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Where guideboats are born

One shop, three generations of builders

October 10, 2009
By MIKE LYNCH, Enterprise Outdoors Writer

SARANAC LAKE - A guideboat sits overturned and elevated on A-frames above a pile of sawdust. Tools, some dating back to the 19th century, are everywhere. Some hang on the walls; others are hidden under lumber.

Seated amid the tools, guideboats and scent of pine, Chris Woodward explains the building process.

"In a typical boat, the ribs and stems would be steamed and bent," he said. "Well, these aren't. They are all sawed to shape. It is known as a 'sawn rib.' But in order to get the grain to follow the curve of that rib, you need a curved piece of wood."

Article Photos

Chris Woodward, owner since 1991 of the former Hanmer/Hathaway guideboat shop in Saranac Lake, holds up a stem made from a spruce tree root.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)

A century or more ago, this scene - a guideboat builder in his shop - would have been commonplace. There were at least a half-dozen premier guideboat builders within a half-mile of what is now the Woodward Boat Shop.

Today, Woodward is one of a handful of guideboat builders in the entire six-million-acre Adirondack Park, carrying on a tradition whose origins date back to at least the 1840s and some say earlier.

The guideboat is as much an Adirondack original as the rivers, ponds and lakes it is made to traverse. It was designed for this region, where having a boat that can be carried is as essential as having one that moves swiftly over water.

At about 16 feet long and 65 pounds, it was the original lightweight boat, Woodward said.

"The easiest way to travel was by water," Woodward said. "But you can't go very far without having to carry your boat. So they shaved as much weight off the boats as they could. So the number-one factor of a guideboat was to make it as light as they possibly could and still do what it was designed to do."

What they were designed to do was haul gear and serve as fishing and hunting boats.

"They are pretty to look at now, but they were working boats just like a lobster boat," Woodward said.

Now, they are mainly found at Great Camps and on display at museums.

Woodward's shop itself is a walk back in time. The Paul Smiths native is the third owner. Carl Hathaway owned it from 1963 to 1991. For the three decades prior to that, it was owned and used by Willard Hanmer, who, along with his father Theodore, was a well known Saranac Lake guideboat maker.

"This shop is virtually unchanged from 1930," Woodward said. "The machinery is all from the '40s and '50s, for the most part, some of it even older, like the band saw and a planer that came out of the Martin shops, about 1910, 1920 vintage."

Woodward said he always wanted to own a guideboat and the only way he would be able to afford one was to build it himself. So in 1980, when North Country Community College, through its Adirondack Studies curriculum, offered a course on building guideboats, Woodward signed up. Hathaway and Ralph Morrow were the instructors.

Woodward enjoyed the course so much that he later took a job with Hathaway. Then he bought the shop. With it came a list of about a dozen people interested in buying boats and a clientele of those who wanted restoration work done.

The market for guideboats is limited, and traditional guideboats don't lend themselves to mass production. Most of Woodward's clients are long-term camp owners such as those on Brandreth and Upper St. Regis lakes. Most of the work he does is restoring boats built between the 1870s and 1929. The typical boat he works on is about a century old and built by the experts, including Fred Rice and Willie Allen Martin.

Woodward builds about one boat per year, selling it for about $13,000. Building a guideboat takes him 450 hours, or about three months. It's an intensive process that includes a combination of patience and persistence.

Woodward does everything, from digging up roots that are used for ribs to placing close to 4,000 tacks into the planks to make the boat watertight.

The ribs and stems in traditional guideboats are made from red spruce stumps, which have curved grains. In order to find these stumps, Woodward will often work with loggers. He asks them to cut the stumps high and not pull them up. Instead, he digs them up by hand and later cuts them up into appropriate sizes for ribs and stems. The stumps must be dug up by hand because a bulldozer or skidder would shatter them.

"It's not like you go down to Lowe's and buy yourself a bunch of root crooks," Woodward said. "I have to go out into the woods and find spruce trees."

Choosing the right wood is important. Historically, most of the planking was made with white pine, although some of it was made from northern white cedar, Woodward said. White cedar is lighter and more rot resistant but also much softer than white pine. Wood from Adirondack cedar also tends to have a lot of knots.

"When its branches die, they tend to hang on, so you get a lot of knots in the wood, whereas white pine grows nice and clear and straight and the cedar up here didn't grow very clear or big," Woodward said. "The other thing is, the nicest cedar in the Adirondacks went into all the Great Camps. If you look at all those old camps with all those old cedar logs, you could have built a lot of boats of it, but a lot of it went to the camps."

While the basic materials have stayed the same for building guideboats, so have a few of the tools, at least in Woodward's case. Woodward still uses Hanmer's original hand saws, screwdrivers, hand planers and chisels for tasks that require a degree of touch that an electric tool might not allow. Tasks that require repetition, such as drilling hundreds of holes through the planks, are better suited for an electric drill.

"These are all his tools," Woodward said. "This is basically a little Willard Hanmer museum."

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This article originally appeared in the July/August edition of Embark, an outdoor recreation magazine produced by the publishers of the Enterprise and Lake Placid News.

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Contact Mike Lynch at (518) 891-2600 ext. 28 or mlynch@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.

 
 

 

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