Friday 13 September 2013

The restoration of a classic J.B. O'Dette Trapper canoe.

A couple of years ago an acquaintance dropped in to my shop with a little 13’ wood canvas canoe in need of lots of TLC. I could have it for free if I made sure that it was properly restored and later went to a good home.

It wasn't hard to identify it as a trapper canoe built by the Peterborough firm, O’Dette and Sons, from the mid 1930’s. The O’Dette trapper is a 13’ canoe equipped with three keels; a regular keel and two bilge keels. All three keels in turn protected with full length bang irons. Canoes so equipped were commonly called "winter canoes" or "trapping canoes" if you will and used by local trappers and hunters. The keels protected the hull bottom when the canoe was pushed over beaver dams and ice in early spring.

ca. 1938 catalog
The boat building enterprise J.B. O’Dette was established 1926; however John Baptiste O’Dette was not a newcomer to canoe building. "Bat", as he often was called, learned the business of canoe building working for the firm Wm. English Canoe Co, starting in 1877 only fourteen year old. He left Wm. English Canoe Co in 1895 to work for the Peterborough Canoe Co. He rose to the position of foreman, a position he held until 1925 when he left to start J. B. O’Dette Canoe. In 1930 his son George joined him and a couple of years later his oldest son Vernon also joined the family business. The company produced canoes, skiffs, motor boats as well as oars and paddles. The company became well known for their high quality canoes and boats and was the go-to place for trapper canoes. The O’Dette’s also run a successful boat & canoe rental business; “Peterborough Boat Livery” with two locations along Otonabee River.

Restoration of the O'Dette Trapper canoe.

Despite its condition and some heavy handed repairs over the years; the quality of the original materials’ and workmanship used, shone through. The canoe had had the canvas replaced in the 1970's and the shear-line lowered in the bow and stern. After stripping the canoe of its old varnish the real condition of the hull could be observed. The canoe had suffered the usual discolorations, blemishes and scars from hard use and old age.

Stem repaired and a new cant rib installed.                       New ribs being installed and repairs to rib ends.

The outer gunnels were beyond repair and the inner needed repairs in the ends. The stems needed fresh wood spliced in. Twenty eight ribs were broken and worn from heavy work boots and a visit by a hungry porcupine, and had to be replaced. Four new cant ribs were installed and thirty rib tips received extensions spliced in to return the shear-line to its original position. 

Bill installing canvas
The old seats had long ago lost its caning     and the framework was severely cracked, so  new seats were made with the old as a pattern.  The decks had at an earlier time been replaced with a pair, crudely made from pine.  A new set of decks and a pair of lift handles were made from white oak and installed. 

About thirty feet of cracked planking were also replaced. To blend all this new wood to the old, the interior received two washes of stain and was topped with four coats of varnish.

The O'Dette trapper canoe with new canvas covering.
    The hull exterior was sanded smooth and    
     treated with an application of tung oil 
     followed by a coat of varnish.  

     The canoe’s new owner wanted to help out        with the canvas work, so with two extra               hands the work was quickly finished.
     A few days later the canvas was treated   
     with a zink-naphtenate mildewcide. A  
     smelly but absolutely necessary job if the   
     new canvas covering is going to last.
     After drying for a few days, the canvas 
     received an oil based silica filler. 

J. B. O'Dette trapper canoe.
The cold spring this year extended the filler's drying time with a couple of weeks. However, in the late May it was finally time to move the canoe outside for sanding of the filler.

Four coats of shop mixed grey/blue paint
and the canoe was ready for the final details. Two new outwales and two new outside wood stems were made and installed. The center keel was re-installed
and the two bilge keels were saved, but left off, as the canoe now will see much lighter use then in its earlier life.

The new owners picked up the restored O'Dette trapper canoe in June and ensured me it will be well treated and used as it deserves.

The new owners and the restored O'Dette Trapper canoe.


  1. Thats really cool. George Odette is my grandfather. Came across this page doing a google search

  2. Hello! My name is Laurie Auger and I am the youngest daughter of George O'Dette, the son of J.B. O'Dette. It was so much fun to read this blog about my father's canoes. I remember so well the boat house on the banks of the Otonabee River, right next to the foot/train bridge from East City to the down town area. My husband and I were in Peterborough last June and visited the site - of course everything is different now and in fact the entire city is nothing like it was when I grew up there (I now live in Victoria). I still have one of the small pamphlets, listing all the products that were made in the boat house - and the prices which now seem so cheap! I loved visiting my father and Uncle Vern there and watching them work. I was very young at the time of my grandfather's death and really don't remember him at all so this bit of information is wonderful to find!