Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Summer I 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
There are among us masters in capturing the synergy of water and earth. Their hand-built watercraft are works of art and labors of love reflecting true passion for nature.
Dan Burton crafts strip-wood canoes, kayaks, standup paddleboards and dinghies at his St. James Boat Shop on Beaver Island, a stone’s throw from Paradise Bay. The carpenter learned the art of creating watercraft from the shop’s original owner, Bill Freese, a watercraft builder renowned nationwide for his expertise.
Burton has built his beauties for the last 15 years from cherry and hardwoods grown on the island. Trees find their way to the carpenter by word of mouth, often when damaged by storms or removed for construction. Hardwoods add weight to boats, Burton said, making them stronger and more durable. The watercraft artist dries and mills the wood on the island before fulfilling the trees’ destiny.
“It’s rewarding taking a tree and turning it into a canoe or kayak,” he said. “I can never reproduce anything because of the grain.”
Custom, fully functional canoes are Burton’s bestsellers. Each requires about 300 hours of work and cost from $5,200 to $6,200. But Burton doesn’t let the market dictate his artistic inclinations.
“Most of the time I’m building whatever I’m in the mood for,” he said. “Then I put it up for sale.”
Burton’s crafts navigate waters far and wide — from Michigan to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. “I can’t think where they’re not,” he said.
Jason Thelen is the barefoot builder of Little Bay Boards in Petoskey. The carpenter is a direct descendant of Chief Petosegay (Petoskey), founder of the community. Kinship with nature seems to be in Thelen’s DNA.
“I grew up on lakes in northern Michigan with nature around us,” he said. “It all means something to us.”
Thelen built his first paddleboard in 2012 for his young daughter — and then built another. It turned family days at the lake into a business.
“I couldn’t take one to the beach without talking about it all day,” he said.
Like Burton, Thelen turned to an expert for design guidance. He consulted Paul Jensen, the man who perfected the craft of building hollow, wooden surfboards. Jensen’s advice helped Thelen fine tune his boards for freshwater performance.
Thelen’s wooden, lightweight hollow-core boards make an artistic splash with their intricate inlaid designs. But their beauty is more than “skin deep.” Thelen said when founding Little Bay Boards he attempted to set a more eco-friendly standard for the industry. Most wood used in his boards is reclaimed or from sustainably forested sources. His local source located in Boyne Falls has produced sustainably forested products for 110 years — long before it became a trend. Thelen uses no chemical processes or polyurethane foam in production.
His custom, one-of-a-kind boards are designed to accommodate a client’s height, weight, ability and desired activity. He invests as many as 100 hours in a custom board. Prices start at $2,600. Thelen devotes focused attention to each project and to date has crafted more than 130 boards.
“Every one is the most important,” he said.
There’s a motto at Traverse City’s Old Mission Boat Company which sells standup paddleboard kits to the DIY-minded: “If you can put together IKEA furniture, you can put together one of our boats.”
The Jankowski father-and-son operation sells wooden paddleboard kits and offers guided construction classes for those who want the satisfaction of merging with waves on a board they’ve crafted with their own hands. They plan to soon expand the wooden watercraft line, adding kits for small sailboats, rowboats and kayaks.
Al Jankowski, an expert boat builder, marine surveyor and avid sailor, runs the shop, teaches classes and prototypes designs. Son Kurt is a naval architect working in the Pacific Northwest where he designs ferries and barges.
Kurt’s affinity for building small boats began in his youth. His maiden inland sea voyage was to Beaver Island — and he hasn’t looked back.
Al’s experience in teaching a paddleboard building class for a competitor exposed the need for a simpler, more easily assembled kit.
“By the time they made it to the stage of varnishing, they were burned out,” Kurt said.
The two launched the enterprise in 2014 with their signature standup paddleboard. (Boards used beyond swim areas are deemed vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard.) They patented a wave-patterned joint and developed their Liquid Stitch™ technique for speeding up construction.
“In 10 hours you can have a full boat in front of you,” Kurt said. “It keeps people pumped up.”
“The Boardman” 14-foot standup paddleboard kit costs $1,239 and includes all materials needed to build a board suitable for all skill levels. Kits consist of interlocking pieces of marine grade mahogany plywood and everything else, from epoxy to sandpaper. All the builder needs are a hand saw, clamps, a tape measure — and a passion for connecting to the natural world.