Tennessee Valley Canoe Club volunteers working to restore antique canvas canoe for June auction

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / BG Smith, Tennessee Valley Canoe Club board director, stands with an antique canoe that he is helping restore to raise money for the paddling club.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / BG Smith, Tennessee Valley Canoe Club board director, stands with an antique canoe that he is helping restore to raise money for the paddling club.

When an old, damaged wood and canvas canoe was donated to Tennessee Valley Canoe Club, Board Director BG Smith decided to fix it up. He planned to organize a team of volunteers and, hopefully, restore the canoe in time for the club's annual Paddle School auction in early June.

"I thought, 'I can work on my car; I can fix a fridge. This is going to be easy,'" says Smith, who quickly began to worry he was in over his head.

The canoe, a 1954 18-foot Old Town, had several broken ribs. The gunwales, or the rails that run along the top of the hull, needed to be replaced. The seat needed new webbing, and there was a palm-sized hole in the bottom, among other damaged areas.

Overwhelmed, Smith decided to start at the very beginning.

He traced the canoe to the factory where it was manufactured in Maine. He contacted the company and learned the canoe had been delivered to Winona Camp for Boys in Bridgton, Maine, the year it was made. There, campers had carved a "W" onto its deck, a marking still visible to Smith. The canoe remained at the camp for the next 40 years before being sold and eventually finding its way to Tennessee.

While researching its origins, Smith learned about Maine canoe builder Jerry Stelmok who wrote the book on wood and canvas canoe restoration -- literally.

"I've been using his book as my guide," says Smith. Over email, he connected with Stelmok, who manufactures parts for canoes -- like the cedar planking Smith will need to repair the hole.

"There is so much skill and technique that goes into it," Smith says.


In late January, Smith and about 12 TVCC volunteers began restoration efforts. First, they stripped the canoe of old varnish, then treated and polished the wood. Then, they moved the boat to Red Bank's O.G. Woodwork & Design where owner Bryan Jones offered a workspace within his shop.

There, the volunteers will sand, strip and patch the boat. Some of the repairs require specialized equipment such as a steam chamber, which Smith built himself.

"Wood doesn't bend very easily," he explains. "To put the ribs in the boat, you have to steam them first so you can bend them."

He estimates the project will require about 200 volunteer hours and cost about $1,000 in parts -- a bargain considering the value of a fully restored vintage canoe.

"In present condition, I could probably get $500 for it," says Smith. Fully restored, he estimates its value around $3,000, based on his research of such sites as Antique Boat America, The Wooden Canoe Heritage Association and The Adirondack Museum, a leading expert on wooden canoes.

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Upcoming Tennessee Valley Canoe Club events

April TBD

Free, safety classes for recreational kayakers will be held around Chattanooga, helping beginner paddlers avoid common mistakes on the water. The goal is to curb the growing number of fatal boating accidents in Tennessee. Students must be a TVCC member to register.

May 20

Kayaking 101 teaches basic paddling skills and water safety. The course will be held at Harrison Bay and is free and open to the public. In partnership with Tennessee State Parks and American Canoe Association, it is part of a statewide series helping kick off National Safe Boating Week, May 20-26.

June 2-4

2023 Paddle School offers a range of skill-building classes, from traditional flatwater to river running to whitewater. Groups are divided by skill level and led by an experienced instructor. The weekendlong event is hosted at Adventures Unlimited campground in Ocoee, Tennessee, culminating each year with a Saturday night party and auction. Classes are held on nearby lakes and rivers. Attendees must be a TVCC member to enroll.

Learn more about these events at tvccpaddler.com.

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Big News!

The Tennessee Valley Canoe Club board recently voted to lower membership rates. Individuals can now become a member for $20/ year; families for $25/ year. Memberships provide access to club-guided trips, roll clinics, overnighters and its premier Paddle School event.