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Canoe Craftsman

September 28, 2011
Wetzel Chronicle

In grade school, we were taught about American Indians building canoes made from materials found in nature around them. Birchbark and animal skins were some of the early materials used to cover canoes. The Native American people of the times used them to travel creeks and rivers that crisscrossed the landscape. French and English explorers traded for these small boats crafted by the Indians. Later surveyors used them to help map out our country's diverse lands. In the mid-1700s the French had canoe factories in Canada to build the water crafts for the fur trappers of the day. Some of those canoes could hold as many as a dozen men.

Since those days, man has improved on the materials and how to build these water crafts. In many ways the basic design of canoes has not changed since time was first recorded in the Americas. Its simplicity in construction and design has helped it to remain part of the outdoor culture still today. Nowadays canoes are often a far cry from the early tree bark models. High technique material such as fiber glass, plastics, aluminum, and composite material have replaced wood and bark construction. But canoes made from handcrafted wood are still highly prized by those who love the quiet joy of gilding over water.

One local man, Doug Roberts from Moundsville, was intrigued by the idea of building and constructing a handmade canoe. He wanted to learn to assemble a custom canoe, one strip of wood at a time. Roberts began making his first boat over 10 years ago. He has since constructed a variety of styles that were covered with long wooden strips laid over frames made from wood. Learning to work with wood to create the many bends and twists posed challenges along the way. Today he believes he has learned much about the building of canoes, but still there is much to experience in the craft.

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The canoe's simplicity and smooth flowing lines helped it survive into our modern world. Roberts also discovered they could also be made into an art form. Roberts began to create not only canoes and paddles to be used on the water, but as works of art. He has traveled to boat shows in Georgetown, S.C., and Beauford, N.C., displaying his creations. It gives him a chance to meet other builders and learn about the trade.

The first he built was from a kit out of Canada with the pieces to construct the craft. He quickly learned he could obtain local materials that were much more suited for his style of building. Over the years Roberts has built several canoes. One he even covered with paper and finished with resin to waterproof its unique design. Experimenting and trying differing designs has helped to hone and advance his skills. This winter he is planning to build a special canoe using nylon as the covering material. Roberts and his wife Beth are hosting an exchange student from Ecuador, Nicky Bastidas, for the school year. He hopes the experience of building a handcrafted canoe will be one of the many things she will remember from her stay in America.

Roberts is not alone in his hobby of building handcrafted canoes and paddles. Locally he doesn't know of others who practice this skill, but around the country master craftsmen build canoes and paddles for a living. He tells of one canoe builder who sells his handmade crafts for as much as $155,000. A hand made paddle can go for as much as $650. Roberts' handmade paddles have sold for around a hundred dollars.

Roberts hopes someday to retire and build canoes for more than just a hobby. In his workshop he now works to build not only canoes and paddles, but other variations of the craft. He has built coffee tables that are small versions of a wooden canoe and book shelves made from the front sections of a canoe.

For a friend as a retirement gift, he crafted a tackle box designed after a boat. In the future he plans to build a baby bed from a small version of a boat known as a dingy. And while I visited his shop he was in the process of constructing a paddle with a cutout of a canoe inside a bottle built into a paddle. There are also plans to embed satin glass into the blade of a paddle.

Some of the most impressive things Roberts has made are his paddles that are more of an art form than a functional paddle. These are not your run of the mill paddles, but more of a carefully crafted mixture of wood working and specialty art. For Roberts the paddles must be functional as he sees it, but also be interesting to the eye. His paddles incorporate patterns of leaves, birds, and even his own hand into the design. That paddle was made for the Wheeling Hand Clinic after he used their services. Other paddles have been made and donated to local charities to be raffled off to benefit the organization. Once such a donation was made to the local American Heart Association.

Some of his paddles take as much as 30 hours to complete. He prefers to use cedar for its light weight in paddle construction. Roberts explained much of the quality comes out when the canoe or paddle is finished with resin. Paddles are coated in resin and sanded down several times before the final coat is applied. Only then can the true beauty of the wood's texture and inlay patterns stand out.

For now, Roberts' work is slowly becoming known in the world of canoe builders and those who enjoy a different form of art in his paddles. In the future, he hopes to turn his hobby into a specialty business in his workshop. Roberts is interested in hearing form others who share his love for crafting canoes and paddles. He can be contacted by e-mail at For the time being he hopes to continue refining and studying the long American tradition of building handcrafted canoes as he looks to the future Thru The Lens.



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