with your axe about three inches apart, all hacking in one direction. Then, take out these chips by hacking in the opposite direction. Turn the log over and repeat. And repeat, and repeat, until you have a board about two-inches thick. Carve the handle, and the shaft, and flatten and thin carefully the blade.  Plan to kill most of a rest day making a decently serviceable paddle. It's fun unless, of course, you really have to carve a paddle. Encourage your campers to treat their paddles carefully so you do not have to carve any.

You may need to tack a canoe together, but the main usefulness of copper tacks is that they make the greatest rivets for broken tumps.

What To Do When You Run Out of Ambroid

  1. Donít run out of Ambroid.

  2. Failing that, try not to hit anything.

  3. Once out in the bush, and out of glue, with a banged-up canoe or two, you have a hard, sticky job to do. Collect about 1/2 pannikin of spruce gum (this is the most time-consuming part of the operation). Then combine this with about 1/3 the amount of lard and boil it long and fairly hard, until it resembles thick tar when hot, and a hockey puck when cold. Apply hot for repair work. Again, please try not to get into this extreme circumstance: you will ruin a pannikin preparing the glue, and the canoe foreman and guides will not like you for what you have done to the canoe using this old-fashioned glue.

Brass Tacks

Brass (or Copper) Tacks should not be needed too often, but they come in handy for so many things that you are well advised to have a small supply, say about a couple dozen. You may need to tack a canoe together, but the main usefulness of copper tacks is that they make the greatest rivets for broken tumps: the clinching that they are designed to do in softwood works wonders in leather, as they just won't penetrate.

Waubeno sternsmen patching 

their canoes on a campsite,




Photo: Brian Back

Photo: sternsmen patching their canoes on a campsite, 1978.


A Generalized Overall View

Wood-canvas canoes have a frame and a skin. The frame is built of ribs (white cedar), sheeting or planking (red cedar), gunwales (actually there are outwales and inwales, but we needn't be too technical) that are made of medium hardwood such as mahogany (the best) or spruce (the cheapest). The sheeting and ribs are fastened by means of brass tacks, which are 'clinched' (the point is bent over when the tack is driven through, giving the effect of a rivet), thus making them impossible to remove. This shell of ribs and sheeting is held together by the hardwood stems on each end and the inwales along the length. These hold the shape and strength of the canoe in a measure of equilibrium. For the weight, the structure is amazingly strong; watertight it's not. That feature is provided by the skin of canvas, stretched tightly over the frame (which adds to the strength and rigidity) and impregnated with a variety of substances, making it watertight.

The finish of the canoe consists of paint on the skin, and shellac on the ribs and sheeting. The canoe is re-finished inside and out at the beginning of each season.

Canoes are not meant to be kept in the water on a permanent basis. Therefore, the less time they are in the water, the better; this is the ideal, of course, but since they are watercraft you have to get the skin wet a lot of the time. The idea is not to get any of the rest of the canoe wet.



Ambroid - Ambroid is THE glue used to fix canoes (and damn near everything else). It is a plain cement, with the usual acetone base, relatively fast drying, waterproof and amazingly strong. It is flammable (see above Burning On a Patch) and, therefore, presents a temptation to use as a fire-starter. Resist this temptation, since Ambroid is quite expensive in Canada, and, therefore, the Store tends to be less than munificent with it.

Bang Plates - Brass strips on either end of the canoe that serve as armor for ramming operations. The screws that hold them in place are often implicated in those damnable slow leaks. As they are buffeted about the screws are often 'started' and admit water in a manner resembling the old Chinese torture.

Canvas - The heavy, cotton fabric of which the skin of the canoe is made. It is impregnated with white lead, airplane dope, or other things to make it waterproof and smooth. It is quite resistant to abrasions, but it can, with determination or stupidity, be pierced, punctured, torn and otherwise made non-waterproof.

Deck - The rather misleading term that describes the boards between the gunwales at the stem ends of the canoe. They help hold the shape of the canoe, and, I suppose, they prevent some of the waves from splashing into the canoe.

Keel - Some canoes have a keel that you can see, running along the bottom on top of the canvas, that helps the boat track in a straight line. Canoes so built have more rounded bows for better riding. To have or to have not a keel is a perennial debate among canoe fanciers.***

Seats - According to some self-styled purists, canoes do not properly have seats so you should kneel in the canoe, with your ass propped against the thwart ten hours a day. Phooey! Seats are the things to be sat upon by you. They must therefore, be firmly bolted into the canoe, and their good placement is a matter of considerable interest.

Sheeting (Planking) - Sheeting is the collection of thin cedar boards that stretch fore and aft in the canoe, and provide the frame over which the skin is stretched. Ideally, they are of straight-grained red cedar** (we'll never see any of that at Keewaydin), and decently strong.

Thwarts - If you have been properly brought up in handling boats, you know that thwarts are both things to sit on, and things that hold the boat together and in shape. In a canoe, however, thwarts are structural members only. They will not support the weight of  even a pee-wee! Canoe thwarts are cut down considerably, so as to reduce weight, and function only to hold the frame of the canoe to its rather unnaturally rounded shape. Note, please, that a carry bar is affixed to the center thwart, to supplement it in holding the canoe's weight (75 lbs.) on a portage. If the thwart cannot by itself support the canoe's weight, how could it support yours?

Ribs- These are constructed of white cedar and are thicker than sheeting. They sit over the sheeting and run from one gunwale to the opposite gunwale, parallel to each other, down the length of the canoe.


Editor's Notes:

* In the 1960s, Chestnut quality had fallen dramatically.

** Western red cedar is more brittle than eastern white cedar, and for this reason less desirable as sheeting in a tripping canoe that undergoes heavy, rugged use. On the positive side, it can be found in longer lengths (thereby reducing the number of pieces required to extend the length of a canoe), it is slightly less resistant to rot, and its red hue is more aesthetically pleasing.

*** Keels keep the canoe tracking in a straight line, which is a convenience in flatwater, but a serious disadvantage in whitewater, hence they are not put on Keewaydin canoes.


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