Manufacturing canoes is a small industry. Nobody develops materials purely for the canoeing business, so builders have to use what's already out there and make it work. When Royalex was discovered by Old Town Canoe a number of decades ago, the company was so successful using the new material that many other canoe manufacturers followed suit.
Royalex, a composite sheet material made up of ABS, ABS foam and crosslinked vinyl layers, is ultra tough, abrasion resistant, lighter and more rigid than polyethylene, and has amazing structural memory. A Royalex canoe can be wrapped around a rock and bounce back into shape. It is UV resistant, quiet to use, and slides over rocks. It became THE material for whitewater and river tripping canoes.
And then it died.
In 2013 the plastics company PolyOne purchased Spartech, who had the rights to manufacture Royalex. Due to low demand for the material, they shipped the last sheets of it in December 2013 and closed production.
In shocked response, canoe manufacturers started trying to develop a replacement. They are still working at it. Old Town makes some of their models in three-layer polyethylene which has similar properties to Royalex. Wenonah is developing their Tuff-Weave, Esquif was excited about their T-Formex before they folded, Nova Craft is keen on their Tuff Stuff, and some other companies are working with their own composite creations.
All of these materials have their pros and cons, but so far nothing has replaced Royalex.
We are now at the point where most canoe suppliers are running out of Royalex boats. In the past year many paddlers have scrambled to purchase a Royalex canoe before they are no longer available.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the Royalex void of the next few years. Perhaps this will drive the industry to develop fabulous new canoe building materials. Perhaps people will be more cautious before pointing their bows down Class III+ rapids. Maybe we'll all become better paddlers.
2019 update: Esquif is back in business and manufacturing T-Formex boats, which in our opinion most closely match Royalex boats in aesthetics and functionality.