Canoe thermoformers scramble for Royalex replacement

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Old Town Canoe Co. PolyOne Corp. is stopping production of Royalex sheet, a key plastic in the construction of canoes. A factory in Warsaw, Ind., that is the sole source for Royalex is closing this year along with five other former Spartech Corp. plants.

PolyOne Corp. is stopping production of Royalex sheet — the king of custom plastics for many canoe enthusiasts — leaving almost all hull thermoformers and many paddlers up the proverbial creek without a replacement material.

A factory in Warsaw, Ind., that is the sole source for Royalex is closing this year along with five other former Spartech Corp. plants that Avon Lake, Ohio-based PolyOne acquired in March 2013 for $393 million.

The ripple effect of the Warsaw closing is reaching far beyond the 110 employees who will be out of work when production ceases in mid-year.

Whitewater adventurists are bemoaning the loss of Royalex, which has been used to make nearly indestructible multi-laminated ABS and vinyl canoes for at least 40 years. Retailers are concerned about the sport losing moderately priced Royalex products that are popular with educated, entry-level canoers. And, manufacturers of the thermoformed hulls don't want to see their money-making molds and equipment sidelined.

"It's really unfortunate," said Joe Pulliam, co-founder of the former Dagger Canoes, in a telephone interview. "Canoeing is already struggling as a business, and most companies have Royalex as part of their mix. People can take Royalex canoes down very difficult waters. It's been the material of choice for those boats since the early '70s.

"For non-whitewater use, Royalex hit a nice price point and weight range. They are lighter than the polyethylene boats and less expensive than, and more durable than, the composite boats."

On average, Royalex canoes cost $1,500 and weigh 65 pounds.

At one point, Dagger only made canoes out of Royalex because it is tough as nails yet nimble and relatively lightweight.

"Some of the very first canoes we introduced are still under production under different brand names. These are products like the Mad River Explorer and the Dagger Legend," Pulliam said. "These are mainstays of the paddle sports business and they will be going away. Or, they will be very different. I think it is an end of an era."

Royalex displaced aluminum for many canoe buyers. Nowadays about 50 models of canoes from big names in the business like Old Town and Wenonah are fashioned out of the material, which was originally developed by Uniroyal in the 1960s.

Canoe makers have put in their last orders for the sheets of Royalex. They say final shipments will go out in April. Then, one of the industry's most popular materials will sail off into the sunset after the last Royalex canoe is made in the second half of 2014.


Testing the waters

In the meantime, several canoe manufacturers are frantically searching for an alternative. Old Town experts are looking at plugging their pending product line void with a three-layer polyethylene canoe. Spokesman David Hadden said "our three-layer poly" is the closest alternative to Royalex in the marketplace.

"We have had internal and external engineers working with us to improve our process and offering, and in recent weeks have been narrowing the performance range between the two materials," Hadden said in an email. "We will continue testing other materials and are currently researching two that may offer alternatives."

Hadden is brand director for Johnson Outdoors Watercraft Inc., which designs and manufactures several lines of kayaks in addition to the collection of Old Town canoes. The vessels are manufactured in a factory that opened in 2009 in Old Town, Maine, which some consider the birthplace of the plastic boat industry.

Old Town makes nine models of Royalex canoes. The material also is used in 19 models of Wenonah Canoes, 12 models of Mad River Canoes, half the 18 models of Nova Craft Canoes, and one model of Rosco Canoes & Kayaks.

Wenonah Vice President Bill Kueper said finding a replacement material for Royalex moved to the front burner for the Winona, Minn.-based company's research and development staff on July 29. That's when canoe makers attending a trade show in Salt Lake City were invited by PolyOne sales reps to sit in on a conference call.

"Any time you deal with a single-source raw material you know have a vulnerability," Kueper said. "After the PolyOne acquisition I thought we had maybe 3-5 years. While I expected the plant to be shut down at some point, I didn't expect it this year. When we got the news, the first thing we did was secure as much Royalex material as we could get to protect our position."

Wenonah trade show attendees did not immediately share the news about Royalex although word eventually spread in paddling publications, blogs, websites and some newspapers.

"There's no reason to advertise an obituary," Kueper said. "As long as we have good stock I'm not going to devote energy and resources to tell people the sky is falling."

Wenonah has not had to turn down any Royalex orders — yet. When it does, Kueper expects recreational canoers will probably switch to composite materials. Wenonah has a proprietary blend of polyester and fiberglass called Tuff-Weave that will bridge some of the gap.

"It's lighter weight than Royalex and slightly more expensive, but it doesn't have that extreme durability of Royalex in a whitewater situation," Kueper said. "I don't know what whitewater users will do. There's no solution today that I can talk about. We have an R&D team focused on identifying existing materials and ensembles of existing materials that might address the areas that will be vacated by Royalex."

Kueper said he wishes canoe makers could have received more notice than roughly a year.

"That's extremely, extremely tight to identify an existing or new material, develop it into a canoe, and adequately product test it so you can meet your brand promise. For a Wenonah Canoe that's a lifetime warranty to the original purchaser."

Unrealized potential


Royalex is a customized hand laid-up material with layers of ABS and ABS foam sandwiched between vinyl. The foam core offers resilience, shock absorption, insulation and buoyancy. The substrate provides strength. The surface ply gives color, a smooth texture, and resistance to weather and abrasion.

The material is sold in various sheet sizes to hull makers as far away as Australia.

In a suburb outside of Brisbane, Rosco Canoes & Kayaks is the only manufacturer of Royalex canoes for the entire Southern Hemisphere, CEO Allana Bold said in an email.

"We named this canoe The Chief," Bold said, adding that it is popular down under with high-use outdoor educational facilities in addition to individuals.

However, Uniroyal and its subsequent owner, Spartech, had higher hopes for Royalex. A performance specification sheet posted by Spartech says the material is ideal for go Formula K cars (go karts), bus fenders, and any complex shape.

"When Royalex was developed more than 40 years ago under prior ownership, we've been told it was intended for a broad range of markets. However, the canoe industry is the only market where it ultimately gained acceptance," PolyOne spokesman Kyle Rose said in an email.

Company officials at PolyOne, which is North America's largest compounder and one of the region's largest resin distributors, decided to end Royalex production for a couple reasons, according to Rose.

"Royalex is a low volume, unprofitable product that was in a steady decline in demand well prior to our purchase of Spartech last year," he said. "We have not identified upside or growth opportunities for Royalex that would make it viable as a continuing product line."

PolyOne explored a potential sale of assets of the Royalex line, but has not found any "viable options to date," Rose added.

"Other canoe materials do exist for manufacturers and buyers as alternatives to those made from Royalex," he also said.

Demand takes a dive


Although Royalex made a big splash decades ago and remains popular, industry insiders say demand for canoes in general started sinking in the mid-1980s as interest rose in kayaks.

"Now stand-up paddle boards have further beaten down the limited canoe market," Pulliam said.

Royalex sales likely took another hit a month after PolyOne took over the six Spartech plants, canoe makers say. The company increased the price of Royalex by about 25 percent. The price of many Royalex canoes went up, too, said Nova Craft owner Tim Miller, who now sells the boats for $1,700 to $2,000. Still, with a finite supply, many customers are buying.

"Hopefully we have enough for this season but it seems to be going quickly," Miller said.

Pulliam said he isn't surprised PolyOne is ending production of a material that has a small market and isn't highly profitable.

"It may not make sense to the canoe market but it makes sense to the plastics industry," he said. "That's unfortunate. Paddle sports isn't big enough that people develop materials for us. We have to adapt and use what's out there. There's going to be one less alternative now. I'm glad I've got three or four Royalex boats in my quiver. That will probably last me the rest of my lifetime."

Royalex sales make up about 50 percent of Nova Craft's revenue, but Miller said he is optimistic his business will stay afloat.

"I've gotten over the heartburn I had," he said. "After you've been in business for 27 years, you know you've stepped up to challenges before and here's another one. I'm sure it will impact our business for a while but the canoe market will still be there."

It has for millennia — even long before North American explorers and traders navigated rivers, rapids and waterfalls in birch bark canoes in the 1600s. The oldest canoe — a single pine log hollowed out by antler tools — was discovered in the Netherlands. It was carbon dated to 8040-7510 B.C.

With Royalex about to become a historic blip on the canoe timeline, Kueper said he wishes he could find out exactly what Uniroyal innovators had in mind for it.

"I'd love to hunt down the old curmudgeons who invented the material," he said. "It would be nice closure. People would recognize it wasn't made for canoeing. There were other grandiose ideas that it never met and we were just lucky to grab onto this product material for all these years when it really wasn't a viable business for somebody like Spartech or PolyOne."