Canoe redo -- Eugene craftsman Dick Cross breathes new life into old canoes
The Register-Guard, Nov 15, 2001, p. 8E
Article by MIKE STAHLBERG, photos by THOMAS BOYD
IT'S 1969 WHEN Dick Cross, his brother-in-law and four of their children engage in a memorable canoe race on a small Northern California lake where the family owns a cabin. Cross and kids lose the race - perhaps because its "crew" members are 5 and 3 years old, while the brother-in-law's canoe is crewed by teen-agers. Cross could not even suspect it at the time, but both canoes involved in that race would resurface 30 years later at the center of a new-found passion for restoring antique wooden canoes.
Now 69, Cross has a fleet of seven old wooden canoes - some of
them almost 100 years old - in various stages of restoration in the large
shop building behind his home in the College Hill area of Eugene. One of
those is the 1905 Morris brand canoe his brother-in-law paddled to victory
back in 1969. That canoe now looks as bright and shiny as the day it was
brought home in 1905 by the two people shown paddling it in a faded photo
copied from a family album.
By the time his brother-in-law turned the canoe over to Cross, however, it was no longer usable. "It was a total wreck," Cross said. "It was left out in the weather for years" and much of the wood had rotted. "All of the planking is new, nine ribs are new, a couple of these thwarts are new and one seat is new." So, too, is the canvas that is stretched over the outside of the wooden planking and sealed with a "filler" to form the canoe's water-tight skin.
Cross fastened one end of the canvas to his garage and the other end to the bumper of his car, using the vehicle to stretch the canvas tightly over the canoe frame prior to tacking down the fabric. Cross says he has become fascinated by wooden canoes. `I love the history .... and I'm fascinated by the workmanship somebody else has done. ... I try to do it as well or better. Also, when you get it done, it's just beautiful and a joy to paddle." Cross says wood canoes are more pleasurable to paddle because `they're quiet and they seem more stable, even though they may not be."
The process of restoring wooden canoes is complicated by the fact their method of construction makes it virtually impossible to disassemble and reassemble one. Most wooden canoes were manufactured inside a metal "form" that helped hold the wood in the desired shape during construction. To affix the wooden planking of the outer shell to the "ribs" of the craft, workmen drove a metal tack from the inside of the craft out through both pieces of wood and against the metal form. "The tack crimps over when it hits the metal, so you can't take it apart without ripping wood," Cross said. Thus, only those pieces to be replaced can be removed, and they must be replicated exactly to fit back into the hole left behind.
Cross felt comfortable tackling the challenge because he'd spent much of his life working with wood, primarily as a custom furniture maker. He enjoyed restoring the old Morris canoe so much that he decided to do more. He took a course in canoe building - and won the drawing for the canoe the class had built. "I took it, but it was new, so I traded for that 50-pounder," he said, pointing to a restored 1917 Old Town 14-footer hanging on the wall of his shop.
Then he tackled his most challenging project to date, an ancient
canoe given to him by an Olympia boatbuilder "because it was too far gone."
"This is a Racine," he says of that boat, "and I have no idea how old it
is, except that the company burned in 1915" and never resumed production.
"So it was built sometime before 1915." The boat was so "terribly
trashed" when he got it that it had even lost its shape, Cross said.
He had to extrapolate that boat's original "lines" from a small end section of the canoe that still had a thwart holding the gunwales together. Cross was able to gradually pull the canoe back into its original shape, and today the exterior looks showroom fresh, with "bookmatched" mahogany decking and lots of shiny brass trim (including a curved "bang plate" at the leading edge of the bow, to protect the canoe during crashes).
Looking at the interior, however, much of the wood beneath the fresh coasts of varnish shows signs of distress. "The varnish will show every little ding and nailhead," Cross said, and the Racine had lots of them because "I had to completely re-tack the boat." And not just any tack will do when restoring a century-old canoe. In addition to replacing wooden pieces with the exact same kind of wood, Cross strives to duplicate the hardware used in the original construction.
An Internet site maintained by the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association helped him find a company in Maine that makes the kind of copper tacks he needed. "I called and said I have this Morris canoe and I need tacks to replank it, and the guy says, `I betcha we made those tacks back in 1904. ... We've been in business since 1860.'
All the research and shopwork means that canoe restoration takes a tremendous amount of time. "More than you could ever recover in selling a boat," Cross said. And he has not yet parted with any of his restored canoes, although he says "I'm going to have to do something because I'm running out of space." Cross is especially fond of his two oldest canoes because they "look more like the Indian canoes to me."
His current project is a Canadian Canoe Co. rib and baton all-wood canoe, which used a style of construction that didn't require a canvas cover. "But it was awfully hard to make, and it was very hard to maintain," Cross said. That canoe was obtained from a friend of a friend, but most of Cross' projects are found via classified advertisements reading, "Wanted: old wooden/canvas canoes. Any condition. (Almost)." "I get calls fairly often," Cross said. "Some I buy, and some I don't if they're just too far gone." Wooden/canvas canoes started falling out of favor following World War II, when the aluminum canoe was introduced. That was followed by plastic and fiberglass boats.
Cross is looking primarily for canoes from the 1920s or earlier.
But there was one special canoe he was looking for - the first canoe he ever owned, the one he and his daughters paddled in that family race in 1969. Cross had sold the canoe in 1972. After restoring the Morris and seeing it back in the water, Cross started thinking about trying to track down his first canoe. "I'd sold it to a man who sold it to another man that I happened to know," Cross said. But that man had sold it to a person unknown to him. So Cross took out an ad saying he wanted to buy his canoe back. The ad described the canoe, where and when it had been sold, and by whom. "An old guy up the river called me and said, `I've got your canoe.' ' Cross said. "I said, `How do you know it was my canoe?' and he said, `I still got the check.' ' He'd kept the canceled check in his files since 1972. "I'd had to make repairs when I had it, and I recognized the repair when I went to look at it - that's how I knew with certainty that it was mine." Appropriately, Cross' Old Town canoe was in need of some restoration. Owner number four had a mishap that left a gouge in the bow.
Cross hasn't gotten around to repairing that just yet, but he's looking forward to doing that - and to a possible rematch with his brother-in-law during one of the regular gatherings back at the lakeside family cabin. "That would be fun," Cross said. "That would be a great thing to do. ... We could get another generation involved, because the kids all have children now."