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Developments in modern canoe construction

Often seen as the dated and less sexy cousin of the kayak, canoes had been sadly left standing beside the dance floor when it came to modernising their designs. I say had, because in recent years canoes have seen a resurgence in their use and importantly for paddlers, significant changes in their design and construction. The timeless design and inherent versatility of canoes has always been the secret of their appeal to paddlers, now with improvements to ease of handling on and off the water that appeal should stretch to a much wider audience.

As one would expect the North American manufacturers have lead the way on embracing new technology in both selection of materials of construction and hull design software to improve the shape and performance of their craft. The Australian market whilst initially slow to respond, due largely to smaller demand here, has now seen an increase in demand for high quality imported canoes which in turn has given local manufacturers confidence to embrace similar technology to that being used overseas.

As mentioned above, the focus of improvements to the humble canoe has been around improving handling the craft both on and off the water. Manufacturers have sought to build boats that are light, stable, quick through the water and responsive to paddle strokes. Whilst equally true for kayaks as it is for canoes, the higher demand for their double bladed cousins meant that more improvements have been seen in kayak than canoe offerings.

Whilst no means a comprehensive list, the following are some of the key developments in canoe design and construction over recent years.


Its seems odd for us to hear in Australia, however in the US the market perception is that if you want a lightweight boat you get a canoe – kayaks are seen as the heavier craft. Manufacturers in the US and Canada have spent a lot of money on research into materials and construction methods to reduce the weight of their craft whilst maintaining strength, durability and importantly stiffness.

To understand why, you have to look at the paddling culture in North America and in particular the notion of ‘portaging’ or carrying the canoe. With large tracts of water separated by short overland trails or sections of rapids, paddlers find themselves unloading and carrying their canoes from one waterway to another. Nobody wants to lug a heavy boat overland through wilderness trails, so demand grew for lighter more manageable canoes.

In the 1970’s materials with high strength to weight ratios like Carbon and Kevlar became commercially available to manufacturers of composite products. Canoe manufacturers, traditionally using glass fibre to manufacture their hulls, now had access to materials that allowed them to manufacture strong, stiff and durable hulls with a significant reduction in weight. Technology has continued to develop and now the composite industry has access to a range of materials from polypropylene and nylon based fabrics through to those made from drawn strands of Basalt rock!

Reduced fabric weight combined with low density resins and vacuum bagging / resin infusion manufacturing techniques has seen a dramatic reduction in canoe weight over the years. Great news for tired paddlers hefting their boat back on the roof of their car after a long day on the water.

Hull Design

Back in the days of the Canadian Voyageurs, transporting bundles of furs up fast flowing untamed rivers, large curved ends were important on their canoes to keep paddlers and cargo dry through rough fast-moving water. These were purpose-built boats designed for the local waterways and refined over generations of indigenous paddlers to perform a specific task. Whilst some paddlers still aspire to conquer the mighty rivers of northern Canada, most everyone else is paddling on very different waterways and require different attributes of their boats.

The first composite canoes made were based largely upon the traditional canoe designs of days gone by with some changes made to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of the materials being used. The traditional look often times did not translate well into the new material and a lot of early canoe designs were quite clunky looking beasts.

Aesthetics aside, the large ends required to keep a canoe dry when plunging into a trough in a set of wild rapids was a curse to paddlers moving across open wind swept waterways. Keels with lots of rocker, designed for manoeuvrability on moving water, were a chore to paddle on long straight stretches of water. It was obvious changes needed to be made.

Designers began to experiment with straight bow and stern stems to increase waterline length and it’s resulting increased boat speed. They looked at the effect of more slender profiles on their craft to weigh up reduced drag verses reduced stability. Hull cross sections were developed to improve tracking without adversely affecting manoeuvrability. Most significant of these was the move away from a pronounced keel on canoes to use of shallow vee or shallow arched hulls.

The rise of computer aided drafting packages and analysis software for modelling the attributes of a boat hull in the water has allowed designers to model and revise new designs without the expense of actually making and testing numerous prototypes.

This means that now canoes are being designed to suit a paddlers needs, because as we all know, one size rarely fits all

Other Developments

As materials and hull shapes have developed over the years, fitout of canoes has also come a long way.

New materials and manufacturing techniques have allowed canoe builders to provide their customers with more comfortable and adjustable seating configurations and the ability to configure their canoes for a multitude of uses from sailing to fishing and other outdoor pursuits.

Gunwales and thwarts on modern canoes are selected to allow easy attachment of accessories and other personal touches (some people even fit motors to their canoes!). As most canoe owners will tell you, one of the great appeals of this craft is it’s versatility.

The future certainly looks bright for the faithful canoe. Even though it is one of the oldest designs of watercraft, modern processes and designs have ensured it is as practical and relevant today as it was in the distant past.

Stable predictable hulls and lightweight fittings mean that the humble canoe is a great choice for everyone from young families looking for a day on the water through to couples wanting to get away from it all or seeking a taste of adventure.

If you’re looking for a cost effective and versatile craft to get out on the water, a canoe is well worth looking at. For more information about canoes and new developments in this space, give Dan from One Tree Canoe Company a call on 0424 00 1646 or check out

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