GREG JOHNSON AND HIS STUDENT, Rex Bair, are in the process of mixing up epoxy, but at the moment, the Little Rock Boat Builder Supply’s workshop smells strongly of sawdust. On one wall, an array of neatly organized tools hangs above a workbench. On another, a shelf is stacked with sheets of plywood. On Greg and Rex’s side of the room, two canoes sit, each on a pair of sawhorses. The first boat is about a day’s work shy of completion, Greg says. The other, Rex’s boat, currently rests upside down and looks like a porcupine, the strips of plywood now molded into the familiar shape of a canoe and held together with threaded and twisted copper wire.
That’s where the epoxy comes in. It’s the last step of the first day of Greg’s five-day canoe-building workshop. Once applied, the epoxy will hold the pieces of the boat together long enough for the team to do all manner of sanding, fiberglass application and fine-tuning, before coating the entire hull in epoxy once again.
“We talk about epoxy; we talk about ketchup, peanut butter and honey—those are the thicknesses,” Greg tells Rex. “They’re terms we’re all familiar with. What you’re gonna want to do is mix up ketchup.”
As the pair apply the epoxy to the boat’s exterior, Greg recounts how he ended up here: how he developed a passion for boats early in life, about his background in woodworking, how he studied with the Westlawn Institute of Marine Technology through distance-learning courses, how he developed a friendship and later a partnership with boat designer Laurie McGowan, how being forced into early retirement from his job at Falcon Jet gave him the opportunity to do what he’d always dreamed of and work on boats full time.
But in addition to retailing boat-building supplies to seasoned hobbyists, Greg thought local folks with less experience might be interested in learning how to craft a vessel of their own … maybe, possibly. The resulting workshops, it turns out, have more than held water.
“I’m surprised by the excitement by it,” Greg says. “The idea, initially, was, we’ll do the kits, and we’ll sell them, and we’ll ship them out from here. It’s a good centralized location to send them in any direction. I totally underestimated the local interest, and I’m thrilled by it.”
“We’ve had a good mix of people: a mechanical engineer; we had an anesthesiologist, a physician, a pharmacist, a husband-and-wife team, father and son, retired military,” he adds. “It’s been a blast just meeting all the different people who have a common goal.”
But what is it about building your own boat that connects with so many different types of people? Perhaps it’s the legacy that’s created over the course of the boat’s years of use.
“There’s a big misconception that wooden boats—Oh, they don’t last. They don’t last,” Greg says. “They last as long as any other boat, as long as they’re treated like you would any other boat. You get a fiberglass boat, you’re gonna wax it every year, and you’re gonna take care of it. You gotta treat this one with the same respect and do the same things. You’ve got to realize there are lobster boats out on the east and west coasts that are, you know, 100 years old, and they just slap paint on them and go. They don’t make ’em pretty. And they’re fine. They last just fine. It’s not the wood; it’s the care. So this absolutely should be something that, in [Rex’s] case, his little girl will be off paddling around in this boat someday. And she can tell people her daddy made it.”
1. The “Rocktown 16” canoe build that Greg teaches in his workshops is constructed using a “kit” designed by Canadian boat designer Laurie McGowan. So first, all of the “puzzle pieces,” as Greg calls them, must be cut out of marine-grade waterproof plywood into the necessary shapes and joined together. For the wood, Greg uses okoume, a lightweight varietal that’s primarily found in the Gabon region of Central Africa.
2. Next, the long plywood panels must be stitched together with copper wire and placed in a temporary mold so the boat can begin to take on the canoe shape. The stems, or the curved pieces of the frame at the extreme ends of the boat, are then positioned along the seams, where the boat’s shape comes to a point, and glued in place.
3. Bulkheads—essentially partitions—are glued in place at the boat’s bow and stern, sealing off hollow areas at each end. The opening of these will be topped by wooden coverings called the decks.
4. The hull is flipped upside down, and epoxy is applied to the outer hull seams between the wire stitches and along the outer stems. The epoxy is left to dry overnight.
5. After removing the copper stitches, the boat is flipped again, the bottom half of the hull is taped off, and a sheet of fiberglass is cut to fit the area. Once in place, the sheet is covered and brushed with epoxy to seal it. Any excess fiberglass is later trimmed away.
6. The deck pieces are cut out, glued into place over the bulkhead opening and held in place with weights until they’ve dried.
7. The hull is flipped upside down and sanded, including the stems, which are then covered with strips of fiberglass tape. (Not pictured.)
8. Like the inside of the hull, the exterior’s bottom half must also be taped off, covered with fiberglass and coated with epoxy. (Not pictured.)
9. Once dry, the fiberglass is trimmed, and the outer hull is sanded again. (Not pictured).
10. The boat is flipped right side up, sanded and given another coat of epoxy. (Not pictured.)
11. A “rub rail” is added around the perimeter of the top of the boat and held in place with clamps and screws. This will help protect the boat from scratches once it’s seaworthy, should it collide with a dock, a bluff wall, another boat, etc.
12. While the adhesive for the rub rails dries, the boat is flipped upside down again, and another layer of epoxy is applied to the outer hull. By the time the building process is done, the boat will have three layers of epoxy on all surfaces, inside and out.
13. For the final steps, the canoe’s seats are trimmed to fit and installed, along with the cross brace—or “thwart”—that helps strengthen the boat.
14. Once a student finishes a Rocktown 16 canoe in one of Greg’s workshops, the boat is loaded up to take home. All that’s left for the boat’s new owner to do are a little more sanding, applying a coat of varnish and adding any desired paint or hardware.
BOAT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
Canoes don’t float your boat? Visit facebook.com/boatbuildersupply for the latest on upcoming workshops on a variety of watercraft—including kayaks, prams, skiffs, paddleboards and even a racing power boat. Water you waiting for?
Buffalo River Outfitters
(9664 U.S. 65, St. Joe; buffaloriveroutfitters.com)
Caddo River Camping and Canoe Rental
(26 Arkansas 8 E., Glenwood; caddoriver.com)
Byrd’s Outdoor Adventure Center
(7037 Cass Oark Road, Ozark; byrdsadventurecenter.com)
Big Piney River
(53 Old Highway 7, Dover; mooreoutdoors.com)
Lake Ouachita State Park Marina
(5451 Mountain Pine Road, Mountain Pine; arkansasstateparks.com/parks/lake-ouachita-state-park)
Kings River Outfitters
(8190 Arkansas 221, Eureka Springs; kingsriveroutfitters.com)
Beaver Lake Outdoor Center
(14344 E. Arkansas 12, Rogers; beaverlakeoutdoorcenter.com)
Lake Fayetteville Boat and Bike Rentals
(1330 E. Lake Fayetteville Road, Fayetteville; fayetteville-ar.gov/3133/Boat-Rentals)
Spring River Camp and Canoe
(13286 Arkansas 63 S., Hardy; facebook.com/springrivercampandcanoe)
Strawberry River Nature Float Trip
(2074 Evening Shade Drive, Evening Shade; strawberryrivernaturefloat.business.site)