Wooden Canoes Thrive in South Norfolk
Thomson Canoe Works Still Builds Canoes by Hand
By Ruth Melville
A summer job at a canoeing camp led Norfolk resident Schuyler Thomson to an unanticipated profession, and he has now been building and repairing handmade wooden canoes for over 30 years.
Thomson, who grew up in Woodbury, Conn., graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1969 with a degree in history and Latin. He taught high school for 10 years before deciding that he would rather be doing something else with his life.
During the summer breaks, Thomson had been working at Keewaydin Canoe Camp in Vermont, where he had been a camper as a boy. After becoming head of canoeing at the camp, he found he needed to learn how to repair leaky wooden canoes. From that, a new career was born.Thomson quit teaching to start working exclusively on canoes in 1979. His timing was good, since there was a renewed interest in the craft in the 1970s, inspired in part by the book, The Survival of the Bark Canoe by John McPhee, who also went to Keewaydin camp.
Thomson and his wife, Heather Neal, moved to Pine Ledge Way in Norfolk in 1986. Before he could set up his workshop, he had to clear the land of rocks and trees and level it. Today the property is ringed with boats on racks. There are about 70 canoes, in various states of repair or construction, on the place at any one time, and Thomson estimates that over the years he has built or repaired 1,200 boats.
Thomson’s canoe business has four aspects, which he has phased in over time. At first, he did mostly repair and restoration work. After about 20 years, he bought a form and started building canoes himself.The third phase saw the people coming in to Thomson’s workshop to build their own boats. Alan Boucher, who first got to know Thomson when they coached youth soccer together—and Thomson’s passion for soccer is about as great as his passion for canoeing—was one of the first to build a canoe with him. Boucher says that Thomson is a great teacher, “always positive, always constructive.” He knows just when to step in to offer advice, but is “also confident enough to turn you loose with the tools.”
Local organizations, too, including the Curling Club and Great Mountain Forest, have either built or restored boats that they then raffled off to raise money. Thomson’s assistant, Frank Christinat, built his first canoe while working at GMF.
In the fourth phase, which began about three years ago, Thomson started working with summer camps in New England, like Keewaydin, that specialize in canoeing. Thomson and Christinat go to the camp, taking along a kit, a form, a steam box, some wood, tools and supplies, and help the kids build their own canoe. They bring the canoe back to Norfolk for the finishing work, painting and varnishing, then take it back to the campers before their summer session is over.At Chewonki adventure camp for girls, in Maine, the campers have now built five 15-foot canoes. Campers at Camp Becket, in the Berkshires, have built a 25-foot-long war canoe, and the camp has promised to get rid of an old plastic boat for every wooden one they build.
Still a teacher at heart, Thomson talks enthusiastically about working with the kids, some as young as 10 years old, helping them learn new skills working with their hands. This summer Thomson and Christinat spent four weeks away at camps.
Thomson has forms in many sizes. His smallest and newest is 14 feet, good for one person. The next size up is 15 feet, which can fit one to two people, followed by the 16-footer with a square stern, good for fishing; three types of 17-foot canoes, including a deeper one for wilderness canoeing; an 18-footer; and the big 25-foot war canoe, which he makes on a form built in 1913.
A firm believer in the value and quality of a wooden canoe, Thomson says not only are they beautiful and ecological, but they also “make you a better paddler. You have to take care of the boat and be careful.”
Since a handmade wooden canoe is composed of separate parts, it is easy to restore damaged boats. A good wooden canoe, Thompson asserts, can easily last a century. He is currently repairing one from the 1930s. Some of his wood—cherry, spruce, and maple—comes from GMF.
Bob Welcome, from Winsted, is finishing his second canoe with Thomson. “It’s a honor to work with him,” Welcome says. “He’s a talented man, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to benefit from his skills and knowledge.”
Photos by Bruce Frisch.