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"Manufacture of Canoes." Patent no. 29269, filed by William English, 1888


Patent no. 29269. Filing year 1888.

"Improvements in the Manufacture of Canoes," William English.

The modern recreational canoe was created in and around Peterborough, Ontario. It was not the brainchild of one person, however, but the collective effort of a community of builders. Sometimes collaborating, sometimes competing, these builders filed a series of patents, including the one above by William English. Their patents represent a progression of techniques, all of equal significance to the evolution of the canoe.

First Nations had been using birchbark canoes for centuries before European settlers moved into the Peterborough region around 1820. The settlers were impressed with the versatility and utility of these boats. Building birchbark canoes required a level of craftsmanship and a time investment that precluded manufacture on a large scale, but some settlers bought birchbark canoes from their First Nations neighbours.

The first settler-built canoes were "dugouts," and were essentially carved out of logs. While these dugouts became quite refined, they were much heavier than their birchbark counterparts and therefore less versatile. The first step in the creation of a new lightweight canoe was the use of an inverted dugout as a mould, or "form," that a new boat could be built around. Two builders, John Stephenson and Tom Gordon, are believed to have made the first canoe using a form, but the first such patent in Canada, no. 1252, was filed by Dan Herald, in 1871.

Herald's form was adjustable for size and was covered in metal bands, which bent the nails that were hammered through the boards of the canoe being built around it. (Before this, nails or tacks went straight into the wooden form, and the finished boat had to be pried off of it.) The hull was made of two layers of thin cedar planks, on the inside and outside of the craft, between which was sandwiched a sheet of painted canvas. When the paint dried, it sealed the holes around the 7,000 tacks used to hold the boat together.

Stephenson patented the next major innovation, in 1879. His "rib boat" (no. 10063) dispensed with canvas, using machine-edged cedar planks that fit tightly together and were held in place by a few "battens," long strips of wood that ran perpendicular to the cedar ribs. His update four years later, no. 17681, changed the orientation of the ribs and battens. The next step, the use of metal rather than wooden battens, was developed but not patented by Tom Gordon and applied in his Lakefield Canoe Company, north of Peterborough.

Finally, we come to William English's 1888 patent, above. English's design dispensed with the battens that jutted uncomfortably into the canoe's interior. Instead, he cut triangular grooves into the edges of each plank that, when the planks were put together, formed a narrow channel. A form-fitting strip of hardwood was run through this channel, secured with brass tacks. English's "flush batten" technique was adopted by area canoe manufacturers and used by his own canoe company, which his sons took over after his death in 1891.

By 1900 there were several canoe manufacturers based in and around Peterborough, building cedar rib canoes. Soon, techniques were developed in Maine that allowed the mass-production of cheaper cedar-canvas boats, while modern materials, such as fibreglass, came into use only decades later. The wide-board-and-batten techniques developed around Peterborough, however, have always been revered by boat enthusiasts and are still used by some boat builders today.


Thanks to Dick Persson, technical and historical advisor to The Canadian Canoe Museum, Peterborough, Ontario, for his assistance with this profile.

Moores, Ted. "From Forest to Factory: Innovations and Mass Production." The Canoe. Edited by J. Jennings. Toronto: Firefly Books, 2002., pp. 162-193.

"Collection Profile: The Herald's Patent Cedar Canoe." Canada Science and Technology Museum.
(accessed October 25, 2005).