WoodenBoat Magazine: Michigan’s Boatbuilding School


By: John Summers

If you drive north through southern Michigan, you’ll eventually reach the majestic Straits of Mackinac.  Crossing the 5-mile-longMackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula-the “U.P.”-you’ll soon enter Cedarville, on the threshold of the picturesque Les Cheneaux Islands.  The town’s maritime museum tells the islands’ story, reinforced by an annual wooden boat show in nearby Hessel.  And if you take one more turn at Cedarville, down South Meridian Street, you’ll shortly arrive at the lakefront campus of the Great Lakes Boat Building School (GLBBS).

In 2005, a group of local residents who appreciated the rich maritime and boating history of the area founded the school, hoping to expand the economic base in a way consistent with the area’s heritage.  The founders rallied support, and by 2006 they had hired a director, bought property, approved a design, and broken ground for construction.  In 2007, the hired Patrick Mahon, then living in Port Townsend, Washington, to develop a nine-month curriculum.  The building was dedicated that August.  By September, the school had received its state license as a vocational school and the first seven students arrived.  Now eight years after that first class enrolled, more than 100 students have graduated and the school is seeking federal accreditation.  The only vocational boat-building school on U.S. inland waters, it has reintroduced regional maritime traditions and has brought together Great Lakes youths with a passion for boatbuilding but no way to train for a career without moving to a faraway seacoast.  In effect, the school has become the “Midwest School of Wooden Boat Building”.

The two-story-high main shop, amply lighted by large  windows, is filled with the smells of wood being cut, steamed, and shaped and the sounds of hand and power tools in use.  Quiet discussions among groups of
students reinforce an impression of concentration and focus.  At each  end, large doors lead outside.  To one side, a second-floor mezzanine is used for lofting and small projects.  A machinery room to the other side houses stationary power tools and stocks of wood.  Chainfalls for hoisting and turning boats run on overhead beams.  Down the center of the shop is a series of workbenches, with storage underneath, one assigned to each student.  Two cats, Luna and Target, make themselves at home, napping beneath or on top of the benches or patrolling the building.

The projects are chosen for their value in developing well-rounded skills.  During my visit last April, the boats in progress reflected a wide variety: a John Hacker-designed inboard runabout, a fiberglass fantail launch, a Phil Bolger-designed outboard fisherman’s launch, a Paul Gartside-designed catboat, and two small flat-iron lapstrake skiffs.  The welcome was warm, inviting, and a little eclectic.  I was invited to stay for the students’ weekly potluck dinner, where I learned that I really shouldn’t miss bingo night at the Islander Bar in Hessel, a highlight of the off-season social life. (After a shaky start, I came away with a baseball cap and a Frisbee.)

Pat Mahon, now the school’s director, teaches the first-year program.  Before coming to GLBBS, he served a ten-year stint at the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building in Washington State which was one of the primary inspirations for the GLBBS founders.  Pat also drew from a wealth of experience gained during a long career as a boatbuilder.  He grew up far from the water in Phoenix, Arizona, but was interested in boats nonetheless.  After graduating from high school, he met a boatbuilder in Washington, D.C., who helped shape his career, and a year at Tough Brothers Boatyard on the upper Thames at Tedington, England, confirmed his choice.  He went on to work for a decade at yards in Maine, then moved to Port Townsend, Washington, where he opened his own yacht joinery shop, and later turned to teaching.  At the Port Hadlock school, he specialized in yacht interiors and contemporary construction.

Andy James, who teaches the second-year program at GLBBS, grew up with boats because his father owned a marina, and he has been a woodworker his life.  But during his 24 years in the Navy, a transient life limited his boatbuilding projects to kayaks and other small craft.  After retiring, he moved to Michigan and began working with the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven.  At a boat show, GLBBS staff saw a fiberglass-hulled launch he converted to electric power and were impressed enough to ask him to join their teaching staff.  Andy sold his recently completed “retirement” house and moved north.  He and his wife enjoy the close-knit feeling of Cedarville, and he confesses that he is “as much in love with the community as with the school”.

The  school has two vocational programs.  A two-year plan is intended for career training in both traditional and modern wooden boat construction.  A one-year program focuses mainly on traditional techniques, with a short introduction to wood-epoxy construction.  In addition, one-week avocational courses are held during the summers.  All are meant to inspire students and encourage their growth as craftsmen and craftswomen, and to shape their appreciation of maritime traditions.  It is by no means guaranteed that all of the students who enter GLBBS will emerge as boatbuilders.  Some will graduate and go onto work and do it well.  For those who don’t, it might be a matter of choice as other careers beckon.  For others, it might be an acknowledgment that their skills are not what they thought they were.  For others still, they may want to practice what they’ve learned as a pastime free from the constraints of doing it to make a living.  For the 2015-16 academic year, eleven students were enrolled in the first-year program and five in the second year.

My day at the school, a fairly typical one, started in the morning when Pat gathered first-year students for a hourlong classroom presentation about wood-epoxy construction materials.  Meanwhile, second-year students went straight to their projects on the shop floor.  Pat says he likes to keep theoretical and practical learning in balance  as topics emerge for students during their first year, the curriculum for which is based on his textbook Learning Curves, which he wrote for the school.

he choice of which boats to build is a complex one, balancing sometimes-competing priorities of the established curriculum, the arc of skills development, personal growth, institutional goals, and the market for completed boats.  Unless a commission has been received, Pat usually doesn’t decide what boat the first-year students will build until around Thanksgiving, when he’s had a chance to get to know that year’s class and their skills.

The school strives to prepare students for the realities of the workplace, and for the difference between learning a traditional trade and the stern reality of practicing it to earn a living.  “I think the reality of building boats, and the perception of building boats, are miles apart, “ observes Steve Van Dam, who owns Van Dam Custom Boats in Boyne City, Michigan, and serves on the school’s Program Advisory Committee.  Pat, too, says a moment always comes in the first year when idealistic students realize that building wooden boats is hard work.

In the early days, a state law barred the school from selling completed boats, but a change in legislation now allows commissioned projects. Although they are well-constructed, the boats are student-built, which is recognized when setting prices comparatively low.  “It would be nice to get more,” Pat says.  “Our boats are pretty good quality, maybe 80 percent of a professional  yard.  Sometimes the level of detail is not quite there.  We have our time constraints and our skill constraints.”

Commissioned projects provide much-needed revenue but can come with their own complexities.  But as a school and not a boatbuilding shop, the institution recognizes that it can’t charge hourly labor costs; Pat usually doubles the materials cost to set the price of a finished boat.

Commissions also have to fit the timelines and requirements of the curriculum.  The goal is to select boats that can be finished within two academic years, which limits their length and displacement.  The longest
plank-on-frame boats undertaken to date have been a 28’6” whaleboat for Mystic Seaport, and a 32’ gig for the USS Constitution Museum.  The heaviest was a 5,200lb, 19’ LOA Gartside-designed cutter completed in 2011.  If a too-large boat were taken on, a student may end up learning only one aspect, such as planking, without getting a sense of the larger projects.

Not all first-year students stay for a second year, but the boats often span both classes.  With the imperative to develop students’ skills, and taking into account other tasks they need to complete, even a small boat such as the 12’6” Gartside catboat will be built over two years.  About six months of each student’s year are actually spent working on specific boats.  Project boats are typically started and planked in the first year fitted out and finished in the second.  By working on boats in different phases of construction, students experience the complete sequence.

The school also occasionally adjusts to take on small projects as opportunities arise.  This year, for example students built a 36’-long yard for the Michigan Maritime Museum’s sloop FRIENDS GOOD WILL and a complete set of spars for an owner-builder who didn’t want to make his own.  The spars for the Gartside catboat were deferred so that next year’s class would still have a chance to learn sparmaking.

Boats, too, can be modified to suit owners, which introduces students to client relationships.  The garboards of the Bolger launch, for example, were made in plywood instead of a traditional solid planking because the boat will live on a trailer.  While willing to make these kinds of changes where they are warranted, Pat is not a fan of boats built with a hodgepodge of different methods.  He prefers to stay more or less true to the boat’s original tradition.  For him, “the best tradition in wooden boat building is innovation…our goal here is to teach the skills, and I also emphasize a real appreciation of what’s gone before in the history of boatbuilding.”  The Gartside cutter’s deck substrate is made of glued-up plywood, which he considers appropriate, considering its advantages of structural stiffness, water-tightness, and reduced maintenance.  But if a customer wanted a traditional laid deck sheathed in canvas, he would be willing to do that too, as an excellent learning opportunity for the students.

Students are involved in making choices about techniques and materials.  Pat recognizes that everything is new to them, and although they may not yet have the background to understand the implications of each option, he encourages them to analyze alternatives.  For example, he might have them calculate the relative merits of stainless-steel versus bronze fastenings in deciding the balance between a boat’s cost and its potential sales price.  Any aspect of construction can be a teaching opportunity.  For teaching, he prefers building sailboats with some “heft.”  Large scantlings are more forgiving when shaped by those with emerging skills, and the challenges of sparmaking complement what students learn in hull construction.

Gartside’s designs are especially ideal for teaching Andy says.  The plans are highly detailed, the boats are handsome, and their “big hunks of wood” are comparatively easy for novices to work with.  Gartside’s shapely hulls are also easy to plank.

One of Andy’s favorite projects to date was a 16’ lapstrake runabout drawn by British Columbia designer Tad Roberts and reminiscent of plywood-planked runabouts by inland builders such as Lyman, Thompson, and Chris-Craft.  Andy had his students lengthen the design to 18’ on the loft floor.  For trailering, the hull’s bottom was strip-planked from the keel to the turn of the bilge, then the planking transitioned to glued-lapstrake plywood for the topsides.  Instead of using frames of steam-bent oak, the class installed sawn frames, and also bulkheads, of marine plywood.  From a teacher’s perspective, the boat had just enough brightwork and interior joinery to  make it interesting, and its outboard power was simple to install, so the project introduced a range of lessons without being unduly complex.

Although he acknowledges that many students go on to careers in repair, especially if they stay around the Great Lakes, Andy finds the subject difficult to fit in.  Both he and Pat believe that the skills used in new construction are fundamental; if students can build wooden boats from scratch, then they will know how to repair and restore them.  This year, the school has a higher-than-usual number of mid-career and second-career students who are interested in restoration, so they are exploring ways to add it to the curriculum.  One disadvantage of such courses is that many hours may be spent stripping off old finishes and removing damaged structure, and, as Andy says, “That’s not learning, that’s just manual labor.”

Andy is a firm believer in lofting.  His students spend a lot of time not only drawing and fairing lines but learning how to use the lofting to develop such things as transoms, deckbeams, and stem sections so they understand how time invested in lofting can pay off later.  They also take lines off exising boats.  Local boatyards may be experts in restoration, but far fewer have built new, so Andy believes the graduates could make an important contribution to local boatyard expertise.

Students come to the school from a wide variety of backgrounds, with equally varying objectives.  Much as a wooden boat is build of a large number of discrete parts that must not only function on their own but also work in concert with other components around them, so too is a boatbuilder’s education.  First he picks of a chisel, possibly for the first time.  Properly sharpened, it may be a revelation, inspiring confidence in its capabilities on its own and in combination with other hand tools.  Then reality is introduced, along with the clock, and the student learns when to work by hand and when to work with power, and how to blend the two to get a job done not only well but also on time.

Pat’s challenge is to negotiate the balance between helping each student to develop as a person and improving the skills of al of them–to instill a sense of craftsmanship.  He finds that maturity, skill, or attentiveness cannot easily be assumed by generational stereotypes: “I see young people just as focused as the older students, and likewise some older adults who seem to have exceptionally short attention spans.  Sometimes the hardest students can be the middle-aged or older as they have developed bad habits and bigger egos.  So you have to take each as an individual, coming in with different skills and experiences, and although I do not tailor the curriculum, I do adjust my expectations.”  He starts them all at the beginning and assumes that they have no experience in woodworking or boatbuilding.  This approach has served him well.  The only students for who it doesn’t work are those who come “already knowing everything there is to know,” and he acknowledges that he has met (and tried to teach) some of the in his time at the school.

Discipline is an essential component of craftsmanship, Pat says.  Young students can be in a hurry to go straight to the creative work, but he counsels them to be patient and learn traditions first.  Creativity can be manifested in subtle ways; for example, an otherwise traditional boat can have sophisticated joinery that complements rather than upstages the rest of the project.  He wants students to distinguish between a boat in which all the details flow together harmoniously and one in which the details are just good enough.

Building boats involves craftsmanship, artistry, and mechanical skills, and students need to learn how and when to shift between these.  “Planking a boat is not real creative,” Pat says.  “It’s pretty well been thought out.  You’re not going to invent a new way to plank a carvel boat.  You have to do it in a very disciplined way.  You have to get through it and get it done properly.”

Van Dam echoes this distinction.  He has found it easier to find good mechanics to work in the production-boat sales and service side of his business than it is to find–and find the time to train–craftsmen for the custom shop.  Even after a year or tow of boatbuilding school, his employees still must enter his company’s four-year apprenticeship, with some credit for their previous training.  For him, the essential ingredients are both natural aptitude and a fierce drive to create high-quality work.  As a businessman, Van Dam is all to conscious of the need to balance exquisite craftsmanship with the need to get the work done.  “In business…we have to get a product done in a reasonable amount of time even though we are known to be very detail-oriented.  There’s a threshold of pain for everybody, and you’ve still got to be efficient.”

Teaching craftsmanship is a challenge when students have varying abilities, Andy says, especially when a student’s aptitude is at odds with his perceptions of his skills.  “There’s a certain of God-given talent I think that you have.  You can’t just take anybody off the street.  There’s a certain amount of, ‘You get it or you don’t.’  In the first year, they’re learning how to use some hand tools for the first time.  Some of them pick it up quickly and develop an eye for it and a feel for the wood, and others just never really get there.”  It is exciting to watch good students develop quickly, but not everyone is suited for the task.  A mistake cutting a stem rabbet could waste considerable time already invested, so inevitably, for the good of the project, some students end up watching instead of doing.

An ethos of craftsmanship can be as hard to teach as it is to define precisely.  For Pat, an artist has “the freedom…to imagine and create without the constraints of time, utility, value, beauty, or cultural acceptability….  The artist may work within a tradition and must know the history and techniques of that discipline, but he or she is ultimately guided by only one rule–there are no rules.”  Mechanics, by comparison, “know the rules and follow them.”  Like an artist, he says, a craftsman or craftswoman “has the freedom to be creative and must, like the mechanic, “know the rules’ of his craft….  Unlike the artist, the craftsman is creating objects of utility and must be mindful of the user or of the client’s needs and resources.  The craftsman’s work…is to create an object with a level of artistry that reflects a sensitivity to the history, the materials used, and form and finish, while still maintaining the function or purpose of the object.  A craftsman knows the rules and when and how to break them.”

First printed in WoodenBoat Magazine #251 – used with permission.  John Summers is a boatbuilder, small-craft historian, watercraft blogger, and museum curator who lives in Burlington, Ontario.

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