Considering investing in a new canoe and not sure what to pick? Luckily, we’ve made an outline of the two most popular materials out there: aluminum vs fiberglass canoes. Read on as we discuss the unique history of these materials before diving into a comparative discussion of their benefits and drawbacks.
A Brief History
For over 5,000 years since its inception, canoes remained almost unchanged. Virtually all functional ones were made from lightweight wood that differed based on the location of the maker.
It wasn’t until the end of World War II that aluminum canoes hit the U.S market. Although it was the world’s most common metal, aluminum was never processed by itself and difficult to separate from mixed-in ores.
William Hoffman, a chief engineer with the company Grumman, devised a plan for a lightweight canoe. Due to recent advancements in separating out pure aluminum, it was now possible.
With the help of a team, Hoffman built the first 13-foot model fully out of aluminum. It rapidly popularized since aluminum canoes were lighter and cheaper than the competition.
Fiberglass cropped up not long after aluminum, owing to the productive era of the post-WWII world. The advent of synthetic materials, like Royalex, kevlar, and fiberglass, made different canoe constructions possible.
Since then, fiberglass has gained popularity for its lightweight, fast performance on the water.
How They Are Made
Ultra-thin sheets of aluminum alloy are unwound and set flat on a work table. Carefully, sheets of metal are cut out to the proper length. The sheets are then generally lifted and placed into a reusable mold for a canoe hull.
The metal is then clamped to a pressurized hydraulic system that stretches the sheet, conforming it down to the proper shape. The sheet is then cut out of the mold and set aside for later, while the other half of the hull undergoes the same cut-pressurize-mold process as the first.
Then, the two halves are baked for several hours until their strengthened and suitably rigid. It’s at this point that that two halves are clamped and fused together. The hull is then welded for a watertight finish.
The manufacturing process of a fiberglass canoe will differ significantly depending on its quality.
Generally, the cheapest fiberglass model is made by throwing pieces of chopped fiber and resin in a gel mold. The manufacturer then bulks up the canoe by using a lot more resin than fiberglass, which results in a “floppy” riding experience when paddling.
Standard-quality models are made by laying down contiguous strips of fiberglass cloth and resin in a mold. Cross-strips are also applied to stiffen up the hull while the extra resin is shuffled off afterward.
Premium-quality fiberglass canoes are made with several materials in addition to fiberglass: Impact spots are reinforced with kevlar while a stronger type of resin, vinyl ester, is used in place of polyester resin. These canoes provide the ultimate rigidity and best performance on the water.
Advantages of Fiberglass Canoes
Perhaps the best benefit of fiberglass is that it’s more lightweight than aluminum. These composite canoes are easier to transport from a car roof rack to the water. And, unlike an aluminum model, it’s more likely you’ll be able to portage the watercraft over land.
During manufacturing, it’s easy to tailor the shape of a fiberglass canoe very specifically. The hull can be molded into any shape just by layering resin and fiberglass sheets differently.
This makes fiberglass canoes faster on the water, especially since the stern and bow can be more specifically pointed. The more shaped design may also offer better stability.
Good quality fiberglass canoes are relatively durable. While it might not withstand beating against sharp objects very well, the smooth-coat gel is resistant to most scrapes and knocks.
Disadvantages of Fiberglass Canoes
Requires More Frequent Repair
Compared to an aluminum canoe, it’s likely you’ll have to make more patch repairs on a fiberglass model. Fiberglass canoes are durable, yet don’t have the highest impact resistance.
However, when you do patch it, the repair is much less noticeable compared to the repair you’d make on an aluminum canoe.
A high-quality fiberglass canoe is somewhat more expensive than an aluminum canoe. While aluminum canoes range from $300 – $500, fiberglass canoes can out more than $500. You’ll have to be more discerning when selecting a fiberglass canoe as well since models differ so significantly in quality depending on the manufacturing process used.
Advantages of Aluminum Canoes
As mentioned above, aluminum canoes are cheaper than fiberglass models. This makes them an excellent choice for beginners since new paddlers can learn how a canoe reacts to the water.
Aluminum canoes could probably survive a nuclear war. Hands down, aluminum is the toughest material you can find out there. Out on the water, the canoe will survive everything.
Bumps, hits, knocks, rockslides – you name it, it can handle it. An aluminum canoe is great for a watercraft you’d like to keep for a lifetime.
Aluminum canoes require less maintenance than fiberglass models to maintain their relative quality. Since aluminum is, as a material, highly weather-resistant, you won’t need to be quite as concerned about long-term storage.
Disadvantages of Aluminum Canoes
As a material, aluminum is very heavy. If you’re canoeing alone, you’ll have to factor in the weight of your gear (plus the weight of the boat). This added weight can make it much more difficult to tote the canoe from storage out to the water.
Owing to the limited hull designs available, aluminum canoes aren’t as fast or maneuverable as their fiberglass counterparts.
This might come across as a bit abstract but bear with us. Aluminum can become hot or cold based on sunlight exposure and water temperature, which could create an unpleasant ride.
Moreover, if you accidentally strike the hull, the aluminum will cause a big echo noise. If you’re sensitive, the noisiness and temperature of an aluminum canoe can be a big drawback.
Ultimately, your choice should boil down to personal preference. Both aluminum and fiberglass canoes come with distinct benefits and drawbacks.
Opt for an aluminum canoe if you want something cheap, durable, and reliable. Otherwise, select a fiberglass canoe for better speed, maneuverability, and lightweight performance.