Canvas, Reconsidered

It’s been years since I used canvas to skin one of my kayaks. Instead I’ve slipped into polyester, the venerable fabric of the leisure suit, which I then cover with varnish or paint. It’s light, it’s cheap, it works. But like almost everything, it has its drawbacks. It slackens a bit over time. And it’s easy to open holes in the fabric while sewing it tight.

fish-shaped toggles

Fishy toggles carved from cedar.

Recently I finished a baidarka made in part of willow ribs harvested from a river bank. You peel off the bark and bend the twig to shape with your bare hands. This felt more organic than the usual business of steam-bending ribs from lumberyard white oak cut on a table saw. A canvas skin, I thought, was the next logical step. It seemed, perhaps wrongly, more of the earth than polyester. Never mind the pesticides and god knows what else involved in producing it. Almost anything makes sense if you don’t think too hard about it. I ordered up seven yards of #10 canvas duck and got out my sewing needles.

What followed was another of those experiences that sloshes in the vast territory between satisfaction and disappointment. I’m here to say that canvas did not change my life.

I draped the canvas over the hull, sewed up the bow, then yanked on the fabric at the stern to pull it as tight as possible. I marked the spot where the stretched canvas met the end of the stern, sewed the canvas into a sort of envelope, then pulled the cloth over the stern. From there I sewed a felled seam down the middle of the deck from the cockpit to the ends. The usual drill, in short.

I had forgotten how much sewing canvas is like sewing plywood. I punched holes for the needle with an awl, then pushed the needle through using leather gloves. Tough going. But when I finished the skin was satisfyingly snug. I figured I could tighten it up a bit more by dousing the canvas with hot water, then letting it air dry. It works on jeans, and is commonly recommended for kayaks. My big concern was that the fabric would shrink too much and distort the frame.

Talk about your unnecessary concerns. I went back to my shop the next morning and discovered that if anything, the skin seemed looser. I boiled up some water, doused the skin again, and dried it this time with an iron set to high. Afterword I told myself that it seemed as tight as it had before the first treatment. That may have been true.

wavy skin on kayak

Waves on water: good. Waves on kayak skin: bad.

Thinking there was nothing further to be done, I moved on to coating the skin. Lately I’ve mixed artist pigment in with spar varnish and brushed on five or six coats. With poly that’s enough to get a smooth finish that is to my eye a pleasing, leather-like, mottled brown. I imagined something roughly similar would happen with the canvas.

As it turns out, canvas has much more texture than poly. The varnish created a miniature moonscape of rough peaks and valleys. I sanded it down between coats, which helped some but never resulted in an especially smooth surface. Instead, the formerly more-or-less tight skin developed subtle waves. It seemed as if the varnish loosened the canvas. After five or six coats (like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, I sort of lost track) I decided to stop.

Right now I’m clinging to my illusions. I’m hoping that if I get the boat on the water, get it wet and let it dry in the sun, the canvas will magically shrink. Alternately — and more realistically — I’m thinking that once I get the boat on the water I’ll be so captivated by the way it paddles that I’ll forget about a few sags in the skin.

In the meantime I’ve been reminded of a little something about myself. I’m not always happy to leave well enough alone. I don’t care so much for a rutted path. A lot of times that works out. I can live with the times when it doesn’t.


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One Response to Canvas, Reconsidered

  1. elizabeth says:

    Tony, I would suggest (if you ever do this again) tie-dye with walnut hull dip for a natural color, and maybe stretch WET canvas. Wax your cord/”needle” & it might draw easier.
    We are probaby fixated on tight skin. Watertight is good…maybe glass-tight is vanity

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