Maine Company Crafts Classic Canoes

American Artisans, Made in America, People, Traditions
on March 16, 2008
EJ Hersom Workers assemble colorful kayaks at Old Town Canoe Co. in Old Town, Maine.

Workers pour buckets of red thermoplastic powder into kayak-shaped molds, preparing them for the 20-foot-long cylindrical oven at Old Town Canoe Co. in Old Town, Maine (pop. 8,130).

Nearby, four of the metal molds, fresh from the 500-degree oven, rotate on a giant rotisserie that evenly distributes the molten plastic as it cools and hardens into kayaks that will someday ply lakes and rivers around the world.

Noise from the state-of-the-art boat-making machines gives way to the tap-tap-tap of hammers meeting brass tacks in the basement woodshop, where a small crew is building classic cedar canoes just as craftsmen did when the company was started by local entrepreneur George Gray in 1900.

"The key to our business is maintaining traditions while continuing to innovate," says Helen Johnson-Leipold, CEO of Johnson Outdoors, Old Town's parent company. "Plastics are where the canoe and kayak market is today, but wooden canoes are Old Town's foundation. They're gorgeous, and the employees feel a deep connection to them. They're what Old Town is about."

Old Town is the nation's oldest canoe manufacturer, but the town's boat-building history dates back centuries to the birch-bark vessels crafted by the Penobscots, an American Indian tribe whose descendants live on the nearby Penobscot Indian Island Reservation. Gray recognized the Penobscots' inventiveness by naming his enterprise Indian Old Town Canoe Co., which produced 250 canoes its first year. The company's name was shortened in 1903, the same year Gray's son, Samuel, took the helm.

"He's the one who really developed the business," says Samuel's daughter, Ruth Gray, 91. "He went heavily into advertising all over the world, which was unusual then. By the 1920s, you could go anywhere and find people who knew about Old Town canoes. The town became known as Canoe City early on."

Ruth's brother, Deane, sold Old Town to Johnson Outdoors, a global marketer of recreation products, in 1974. Today, the company employs 250 people in the large brick factory, whose wooden floors are worn smooth by a century of footsteps. The company makes 100,000 boats annually, mostly canoes and kayaks bearing the Old Town name, but also watercrafts for sister company Necky Kayaks and Lendal paddles.

"Worldwide, we're the No. 1 or No. 2 canoe and kayak manufacturer," says Tim Magoon, factory manager.

Most of Old Town's canoes and kayaks are plastic or fiberglass, shaped by processes employing heat and pressure. While a plastic boat, which sells for $600 to $1,800, can be completed in a few hours, a handcrafted cedar canoe requires a month to build, explaining its $4,000 to $5,000 price tag.

About 100 custom-ordered wooden canoes are built at Old Town each year by five artisans, who begin by softening narrow strips of cedar in a steam chamber, then bending them over a wood and metal form to fashion the boat's frame.

Next, carpenters work in tandem, one on each side, tacking planks to the boat's ribs to complete the hull. After the body is built, the canoe's interior is sanded, cleaned and painted with several coats of varnish, before being outfitted with decks, caned seats and other handcrafted parts. Finally, depending on the customer's wishes, the hull may be varnished to a high gloss or covered with canvas to be waterproofed and painted. The woodshop also restores antique canoes.

"We've been using the same methods for years," says Geoff King, 58, who has worked for the company since 1969. "Hardly anything has changed."

King's father, Walter, designed Old Town's first fiberglass canoe in 1966. An innovator in his own right, Geoff designed one of the company's popular plastic kayak models, but he says, "I like working with wood more than anything else."