This will be my 14th year as a docent in the Adirondack Museum’s boat shop. During that time, I have been asked a great many questions about guideboats, their construction, and how they came about. By far the most popular question is “How long does it take to build one?”
The Museum’s sanctioned answer is 500-600 hours. Hmm! I thought after I built my first boat that it sure took me a lot longer than that. But, being my first boat I thought “Well, I’m just a beginner so the pros can do it much faster”. Then came my second boat and the doubts grew about it only taking 500 hours to build one. After all, just applying four or five coats of spar varnish to the hull and sanding between coats takes well over 100 hours. Then it takes me about 20 hours to make a guideboat paddle. I suspect making two oars would easily take twice that. So about 200 hours has been spent without even considering making the hull.
So what does the figure of 500 hours represent? Is it for constructing the hull only? Is it the the total hours to make a boat regardless of how many men (or women) worked on it?
I didn’t keep track of the hours spent building my latest boat but I suspect it took at least 1500 hours to build. After all the boat is built predominately by hand. For example, each plank is custom fitted to the previous one. To hang planks properly you need to suspend any urge to meet a deadline. As you step into the planking “zone” you become so involved in getting it right that the hours slip quickly by.
So how long does it really take to build a guideboat? I came across a reference the other day that seems to give an authoritative answer. On page 49 of the guideboat bible The Adirondack Guide-boat, by Kenneth and Helen Durant, I found these words. The Durant’s were describing the guideboat production of the Grant boat building shop in Boonville, NY. The Grants, Dwight and his son Lewis, are perhaps the most famous of Adirondack boat builders. Here is what they had to say:
“With Dwight Grant and six carpenters at work in 1891, output reached a peak of 25 boats. Dwight Grant and Lester Fox built the boats, the five other carpenters made ribs, oars, paddles, yokes and decks, and did the sanding, varnishing and painting. Gus Syphert, a snowshoe maker, caned the sets and back rests.”
Later on in the next paragraph:
“Dwight Grant estimated it took 21 days of 10 hours each to make a 16 foot boat with three caned seats, one cane back rest, one pair of oars, a paddle, and a yoke. The best carpenter in Boonville in the 1880’s was paid $2.00 a day.”
So it took 210 hours to build a guideboat using highly skilled labor in the 1880’s. If those total hours are multiplied by the number of men working on a boat, seven, then it requires about 1500 man-hours to build a guideboat.
Phew! So I am not the awfully slow builder that I had come to believe. I think that 1500 to 2000 hours is about what it takes me to build one of these boats.