Working on History

by Steve on February 12, 2012

Wood darkened by the passage of time. Scars hinting at stories told by generations past. Seats that have been re-caned time and again. Each boat has its own history, its own personality even. When I first started building traditional wood canvas canoes it was the thrill of pulling a hull off the form that hooked me. It was a stretch from traditional woodworking where the end result depends on exact measurements, precise settings on tuned machines, and, above all else, the square. Once the milling of the lumber was done I was out of my comfort zone and digging out hand tools: planes, spoke shaves, rasps, and others unique to the trade like the clenching iron and crooked knife.

Transitioning from true and square to fair curves and lines was liberating but I still had the control of the form defining the shape of the hull. The thought of restoring an old hull still intimidated me but the memory remained of my grandfather’s old Gerrish, donated to a museum rather than restored. It wasn’t long after I started building that the first old boat found me and I took it in. That Old Town was my master’s degree, it was so far down the path to the clearing that it nearly got a Viking funeral. Now it has a new lease on life and paddles with grace, ready for another generation. Since re-launching that Guide a steady procession of old boats has come through the shop, each special in its own way and each teaching me more about this craft I have adopted.

The restoration work has displaced new construction to the point that I haven’t built a new hull in a year. These boats are family members in some cases. Others were treasured by owners no longer capable of doing more than gazing and remembering who knew it was time to ensure the boats would be used and appreciated. It’s an honor to be trusted with such work, a responsibility I don’t take lightly.

To pull a 20 year-old canvas off a boat approaching the century mark is truly uncovering history. When you remove the covering from these boats you see how they were put together. Sometimes you find a name or a note left by the last guy that worked on the canoe. In our disposable society it is indeed gratifying to practice a craft that filled factory floors when my grandfathers were young men but is now the domain of small builders scattered throughout the country (and Canada).

In an age where there’s an app for nearly every conceivable idea, it’s nice to disconnect, go down to the shop and hammer tacks through impossibly thin cedar.

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