detail of new canoe construction
New Canoe has been taken off form at left and now sits upright as Dylan uses a small anvil to turn back the brads as he attaches the cedar ribs to the inner gunwale
Emily Schoelzel hammers brads into strips of cedar that make up the skeleton of this new canoe they are making. When the brads hit the metal strip on the canoe form they turn back on themselves forming a type of rivet.
One of their finished canoes. This one is rigged for sailing.
Emily Schoelzel repairs a cedar strip canoe
Dylan carves out a curve in the decking of a canoe to match the cures of the gunwales
Canoe being repaired, replacing gunwale and cedar strips at prow.
Dylan Schoelzel attaches ribs to inner gunwale.
Dylan and Emily Schoelzel in their shop
When Dylan Schoelzel graduated from college, he had several things he wanted to do. That was nearly two decades ago.
“I had always wanted to build a canoe, and that’s the only thing on the list I’ve done,” he said.
For the past 17 years, he and his wife, Emily, have made a living building wood-canvas canoes from scratch and repairing small wooden boats and canoes. They run Salmon Falls Canoe in an old post-and-beam barn behind their Shelburne home.
Though he never used his degree in cartography to land a job in map making, Schoelzel did gain some practical knowledge while pursuing his diploma at the University of Montana.
“I had a small business in college making wooden canoe paddles,” he said.
That was pretty much the extent of Schoelzel’s woodworking experience before he crafted his first canoe. Once he built it, he knew he’d found his calling.
“I just kind of fell into it and latched on,” he said.
After first learning to build canoes in Maine, he found work assisting a Connecticut canoe maker and struck out on his own four years later.
“It got to the point where I almost had to go out on my own to further my skills and knowledge,” he said.
He did just that and, 13 years ago, Salmon Falls Canoe was born. The couple has made it into a year-round business and they build about as many canoes as they fix.
His wife went straight to work with him after she finished the Fine Arts program of Moravian College in Pennsylvania.
“I told him I’d help him start the shop, but I didn’t know if I’d like it, or still like him after working together all day,” she said.
She quickly found out. By 2003, the canoe-building couple was married and they’ve since added two children to the family.
“Our customers always say they can’t believe that we can spend so much time working together and still have a happy family life,” she said. “We have enough time working on our own and doing different projects that it balances out.”
If you think the last thing they want to do on their free time is get into a canoe, you’re wrong.
“Being on the water makes us appreciate the work that we do,” she said.
Their 8-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter are well on their way to becoming canoeists themselves. You might say it’s in their blood; both of their parents have been canoeing since before they could drive.
At 14, Dylan Schoelzel embarked on a six-week paddling expedition in Canada, with Keewaydin Camps of Vermont. They explored Ontario’s sprawling Lake Temagami, branches of which spread out through more than 60 square miles, and are dotted with about 1,259 islands. It was the first time he’d sat in a wood-canvas canoe, and he fell in love with it.
When Emily Schoelzel was 12, she took her first expedition in a wood-canvas canoe and at 16, she’d completed a six-week voyage to Hudson Bay. In 1998, she was hired by Keewaydin Camps to lead a girls’ canoe trekking program.
The two met on Lake Temagami, while she was leading a trip for the camp. They still own the first canoe they shared and they build a model in honor of their childhood canoe trips — the 16-foot “Temagami Traveler.”
They also make a motorboat of sorts. Their 21-foot “Forest Laker” canoe has a transom that can hold a motor up to 15 horsepower and seats four.
The Schoelzels build 10 different canoe models, suited to different types of water or excursions. Some are replications of classic canoe models, while others are the couple’s own designs.
Some are best for a leisurely paddle on flat water, others are made to carry a week’s worth of gear or navigate rough waters.
Their canoes are priced from $3,000 to $8,000, depending on the model and accessories chosen.
The Schoelzels have built and repaired more than 300 canoes together in the shop behind their home. Though a handful of area canoeists have bought boats from Salmon Falls, the majority of their work is done for out-of-state customers.
Many of their repairs were done for Keewaydin Camps. Each time they re-skin one of the camp’s canoes, they cut out the piece of canvas that its number is painted on and tack it to the back wall of their shop.
They also teach their trade to others, so they may see how it feels to build a boat and to preserve the art as well. Their classes are small; They limit each session to two canoes.
“We do one class in the winter and one in the spring,” Dylan Schoelzel said.
“Usually, we’ll have two people working on each canoe,” he continued. “Sometimes it will be a father and son, or a husband and wife.”
“Sometimes, we get a couple of buddies who will each build their own canoe,” Emily Schoelzel added.
Unpopular at first
Though many romanticize the now-classic wood-canvas canoes, that wasn’t always the case.
“Wood-canvas canoes evolved from birch-bark canoes around the 1870s,” Dylan Schoelzel explained.
The outer rind of birch trees was once used for the watertight outer layer of the vessels, but a shortage of suitable bark meant canoe makers had to find a replacement.
There were few alternatives to bark or canvas. Canoes could be built of joined wooden planks, but the process required precision if the boat was to hold water. Or, canoe makers could carve a canoe out of a single log, making what was called a “dugout.”
Neither of these methods are cost or time efficient.
So, to satisfy customers’ demands and quickly produce light, sturdy canoes, builders began to use canvas to cover the wooden ribs and planks that are used for structure and strength.
“It caused an uproar,” Dylan Schoelzel said. “People loved birch-bark canoes and said (the canvas canoe fad) wouldn’t last. Within a couple years, wood-canvas canoes became the status quo.”
That lasted until the 1950s, he said. Then, aluminum and fiberglass became manufacturers’ materials of choice and, eventually, newer materials like Kevlar and polymers entered the market.
Nothing about a Salmon Falls Canoe is mass-produced.
The Schoelzels mill their own planks, carve their thwarts and decks and hand cane their seats. They even make their own blend of filler used to make the canvas watertight.
There were small shops like Salmon Falls, as well as larger-scale manufacturers, all over the country in the heyday of wood-canvas canoes, but now, said Dylan Schoelzel, there are only five or six wood-canvas canoe shops in the U.S. The Schoelzels, to the best of their knowledge, are the only husband-and-wife team who run a full-time shop.
Though there are many canoe constructions out there, the Schoelzels say wood and canvas have several advantages.
“They’re quiet on the water, they’re more solid and better feeling than other materials, and wood canvas canoes respond more quickly,” said Dylan Schoelzel.
“They’re way easier to repair in the bush, too,” he continued. “You can fix them with some pine pitch and a bandanna or T-shirt as a patch.”
How they’re made
The Schoelzels start each canoe on a pre-made wooden form. The forms themselves look like a canoe that’s missing the top planks, gunwales and a few other parts. Steel bands on the form sit where each of the canoe’s wooden ribs will be located.
The ribs are soaked in water to make them pliable, then placed over the metal bands and clamped onto the canoe’s inner gunwales. Once the ribs are all clamped in place, they are secured with a temporary board.
Thin planks are fastened to the ribs with brass tacks. The tips of the tacks bend over and clinch the canoe together when they are driven through the ribs and into the form’s steel bands.
A slim wooden “stem” is bent over each end of the canoe, holding the planks in place at the bow and stern.
At this point, the canoe has started to take shape.
Once the canoe is planked, it’s taken off the form and the thwarts — braces that span the canoe from side to side — are installed. After it’s all varnished, it’s time for the canvas. The fabric is stretched over the canoe and attached to the gunwales at the top of the canoe’s sides. The ends of the canvas are tacked underneath brass outer stems and the excess is cut off.
Once the canvas has been stretched, fastened and trimmed, a sealing compound is hand-rubbed along its entire surface. This and several coats of paint waterproof the canoe.
Once the paint has cured, it’s time for what might be the most enjoyable step — paddling it.
It takes about 120 hours of work to make a canoe from start to finish, said the Schoelzels. The process is stretched out over four to six months, though, because there is a lot of time spent waiting while varnish, filler and paint dries.
So, they work on several canoes at staggered starts, like singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in rounds.
The Schoelzels run a website detailing their business and a blog that shows each job step-by-step.
“It’s fun for our customers to follow along as their canoes progress,” Emily Schoelzel said.
Staff reporter David Rainville has worked at The Recorder since 2011. He covers Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 279.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.