Posted on June 23 2014
By Steve Ballew
My love of boats began early. I remember earning every waterfront merit badge that boy scout camp had to offer. And at age 11, when my mother had the nerve to drive by a rowboat for sale on the side of Route 1 in southern Maine, I made her turn around so that I could buy my first boat for seven dollars.
After we stuffed the boat in the back of our station wagon, I was on top of the world. I conned my Dad into helping me replace a couple of planks and dove into the fine art of caulking. I named the boat Swiss Cheese. A self-taught eleven year old is, after all, an excellent candidate for mastering one of the most essential boat building skills of all: sense of humor.
Now in my late fifties, the feeling is still there. It’s a mix of the joy and challenge of creating the boat and the thrill of moving across the water. I was always attracted to the jaw-dropping beauty of cedar strip canoes, and decided that was a perfect choice for the rivers of my home state of Montana. Likewise, I was immediately drawn to Ted Moore’s Canoecraft.
Canoecraft goes beyond its task of diligently describing every aspect of cedar strip canoe building: it pays homage to the art, the heritage and to those that came before Ted. It also pays respect to the average person, drawn in the same way I was to a thing of beauty and a way to be on the water, by giving that person the confidence to attempt the building process.
Having had some construction and carpentry experience, I chose to build my Prospector canoe from scratch and without staples. I learned quickly that most of my conventional building experience was very different than what was required for canoe building. But in the process, I learned that resourcefulness always trumps perfectionism.
And when you build a canoe you will in fact become more resourceful. Even armed with a very complete and detailed book like Canoecraft, and even with Nick Offerman’s wonderful video, you will still be left with problems to solve and leaps of faith to make. Among mine were spending a frustrating afternoon on a router table with a pile of white ash trying to rout the scuppers on the gunwales. I eventually learned that a little at a time was the best approach on the router. When I went back to the video I had a good laugh when all the coverage devoted to routing scuppers was Nick walking toward the camera, gunwales in hand, announcing that he had done these on a router table. I bet Nick has a better router table.
Another “learning opportunity” was solving a problem with amine blush that can occur with epoxy. The result was having to scrape a coat of varnish off the inside of the canoe when it refused to cure. In the end it turned out beautifully, and for the challenges, I am a better canoe builder.
I was fortunate to have a good friend help me with some of the canoe building. It reminded me of building our home as a family while our three boys were in high school and college. The shared experience is often the best one. I will always remember shooting the breeze for fifteen minutes while the stem pieces steamed and then magically bending them into place on the forms.
I’m right now starting on my second canoe – a Redbird. In fact I plan to build them for others. I started Up A Creek Boatworks to do so, not to rob others of the joy of creating their own, but for those that prefer them ready-built. For those inclined to build, I’d say do it sooner rather than later. Grab your son or daughter, your spouse, a friend and dive in. And do it by the book; it works.