If you’re in the market for a canoe, then you should be aware that not all canoes are created equal. Manufacturers use a variety of different materials and construction techniques to produce canoes that are well suited to different types of paddling. So what are canoes made of anyway? And what type should you buy? In today’s article I’ll cover the most common canoe construction materials, and share the benefits of each to help you choose the right type of canoe.
Popular Canoe Construction Materials
Just like you want to wear the right gear while canoeing, you will want a canoe that’s built to improve your experience on the water.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common canoe materials and learn what canoes are made of and why each type of material could work well (or not at all) for you.
Many of us think of the traditional wood canoe when we hear the word canoe.
Wood canoes are traditional, expensive, and usually handcrafted. They are costly to buy because wooden canoes are difficult to build. They also don’t hold up to abuse the way some less expensive, composite canoes can.
So why own a wood canoe?
Well, for many purists it’s simple … wooden canoes tend to have a high level of performance. They’re smoother to paddle, more nimble and responsive in the water, and they’re the most beautiful type of canoe there is.
Wooden canoes are also very versatile and you can usually use them on both rivers and lakes as well as take them on a variety of different kinds of trips.
The weight of a wood canoe will vary by the type of wood, varnish, paint, and the exterior skin, but they tend to be fairly lightweight. A wooden canoe is generally easy to repair for an experienced woodworker, and can last decades (if properly maintained).
A hand-built wooden canoe can be expensive, but many consider it worth the investment. My dad owns several wooden, and wood and canvas canoes that are very valuable, and which he’s incredibly proud of.
Fiberglass Composite Canoes
A canoe made of “fiberglass composites” means that fibers were created within a mold and then bonded together with different resins in order to create a molded hull.
Any combination of resin and fibers is considered a composite when it comes to canoe materials. The most widely known type of composite used to construct canoes is fiberglass.
Sometimes you will hear people inappropriately refer to every kind of composite canoe hull as being fiberglass, but that isn’t always true.
A real fiberglass composite has numerous layers of woven fabrics that are cut in a specific way. The fibers give the canoe its shape and tensile strength, and the resins provide shape, a smooth texture, and give the canoe’s hull its compression strength.
It’s a little bit like how a house’s foundation is built – rebar provides tensile strength, concrete provides compression strength.
Many fiberglass canoes are crafted by hand in a meticulous way, though some canoe manufacturers automate this process.
If a canoe relies only on fiberglass, then you should be wary of buying it … it won’t hold up to much abuse at all.
But if you choose to go with a fiberglass composite canoe, you will find it is strong and light. Fiberglass composite canoes can be shaped in a more precise way and they often offer paddlers sleeker entry lines. This means that you can enjoy a quieter and smoother ride while on the water.
It is easy to repair a canoe made of fiberglass too. They generally only require a patch, but it must be correctly applied. You can buy fiberglass canoe repair kits online, and it’s a pretty DIY friendly process.
If you’re looking for a low-cost option, you could consider a polyethylene canoe.
Polyethylene canoes are simple. They aren’t the prettiest, but they tend to be quite durable. They are created by melting plastic pellets in a heated mold.
This type of canoe is mass-produced, which makes it less expensive to buy and you don’t have to handle it quite as gently (it’s a good canoe for kids).
If you only want to do recreational paddling, a polyethylene canoe will probably be appropriate for you. Be aware, though, that some canoes made of this material can warp slightly each time you use your boat. This is because of low rigidity.
Avoid polyethylene if you need a high-performance canoe, and if you do purchase one, don’t leave your polyethylene canoe in the hot sun for too long, as it can warp.
Kevlar Composite Canoes
Kevlar is a type of woven composite fabric which is popular as a canoe material among some manufacturers. One benefit of this material is that it is known to be between five and ten times stronger than steel of an equal weight. Not only that, but canoes comprised of Kevlar are usually quite a bit lighter (they can weigh up to 20% less) than a canoe made of fiberglass.
Less weight, and improved durability? Sign me up!
When Kevlar is used to build a canoe, it might be used alone but it is more often used together with other types of materials. These might include graphite or fiberglass.
If you want a very lightweight but strong canoe, Kevlar is a great material. If your canoe is damaged, you will be able to repair it with kits that can be found at manufacturers and canoe dealers.
While you will have to pay more money for a canoe made of Kevlar composite than you would for another type of canoe, you will probably find their performance, strength, and light weight worth the extra money.
Kevlar canoes are a great option for beginners who want something that can take some abuse as they learn to paddle.
Aluminum canoes have been popular for many years because they’re tough, don’t rust, and can take a ton of abuse. But they have many drawbacks.
The truth is that Aluminum is a tricky material for canoes. Most aluminum vessels do not have the kind of hull that will provides good performance on the water.
You will never find a high-performance canoe made of aluminum.
Aluminum is a lightweight metal, but it’s still a metal boat. You’ll find canoes made of Aluminum are quite a bit heavier than most of the more modern materials canoes are made of.
If you have an aluminum canoe, then you will only really be able to use it for recreation. To me – this is a great canoe material to have available for your kids at your camp or lake house. They can drag it across rocks and on and off the beach and it won’t hurt the canoe at all.
If your Alumunium canoe does get damaged, repairs can be made. But they’ll often require welding, which can leave unsightly scars. My uncle, who owns an Aluminum canoe, would probably smile and say these “add character.”
Royalex is a type of plastic laminate. It has expanded closed cell-foam as its core.
This is a great type of canoe for whitewater and shallow water paddling. If you buy this type of canoe, then you will find it to be durable in difficult conditions.
I’ve found that Royalex canoes handle well and are fun to paddle in virtually any type of water.
Royalex canoes are heavier than Kevlar composites and fiberglass canoes. If you plan to be on whitewater, then you should get a Royalex canoe especially designed for this purpose.
But be aware that temperature changes will cause Royalex to expand and contract. This is one reason why the canoe will probably need maintenance on a seasonal basis. This is especially likely if it has wood trim.
Repairing damage to a Royalex canoe can be tricky. You will need to go to a professional with experience in the area.
These are definitely not for canoe owners who are on a tight budget, but if you have the money they’re great all-around canoes.
Which Type of Canoe Material Should You Choose?
Now you know what canoes are made of, and the pros and cons of each type of canoe construction. But how do you choose the best canoe for you?
For most novices, a polyethylene or royalex canoe probably makes the most sense as an entry-level canoe material. These are durable, flexible, and will last for years. Just don’t leave them out in the hot sun.
Those types of canoes will work well for families with kids as well.
Aluminum canoes make great camp canoes and work-horses for kids to bang around in as well.
Purists and affluent paddlers who have a real passion for canoeing will want to invest in a wood strip or wood and canvas canoe.
Paddlers interested in back-country performance, durability, and ease of canoe portage, ought to choose Kevlar.