Canadian Woodworking

Add A Sliding Seat To Your Canoe

Author: Geoff Coleman
Photos: Geoff Coleman
Published: April May 2015

Add the comfort of an adjustable seat to your canoe to get the most from your next trip into the wilderness.


  • COST

My wife will never accuse me of being sensitive, but we do agree there is something romantic about a canoe ride at sunset, especially when that special someone sitting in the bow seat doesn’t paddle at all, but turns around to face the lone paddler in the back.

This dynamic – one of the few romantic gestures I can actually pull off – was threatened when we bought a used canoe. Loading and portaging our old 89 pound aluminum canoe was draining the romance from our trips faster than politicians forget promises, so we went for an older Kevlar model with fiberglass seats that looked like they came off a John Deere. While surprisingly comfortable for paddling, they just didn’t work if you wanted to sit backwards, and I didn’t really care for the appearance of them aesthetically. So, a makeover was ordered.

New seats in the traditional ladder style were easily made, but the original bow seat slid forward so the passenger could locate a more confortable position to paddle from. How would I get a fixed-width seat to slide forward into the narrowing space of a tapering bow?

Canoe seats are commonly suspended from carriage bolts on the gunwales. Two holes are drilled down through each side of the gunwales, then bolts are dropped in and through another hole in the stretchers of the seat. Four nuts beneath the seat tie everything together. However, this configuration doesn’t move.

I turned to my friend Henry Vant Erve, who – while not a canoe enthusiast – is a highly-respected carpenter and cabinet maker in central Ontario’s cottage country. Hammering Hank always has a solution and this time was no different.

In the Vant Erve rig, a slotted seat-support bracket is bolted to the gunwales, instead of the actual seat. He attaches the existing seat to the new support bracket. It is shaped to match the walls of the canoe, and to allow 6-8″ of seat travel. Corresponding holes are drilled in the stretchers of the seat, and the old seat is then bolted to the support with a wing nut, knob or cam action locking mechanism.

Rout the Slots
While the brackets are still part of a larger piece of wood set up a straightedge and stop blocks to guide a router. Machine the slots in multiple passes, always travelling in the direction that forces the router against the straightedge.

Trim to Size
Although a bandsaw or scroll saw would work fine, you can temporarily attach the template to the bracket and flush trim it to final shape.

Gunwales Holes
Place the finished bracket on top of the gunwales, in the correct position, and drill the holes to secure the bracket to the gunwale.

Final Fit
With the new bracket attached to the gunwale you can use knobs or other hardware to fix the old seat to your bracket. 

First, a template

Start by removing your current seat from your canoe. Now you can make a template of the inside of the canoe that extends across the canoe and as far forward and back as your seat-shifting needs dictate. Put some masking tape down the gunwales, and measure the same distance from the bow down both sides to make sure the template is square. Mark the forward most point on the tape. This is also a good time to add a center line to the template, which you’ll use to ensure your slots are parallel.

Then draw the general shape of the bracket onto 1/4″ template material. The pattern I used provides space for the slots, a surface for the seat to move on, and room for four bolts to secure it. At the same time, weight is minimized without sacrificing strength.

Rout the slots

Ash is a traditional canoe-building wood, so I found a straight-grained piece 12″ longer than I needed, and traced on the pattern. I kept the slots parallel with the straight edge of the workpiece in order to keep the slots parallel to each other once the brackets are installed in the canoe. Parallel slots are critical so the seat slides easily. To give the router a wide surface to ride on, we cut the slots first, then cut and refined the shape of the bracket on the bandsaw. I used a plunge router with a 3/8″ straight bit, making the cut in multiple passes.

Next I drilled the holes in the seat and brackets to accept the 1/4″ carriage bolt hangers that fasten the seat to the brackets. I spaced them evenly, with slight adjustments if they were going to impede the movement of the seat. Then it was over to the bandsaw to cut out the final shape, followed by a run around the router table to round-over the edges. You could also attach the template to the bracket and use a flush trim router bit in your router table to bring the brackets to finished size.

Attach the brackets

With the supports complete, clamp them to the gunwales where you want the seat to be, referring to the marks you made earlier on the tape. Transfer the locations of the holes, drill through the gunwale, insert the carriage bolts, and secure the support bracket. It doesn’t hurt to drive in screws across the gunwale on either side of the bolts to strengthen the gunwales. Then, attach your old seat using some kind of fastener that will allow easy but lasting adjustments – many hardware stores have the necessary hardware to finish this seat nicely.

Coat everything with a couple of layers of marine varnish, and with that you’re ready for a sunset paddle. Of all the women who enjoyed that romantic experience with me, only one asked for the stern seat and paddled while I fished. I married her, of course.

Geoff Coleman - [email protected]

Geoff splits his spare time between the workshop, an as yet undiscovered classic rock band, fishing, and his family. The only time he encourages his wife to be a backseat driver is when he’s fishing from the canoe.

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