Louis Shaw and William Davis have less than 30 seconds to form a canoe.
After half an hour in a 20-foot-long convection oven set at 290 degrees, the plastic sheet—a multi-layered plastic called Royalex—is just malleable enough to vacuum-mold into the body of a boat.
“It’s controlled chaos,” Shaw says. “A big, wet lasagna noodle that needs to be formed.”
If they make it in time—and they nearly always do—the brothers finish off the canoe with ash- wood seats, grab handles and yokes, and the company name gets stamped in white on the side.
Take more than half a minute, and the plastic turns hard as a rock and heads right back to the oven.
Shaw and Davis first took to canoe-building in 2006, when Shaw, who had been paddling in Northwest Arkansas since his teens, saw potential in combining his love of canoeing with his half-brother’s background in fiberglass and plastics.
The duo sought out advice from former canoe builders and quickly set to work building their own oversized oven. The result was a 5 1/2- by 20-foot beast, housed in a small room in the back of a metal building on Shaw’s 8 acres near Rogers.
In the beginning, the process was far from streamlined. They debated putting the mold on the ground and forming canoes by dropping the sheet of plastic into the form.
“But if there was any dust down in the mold, it’d ruin it,” Davis says.
So the pair developed their mold to hang upside down, keeping particles from settling inside. The Royalex sheet expands as it heats, with millions of tiny air pockets forming between the layers of plastic. Once it’s soft enough, Shaw and Davis pull the sheet from the oven onto a table, and the mold is lowered over the top. A vacuum machine takes it from there, pulling the plastic into place tightly before it hardens.
Once they got the method down, it was more trial and error to find the right style of canoe.
“We had a few model canoes early on, but none were great,” Shaw admits. “We didn’t really know what we were doing until about 2010.”
Now, Shaw says, they are one of the few canoe manufacturers currently operating in the state, as well as one of the few using Royalex. The sturdy but light material has a reputation for being extremely durable and very buoyant. And paddlers are willing to pay more to get it, Shaw says.
Two Brothers Canoe has had its biggest hit with the Arkota, a 70-pound model geared toward more-experienced paddlers.
“The hull design has a lot of rock to it,” Davis says. “If a novice person gets in, it’s going to feel like it’s going to flip over. Anyone could paddle it, but you have to be experienced to understand the performance you can get out of it, especially when a river is flowing good.”
Because the Arkota is geared toward more-seasoned paddlers, customers have come to know Two Brothers primarily through word of mouth. Posts on canoeing discussion boards and websites got the business more attention than advertising. But being a small company has helped Two Brothers Canoe stand apart, Shaw says.
“We’re focused on the quality, and it comes through,” Shaw says. “I build every boat that comes out of our shop, and I build it like I’m going to own it.”
Now, Shaw and Davis are focused on a new model that will bring their canoes to the masses. The Nomad, as they’re currently calling it, will be family-friendly and a product that can be marketed to canoe-rental companies. The canoe will be light but stable—the main concern for outfitters.
“Our numbers will come with this new model,” says Davis, who helped put together boat number 92 in July. “A lot of outfitters have already contacted us.”
Davis and Shaw were still in development phases with the Nomad in late July, with Shaw hoping to start producing the boats before fall.
Together, the brothers can pull down an average of two boats an hour if they go into full production mode. Although Shaw and Davis are currently the only two employees of Two Brothers, they aren’t afraid to dream of something bigger down the road. Both brothers currently work full time in other capacities—Shaw sells and delivers coffee, and Davis makes remote-controlled car bodies. But they’d someday like to pare that down.
“Our long-term goal is to make the canoes more of our full-time job,” Davis says.
For now, the brothers are satisfied with keeping the business a two-man operation. Wednesdays mean long stretches of evening work, and plenty of time to catch up.
“I’m a lot older than [Louis] is, and I was out of the house when he was growing up,” Davis says. “If we didn’t have this business, we’d probably just be two friends that talk every once and a while. Now we’re here, supporting each other.”
The Two Brothers Canoe Arkota model (Arkota-model canoe) sells for $1,100 and can be purchased directly from Two Brothers. Visit twobrotherscanoe.com or call (479) 418-9722 for more information on ordering or to schedule a trial run.