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Quest for a lighter canoe launches boatbuilding venture for Grand Forks woodworker and paddling enthusiast

Aug 05, 2018 10:10AM ● By Editor
Steve Hawthorne also makes kayaks and stand-up paddleboards as owner of Red River Wooden Boats. (Photo courtesy of Steve Hawthorne)

By Brad Dokken of the Grand Forks Herald - August 5, 2018

Crossing a portage in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness one day more than 20 years ago, Steve Hawthorne decided he was done lugging his 84-pound fiberglass canoe between wilderness lakes.

That was enough of that, he recalls.

Hawthorne loves the northeast Minnesota wilderness area and taking canoe trips with his son, Matt, or daughter, Kara, both of whom now are in their mid 30s. But when your paddling partners gauge a successful canoe trip by how many miles they can portage, it's time to explore lighter options, he says.

"I thought, 'This is (crazy),'" Hawthorne, 64, said with a laugh, recalling the heavy canoe. "So, I was looking at what was available, and really, the only thing that was significantly lighter was Kevlar (canoes), and they were like $6,000 at the time."

That wasn't in the budget, Hawthorne says, so he decided to put his woodworking and construction hobby skills to use and build a cedar strip canoe.

Hawthorne found a "pretty darn good manual" from the Minnesota Canoe Association and went to work. He didn't realize it at the time, but his venture into canoe building would launch a hobby business that became Red River Wooden Boats.

As a woodworking enthusiast, building boats is more fun than building kitchen cabinets or furniture, which basically is "gluing rectangles together," Hawthorne says.

"The boats are interesting because you've got three dimensions you have to work from, and so it's easy to screw it up," he said. "I probably work a third to half the speed of anybody who's really serious. I'm just not in that much of a hurry, and I don't know everything, so I've got to take time not to screw up."

Hawthorne says he launched Red River Wooden Boats because he had "too many boats, to be honest." He still has three canoes, including the original cedar strip, two kayaks, a stand-up paddleboard, a rowboat and a speedboat, all of which reside at the family cabin near Itasca State Park.

"I'm up to about eight boats total, and I even think that's about enough for one guy," he says with a laugh.

Variety of boats

Working in his Grand Forks shop, Hawthorne has built more than 20 wooden boats, ranging from motorboats and rowboats to canoes, kayaks and paddleboards, for customers from as far away as California and New Jersey.

"This is a hobby job and so I like to work with people and figure out what they actually want as opposed to what they think they want, which sometimes isn't the same thing," said Hawthorne, a distinguished research chemist at the UND Energy and Environmental Research Center. "I don't want to build the same thing five or six times; twice is plenty, but I like doing modifications. "That's the fun of it."

Hawthorne says his first cedar strip canoe, which cost him about $500 to make, still is going strong and has logged more than more than 200 nights in the Boundary Waters. And at 53 pounds, the 18-foot canoe is considerably easier to portage than a fiberglass canoe, he says.

"I did have one little delamination where I did the fiberglass poorly and had to do a repair on that, but it's at least 30 years old," Hawthorne said. "You're not going to run a Class 3 rapids, but I'll run Class 2s, like the Red Lake River, with my kids because we can paddle OK together.

"They're not robust like a plastic boat, but for Boundary Waters-type use and lake use, they're a lot tougher than you need for that."

The main thing with cedar strip canoes is to store them out of the sun, Hawthorne says; epoxy doesn't like sun.

"Don't worry about a week or two, but don't store them permanently outside in the direct sun," Hawthorne said. "Even outside on the edge of the garage, just put a tarp down over it. That's all it takes."

On the water

On a recent late-July evening, Hawthorne probed the murky depths of the Red River for catfish in the 16-foot dory he built in 2005. Powered by a 15-horse outboard, the flat-bottomed boat with high sides and a sharp bow is a mix of beauty, utility and craftsmanship.

He tries to get the boat on the river at least once a week.

"This is kind of a classic working boat like in the coastal waters by Seattle or Maine or whatever," Hawthorne said. "They're really old style. I really like this boat for a river boat. I'm very fond of it."

Like the other motorboats and rowboats he builds, the hull of the dory is constructed from a high-grade marine mahogany plywood certified by Lloyds of London to never delaminate for 25 years, Hawthorne says.

"It is fantastic material," he said. "When I was building this one, it was the first time I had used the plywood, and I'm thinking, 'A quarter-inch for this hull—are you kidding me?' I thought it's going to delaminate and there's no way I'm going to be able to keep it painted and no leaks. So, I tossed a scrap in a bucket of water and six months later, when I was done with the boat, it hadn't delaminated or anything."

He also uses the plywood for the hulls of his kayaks.

Aside from some touch-up painting and replacing the stainless steel skids at the bottom of the dory, which take a beating on the concrete boat ramps of the Red River, Hawthorne says maintenance has been minimal.

"It's hard on them, this river is," he says of the dory, which is in its 13th year "of kind of brutal use.

"I've been pleased with it."

Up to standards

The U.S. Coast Guard has inspected the boats Hawthorne builds, and the company meets all USCG criteria for commercial vessels, he says. Because of that, Red River Wooden Boats carry a capacity plate certifying they meet Coast Guard specs and a Hull Identification Number required for insuring the boats.

Beyond basic woodworking skills, Hawthorne says the most difficult aspect of building the boats is becoming familiar with the fiberglass and epoxy and how to apply it smoothly so it bonds to the wood.

The time it takes to build a boat is "extremely variable," Hawthorne says. He spent about 200 hours on the first dory he made, while the next one took about 140 hours.

"If you haven't built (a particular) canoe before, setting up and cutting forms would take 30 hours or more," Hawthorne said. "If you've built it before, you're down to maybe 10 hours to set up the forms again.

"If I was serious, and it wasn't just evenings or weekends, it would probably take me 120 hours or so for a canoe plus setup time if I hadn't built it before. Paddleboards are about 100 hours. But I'm not doing it for a living."

• On the Web:

To see a video and photo gallery about Red River Wooden Boats follow this link to the Herald's website.

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