The Relentless Pursuit of Wood-and-Canvas Perfection

A trip inside the workshop of canoe-builder Marc Russell

By Conor Mihell

In the heart of Toronto, 34-year-old Marc Russell builds canoes the old-fashioned way, milling ribs, planks, gunwales and stems from cedar and ash, steam-bending it around an age-old building form, wrapping the hull in canvas and producing carefully varnished and vibrantly painted works of fully functional art. Russell, an alumni and former director of Canada’s legendary Camp Kilcoo, says the responsibility of rebuilding and maintaining the youth camp’s fleet of traditional canoes “fell into his lap” and became an all-encompassing passion. We caught up with Russell, the owner of Gull Lake Boat Works, to discuss his craft.

CanoeKayak.com: Tell me about your initial impressions of paddling wood-canvas canoes at summer camp as a kid.
Marc Russell: I didn’t think about it much at the time, but thinking back it would be like learning to drive on a Porsche. We got to paddle these beautiful 50- to 70-year-old canoes and I just thought it was normal. Later on I learned to appreciate the aesthetics of wood-canvas when we went on longer trips in plastic canoes. It’s like comparing a tractor to a lotus.

When did you first start thinking about becoming a builder?
The director and owner of Camp Kilcoo mentioned rebuilding the Kilcoo canoes and it germinated in my head. I’ve always been mechanically inclined and looking for something interesting to engage my hands and my mind. Canoe-building just fell into my lap. I had no formal background in carpentry or woodworking; my real training came through an apprenticeship with Ron Frenette at Canadian Canoes.

How did the apprenticeship work out?
I started with Ron in November 2008 and worked with him until June ’09. It varied from very intense to me working on my own. We built three canoes—one for practice and two for Kilcoo.

What is it about wood and canvas that makes this construction style so appealing to you?
There are many different styles of wooden canoes. I prefer canvas and rib. I just find that it’s more forgiving than the other methods of construction. If you make a mistake, it’s really easy to fix it. I come at this from a builder’s perspective. They go together a lot easier than a true cedar strip and you can make them from production [using a mold]. You can turn them out quicker, yet you can also customize them.

You also do a lot of restorations. Tell me about that aspect of your work.
I like rebuilding canoes because each one is totally different and comes with its own set of logistical problems. It’s kind of like surgery. Before you get that [canvas] skin off you never know what’s been done to it before, and you’re only half sure of what it needs to be fixed. What I really find interesting is getting into the mind of the [original] builder and seeing their unique touches.

Are wood and canvas canoes still relevant today?
Absolutely. I believe than anything with history in it and handmade has relevance. I can understand today how they’ve become a luxury item or a niche item so their use often depends on demographics. As a small business owner, I’m very lucky to have tapped into a demographic that can afford these sorts of things.

Talk about your relationship with Camp Kilcoo.
We have a strong alumni association and the directors and owners are some of my best friends and biggest supports. It would’ve been easy for them to replace their fleet with plastic canoes but they went to me for wood-canvas instead, as a chance to do something special for our camp and canoeing in general. I don’t know many younger builders moving it forward … I couldn’t do what I do without Kilcoo.

In the video you talk about striving for perfection. In your mind, what is a “perfect” canoe?
Shape, style and detail is subjective, so I look at it from a builder’s perspective. It is physically possible to position every tack perfectly and I am trying to do that every time. If I focus on that my boats will only get better of time. But really, perfection is an iconic ideal and it’s unattainable. We’re all looking for transcendence, but it’s impossible. The fascinating thing, though, is that a well-build, well-maintained wood-canvas canoe will last forever.

Check out this full primer on wood-and-canvas canoe construction with Marc Russell’s Gull Lake Boat Works:

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  • Dylan Coates

    Great article. Beautiful boats!

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