Throughout history, canoes have been made of all kinds of materials. Though modern canoe building methods, canoe materials and the manufacturing processes of making canoes have taken over mainstream canoe-making, traditional methods and canoe materials used to make them are still practiced today.
After more research than you’d want to do into canoe making materials, here’s what I found out.
What are canoes made of? Modern canoes are made of a variety of materials from aluminum to specialized plastics to fiberglass and even Kevlar®. Each canoe material has its advantages and disadvantages. Traditional canoes are still handmade from wood, canvas and even animal skins stretched over canoe framing materials.
But what makes a good canoe? By the end of this article, you’ll know what canoe material is best for how you plan to use your canoe.
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The type of material a canoe is made of will play a big role in how and where you can use it, its durability and how much it will cost.
Each of the canoe materials below has advantages and disadvantages:
Canoes made of so-called “plastic” are actually made from a variety of different compounds and manufacturing processes. There are 2 main manufacturing methods of making plastic canoes.
1 – Thermoform
Thermoform canoes are made by sandwiching layers of polyethylene, high impact ABS and/or acrylic to form a very hard and UV resistant outer surface.
Thermoform canoes are best used as recreational, touring or family fun canoes. Some of their advantages are that they’re lightweight, inexpensive, durable and a great value for the increased performance they provide.
Some disadvantages of Thermoform made canoes are that fiberglass canoes will actually last longer and Thermoforms aren’t great for high-impact whitewater canoeing.
BEST USE: Recreational and family canoeing
2 – Rotomolded/Polyethylene
Rotomolded canoes are made by rotating solid blocks of plastic and cutting away “molding” them into the shape of a canoe.
These canoes have the advantage of being cheap to manufacture, very durable, and just about maintenance-free. They’re great recreational, rental, outfitter and family canoes, because they can take abuse like no other.
Some disadvantages of Rotomolded canoes are that they’re pretty much the heaviest canoes made.
BEST USE: Recreation, rental, outfitters
Royalex® canoe production was discontinued in 2014, so if you come across one it’ll likely be buying a used one on Craigslist or somewhere else.
Royalex® is a composite canoe material made from an outer layer of hard ABS and vinyl, inner layer of ABS closed-cell foam, all bonded together with a heating process. This material is durable, well-insulated, and cheaper to produce. This lower cost and durability come at the expense of speed compared to other canoes.
Advantages of these canoes are that they hold their shape very well and can take a pounding and bounce right back to their original shape. Also, they’re lighter than Rotomolded and aluminum canoes, more UV resistant, harder and more durable. Canoes made of Royalex materials are great for whitewater and shallow water as they are extremely durable.
Some disadvantages are that they’re more expensive, than other plastic or aluminum canoes, heavier than fiberglass and Kevlar canoes, and in freezing temperatures they can crack easily.
BEST USE: Recreational and touring canoeing
Fiberglass canoes are made by laying in woven fabric fibers in a mold and bonding them together with resins to make a stiff and lightweight canoe.
Fiberglass canoe advantages are that they’re light, hard, and strong. They can also be shaped much easier to create a hull that’s very smooth with tight tolerances. This makes them glide through the water faster and easier.
The disadvantage to fiberglass is that it’s expensive to build with and fiberglass hulls are easily scratched on rocky beaches.
BEST USE: Touring and because of its lightweight it’s great if you have to do a lot of portaging (leaving the water to carry your canoe).
Aluminum canoes are made out of … well, aluminum. With a glut of aluminum on the market after the end of World War II, Grumman, an aluminum aircraft manufacturer, turned its excess wartime materials toward the world of canoe-making. At the time, they pretty much revolutionized the industry.
Aluminum canoe advantages were that they were lighter and cheaper to manufacture than the competition. Also, they’d pretty much last forever even left outdoors and neglected.
Aluminum canoes have since lost their lightweight advantage to modern composites, fiberglass and Kevlar canoes. But for nostalgia, affordability and durability, aluminum’s still got it. And if you live anywhere like the Pacific Northwest United States, where the beaches are all rocks, aluminum will stand up to that much better than fiberglass or plastic.
BEST USE: Aluminum canoes are great for flat water, and especially lake house property where you can store the canoe year round without worrying about it.
You remember Kevlar, don’t you? That stuff that bullet-proof vests are made from. Kevlar is a woven composite fabric that’s over five times stronger than steel. It can be used by itself or combined with fiberglass or graphite. Kevlar canoes are also easy to repair and repair kits are readily available.
What can I say, Kevlar canoes have a lot of advantages. First and foremost, they’re light, super light. And they’re stronger than fiberglass and aluminum. They’re also durable to the point of ridiculousness. And all this makes them very fast to paddle.
One big disadvantage is that Kevlar and Kevlar composite canoes are expensive. But to the canoers who love them, their light weight, durability, and performance more than make up for the added cost.
BEST USE: If you’re going to have to carry your canoe as much as paddle it, or if you just want the benefits of a canoe that’s easier to paddle, Kevlar’s a great option. It’s awesome for portaging.
Old Town Canoe Materials
Old Town Canoes pioneered the 3 layer polyethylene manufacturing trend by sandwiching foam poly between 2 layers of thin, hard poly plastic. This gave the resulting material inherent buoyancy and durability.
Now, there are many manufacturers with their version of 3 layer plastic-shelled canoes. Below are the Old Town proprietary materials they used.
Old Town created CrossLink3, by sandwiching a 3/8″ thick layer of polyethylene foam between two layers of polyethylene. Doing that, they were able to make a material that had almost all of the advantages of Royalex.
It’s naturally buoyant because of the foam core, and it’s more resistant to scratching than polyethylene.
The CrossLink3 material is used in Old Town’s Discovery line of canoes.
This foam-core material is durable, stiff, and inexpensive. Which makes it faster in the water. Another Old Town exclusive material.
BEST USE: Recreational, rental and outfitter canoeing
Canoes Made of Wood
Classic canoes and their heritage date back over 5,000 years. And the Western hemisphere was explored and settled from inside wooden canoes. Modern wood canoes are beautiful and fun to paddle.
Most modern production wooden canoes are still, at least in part, built by hand using modern stitch and glue techniques. Stitch and glue involves cutting strips of wood that are stitched together to form the shape of a canoe.
Then the strips are glued together with resin and then they’re strengthened with fiberglass tape.
Many canoes are still made from traditional cedar and birch bark. But individual parts of a canoe are made of everything from redwood to pine. But production canoes are usually made from marine grade plywood.
Though, as I mentioned, wood canoes are beautiful and fun to paddle, they’re expensive and harder to maintain than modern plastics and composites.
Today, there are better, faster, and cheaper ways to build canoes, but none can match the nostalgia, beauty, and “coolness” of a wooden canoe.
BEST USE: For canoe nostalgia and the paddling purist in all canoers, there is no substitute.
Inflatable Canoe Materials
Modern inflatable canoes are made from a variety of durable materials. Far from the inflatables you were used to growing up, modern inflatable canoes won’t pop a leak at the first sight of a rock.
Nowadays inflatable canoes are made from heavy duty vinyl and PVC as well as ripstop nylon.
BEST USE: If you’re short on space and/or have a small vehicle to transport you to and from your canoeing area, inflatables are a great option. And some of the high-end inflatable canoes are great for river and small rapid-running adventures.
Best Canoe Material
Best material for a canoe is the one that fits your particular style of paddling and the waters you plan to paddle.
- Rocky beaches and rough waters – Aluminum and hard plastics
- Calm and smooth waters – pretty much any of the plastics, aluminum and wood will get the job done.
- For fast paddling – Fiberglass, lightweight plastics, and Kevlar canoes
- For frequent portaging – use Kevlar or other lightweight composites
- For family fun, summer camps, rentals, outfitters – Use poly rotomolded canoes that can take a pounding and keep on paddling
The best canoe material for budget conscious canoers, especially beginners just starting out, are rotomolded and thermoform plastic molded canoes.
Lightest Canoe Material
The lightest canoe made is probably made out of Kevlar material or a Kevlar composite. Kevlar is 20% lighter than fiberglass, which is itself lighter than aluminum.
UPDATE: The lightest canoe I could find was the Wee Lassie 10’6″ canoe from Wenonah Canoes. It’s made from a Kevlar/Carbon Hybrid material and weighs in at 9-14 pounds.