Restoring a Harold Gates Canoe – Keeping the Old Ways Alive

by Richard R. Howie 2013

Harold Gates was a canoe builder who was born in Middleton, Nova Scotia in the picturesque Annapolis Valley. He lived there his entire life and was the best known of the maritime canoe builders during his era. He was quoted in "Older Ways" regarding his start in building canoes stating that he was trapping to earn a living and realized that he needed a canoe. "I had to have a canoe an’ the only way I could have one is to build it." He was in his twenties at the time. Gates eventually produced more than 400 canoes over a period of some 30 years until his retirement in 1986 due to failing eyesight. He died in 1994.

Image 2

Harold Gates in his workshop. (Photo from "Older Ways: traditional Nova Scotia craftsmen" by permission of Peter Barss)

Tim Stewart, another Nova Scotian canoe builder worked for the Peterborough Canoe Company in Ontario for some years. Stewart developed his own canoe business in Nova Scotia during the 1920s and used molds of his own design. In 1967 Harold obtained Tim’s molds. Tim Stewart died in 1952 (from his tombstone in South Brookfield cemetery) but the molds remained in his shop and his son still lived in the house. They were ultimately used by Gates who added his own unique designs to this historic line of watercraft. He also made molds for fibreglass canoes for the Lincoln Canoe Company in Maine.

More from Peter Hope: "From an interview I made with David Freeman originally from South Brookfield, he said in 1966 he wanted a Stewart canoe like his father had. He saw Leland Stewart (Tim’s son) about getting Tim’s molds for Harold Gates to use. It was arranged, Harold paid for the molds, built the canoe and Leland died in April 1967 and the molds (at David Freeman’s urging) became Harold’s. In my interviews Harold confirmed these statements."

Kip McCurdy and Gus Reed bought the Gates and Stewart molds in 1986 to further their building of classic canoes in the Annapolis Valley not far from Gates’ hometown of Middleton. They operate today as McCurdy and Reed Canoes and continue the tradition of fine handcrafted quality canoes.

In 1972, I was working in the heart of canoe country at Kejimkujik National Park. I quickly succumbed to the lure of owning ‘a Gates’ in order to answer the call of the waterways in and around the park. Mine was a delightful boat called the Solo – a spruce green 13’ beauty weighing about 50 pounds (23 kilos). It was easy to portage and manoeuvre. Harold used a porch and floor enamel to paint the canoe as the more flexible marine paints were just too expensive. The brittle nature of the floor enamel became evident some years later.

My canoe lacked a wide white stripe which adorned some hulls that Harold built. A long–time Nova Scotia Gates canoe owner Barry Sawyer, comments that "unless otherwise specified, the woodland canoes, the 11.5’, 13’ and 14’ were always painted with gray porch and floor enamel, and with a 3 inch wide stripe, nearly always red but sometimes white. I doubt, however, that he ever painted a whole hull white." Hand–shaped white ash paddles were included as lively and responsive agents of propulsion with the admonition of not scraping the gunwales when doing the J–stroke. The $225 price tag for the boat seemed hefty at the time.

Peter Hope (another Gates canoe owner) reports that "virtually always green, especially through until the late 1970s – porch and floor enamel as Rick Howie says and available at the local hardware store. I got an 11 foot model and Harold had used it himself for trapping. His personal trapping canoes were the only ones I ever saw that way, painted a light grey with a big red stripe. He had a big Vee stern he used in his own trapping painted up that way. Up until the late 1970s if you wanted a different colour canoe Harold sold you a filled but unpainted canoe. The vast majority were dark green. "

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The author, Richard Howie, takes the canoe for a spin through some challenging white water near Georgian Bay Islands National Park, Ontario (Photograph by Greg Gemmell).

In 1978 I moved back to my home at Kamloops in British Columbia. There, the Solo provided access to many lakes in pursuit of trout before suffering the ravages of time and less than ideal storage conditions. In 2011, I sold the 39 year old canoe to Al McLean, a local resident who was anxious to restore it but not necessarily to an exact replica of the original. Some liberties would be taken with modern materials and colours.

McLean has been developing his skills in restoring wood and canvas canoes by working with Dave Lanthier, a local craftsman who has been perfecting the trade for many years. They laboured together in Dave Lanthier’s workshop to bring the vessel back to its former glory. The following photos tell some of the story, but not before a picture in Lanthier’s workshop of a hobby gone wild.

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A collection of restored canoes in Dave Lanthier’s workshop, Kamloops British Columbia. (Photo from R.R. Howie)

As for my Gates canoe, the photo below shows the early stages of canvas removal, varnish stripping and inspection for damaged planks. The seats have been removed for re–caning.

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Gates canoe in the early stages of restoration. (Photo from A. McLean collection.)

Damaged sections of planks were removed and replaced. Typically, Harold Gates used eastern red cedar for planks and white cedar for ribs. Al McLean used white cedar for the replacement planks and stained it to match the older wood. One rib was replaced as well.

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Damaged plank sections removed. (Photo from A. McLean collection.)

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Portions of the stem required replacement using glue and clamps. There are never enough clamps in the boat shop. (Photo from A. McLean)

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The new wood was trimmed and sanded to match the original profile. (Photo from A. McLean collection.)

Most Gates canoes were outfitted with white spruce gunwales. (Peter Hope notes: "By 1978 he was using fancy woods in special orders and might have painted a canoe something else – I just never saw it. The gunwales were all spruce in traditional Gates canoes – still are today in McCurdy canoes. If ash was used it would be a special order.) They were retained during the restoration but required some repairs. The inwale on one side was badly damaged where the seat support bolts were attached, so McLean added a piece of oak for a more robust repair. He undertook the same procedure for all bolt locations for both seats in order to strengthen the inwales and add more symmetry to the final product. Originally, the seats were bolted hard up under the gunwales which allowed a bit more room underneath the seat to extend one’s legs when kneeling to paddle and gave the seated paddler a slightly higher position when seated. Again, from Barry Sawyer, "This stiffens the boat as well as eliminating the feeling that one is in a bathtub."

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Dave Lanthier (left) and Al McLean (right) with a Gates ‘Solo’ model canoe. (Photo from R.R. Howie collection.)

The boat had Linseed oil applied to the hull prior to attaching the #10 weight canvas which had been stretched and affixed. A preservative was applied to the canvas and allowed to dry before painting. Al McLean displays a newly caned seat. The original seats were caned by a blind veteran of the Second World War.

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The Solo with new paint and varnish. (Photo from A. McLean collection.)

New canvas and varnish gives the boat a fresh look. The varnish used on this boat was an Interlux® product but on a subsequent canoe, McLean used a finish from Epifanes® which is more expensive. Changes in environmental and health regulations regarding the constituent of varnish products have now made some of the favoured older products such as Behr® unavailable. The new canvas paint in ‘antique white’ is an oil based product from Tremclad®. Four coats were applied to achieve a durable outer layer.

Original Gates decals were purchased from the McCurdy and Reed Company (canoe builders) and added to the bow and side of the canoe. McCurdy and Reed acquired the decals when they bought the remaining stock from Harold Gates in 1986.

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Original Gates decal with the Gates trademark image of a swan. (Photo from A. McLean collection.)

The original canoe did not have a side decal but the addition dresses it up nicely. The side decal was originally white but this did not contrast well with the new colour, so McLean had the decals made in gold along with the pin stripes for a sharp new look.

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The finished restoration of a Gates 13 foot ‘Solo’ model canoe. (Photo from A. McLean collection.)

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Inside view of the completed project. (Photo from A. McLean collection.)

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Home on the water again as the little boat goes for its first paddle after being refinished. Marilyn McLean takes the Solo for a paddle in Shuswap Lake. (Photo from A. McLean collection.)

It was a good feeling to see the Gates ‘Solo’ back where it belongs, giving pleasure to people on the water as only a wood and canvas canoe can provide.

14 foot

Peter Hope is an old friend and former colleague of mine currently living in South Brookfield, Nova Scotia. He is a retired biologist formerly employed by Parks Canada and paddles his own Gates canoes. This red model was the first 14 footer (4.3 m) built in 1974 by Harold Gates.(Photo from Peter Hope collection.)

16 foot

This green canoe is afloat on the Medway River in Nova Scotia with Peter Hope and his son Stephen aboard. It is a 16 foot (4.9 m) model built in 1986, the last year of canoe building for Harold Gates. Gates’ wood and canvas beauties continue to ply the waterways of the Canadian maritimes. They exist as floating legacies to a master craftsman who provided hundreds of people much joy from the "older ways".(Photo from Peter Hope collection.)

Author’s Note: I am grateful for extensive personal communication with Peter Hope, of South Brookfield, Nova Scotia for background in the preparation of this article. I am also grateful for permission for the use of the photograph of Harold Gates by Peter Barss from his book. (Richard Howie, Author)

Additional From John MacFarlane: In 1971 I was working in Fundy National Park (New Brunswick) when I first met Richard Howie and other owners of Gates' canoes and I was overcome with canoe–envy. No Chestnut model would do – and I was determined to obtain my own. I drove seven hours to visit Harold Gates at his Middleton Nova Scotia shop. He literally interviewed me to determine whether or not he would agree to build one for me. The interview took three hours and included him observing me closely as I examined canoes under construction in the shop. At the end he reluctantly agreed that if I returned the following Spring he would have one of his 13 foot canoes for me (painted forest green). He also measured me for a set of white–ash paddles.

The following Spring I appeared again at his shop but was crushed when he announced that there was no canoe for me. I would have to return the following Spring. (He did give me my paddles though.) The 14–hour round trip seemed endless without the canoe. The next Spring when I arrived, I rendezvoused with Rick Howie at Gates’ shop. Yes, the canoe was ready – and it was a beauty. We loaded it onto the roof of my car, and traded endless stories about canoes and people we knew in common. I was anxious to go – and to get the canoe into the water. He seemed reluctant to let me go – and shocked me when he revealed that the canoe had been built three years previously when I first visited.

Apparently the canoe had been built for someone else and Harold had changed his mind about selling it. He had placed it in storage, but unpainted. He was uncertain when I met him whether he considered me as a ’suitable‘ owner so he decided to see how committed I was to purchase it. I unwittingly passed the test by returning again each year in a fruitless attempt to take ownership. Harold was impressed with my commitment – and finally decided he would give me the canoe as a gift. Then from behind the screen door of the house his wife (who had been listening to the conversation from afar) announced loudly that I owed $300 cash. She took possession of the money and wrote me a receipt (which is now in the collection of the Nova Scotia Archives.) In 1994 I sold the canoe in victoria BC to an American collector.

Canoe Paddle

The logo on the blade of the white ash paddles made by Harold Gates (Photo from MacFarlane Collection)

To quote from this article please cite:

Howie, Richard R. (2013) Restoring a Harold Gates Canoe – Keeping the Old Ways Alive. 2013.

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