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How to Choose a Canoe - Part 3: Canoe Materials

Posted by Darren Bush on 6/5/2013 to Canoe

There is a bewildering variety of canoes available out there—how do you ensure that you pick the one that’s right for you? We have broken choosing a canoe into three parts. Part one is general information. This section helps you think about, how you will use the canoe, and what type of canoe is best for your use. Part two is on canoe design. Part three is about which canoe material will be best for your budget and use. Be sure to check out our other articles on canoe materials, too.


Now let’s consider materials. There are four basic materials for canoe construction: aluminum, plastics, composites, and wood. Each material has advantages and disadvantages, although some have more of one than the other. Some materials are more suited to certain types of designs, however, since not all materials allow the designer the same amount of freedom. The key is to find the type of boat that suits your needs and then to look at what options you have in materials. Your choice will have an effect on many aspects of your canoe’s performance, including weight, impact and scratch resistance, top speed, efficiency, and price.


Aluminum is used only in very inexpensive canoes. Its main advantage is its low cost. Drawbacks include considerable weight and the fact that the ends may not be formed into very streamlined shapes. Aluminum also tends to drag and hang up on rocks rather than slipping over them. Finally, aluminum hulls are almost all symmetrical since the mold is very expensive. This means that makers of aluminum canoes can’t take advantage of varying shapes to maximize performance.

True, aluminum needs little maintenance. In a boat vs. rock situation, the rock most always wins, and once dented, aluminum may not pop back into shape without considerable assistance, and may never be the same as it was pre-rock. The sun reflecting off aluminum can also give you more solar exposure if you don’t paint the bottom of the boat, and if you drop a lure or pocketknife in the bottom of your boat, don’t plan on seeing any fish for a while — remember that sound is conducted much better by water than by air.


Plastics come in several varieties. The least expensive is polyethylene, the same plastic found in milk jugs and lots of other everyday objects. This material also has limitations. It is quieter and more slippery than aluminum, but it is not very stiff. This means that it will not hold complex shapes, nor can it be formed into fine entry lines. It is a tough material, but basic single-layer polyethylene is seldom used in boats that will see rough treatment, that is, wilderness trips and whitewater rivers.

To address the flexibility problems of polyethylene plastic, Old Town developed Crosslink3, which is a three-layer sandwich of polyethylene with a layer of polyethylene foam in the middle. This is the toughest hull material out there, and while it is incredibly tough, Crosslink3 is heavier that most other materials. For boats where overall weight is not an overriding consideration, where durability is important, and where price is an issue, Crosslink3 merits serious consideration. For this reason it is the choice of liveries and outfitters all over the country.

Royalex is also a plastic sandwich, although it is constructed differently. The outside layers are vinyl, which is abrasion-resistant. Next comes ABS plastic (which is sometimes called “high-impact plastic”) which adds impact resistance. In the middle is a layer of rigid foam which adds buoyancy and stiffness. Royalex is a little bit less durable than Crosslink3 , but still so durable that almost all whitewater canoes are made from it. They are lighter than Crosslink3 boats; in fact, Royalex is generally comparable in weight to fiberglass. Since the durability of Royalex is overkill for some people, some manufacturers use lighter-weight versions that are a little less durable, but are lighter and more easily carried than heavier versions. Again, match the function with the material.

One common feature to all plastic canoes is that the material imposes some limits on the designer. Complex shapes are difficult to mold into plastic hulls, and fine, streamlined entry lines cannot be made this way. Look at some plastic hulls and you will see that the bows are blunt compared to laminate boats. This will reduce your efficiency relative to wood and composites, but only at higher speeds. At normal paddling speeds, the hull shape is less important.

Wood or Wood and Canvas

Ah, wood. Wood is the most traditional of all canoe constructions. Native designs were all crafted in wood, whether birchbark, dugout, cedar-plank sided, or any other construction method. If they had had the technology and the opportunity to build with Kevlar, I’m sure they would have secured some and availed themselves of the opportunity.

There are several types of wood canoes. The most common are cedar strip (also called strip-built canoes or strippers) and wood-canvas. Strip-built boats are made of edge-glued strips of wood (usually cedar, but occasionally other woods). Wood-canvas hulls have a wood frame which is skinned with painted canvas. If a canoe is skinned with fiberglass it will be a bit more durable, and will often be called wood-epoxy. The fiberglass can be clear (to show off the wood) or colored (to approximate the look of canvas). The beauty of wood boats can’t be beat, and the material allows for very complex hull shapes, so wood canoes can be counted among the top performers.

Weight is an issue. With some wooden canoes, the builders just cannot approach the lightness of today’s Kevlar featherweights. On the other hand, some of them are able with care and selective reinforcement. They will also require a commitment in terms of maintenance. Most people will find, however, that taking care of a wood canoe is a privilege, not a burden.

Composite Canoes

Composites (or laminates) are the material from which most of today’s high-performance designs are made. The reasons for this will be outlined below, but the first questions to address is, what are composites? Technically, composites are combinations of two or more materials. In boat building, composites are usually composed specifically of cloth (of varying types) impregnated with resins. When these materials cure, they are stiff, strong, and lightweight. The cloth may be fiberglass, or some proprietary material. Tuf-weave is composed of fiberglass and polyester, and features an excellent strength-to-weight ratio at a moderate cost.

Kevlar is the most famous of the composites. Since Kevlar is used in bullet-proof vests, people assume that Kevlar hulls must be if not bulletproof then at least incredibly strong. In some ways they are, but in many ways they are comparable to fiberglass. The builder who uses Kevlar must make a choice. Some manufacturers will have opted for maximum weight savings, while others will sacrifice a bit of lightness for extra strength.

What is so great about composites? The first thing is their versatility. Composites can be formed into nearly any shape imaginable. Extremely complex curves and ultra-fine entry and exit lines are much easier to form in composites than in other materials, and with many materials, these are not possible at all.

Another great feature of composites is that although they are not the most durable materials out there, they are easy to repair. Both structural and cosmetic repairs can be made quite easily. Composites also offer the lightest weight options in canoe construction, so those long portages suddenly don’t look so bad after all.

Part 1: General Information
Part 2: Canoe Design

Well, that’s about it in a nutshell. Call us at (800) I – PADDLE if you have any more specific questions about information in this article or if you just want to talk about boats. We like talking about boats.

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