Pirogue Rehab

by Robert Jacobs, Fresno, California - USA

Well. Sometimes you just flat use something up. Sometimes the life of an object is harsher and shorter than we anticipate. Modern plastic somethings usually just get tossed into the bin, where they will hopefully be remelted into other plastic somethings, or whatever it is they do to recycle plastic. Metal stuff can be banged on, bolted to, screwed and/or welded, so even if it can’t be fixed, it can be repurposed.

Wooden stuff, though. Aw, wooden stuff is imminently repairable and rebuildable, which is one of the reasons I like wooden boats. Yes, Virginia, even plywooden boats. For the most part, wooden things are repairable, even if you simply use the old worn out stuff as patterns for new bits.

Theoretically. Hehe.

So it was for the pirogue we built all these years ago. She was built quickly and cheaply from external ply and scrap wood, meant as a vessel for the kid’s enjoyment. Well, and mine, too, of course, but most of my paddling has been in more sophisticated hull forms. Which, sometimes don’t mean diddly, because this boat is a mover, and a handler. Surprising, really, how well these dumb little boats work.

I must be honest. This boat has been abused. Period. Dropped, crashed into rocks, filled with rocks, filled with wood, filled with kids, filled with water… The greatest adventure thus far, and the real reason for this rebuild, is her theft and wrecking last year. Someone stole her from our camp, joyrided around in her, broke one of the end deck/breasthooks, and cracked both rubrails. Don’t worry, the guys lied through their teeth, law enforcement did not find them in possession, and so everyone got off free and clear.


Well, except for us, with our broken boat. Just a chance to fool my kids into thinking I’m a genius, because I was able to repair it in the field. Well. I had to go back to camp and rustle through my big, dumb toolbox I always bring…

Aside from the damage inflicted by the thieves, the boat was getting tired. The Payson type butt joints had begun cracking, and some of the adhesive bonding the chines to the bottom had stopped. Well, the adhesive had let go, but it stayed all rolled up and gummed into the joints, so there wasn’t much leakage, really. Also, some of the fasteners had broken, both screws and nails.


Now, this was a family type project, as most are around here, but especially when the boats are to be used primarily by the kids and their friends. The whole thing was done as slapdash and rack of eye as most of my usual work, because you can’t quantify “sweet” and ”fair”, but you can sure recognize it when you see it.


The first step was to locate some wood to be used as new rubrails. The chines proved to be sound, if coming unglued (ahem), so they stayed in place. Right out there in the open. On the outside. It was a simpler way to build, if only because of the lack of a need to cut compound bevels at the stem ends of the chine, but I still don’t like the looks. Meh. External chines DID allow for the interior to be smoother and cleaner, which helped in cleaning it out, and probably saved the chines from rotting out. Of course, this is all so much conjecture and speculation meant to make me sound competent. Hehe.

Now, where was I? Oh, babbling. This is good stuff, Maynard.

There was more than a little hemming and hawing before ripping into her, but not all that much really. It ain’t like we’re saving anything special. All the brass screws in the rubrails were deteriorated, and some were broken. Meh. Not like we didn’t already know about brass, eh? Still we had them on hand when we built this boat, so we used them. The stems were screwed in with cold galvanized steel screws, which held up well, surprisingly. Ditto the chine joint, but I’m jumping ahead.

The plan was to open up one stem at a time, then tackle the one, central frame, then tackle the chine joints. Which, that’s pretty much what went down but we made a few changes to the boat.

The Design Commission decided the boat should be modified to resemble a dory or duck punt, or some-such, so I designed (ahem) a tombstone-like, transomette type device. The idea was to keep the water line double ended, but flare the topsides to allow a smallish rear deck.

A little cutting, and futzing, and putzing around, and ended up with a reasonable facsimile of a transomette, even if I do say so myself. The new rear end brought to light the fact we needed a real knee. The bottom/stem/sides joint had seen a LOT of stress over the years, so we decided to beef it up a little. I dove into my handy pile of “just so” off cuts and laminated up some knees from plywood. Of course I rounded them over and shaped them and smoothed them. I’m not a savage. Hehe.

Transomette and new knee meant it was time to lay on a deck of sorts, too. Really, the end decks are mostly breasthooks, too, but are also to give a little place to sit. This was all pretty simple, really, because the shape is all but determined by the sides. A little beam with an arch cut in the bottom tied into side cleats provide faying surfaces for the deck. We also added a false, outer transtone, to cover the edges of the ply, and we blended it into the deck.

The end result borders on too campy. I won’t lie, though, that I think it looks much cooler now. And, no, not because of the paint. I kind of liked the old paint.

Well. Once the one end was done, we went ahead and did the other end, though this end remained pointy, to become the permanent bow. The same inner and outer stems were reused. The side panels overlap the inner stem, and the outer stem caps the whole shebang. It’s a very simple way to do a stem for a plywood boat, I think. The bow got the same knee as the stern, but at a slightly different angle. See, I forgot to mention I changed the rake of the transomette to a little more vertical, mainly on aesthetic grounds. The same method was employed either end, though they look markedly different.

Once the ends were all fixed up, we removed, cleaned up, and re-installed the frame. The frame was only glued to the side panels, in anticipation of removing and reattaching the bottom panel. No real fuss or surprises involved in the frame work. A couple of spalls help the sides apart until we got it re-screwed and reglued in. Actually, this was, by far, the simplest bit, aside from painting, maybe.

Somewhere in there, the new rubrails were installed with screws and glue. Yea!

Then it was time to address the bottom. I didn’t mention the external keelson/rub strip that we had to remove to get at the stem ends. It’s is only a simple 1×1 strip, screwed from the inside and bedded. Once the rub strip was removed, it became obvious the bottom panel was totally compromised. The glass on both sides of the panel had cracked almost all the way through. Did I mention we abused this boat?

A memorable abuse story, if you will abide an interlude. The kids were paddling around a few years ago in the pirogue with their cousins. An honest 6-700 pounds worth of big kids, all four with paddles. They quite literally drove the boat under several times. One sinking occurred just in front of us. The bow dove under, the water began pouring over the rails, and our niece began backing into the stern. She literally climbed up onto the last little tip of the stern as the boat sank, and perched there, like a frog, or Spiderman or some-such. It would only have been funnier if she had saluted.

Mind, these are all shallow water shenanigans. The kids were sinking her in knee to waist deep water. It’s pretty fun to watch four kids raise a boat sunk in four feet of water. The trick, we learned from watching them, it to rotate the boat rather than lift it. They sort of spun it up to the surface, then just spun it out of the water like they were pouring water over one side. Kids is smart, if you don’t go mucking about dumbing them down.

So. Back to the bottom panel repair. The butt joint got two layers of 6oz. Glass on both sides, this time, instead of just one. I also cut the weave on a slight bias, and oriented the fibers to try and keep all the fibers from running exactly the same way. The original butt just cracked along a warp (or weft, for all I know…) line, so I was hoping to avoid that again.

After the bottom was rendered whole again, it was ripped from the chines. Well. It sort of came off very easily. I was surprised. I mean, there was a certain amount of banging and wrenching and sweating and prying, but not all that much.

The bottom being glued and screwed left only the outer bottom rubstrip to be reinstalled before the painting could begin. The painting started with the usual few rounds of filling, fairing, and priming. Now, we didn’t get all crazy with the smoothness of this one. Fill the big holes, grind off the large lumps, and slap on some paint.

Somewhere in there, a piece of polyester line was epoxied around the corner of the stem, to make a skidplate tough enough to withstand some granite sand beachings. This stuff is rough on boatses, y’all…

Then, we found this charming yellow color, which complimented this grey porch paint we got for the interior, so well. The grey wouldn’t do for the decks, though, and nor could they be yellow, so a nice, whitish color was located. A lovely dark green I found in one of the pyramids of cans rounded the livery perfectly. I guess. Heh.

And, that, basically, is how you take a boat what is already made, and transmogrify it into nearly the same boat, without any solid plan, at all. She is certainly a better vessel now than when launched. She’s stronger, looks a little better, and has better painter attachments. Which, shoot, I never mentioned that we put in some dory-style loops in the stem and on the transtone. Not that anybody is ever going to hook this puppy onto a deck and stack it, but man, they make nice carrying handles, and great loops to attach painters to.

Oh. The paddle. Shoot, I made a double paddle. It’s sort of spoon bladed. It’s glued up from some sweet local pine, then carved down to a more or less paddle shape. The tips have been wrapped with epoxy soaked polyester cord around the edges of the tips. The cords were faired in, then both tips were painted in hull color and trimmed in rubrail color. Then, the blades and shaft up to the knots were covered in about 489 coats of clear.

Did you not know we affect class? Hehe. We do put on the airs, sometimes. We pretend to do it right, every once in a while. We do have fun, though.

I suppose that’s enough babble. Lots going on here, though, and lots more to share, as soon as I can wrestle all the lies into this foolish box.


  1. Great job mate – I also built a similiar canoe flat bottom like yours and I made it bullit proof as you have I also want to build a second boat a two person canoe design by selway -fisher I think or a two part break a part 10 to 12 rowing/ outboard wooden boat by Jim Makalak – good luck for the future and travels – Dave Sydney Australia.

  2. Thanks, Mate!
    I do love the little boats. They do work so well, and they are fun.
    Your second boat ideas sound cool.
    Keep us all posted, eh?
    Good luck and fair winds to you.

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