Mission Accomplished His Canoes Are Perfect, Oar Else

February 09, 1992|By PATRICK A. MCGUIRE

Just when you thought the short, punchy interview had gone the way of the woolly mammoth, along comes "Mission Accomplished," Sun Magazine's new series of interviews with Marylanders of accomplishment. We aim to catch subjects just as they have completed something wonderfully creative, forged by their own imaginations and skills.

It's a safe bet that not many canoe builders are so exacting itheir standards that they put a 12-gauge shotgun up against their imperfections and pull the trigger. But then again, there probably aren't many canoe builders like Matt Hempey, a certified public accountant who also holds a fourth-degree black belt in hap ki do and teaches martial arts to Baltimore County teen-agers in his spare time.

When I met Matt in his rambling brick home off Main Street iReisterstown, we quickly descended into his basement workshop to check out the 17-foot canoe that dwells there next to the new canoe he's just begun framing out on his sawhorses. He builds about three a year, finding customers through word-of-mouth and selling them for about $1,500. He also dabbles in custom wood carving -- he recently cranked out 250 small, wooden rosettes for a local builder.

In discussing the mechanics of canoe building, Matt began describing the tricky process of applying a coat of fiberglass and resin to an otherwise finished natural-wood canoe. It bonds the wood together, making it impervious to water and as hard as a rock. It's also an eight-hour process.

"Once you start glassing there are no breaks," he said. "You can't stop for any reason. You make a mistake with it, and that's when you start over."

By that I thought he meant that you peeled off the bad fiberglass and cleaned off the wood and reapplied the coating. He shook his head. The one time it happened to him he saw the entire craft as flawed. "It was not up to my standards," he says. "I took the 12-gauge. I came down here with the old Mossberg and eliminated the boat. My wife hates that."

We went up to his accounting office then, in a corner room just off his sprawling front porch, and talked more about those standards.

Q: Why did you start working in wood?

A: As with most kids, it started as a hobby. Airplanes and rockets and wooden ships. Kits became no longer a challenge and I wanted to do some original stuff.

Q: How important was a hobby as a kid?

A: Real important. My father was in the Navy for 20 years and we moved a lot. When you have to pack up and move every year, you don't get real close with people. You have to find something you can do for yourself.

Q: Your accounting background just doesn't seem to fit with that of a canoe builder.

A: About my junior year in college I thought I'd better get a degree that would get me a job. I was always good in math.

Q: Does math come into play a lot in woodworking?

A: Mostly when I tend to think three-dimensionally.

(He picks up a 2-foot block of wood out of which he has carved a beautifully detailed flowered vine, which is still, amazingly, anchored to the original pine block. A friend bet him he couldn't do it.) The trick with something like this . . . it's not hard to do if you can conceptualize it. After that, it's just mechanical. It's a question then of 'Do you have the patience to cut it out without breaking it?'

Q: It looks like you do have the patience.

A: I have to put in a plug for my father. He was always insistent that everything had to be done just right. If I did something spectacular, I would be told. If I did something that wasn't, I would be told. Everyone seeks to get that feedback. Later on in my life the feedback wasn't so important. I've learned through martial arts not to be concerned with what people think.

Q: What's behind your fascination with canoes?

A: I always enjoyed going out in boats. My father and grandfather were great fishermen, better than I will ever be. At one point a few years back I just decided it was time to get a boat. I had just started my business and the prospect of buying a boat was a little too much. So I decided I would build a canoe.

Q: Why a canoe?

A: It seemed like a good place to start. A canoe is an ideal boat for fishing. You can car-top it, drop it in any stream. I've had it on the bay and the ocean. You can take it anywhere.

Q: Who taught you how to build a canoe?

A: The Towson library had lots and lots of books on boat building. I read every one of them twice. Then I visited every marina in the area. I researched it off and on for two years before I took a saw to the wood.

Q: What was it you meant when you mentioned martial arts earlier? Does it play a role in your work?

A: It ties into everything. If you just want to learn to kick and punch, that's what you'll get out of it and you'll probably get tired of it after two or three years. I've been training now for 14 years.

Q: Isn't it hard to part with something you've spent such a long time building?

A: I don't fall in love with the piece of work, I fall in love with the work itself.

Q: Where do you find time to do so many things

A: Actually, lack of time serves as one of the most common excuses people use to not do things. Time is really all you have. Manage it, make the most out of it. Time will take care of itself.

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