Design & Make

Aluminum Canoes

by James Fox August 16, 2011
ReadAluminum Canoes

An inexpensive alternative to hand-carved wooden canoes was inevitable (thank you, Mad River), but it was the end of WWII that precipitated the rush. In terms of production, it was a perfect storm of war-accelerated technology and idle airplane factories. In terms of demand, there was a new perception of and importance placed on leisure after the war, with young marrieds and their families enjoying their hard fought freedoms.

Fishing, and so canoeing and boating, was one of the activities that exploded in the 1950s – just look at any Kodachrome collection you can find and damn me if every third plaid-shirted man isn’t holding up a string of trout or stripers with his son in tow.

A line of sailors standing in front of a truck full of canoes. (Image from the Wisconsin Historical Society)

Shore leave. A stack of land-bound aluminum canoes. (Image from the Wisconsin Historical Society)

The country had been through a long, tough war. Now it wanted to sit back and relax. And it seemed most of the people wanted to do it with a fishing rod in their hands.” –Gadabout Gaddis, The Flying Fisherman

Modern canoe shapes are not a million miles away from the birchbark canoes of the Algonquian Indians. Wood/canvas canoes reigned supreme until the 1940s, when the technicians in the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation turned their aluminum airplane-fabricating talents to canoe building.

According to company lore, after carrying a heavy wood-and-canvas canoe through the Adirondacks, VP William Hoffman had an epiphany: Use Grumman’s aluminum to make lightweight canoes. They made fighter planes from it… why not canoes? By 1945, they had produced a 38-pound, 13-foot prototype. The process to create an aluminum canoe is to stretch aluminum sheets over a mold. Gunwale, bow and stern plates are riveted on and soldered for reinforcement — no artisanal perfection needed. As the war drew down, Grumman gave over 20,000 feet of their factory to manufacturing aluminum canoes, creating a price point below that of wooden canoes. Several other companies sprang up to fill this new aluminum craft sector, including Lund in Minnesota, which was started by another aircraft factory worker.

Vintage of photograph of men canoeing

Paddling hard in a wooden canoe.

In 1972, the film version of the novel Deliverance was released. At the least, it provides dark commentary on man’s destruction of nature but also his fragility in the face of other forces. Though it has since been (mis)appropriated as shorthand for vile backwoods subcultures, the movie nevertheless spurred another boom in “paddling.” And an aluminum Grumman canoe was used throughout filming. If you haven’t seen the film recently, go read this memoir from Christopher Dickey (son of James Dickey, author of Deliverance and its screenplay). You get a general sense of foreboding during the shot, and more information than you cared to know about a certain pivotal scene…

In Canoe Passages: Cross-cultural Conveyance in United States and Canadian Literature, it is noted that as well as the general post-WWII boom in recreation, Canadians took up canoeing in large numbers as a symbol of their cultural independence from the U.S. and Britain (under whom they are Commonwealth subject). File this under “another log on the fire.”

A vintage Pendleton poster of a man canoeing.

The languid lifestyle of a canoeing man, as envisioned by Pendleton.

Aluminum has a “memory,” meaning it doesn’t bounce back into shape and tends to get stuck on rocks. Dents can be fixed with a rubber mallet (or what we call “the persuader” at home) and a wood block, though there will always be a mark. Other drawbacks include the metal being cold to the touch in spring and searing hot in summer. Plus, the nostalgic hollow clang of aluminum against paddle is noisy at any time of year, thus making it less useful for hunting. Aluminum canoe sales still thrive due to their high strength-to-weight ratio and ease of maintenance. They won’t delam’, waterlog or rot. Field & Stream noted dryly in 1969, “Furthermore, they’re fireproof.”

As Greg Harvey, sales manager at Marathon Boat Group (formerly Grumman), said, “We virtually kept the canoe from disappearing.” He may be right.

Movie poster for Deliverance with a canoe zooming out of an eye. (Image via Cinema Masterpieces)

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned canoe adventure… Movie poster from “Deliverance.” (Image via Cinema Masterpieces)

Leading image courtesy Katie Barnes. 

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