Learn Wooden Boat Building in the Great Lakes

The southeastern shore of the Upper Peninsula is defined by its boating culture. People travel from mainland to island by boat for groceries and the morning paper. One of the most renowned wooden boat shows in the country takes place in Hessel, Les Cheneaux Antique Wooden Boat Show and Arts Festival. So, it only seems right that Cedarville should host one of only four wooden boat building schools in the country, the Great Lakes Boat Building School. We chatted with lead instructor, Pat Mahon, about the school and about the boats.

For starters, give us a sense for how rare wooden boat building schools are.

Well, talking about major schools, there are only four in the U.S. One in Rhode Island, one in Maine, one in Port Townsend, Washington, and us here in the Midwest. But I consider this facility heads above some of the other facilities I’ve seen, where people are making do with older buildings and older equipment. This was designed and built specifically as a boat building school.

Where did the idea come from?

Back in 2006 a group of longtime summer residents wanted to do something for the community. Their families had been coming to the area for generations, and they could see that something was needed to help the year-round economy. One of the ladies knew of a school for boat building in the Pacific Northwest. The committee visited the school, did other research and settled on a boat building school. This group also put together the initial funding, put up their own money, and there was also some other fundraising.

And Cedarville seems to be just right.

Yes. There is a tradition of wooden boat building here, and there are lots of wooden boats still in the area. Sometimes out on the water you feel like you are back in the 50’s when you see six mahogany Chris Crafts go by. And they are using the boats because that’s the only way to get home to their island. And they are using the boat that Grandpa bought directly from Chris Craft. It’s quite a heritage. We have a few larger marinas that make their income taking care of those boats, the same boat yards doing work for the same families that they’ve worked for generations. Amazing connections.

Who are your students?

We are attracting a career-minded person more so than a craft-type person. This kind of work doesn’t attract the person looking to get rich, but you can have a good career. And as a boat builder, you can go to the most beautiful places in the country to work.

Give us a flyover of the coursework.

In the first year, we start with very basic hand tool woodworking. This is one trade where old traditional hand skills are very important. There’s nothing square on a boat. It’s all curves, bent wood, shaped wood. It can’t be done with just power tools. The first quarter we build a smallskiff. Second quarter a more complex boat, a traditional plank-on-frame boat that might have a deck. The third quarter we introduce newer boat building techniques that involve wood epoxy and composite construction.

What’s one of the trickiest pieces to make?

I have everybody make a stem. The stem is the forward curve part that gives the bow its shape, and the planks attach to it. It’s fairly complex, it has curves and bevels and everything.

What happens to those beautiful boats you build?

We’ve been giving the smaller boats to nonprofits, and they sell them for fundraisers, because there is currently a state law on the books that does not allow us to sell boats. The law says that any vocational school cannot sell products. It’s a very old law, and our representative isworking to have it changed. The bigger boats we’ve been keeping.

Any changes this fall as you head into the third year?

We are adding a second year to the program. The first two years it was a nine-month program. Students felt a second year would be beneficial. And we surveyed the marine industry to see what they felt, and we got such positive response, we felt the need to do the second year.

What’s a year cost?

We charge $10,500 a year, and the limit is 24 students. Also, summer classes for non-professionals.

For more Information contact Great Lakes Boat Building School, 906-484-1081, GREATLAKESBOATBUILDING.ORG

Read more about Les Cheneaux Antique Wooden Boat Show and Arts Festival.

Looking to get on the water in Northern Michigan?

Article Comments

  • http://community.mynorth.com/members/peter-fleming/ peter fleming

    Pat, this is peter fleming from nw wooden boat school,(97) or so. I thought I would be in the UP a couple of years ago but due to a family situation had to stay here. I will be in upper Michigan in late june or mid-july and would love to see you and the school. Will you be around then?
    Peter.