14

Growing up we had an old aluminum canoe. It looked kind of ugly, and had some dents, but it was a great boat. Over the past 5 years I've been in various sporting goods stores in California, Colorado, and Idaho looking at canoes. Every single canoe they have on display is plastic. They never have aluminum canoes. Aluminum canoes that I've found on the internet are price competitive (generally slightly cheaper), and weigh less than the plastic canoes.

My own biased perception is the aluminum canoes are more durable, hardier (in and out of the water since they can't warp if stored in the sun), require less maintenance, and if they are damaged are easier to fix. I know that I'm biased so I don't understand why the market seems to be dominated by plastic canoes. What am I missing? Why are plastic canoes everywhere and aluminum canoes hard to find? Is there something in the pro/con list between the respective build materials that makes plastic canoes a clear winner?

  • Are you sure aluminum is lighter and cheaper? A quick look (not identical models) finds a 16' plastic and 17ft aluminum with the plastic being cheaper by half and lighter by ~ 25% – James Jenkins Sep 6 '17 at 12:24
  • @JamesJenkins Interestingly I am having trouble finding a 16 ft aluminum canoe. Square sterns cost more for Osagian canoes and are significantly heavier. Their 17 ft double ender weighs about 10 pounds lighter than the 16 ft Old Town you linked to but still more expensive than the 16 ft. Which makes sense because it is longer – Erik Sep 6 '17 at 14:33
  • Not enough to be a full answer, but 30+ years ago, aluminum was the dominant material. Its nearly complete absence from the market today should be an indication that fiberglass and other composites are pretty much superior in every respect. – whatsisname Sep 7 '17 at 4:47
  • Also fiberglass/composites canoes/kayaks are considerably easier to repair than aluminum. – whatsisname Sep 7 '17 at 4:47
  • 1
    Outfitters here in Canada used to have tons of aluminum canoes, now most got sold out and ended in several camps/resorts. Plastic ones are cheaper, need less maintenance and easier to repair. I had to fix a few aluminum ones, one with a stress crack beside the keel, and it wasnt a fun job. Although aluminum ones can be stored outside in any weather without problems I also heard that a lot of them got stolen to end as scrap metal... There is still a small market for them though – Erik vanDoren Sep 7 '17 at 13:30
13

I've owned both. I've also used CPVC and Royalex canoes on trips.

Aluminum is noisy. You don't have to tell people that you hit a rock. They will hear, even over the roar. It's cold. If you spend time on your knees in your canoe, you will want to install foam kneelers. It's also grabby. Aluminum sticks to rocks. It dents. Bring your automotive dent kit. Mind you, it will take huge amounts of abuse and still be usable.

Until the Discovery series came out, aluminum was popular with canoe rentals. Customers couldn't hurt them much that couldn't be fixed with a wooden block and a hammer, and a can of spray paint. The Discovery didn't get so banged up looking, and was still cheap. The downside was greater weight at 80 some pounds.

In terms of production it's expensive to set up. Grumman cornered the aluminum canoe market because they were set up to make airplanes. Making a plug for a cloth/resin lay up is a few hundred dollars. Making the jigs for stamping aluminum run about 100K a set, and it takes at least 2 sets to make a canoe, assuming bow/stern symmetry.

Resin/fabric is the cheapest to set up. You also have the greatest control over the final shape of the hull. Compound curves are easy.

Next cheapest is the cross linked CPVC (Discover series) You're working with a sheet, and deforming it, or making it in a rotational mold. Because of the thickness of the material, it makes for a much blunter end than a resin/fabric hull. (Old Town claims that the Discover series is made from a triple layer of polyethylene. Either they have changed, or my memory is bad. Probably the latter. I will re-edit if I can find out.)

Royalex is a triple layer laminate. This makes it harder to work with. It's a very forgiving material hitting rocks, but it also flexes (oil cans) in rough water making it a high energy canoe to move. If you do manage to damage it, it's hard to repair.

  • They are nearly indestructable. Churchill River Outfiters uses them 2 years, then sells them to customers. When resold they are not much more than lightly scuffed. They do put kevlar bang plates on bow and stern. Because they are plastic, they are warmer, and quieter. If I were outfitting a school, camp, or rental, this is the canoe I would use. Tend to be heavy. – Sherwood Botsford Sep 12 '17 at 12:19
9

Everything is made out of plastic these days, isn't it?

From My Own Experience as a Sea Kayak and Canoe Guide in British Columbia

In the water, the material that a boat is made of doesn't really affect its handling and performance. A canoe (or kayak) can be made out of metal, wood, fibreglass, Kevlar, or plastic and have very similar buoyancy and "feel" the same as the same hull design made in another material.

Kevlar is the lightest out of the water so that's the easiest boat to lift off your car and carry (sometimes by yourself) down to the water. Plus Kevlar is a cool word to say and has good impact resistance. However, Kevlar has poor abrasion resistance. The difference between impact and abrasion is like the difference between paddling your boat as fast as you can into a rock and dragging your boat up a beach with sharp rocks. Both of these scenarios can happen intentionally or by accident.

Anyways, back to your question. You say, "aluminium canoes are more durable". This could be true, but plastic doesn't dent as easily after an impact and can be re-formed with a hairdryer (!!!). Yes, plastic boats can warp if left too long in the hot sun. Some other cons against an aluminium boat could be:

  • Some aluminium boats are riveted. These rivets can loosen over time making the boat leaky, depending on its design. Other materials can be formed into one piece (a whole boat). Fiberglass is actually very easy to repair.

  • I'm sorry to say this but aluminium boats are noisier. Bumping the paddle against the gunwale makes a lot more noise on metal than plastic or fibreglass, etc. This can be annoying to the wildlife in the area.

The Following Is More Speculation than Personal Experience

Manufacturing with lightweight metals may be more costly nowadays than working with plastic. If a product is made beautifully in wood or metal, someone out there is making it cheaper (and uglier) in plastic. It's sad, I hear ya.

Lastly, the look of aluminium is not as nice as the multitude of colors that a fibreglass/Kevlar (or even plastic) boat could be. Even wood looks better than metal. I realise that this is not a practical reason, but I do believe it is a reason we don't see more boats made out of metal these days. I also realise that some may like the look of metal over solid color. However, I feel that those folks are in the minority.

Overall, it doesn't really matter what your boat is made out of as long as it floats and you have fun using it!

  • The noiser bit is a good point I didn't think about. $5 worth of spray paint can paint your aluminum canoe virtually any color(s) of the rainbow so I don't know about the color issue. I absolutely agree with your final point though that the material isn't critical at the end of the day. The only thing that matters is having fun on the water. :) Overall +1 from me. – Erik Sep 6 '17 at 17:07
  • 2
    While the material doesn't technically affect handling, it affect lines, can affect handling. And aluminum is renowned for "sticking" to rocks instead of sliding over them. So that's not handling in the water, but it is handling. – Kate Gregory Sep 6 '17 at 20:11
  • Full carbon is the lightest out of the water, but it doesn't have the toughness that kevlar does. I'm a big fan of carbon-kevlar weaves for the best of both worlds (even though my current boat is full carbon). – Separatrix Sep 7 '17 at 9:05
  • @separatrix Ah yes, I forgot about carbon and concrete (no joke, I've seen it!). – jonathanbell Sep 7 '17 at 13:16
  • Carbon is a little more mainstream than concrete, though admittedly not much more so outside us competitive types. – Separatrix Sep 7 '17 at 14:16
6

Aluminum is not good at compound curves. My Chestnut Prospector has a section that is concave front to back and convex up and down (or the other way around depending on whether you're looking at it from inside or outside the boat.) Aluminum isn't good at that. Wood (well woodstrip, anyway) and fibre are.

Aluminum can feel very cold on a cool misty morning, and very hot in the blazing sun. Plastic etc are a little better in that regard, though wood is the most even-temperature. Wooden gunwales can go a long way to helping on that front, which also helps with the noise. I have a fibreglass canoe with aluminum gunwales (it was a wedding gift) so I know another disadvantage of aluminum gunwales: a grey smudginess often rubs off onto you. And then there are dents, scratches, and dullness over time.

So if you want a boat with beautiful lines, a beautiful surface, physically comfortable, quiet while you're using it, and will not change appearance, you're going to go with wood or some sort of fibre, depending on how you feel about maintenance, how much money you have, and how important weight is. (Fibre can be heavier or lighter than wood depending on what you have to spend.) You're unlikely to choose aluminum. So people make less of them these days.

5

Aluminum canoes became popular because the aerospace company Grumman had surplus manufacturing capacity after World War 2. As did aluminum producer Alcoa. (There were probably other companies to) Alcoa's manufacturing was based in the North West and powered by relatively cheap hydroelectric power at the time there was little other need for the power.

At the time the main alternatives were wood or perhaps fiberglass. Those suffer from weight or fragility problems.

All those factors have changed now. Aluminum is now more expensive. Power demand in the North West is no longer met by hydro and aluminum is a globally produced commodity that can be imported from places where power is cheaper.

Combine this with the problems with aluminum mentioned in other answers and the remarkable improvements in plastics since the 1950's and you have a much better materials for consumer grade, durable craft.

protected by Charlie Brumbaugh Mar 23 at 22:44

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.