Woodward carries on the craft of guideboat construction
SARANAC LAKE — Two guideboats await Christopher Woodward’s attention in his near-century-old shop on Tuesday afternoon. One was built circa 1910, in for a new gunwale and sheer planks. The other boat is yet only a quarter-built, planks half-covering its curved spruce ribs, built from scratch by Woodward himself.
“I build these now because not many people do,” Woodward said. “Most of the boats I sell are for people that are actually going to use them.”
Guideboats were developed in the Adirondacks in the mid-1800s — in their first iterations with square sterns and stepped “strakes” (lines of planking). These early designs resembled skiffs of European construction that have appeared in different forms since the third century, Woodward said.
“The easiest way to get somewhere was by water,” Woodward said. “But they needed something that was lighter to carry.”
The Adirondacks, peppered as they are with waterways, were easier for earlier travelers to traverse by boat than to bushwhack through, due to the dense spruce-fir and old-growth forests. Woodward noted that Martin’s hotel on nearby Lower Saranac Lake was one of the establishments in the 1800s that tried to attract sportsmen up to the North Country, and out into the wilderness, via the boat’s namesake — guiding.
“They evolved the boat to those conditions,” Woodward said. Along the way, the stepped strakes were beveled and sanded smooth, and the boats became double-ended. “They got it down to about a quarter-inch [thick] planking, some even down to 3/16ths.”
Every pound shaved off a boat’s weight was another pound of provisions or hunting gear that could be hauled into the wild, Woodward said, so the pressure was on to create a boat that could be carried easily from lake to lake. The boats were painted historically so that “the dull green and blues were part camouflage, part protection.”
However, toward the end of the 19th century, tycoons of the age — railroad barons and others in the new American mega-wealthy — began buying up tracts of land in the Adirondacks and establishing “great camps” with their own boathouses, guides and guideboats.
“But someone at a great camp didn’t want a rough-painted work boat,” Woodward said.
It is during this period that guideboats became fashionable objects, constructed of contrasting wood, eschewing paint for layers of rich varnish.
“Essentially though, it’s the same boat,” Woodward said. “The boat hits refinement in the 1870s.”
The height of guideboat use came in the last decade of the 1890s and early 1900s, according to Woodward. Moving into the 20th century, people traveling to the Adirondacks for recreation and sport were “not guided, per se,” Woodward said.
As Woodward explained, more roads were cut in through the wilderness, and new forms of outdoors entertainment like bicycling emerged. The guideboat was even challenged on the water by the wood and canvas canoe, which became the accessible, go-to recreational craft, “much the same way the kayak is today,” Woodward said.
But the guideboat remained a tool for the working man, Woodward said, until the cue of World War II, spurring the development of new technologies and manufacturing methods. Woodward said old builders pivoted away from boat building into repair and maintenance of old guideboats, and many closed their doors.
“You don’t need the guideboat for transportation, because you have an outboard motor,” Woodward said. “They become not a necessity but a luxury, a whim for people.”
Woodward’s shop was established in 1930 by Willard Hanmer, who had been taught the art and craft by his father Theodore, who built guideboats through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Carl Hathaway worked for Hanmer during the winters of ’60 and ’61, until Hanmer’s death. Hathaway bought the shop in 1963 from Hanmer’s widow, Pauline “Ben” Hanmer.
In 1980 North Country Community College contracted Hathaway and another guideboat builder to host an apprenticeship program in which participants built a guideboat from scratch. One member of this program, Woodward, started working for Hathaway in 1987 and bought the shop from him in 1991.
Willard Hanmer bought a lot of Delta tooling and equipment in the ’30s and ’40s, which is still present in Woodward’s shop — as well as a thickness planer and a bandsaw from the 1890s. Woodward said he is just now phasing these machines out of use for newer equipment.
Tools that haven’t changed: a tacking iron and spring-loaded yankee screwdriver, each near 70 years old and still seeing rigorous use driving 2,500 screws and pounding 3,500 to 4,000 tacks per boat.
“Nothing is power driven. All the screws are put in by hand,” Woodward said.
“Everything is screwed to the stems and ribs and tacked down its length,” he added. “You can plank in two, three, weeks. At that point you’re halfway done.”
The iconic guideboat ribs are sawn from spruce root stock, cut to take advantage of the roots’ natural curvature.
Woodward said one of his 16-foot boats weighs 70 pounds and can be loaded with up to 800 pounds of people and gear.
He estimated that a boat, from scratch, takes between 400 and 500 hours to complete, though this does not include the hours spent sourcing and processing raw materials. He prices a new boat at $18,000.
But he says the majority of his business comes from the repair and refurbishment of old guideboats, like the 100-odd-year-old boat waiting on him now.
“Some days, it’s mindless work. Some days, it’s creative. Most days it’s mindless,” Woodward said. “But you gotta be mindful, even if you’re doing mindless work. You’ve got to do it right.”
“The Adirondack Guideboats: Its Origins, Its Builders, and Their Boats,” a history of guideboats and a biography of their builders, is set to be published next week. It was the culmination of 25 years of research by Stephen B. Sulavik, who died before it could be completed. Woodward said he and historian Edward Comstock Jr. spent the last three years writing additions and making revisions to the work, available from Bauhan Publishing.