I'M CONSIDERING PURCHASING A NEW CANOE AND SEE THAT YOU CAN GET A CANOE WITH WOOD, ALUMINUM, OR VINYL GUNWALES. WHICH IS BEST?
It depends on your priorities. Each system has its disadvantages and advantages.
- Wooden gunwales offer aesthetics, moderate weight, good balance between flex and stiffness (particularly for Royalex hulls), require the most upkeep and maintenance, and are more expensive.
- Aluminum are the stiffest and lightest but are lacking in aesthetics, and can crimp rather than flex.
- Vinyl gunwale systems (with or without aluminum inserts are the heaviest, require the least upkeep, and are the easiest to replace if damaged.
WHY DOES MAD RIVER USE ASH FOR GUNWALES INSTEAD OF SPRUCE OR MAHOGANY OR OTHER WOODS?
Let's talk about the alternatives first. We don't use mahogany because it's a rain forest hardwood in decreasing supply. Before 1991 we used mahogany in deck plates but replaced it with butternut as the impact of the depletion and exploitation of tropical hardwoods became clear. Beyond the "political" implications, mahogany tends to be a short grained wood that is subject to cracking and splitting if stressed. It's also heavier than ash.
Spruce does have the advantage of lighter weight than ash but its not as strong nor as flexible. Additionally, it is not as resistant to weathering as ash. Spruce is a soft wood and does not offer the strength and integrity of a hard wood. It's easily dented when bumped and will fracture if significantly distorted.
On the other hand, most hardwoods are too stiff to bend easily. Their grain structure is too dense to allow the wood to follow the hull contours of a canoe without being steamed or otherwise manipulated. For the most part, hardwoods also tend to be heavy as well. Maple or oak would make a right tough gunwale system except it'd probably add 10 or 15% to the canoe weight and wouldn't flex well if canoe was wrapped.
You could say that ash is a soft hardwood. Its characteristics kind of fall between soft and hard woods. It's a limber hardwood, capable of being bent to a canoe without requiring steaming or being prebent. While it's heavier than spruce or cedar or other softwoods, it is nowhere near as heavy as hardwoods such as maple or oak. Ash also has the advantage of being comparatively readily available as ash is a northeastern hardwood and quality ash is relatively convenient to our Vermont production facility.