The door to the workshop opens. We are greeted with a firm handshake by a man wearing work clothing. He is obviously in a good mood. Marc Russell still has a few wood splints in his beard, because he was just cutting a few pieces of wood for a new boat when we knocked on the door. Marc is the founder and owner of Gull Lake Boat Works. When he talks about boats he does not mean flashy boats or launches with powerful engines: after completing his apprenticeship at Canadian Canoes, the likeable Canadian choose to specialize in constructing wooden canoes. Since 2008 he has been manufacturing natural products with true character and a special charm of their own in his workshop near Toronto in south-eastern Canada. Built to last a lifetime – if they are well cared for and restored occasionally. But first things first…
Those who go to Gull Lake Boat Works can choose from many different types of canoe. The boats are generally classified as either kayaks or canoes. The difference lies in the design: Kayaks have a closed deck and canoes have an open deck. The shape of the wooden frame depends on the design. It ultimately determines the strength and rigidity of the hull. A variety of different woods are used. “You cannot build a canoe or kayak like this in less than 50 hours. And it takes us several hundred hours to construct our customized models”, explains Marc. Naturally, unique products like these do not come at a discount price: they begin at 4,800 Canadian dollars and the price goes as high as 7,000 Canadian dollars. This corresponds to between 3,500 and 5,200 euros. Customized designs with exotic woods or custom paintwork also have a major impact on the price. But customers then paddle the waters in an absolutely unique masterpiece. Speaking of paddles: they are also manufactured at Gull Lake Boat Works. By hand, of course.
The construction of a canoe does not start in the workshop but rather in the forest. This is where the material grows which hours of loving craft transform into true canoe dreams. “Only certain types of wood are suitable for constructing a canoe”, explains Marc and continues: “They have to be light and strong at the same time. Plus, they have to be able to withstand constant moisture and poor weather. That is why we mainly use cedar, white or red depending on the type of canoe. It is excellently suited for canoes because it is incredibly flexible. In addition, we also use various hardwoods including red and white oak, cherry and even mahogany. “But good workmanship and good wood are not everything”, emphasizes Marc. “The way the owner treats the boat also depends on how long it lasts.”
Making a boat entirely out of wood requires a lot of skill and expertise. The boats have been constructed using similar principles for hundreds of years. Although Gull Lake Boat Works has only existed since 2008, Marc and his team, consisting of two full-time employees, are absolute professionals when it comes to constructing boats. The job demands excellent carpentry and joinery skills: First, the wooden parts have to be cut to the right lengths using the correct saws. The wooden ribs which stabilize the boat and hold the hull together are then bent into the correct shape, fixed in place with screws and nails, mounted on the hull and glued. Clamps compress the glued parts, ensuring that they hold together. This is a major challenge when constructing a canoe because the hull has a lot of rounded surfaces. That is why some of the boats are completely covered in dozens of clamps during the production. A process that takes hours and hours.
The team has standardized its working processes from gluing to waxing the finished hull in order to ensure that the canoes maintain their consistently high quality. However, this is still a long way from anything resembling mass production. Fortunately! The joinery is a combination of creative chaos and inventor’s workshop. Restoring old boats and repair work demand the experts’ improvisational talents. New wooden parts have to be adapted and attached so that they perfectly fit the original hull. Marc sums up his vision: “Making perfection out of imperfection. That is our craft.”
While we continue wandering through the workshop, where two finished canoes stand among the saws, empty coffee cups, planers, and wooden workpieces, Marc tells us the history of the canoe in North America – and explains why he prefers handmade wooden canoes to their contemporaries made of aluminium or fiberglass, etc.: “Up until the 1940s most canoes were made of wood. After the Second World War, aircraft manufacturers also began to manufacture canoes alongside the classical brands such as Chestnut or Peterborough. They used materials from the aeronautics industry. So canoes were made using fiberglass and Kevlar. Today, carbon fiberglass is also used. Nevertheless, a well-cared for wooden canoe still lasts a lot longer. In contrast to plastic, wood is also biodegradable.” According to Marc Russell, the differences between a plastic canoe and one made of wood also have a major emotional aspect.
Owners place more value in natural materials and hand-made products than mass-produced products. As a rule, there is a more intense relationship between the manufacturer and the product and also between the product and the owner.
Our visit to Gull Lake Boat Works is coming to an end. Marc quickly prepares a canoe for a test run – it is for a customer who wants to pick up the boat tomorrow. At the end the relaxed Canadian has a surprise for us: “I do not actually own one of the boats which I build. But I really enjoy canoeing and value its importance for the North American culture. In my free time I prefer hiking or mountaineering. The real reason why I do this job is because I love creating things and building things. I do not honestly believe that every mechanic at Lamborghini also has a Diablo at home in their garage.” He might be right – but we still would have liked to have taken home one of Marc’s canoes for ourselves…
Photos: Gull Lake Boat Works/Marc Russell