Gunwale maintenance

How to: Maintain the Wood Gunwales on your Canoe

Let’s talk about wood!


e offer an ash gunwale upgrade option on any of our composite hulls. There are many benefits to upgrading, and one downside which tends to turn some off: maintenance. Our ash gunwales are finished with oil, rather than varnish. Why? Oil allows for moisture to evaporate easily from the wood. However, oil needs to be re-applied every so often. When this task is neglected, wood gunwales can be at risk of absorbing too much moisture and it becomes more difficult for that moisture to evaporate. Adding oil to the gunwale’s surface acts as a gentle moisture barrier.

Left untreated, it is natural for ash to weather to a grey-ish colour – take this as a sign that it’s time to look at re-finishing your gunwales with a fresh coat of oil. Another test you can try to see if your gunwales need some TLC: splash some water on them, if the water beads and rolls off, you’re okay to leave them. If it absorbs right away, that’s a good indication that it’s time for maintenance. Or, if you want to play it safe and keep it simple, sand and oil your gunwales twice a season: when you remove the boat from winter storage ahead of its first trip out, and when you return it to storage at the end of season. Taking the time to work on your gunwales a couple of times a year will keep them healthy and beautiful, and extend the life of your investment.

What’s involved? Not much actually. And, the more often you do it, the less work required. You’ll need to sand the gunwales and make sure you remove any dust or dirt from them. Then, saturate a rag with the oil of your choice (we use and recommend tung) and pass the rag over each part of the sanded wood gunwales. Leave for a few minutes so the oil soaks into the wood, and go over them with a dry rag next to get rid of any excess oil. Leave the gunwales alone for about 24 hours and repeat the process if necessary. Then: admire your work and enjoy your canoe.

Here’s how Andrew Szeto gets it done. Check out this video of Andrew refinishing the gunwales on his Nova Craft Canoe TuffStuff Prospector 16: