Mastering art of building wooden boats

Club: Members of the Chesapeake Wooden Boat Builders gather in Havre de Grace to help one another in canoe restoration, model building and other projects - and to help revive a lost craft.

December 21, 2003|By Todd Holden | Todd Holden,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When he was 8 years old, Don Boehl loved to jump into big piles of sawdust. He and his father scavenged old wooden fruit boxes for white pine that could be made into World War I model planes. Boehl credits his dad, now 86, and a neighbor with instilling in him a love of wood.

More than 20 members of the Chesapeake Wooden Boat Builders gathered recently to work on projects as varied as canoe restoration, model building and caning.

The members helped one another, teaching and learning with the harmonious hum of chitchat, broken every now and then by laughter or the sound of a hammer.

Early start

Boehl recalled the thrill of getting out of school in the afternoon and racing to the home of a neighbor who owned a 20-inch radial saw. His mentor, Tom Sanders, allowed the 8-year-old to experience the woodshop - the sounds, smells and feel of wood. He even let him jump into the sawdust pile every so often.

When Boehl was 16, he was working for Sanders and crafting Tiffany glass doors and windows in a mansion along Long Green Pike, near Jacksonville.

"There were cases of Tiffany glass that were purchased from [Louis C. Tiffany's] studio in New York after he died. I was just a hired hand, but was given the chance to create patterns and frames for the most opalescent, iridescent, spectacular glass I'd ever seen," Boehl said.

Nine-year project

Boehl recently stood in his Herreshoff Haven Class 12 1/2 boat. Factory cost: $19,500.

Boehl has been working on it for the past nine years. He squeezes in time for his boat when he is not working at his regular job, selling printing equipment for G.E. Edwards.

In the woodshop in the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum recently, Boehl was assisted by Bill Jockers.

Perhaps half of those at the museum on Lafayette Street are enrolled in one of several classes offered by Harford Community College on building wooden boats.

At the workshop, builders nurtured old wooden canoes that were once left as derelicts. They have been rescued, to be stripped, scrubbed and oiled back to their once pristine state.

Indian Princess

The centerpiece of this large woodshop is a restored Old Town canoe named Indian Princess. Bought for $25 in 1956 by one of the club members, this wooden canoe is a work of art.

The canoe's dark-green and lime-green colors closely resemble those of the member's 1957 Chevrolet convertible. Every piece of the canoe was restored to exact specifications.

Mac McCurley, 67, was caning a seat for one of the wooden canoes that Gordon Smith and Alan "Bud" Gillis are stripping down. Each of them went quietly about his task.

To make some of the larger projects come to life, Jack Bosen mastered the lofting board - a plain white wall where small, detailed boat plans can be enlarged to actual size. Bosen, a senior instructor, was one of the first members of the club, which started in 1989.

McCurley drives 155 miles round-trip during the winter to attend the class. A few years ago, he bought a place within three blocks of the museum and spends summers there with his wife, Eleanor.

"We love it here - the boats, the shoreline, the town," he said.


A glance out the east window of the shop allows a framed view of the Havre de Grace lighthouse and moonlight on the Susquehanna Flats, where hunters of waterfowl have pilgrimaged for centuries.

"Once you've experienced a wooden canoe, you'll never go back to aluminum or fiberglass," one member said. "There's no comparison, but you never know unless you've tried it. The bottom actually flexes and gently moves as you clear rough water."

Canoes made in the early 1900s, 12 feet to 18 feet long, are being restored to their original beauty and function.

A visitor asked about restoring his wooden canoe and was surprised to find the task become a project for enthusiastic club members. There is plenty to do, but only pride and craftsmanship matter. Time is not of the essence.

In the entryway to the workshop hung a birch-bark canoe made by an American Indian in 1935.

Restored and serving as a touchstone with the past of wood and boats, it recalled the portrait of a Kutenai duck hunter by Edward S. Curtis from his book, Portraits From North American Indian Life, a landmark tome of photographs published in 1907.

William Putland leads the Chesapeake Wooden Boat Builders, assisted by instructors Boehl, Gillis, Bosen, Harry Glover, Chuck Foley and Albert Ault. The group's members share a reverence for wood and for mastery of a lost art.

Here artisans of wood mend artwork that floats down a river or across a pond. Rather than being passed over and left for junk, these treasures, rescued and restored, are a reminder of a part of maritime's past.

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