There is a section of the Penobscot River in northeast Maine, just north of Bangor, known as the rocky place. It is from this place that the Penobscot, a tribe of hunters and gatherers, take their name. It is also on this spot that the Penobscot constructed their own canoes. Inspired by the Penobscot's canoes, George Gray, a local entrepreneur, hired a local canoe builder, A. E. Wickett, to build a wood/canvas canoe in 1898 behind Gray's hardware store.
Soon, the popularity of their canoes grew. After brief periods as the Indian Old Town Canoe Co. and Robertson Old Town Canoe Co., the firm was incorporated as Old Town Canoe Co. in 1903.
Today, Old Town Canoe in Old Town, Maine, is the world's largest supplier of kayaks and canoes — and also a significant captive rotational molder and thermoformer.
In the early days, canoes were constructed of wood strip and canvas. The company, working from an old shoe factory, turned out 200-400 canoes a month. In 1940, the company produced its first kayak.
Fiberglass canoes were manufactured starting in 1965. In 1972, Old Town Canoe started thermoforming Royalex, a composite ABS sheet from the former Uniroyal Plastics Co.
In the late 1970s the company began rotomolding kayaks as part of a research and development effort. Introduction of the CrossLink 3 Discovery, Old Town's patented three-layer polyethylene canoe, came in 1984.
Today, Old Town still makes canoes from the traditional materials — wood and canvas — as well as from fiberglass, thermoformed Royalex and by rotational molding linear low density PE. The kayaks are only rotational molded.
With the exception of two models, Old Town Canoe's general-recreation, recreational-touring and touring kayaks are manufactured using the company's proprietary PolyLink 3 rotational molding technology.
The process yields the only three-layer kayaks in the world, according to Randy Cobb, Old Town Canoe plant manager. A foam layer is sandwiched between two LLDPE layers.
"PolyLink 3 provides our kayaks with built-in buoyancy and insulation from cold and noise, a very high strength-to-weight ratio and long-term durability to withstand punishment — both in and out of the water," Cobb said.
PolyLink 3 was patented in 1989, and is an extension of the original CrossLink 3 process.
Old Town Canoe designs and builds its own equipment and tooling, Cobb said, because building a boat — particularly a three-layer rotational molded boat — requires some very different machinery.
In its 200,000-square-foot plant, Old Town operates eight rotational molding machines and is building its ninth. The company also has one multistation thermoforming line.
The outside layer of each kayak must conform to strict appearance standards, particularly a smooth surface and uniform coloration. In addition, kayaks undergo rigorous testing for color fade from ultraviolet-light exposure and permanent deformation from impacts. Hulls must recover their original shape after hitting rocks, being dropped and encountering other mechanical stresses.
The company is so confident of its product that in 1974 a canoe was thrown from the roof of the factory to prove its durability.
Teknor Color Co. (Booth E11947) will display an Old Towne Loon 160T recreational touring kayak at its NPE exhibit until June 23, when it will be awarded to an NPE 2000 visitor by means of a random drawing. The 16-foot kayak retails for $669.
Teknor Color supplies five high-performance, pre-colored compounds for the hulls of Old Town Canoe's full line of LLDPE kayaks. The kayaks come in red, yellow, blue and two green hues.
Cobb said the kayaks must resist discoloration that can be caused by the longer heat history of materials used in rotational molding, compared with processes like injection molding and extrusion.
Several acquisitions have helped solidify the company's title of world's largest supplier.
In 1984, Old Town Canoe acquired White Canoe Co., established in 1889. Then the company acquired Carlisle Paddles Inc., of Grayling, Mich., a leading canoe- and kayak-paddle manufacturer in 1990.
In 1997, Old Town bought Ocean Kayak Inc. of Ferndale, Wash. The company also owns LPA Plastique in Quebec and the assets and sales rights to Nechy Kayaks and recently purchased Pacific Kayaks in New Zealand.
In addition to 17 rotational molded kayak models, Old Town Canoe makes 26 canoe models, not counting wood.
Old Town Canoe employs 180 at its headquarters.
Officials would not disclose privately held Old Town's 1999 sales but said that for the main plant alone, sales were more than $30 million.