From the Shop: On plastic gunwales.

This week I was digging around in my desk, and came across a couple of test pieces I made up a couple years ago.  One is a one foot long section of gunwale I cut off a scrap Option, the other is a 1-foot section of similar dimensions of Ash gunwale.  I made these to compare weights between them, and being reminded of this test, I figured this week I’d discuss the advantages of plastic gunwales and why I use them rather than wood.

Test Gunwales

1: Weight.  The conventional wisdom is wood gunwales are lighter.  That’s true compared to vinyl gunwales, but and apples-to-apples comparison of the weight of wood vs. our integrated plastic gunwales, the plastic wins out significantly.  In this case, I used 3/4″x3/4″ wood gunwales inside and outside, and you could argue that I could have made them smaller, but the result would have still been similar.  On a boat with 8 feet of gunwale, it saves just shy of 4 pounds.  For a boat of the same weight, that means it’s 4lbs of plastic we can put back into the hull, where it matters for durability and holding it’s shape.  Or make the boat lighter and still more durable.


2: Cost.  By not having the added materials and labor cost of not cutting off the top of the boat and then adding the gunwales back on, I can price the boats lower.  It’s a pretty significant savings to my customers- on the order of $300.

3: Durability.  We know what you’re going to do with these boats.  We do it too.  You’re going to grind through a narrow slot.  You’re going piton. You’re going to swim and have your boat bounce down rocks upside down.  You’re going to slip walking to the river and send your boat careening down a hillside.  You’re going tie it on a car against a boat with sand on it’s hull.  It happens, and it’s really hard on wood.  It’s hard on plastic too, but I’ve only seen one Blackfly boat with a cracked gunwale (and I have no idea how that happened), and that can be welded up pretty easily.

4: Maintenance.  I know what you’re going to say, “But the wood looks so nice.”  That’s true when the boat is new, and if you keep up with regular maintenance and oiling on the gunwales, otherwise the mildew can set in pretty quickly.  I like to say I make canoes for people who like to paddle whitewater canoes.  Perhaps my worldview is skewed because I spend so much of my time working on canoes anyway, but I’d rather just go paddle them and not worry about the maintenance any more than I have to.  If my gunwales get beat up to the point where it’s an issue, I can spend two minutes with a Shurform and maybe a blowtorch and knock the rough spots down.

There’s also a line about “It’s not a canoe if it doesn’t have wood on it.”  Looking at some of the high-end flatwater boats with composite or (gasp) aluminum gunwales, I’d generally disagree.  For those that feel this way though, I’ll point out that I still use wood thwarts.  I feel that for thwarts, it’s still the best solution at this time, and if you’re the type of person who really feels the need to spend some quality time in the garage with your canoe, you can rub some Watco oil on them once in a while.