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Refinishing ‘old girl’ a labour of love


Refinishing a canvas cedar canoe that’s 50 or 60 years old is taking a lot of time and effort but for Eric Fagerdahl, it’s a labour of love.

“It’s like you get under a spell,” reflected the owner of Rainy Lake Boatworks here, describing why he’s refurbishing the old canoe. “It’s like she’s speaking out to you, saying, ‘Revive me.’”

Fagerdahl originally saw the canoe two years ago at an acquaintance’s cabin. And as soon as he spotted the “old girl” under a blanket, he was determined to fix her up.

“It was the first time ever doing anything like this,” he said. “But when the old girl speaks to you, you have to do it.”

The mystery of where the canoe came from bothered Fagerdahl. He knew it originated in this area, so he wanted to know more and enhance local history.

He used a number of clues to date the boat. He recognized the cedar as being from a time when such trees were huge and plentiful. He also saw a checkered pattern in the boat’s varnish, and concluded it was spar varnish.

These observations led him to believe the canoe was built about 50 years ago. But he still didn’t know who made it. There were no serial numbers, he said, and no manufacturer’s decal.

“It kind of bothered me that I didn’t know what I had.”

So Fagerdahl started asking around town. He got a lead that the McCombs built canoes in Emo, and learned the trademark of their canoes was an especially broad stern and bow.

“I looked at the old girl and said, oh, yeah, it’s gotta be a McComb,” Fagerdahl laughed.

He narrowed down the builders—Tom McComb helped by his brother, Buzz. They probably built the canoe after the war, in the late 1940s or early ’50s.

Knowing the age of the canoe made Fagerdahl even more enthusiastic but he also realized how much work fixing it up would be. He depended on his friend, Owen Johnston, for help.

First, they had to remove the original canvas, which Fagerdahl said wasn’t too difficult because it already was falling off anyways. They also had to re-work the inside of the canoe—the original cedar was sanded, stained, and revarnished.

Finally, the pair got to work on the boat’s canvas. They started out by making an envelope out of the material and pulled between two walls of the workshop. The canoe then was placed inside, right side up, and suspended to stretch the canvas tightly.

Fagerdahl then stapled the canvas firmly to the canoe, with the help of canvas-streching pliers, and cut the extra material from the edges.

The next step was to add the canvas filler, torch it to bake it on, smooth it out with canvas mitts, and sand it down once it was dry to get out all the air bubbles. This is the point where Fagerdahl is right now.

Still, he knows exactly where he’ll go next. He’s already decided on bright red for the canoe’s colour, which he’ll apply once the filler is dry and sanded. And he didn’t get regular paint like he normally does—the “big McComb” will sport expensive yacht paint when it’s done.

“Ordinarily, I use Tremclad paint but this one said, ‘Oh, no, you use yacht paint,’” Fagerdahl laughed.

Fagerdahl said once he’s finished, he’ll probably sell the canoe. But after months of working on it—and dreaming about it—he’s not so sure now.

“I keep saying, I’m going to sell it, I’m going to sell it,” he mused. “But when it’s all done, I might keep the old girl.”

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