John Homer-New Age Guideboat Builder

John Homer is a good friend of mine.  We met while I was an interpreting at the Museum for Allison while as she built traditional guideboats in the Museum’s boat shop.  John, although not a native Adirondacker, possesses all the characteristics of one.  He is creative and resourceful and not afraid to do things he has never done before.  A local magazine, LOCALadk, recently published an article about him that I will reproduce here.  The article is entitled “I am LOCALadk John Homer of North Creek, Owner: Adirondack Rowboats Paddle and Oar”.  Here is John as he appears in the article.

John Homer, courtesy of LOCALadk magazine.

About two weeks ago I toured John’s shop.  I found it spacious and full of all sorts of projects.   John is indeed a creative fellow.  Here is a general view of his shop.

A general view of John Homer’s boat shop.

The article about John in LOCALadk reads as follows:

“A passion for the rich history of the Adirondacks’ and a desire to learn more about it, eventually introduced John Homer to Adirondack guideboats.  John soon visited the Adirondack Experience in Blue Mountain Lake and spent hours in the boat museum where he  studied the lines, the technique, and the craftsmanship, (used to build guideboats) and knew he wanted to use his woodworking skills to build a boat with similar qualities.  He followed down a path that that has allowed him to follow, learn and ultimately build boats he has come to love.

After serving his country for 22 years on active duty  in the Army (many thanks for serving, John), and having been stationed at Fort Drum, NY, John and his family moved to the Adirondacks.  He built his first boat in 2008 after buying half of an antique guideboat which was used to help teach himself how to build his own.

John with antique guideboat.

He also had some help and advice along the way from several well-known Adirondack boat builders.  He is forever grateful for the knowledge and expertise each shared with him.  The boats John has built are not, however, true Adirondack guideboats because he has made some modifications to them.  He refers to them as Adirondack row boats.  Here they are:

John with one of his boats.


Another view of John’s boat.
John with one of his boats.

(I feel john is being a bit modest claiming that his boats are not Adirondack guideboats.  He has evolved that craft into yet another beautiful creation.  He is following in the footsteps of Willard Hanmer, guideboat builder in the 40’s and 50″s.  Willard recognized that he had to use mechanical assists whenever possible to make a guideboat as economically as possible.  It is good to see that the old art of building a guideboat is not static but has blossomed!)

Aside from the boats themselves, John makes canoe paddles and oars as well as oarlocks.

John with one of his paddles.
John with a guideboat carrying yoke he is making.

John works with Hornbeck Boats and creates all the oars they sell for for their rowing boats.  At Hornbeck, he also works on finishing the hull of the boats once they are pulled from the molds.  This stage of the process involves working with wood for the backrest and seats.  A privilege I am sure he is humbled by is applying the telltale red stripe along the hull that has become a trademark for Hornbeck.

John also designs and makes his own hardware for part of the oarlocks.  He does this using the same time-consuming and tedious procedure called sand casting. This is a metal casting process in which sand is used as the mold material.  The sand is held in a metal box, cape and drag, which John fabricated.

A mold used to cast guideboat straps.

This path eventually led John to the Adirondack Canoe Classic, or as most people refer to it, “the 90 miler”.  Like its name implies, this is a 90 mile paddling (or rowing) race over 3 days.  John participated in his first race in 2009, with a boat he built himself.  He has raced 7 times now and enjoys rowing the race in a boat made with his own two hands.  He has competed solo as well as with friends.  (John told me of one 90 miler where the winds reached  gale force.  The waves in Raquette Lake were whipped up to four feet high.  John said he had to look up one moment to see his friend in the bow and then down a second later to see him as each wave passed them by.)

The perfect Adirondack day for John would  be to get up early and spend it in his guideboat/rowboat, fishing and exploring some remote pond or lake, where it’s quiet and peaceful.

If you are in the market for this type of hand-built boat, visit John’s website or check out his Facebook page : Adirondack Rowboats Paddle and Oar.”

John did make a beautiful oar and paddle bag for me as shown below.  He is also making a carrying yoke for my guideboat Showboat.

Guideboat oars, paddle and bag to hold them made by John.

Next time we plug the leaks in an old guideboat.



Minnow Pond-Part 2

Last time we hiked into Minnow Pond, a pristine body of water that the Adirondack Museum has set aside for a wonderful Adirondack adventure.  In the brand new boathouse are stored antique guideboats and other wooden craft that you can rent for a nominal fee.  Here is a view of the boathouse just as the 3/4 mile trail from the Museums main campus arrives at the pond.

View of the boat house from the trail.

The boat house was designed to reflect the Great Camp style of  Adirondack architecture.

Front view of the boat house on Minnow Pond.

A view of the cedar posts and use of twig architecture.

Cedar post and beams and intertwined twigs reminiscent of the Durant Great Camp style.

I was looking forward to rowing a Caleb Chase Raider that was probably built in the late 1890’s.  I have an affinity for Chase boats having reproduced one of his guideboats that happened to have a rich history.  Raiders were smaller guideboats, about 12 feet long, that were used to get back into remote pond where the fishing was supposed to be better than on the larger lakes.  Here is the Chase Raider.

The Caleb Chase Raider guideboat.


Side view of the Chase Raider guideboat.

Alas, when the Chase boat was launched it listed noticeably to one side.  It was decided to give this old girl the day off and launch a Blanchard Raider instead.  Here is the Blanchard Raider.  It was built by James Blanchard of Raquette Lake in the early 1900’s.

Here’s the Blanchard Raider ready to go.

I found the Blanchard boat easy to row and that she tracked well even in a stiff quartering breeze.  Here I am.

Rowing away from the dock.

Once  got away from the dock and a few hundred yards down the pond I noticed how pristine Minnow Pond was.  There was no evidence of the “insult” man can perpetrate on Nature’s beauty; no waterfront homes or docks.

Next time:  a visit to John Homer’s boat shop.



Minnow Pond-Part 1

This year the Adirondack Museum has added a new attraction.  They built a boat house on Minnow Pond, a small pristine lake that is a 3/4 mile walk from the main campus.  There you can rent (for a nominal fee) an antique guideboat or an Old Town canoe among other small wooden boats.

This past Sunday Fran and I decided to hike into Minnow Pond and rent a boat.  It was a beautiful day, on the cool side with much sun.  The trail is an easy one through woods with much to remind us of the Adirondacks we so love.  The first was bird songs; Hermit thrush with his flute-like song and Red-eyed vireo with his repetitive question and answer call.

Sign introducing the Minnow Pond trail.


The Minnow Pond trail

A reminder of the geologic past that shaped the Adirondacks lay all around us.  These were the erratics, impressive boulders some the size of a house.  These had been dragged south by the mile high ice sheet that covered the Adirondacks during the last ice age.  When the ice melted they were plopped down, helter-skelter.  Here is one.

Some erratics along the trial.

We were amused at one we dubbed the dragon.  Someone had carefully laid some small rocks along its “open mouth” to resemble teeth.

The Dragon

We had not anticipated the presence of signs along the walk.  These were very cleverly done and informed us of a wide variety of Adirondack lore, from the emergence of guideboats, to the early tourists, and those who sought to protect this vast and beautiful wilderness.  I will share them with you with a little commentary.  Let’s start with those on guideboats:

Why the guideboat?

The guideboat, being a rowboat it was easily controlled by one person.  This is not the case with a canoe which needed two paddlers to gain the maximum utility of the craft.

The birch bark canoe.


The Adirondack guideboat.


Woods used in building guideboats.

The boat builder of the 1800’s cleverly used the roots of the red spruce tree to gain maximum strength, yet light weight, in their guideboats.  They shaped the ribs and stems from the roots so that the grain of the wood followed the curvature of the hull.

Guideboat being carried.

Guideboats are carried overhead using a yoke that fits around one’s neck and rests on the shoulders.  This may look easy but I assure you it is not.  The Adirondack carries (portages) are rough, rocky trails.  They are stony and slippery and can be up to a mile long.

Tribute to the guideboat.


Guideboat builder Willard Hanmer.

Here is Willard Hanmer who built guideboats well into the 1950’s.  He used mechanical assists when building his boats.  At that time this was the only way to build these boats and still make a living.

Beginning about 1850, sportsmen were attracted to the Adirondacks by tales of a hunting and fishing paradise.  One of the those who extolled these riches was William H. H. Murray who wrote Adventures in the Wilderness in 1869.  The book was an instant success and became the common man’s pocket guide to the Adirondacks.

Adirondack Murray.

Once railroads laid track to bring tourists closer to the region, they flocked to the Adirondacks.  Large hotels sprang up including the Prospect House on Blue Mountain lake, the first in the world to have electric lights in every room.  Here is an old photo of the Wawbeek Hotel on Upper Saranac lake.

The Wawbeek Hotel, 1889.  Note the guides with their guideboats to the left.


As the region became known, steps began to be taken to preserve it.  Verplank Colvin was sent by the New York Legislature to survey the vast wilderness. Here he is.

Colvin and his canoe.


Description of Colvin’s canoe.


Colvin’s cry to preserve the Adirondack Wilderness.

Others took up the quest to preserve the Adirondack wilderness.

Teddy Roosevelt in a guideboat.


Wilderness Act author.
The Wilderness Act.

Back on the trail.  Here and erratic is shrouded with a mossy blanket.  Over eons moss and lichen will consume it.  Hard to imagine!

Erratic with moss.

Ah, I spot the pond through the trees ahead.  We have arrived.

Minnow Pond in sight.

Next time in Part 2, I take out an early 1900’s Blanchard raider guideboat.



Returning North

Finally the day arrives to head back north to Long Lake.  It seems like a very long time since we were there.  That is mainly because last year was a bummer for me.  I had such excruciating back pain that I couldn’t stand or walk.  That’s gone now so I am looking forward to getting back on the water again.

We happen to choose the summer solstice to head north.  It has been a cold and rainy spring for New England and the Adirondacks.  That has delayed the arrival of spring up north in some startling ways.  That is evident from the high water levels in Long Lake.  And the trees are showing the bright jade green of foliage that has just emerged.  Just look at these hemlock buds.

Hemlock spring buds.

What really astounds me is that the spring peepers are still piercing the spring dusk with their sleigh bell-like peeps.  They stopped peeping in Delaware in April.

My son Stew drove us up.  The first thing the two of us decide to do is get the guideboat out and take a cruise.  The high water means we can get into remote waterways not accessible when summer is in full swing.  Here Stew is manning the oars.  I am in the stern with a steering paddle.

Stew at the helm.

The summer solstice sunset lasts well after nine-o-clock.  That can cause some surprising sunsets.  Here is a photo taken facing north of our dock just after sunset.  A huge cloud over the northern mountain range has been illuminated by the setting sun.

Solstice sunset on Long Lake.

I have learned that the Adirondack Museum has built a boat house on Minnow Pond, a 3/4 mile walk from the main campus.  They will have antique guideboats and canoes for rent there.  What a great idea!  I will check it out and let you know more about it.

Also, a  friend has asked for help plugging some leaks in his antique guideboat built by his grandfather.  I’ll let you know how that goes.

Till next time.






Making a scarf

A scarf is a way of joining two planks end-to-end.  It is used when planking a guideboat because it is impossible to find, much less fit, stock that would span the entire length of the guideboat hull.  To make life easier, we span the hull using two planks joined using a scarf.

There are certain rules governing a scarf.  I didn’t know all of them when I built my first guideboat.  The one I missed was that a scarf should land on a rib.  Mine were located between ribs.  No matter, it hasn’t affected the boat functionally.  It is now twenty years old and you wouldn’t know any difference unless I pointed it out to you.  The advantage of having a scarf land on a rib is that it is hidden from view on the inside of the hull.

Another rule is that the scarfs should be staggered so as not to fall on the same rib time after time.  Masons use the same rule when laying bricks.  The photo below shows staggering of the scarfs on my latest boat.  The scarfs are indicated by the line of tacks.

Staggered scarfs on a guideboat hull.

You must take great care when laying out a scarf.  The two planks to be joined are assigned an upside and a downside.  You must make sure the downsidc spans the rib as shown below.

The downside plank must span the rib.

Then the upside plank is set on top of the downside one and the scarf width marked on it.

The upside plank is laid on top of the down side one and the scarf width marked on it.

Waste is removed from the top of the downside plank to accommodate the overlapping upside plank. My plank scarfs span a width of 7/8″.  That generally falls within the rule of thumb that the scarf width should be six times the thickness of the stock.

To remove the waste I start with a chisel.

Chisel and mallet for removing waste to form a scarf.


Step one of removing waste uses a chisel.

Then I use a block plane.  This gives a flat mating surface.

Removing more waste using a lock plane.

Finally I finish with a sanding board.

The final step uses a sanding board.

I repeat the process on the upside plank by removing material from its underside. The two planks are then temporarily fastened to the hull and the fit checked.  Once everything looks OK the planks can be permanently hung.  The downside plank goes on first.  The scarf is sealed using a row of closely spaced tacks along the edge ( see the first figure ).

The Adirondack Guideboat-The BookCase Boat

I have always been fascinated by the Book Case Boat.  I first saw a photo of it in Kenneth and Helen Durant’s The Adirondack Guideboat.  Here it is minus books:

The Book Case Boat. It resides in the Brandreth Park Camp Good-Enougth.

It is obviously a very old boat and I would claim that it is one the the very first Adirondack  guideboats. Evidence that it is a guideboat is plain to see; an elliptical flat bottom board, roots form the ribs, it is rowed using thole pins, and it was carried using a yoke.

I became obsessed with learning all I could about this ancient craft.  Who made it? Where was it used and how?  At one point Hallie Bond, former Curator at the Museum, and I planned a trip to Brandreth Park to view the boat.  I hoped to obtain as much information as I could including some critical measurements that would allow it to be reproduced.  Our visit was cancelled at the last minute.  So my quest to learn all I could about the Book Case boat was stymied, for the moment.  But my interest in the book case boat only grew stronger.  It became a family joke.  When ever I mentioned the boat, which was quite often, my wife Fran would laugh and say “Are you on that book case boat thing again?”

Fortunately, two recent publications have shed new light on the book Case Boat.  Stephen Sulavik’s book, page 44 reads, ” A very old boat, possibly built by William Austin, was discovered, its stern submerged in  mud on the shore of Brandreth Lake, west of Long Lake.  The name B. Brandreth is stamped inside on a plank near the bow.  At a much later date the year “1848” was painted on its bow deck, not unlikely by the artist Paulene Brandreth.  The stern has long since been removed and the upright boat fitted with shelves for books.  It is obvious that the boat was carried by one person: There are rounded notches on the tops of both gunwales, worn down by the ends of a carrying yoke.  The boat was relatively short, 12 to 14 feet in length, and estimated to weigh about 120 pounds.  It was rowed using thole pins rather than metal oarlocks. (editor’s note- there are two rowing stations just as in later guideboats).  Its most striking feature is that its construction-a flat elliptical bottom board with ribs sawn from  natural crooks-is similar to that of the Adirondack guideboat”

The caption on figure 1-11 of Sulavik’s book (the figure is a photo of the bookcase boat), reads, “The hull is made of four strakes on each side.  There is a prominent stem post, a straight deck, placed between the sheer planks, a clapboard-lapstrake outer hull, a smooth lapstrake inner hull, and a flat elliptical bottom board made from two lengthwise pieces.

And from Brandreth, written by D. and O. Potter, page 252 reads, “In the early days at Brandreth, large guideboats-wide and heavily built freighters-were loaded with people and baggage and rowed up the full length of the lake.  One of these, the oldest boat at Brandreth Lake ( and perhaps one of the oldest in the Adirondacks) has been pressed into service as a book case at Camp Good Enough. ”

So what do we now know about the book case boat?  Surely it was obtained by Benjamin Brandreth at the very opening of Brandreth Park to shuttle family and visitors up and down Brandreth Lake from the point of entry to the various camps.  It was one of the Brandreth family’s “freighter” guideboats.  I assume this from Sulavik’s description of the boat (B. Brandreth stamped on a plank, and that the boat was found at Brandreth Lake).   That would put the boat at the same age as the camp, about 170 years.

Well, who built the book case boat?  A clue comes from the unlikely partnership of guide Honest John Plumley and James Blandford, business associate of Benjamin Brandreth.  If you read my last post you would remember that the the two were sent by Benjamin to scout out Adirondack lands for sale by the State of New York.   Brandreth had heard of these and wished to obtain some portion of them.  Plumley and Blandford apparently found Township 39 that enclosed Brandreth Lake quite appealing and decided to recommend its purchase to Benjamin.

While on the site of Township 39 discussions between Plumley and Blandford probably included where to site camps (living quarters).  That would lead to how to transport people and goods up and down the lake.  The discussions may have gone as follows; James- “So Benjamin will need some sort of watercraft in order to make these lands habitable?”  John- “Indeed, small wooden row boats are indispensable for getting around up here. There are no roads worthy of the term.  Every settler has a boat and we often share them.  We sometimes borrow boats by dropping  off our boat at one end of a carry (portage) and pick up a neighbor’s boat at the other end.”  James- “So where do these boats come from?”  John- “Some settlers know how to build boats and the make their own.”  James-“Are there any boat builders who might build several for a new camp? John- “William Austin is a neighbor of mine on Long Lake.  He builds sturdy rowboats that are well made and last  long time.  He builds about one boat every two weeks and sells them for $50.”  James-“Good!  How many of these boats would be needed to run the new camp?”  John- “I would start with about a half dozen.”  James- “All right, if Benjamin agrees to purchase Township 39 we will have Austin build six of his boats for us.”

So now the book case boat, spared from rotting away because it became a piece of furniture, resides in Camp Good Enough in Brandreth Park.  The boat represents a sort of time capsule,  It was built by an early settler who arrived from Vermont and found his talents as a boat builder to be in demand.  His talent, as well as guides Reuben Cary and John Plumley  were crucial to the building of the Adirondack Great Camps.  There was no culture clash been the native Adirondackers and the very wealthy.  In fact the life style of guides and other settlers was envied by the “city folk”. They represented a kind of free spirit not to be found in the crowded and polluted cities.

So what is to become of the book case boat?  Of course it can continue to reside at Camp Good Enough at Brandreth Park.  There are two main reasons for not continuing housing it there; safety and its status as an artifact of immense value to lovers of the Adirondacks. The first point, safety, is quite obvious, the danger of fire.  Other physical threats like vandalism are not as likely.

The second point, that the book case boat has great worth as a cultural icon is more important.  It represents the entrepreneurial spirit of the Adirondack people that has survived to this day.  They are hands-on people who, confronted with a problem, jump in to solve it.

This may e something of a stretch but I see the book case boat in a similar light as the Wright Brother’s plane or Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.  Shouldn’t the book case boat be on display in a museum for all to admire?  I certainly think so.

The Adirondack Guideboat-Where did it come from?

In part II of Where the guideboat came from? we will look into the contribution of William Austin of Long Lake.  According to Stephen Sulavik we still have an artifact of one of his early guideboats.  Before I get to that I need to give you some background.

Traveling southwest in the Adirondack Park just past Raquette  Lake we come to Brandreth Park.  The history of this oldest family enclave in the Park was recently documented in a book Brandreth, authored by Orlando Potter III and Donald Potter.  It all started when Benjamin Brendreth immigrated to the New World in 1835 from London.

Benjamin Brandreth, from Brandreth, by O. B. Potter and D. B. Potter, page 1.

He brought with him to New York his grandfather’s formulas for Vegetable Universal Pills.  Through a massive advertising effort and acquisition of Allcocks Porous Plasters, he soon outgrew his New York manufacturing capabilities and moved to Ossining, N. Y. (previously know as Sing Sing)  By then he had grown extremely wealthy off his pill and plaster business as shown by his construction of a 30 room mansion with 10 bathrooms there.

Ad for Allcocks Porous Plasters, from Brandreth, page 3, by O. B. Potter and D. B. Potter

He was asked to run and won  election to the NY State Senate in 1849.  There he became aware  that entire Townships were for sale by New York State in the Adirondacks.  These lands fell into the hands of the State as a result of their loss by England as a result of the Revolutionary War.

He sent his trusted employee, James Blandford to scout out these lands to determine their potential.  Blandford, in turn, hired “Honest John” Plumley of Long Lake to guided him.  Honest John appears later in Adirondack Murray’s book Adventures in the Wilderness.  Honest John was highly respected as a guided and woodsman.  Here they are together in a photo.

John Blandford and guide Honest John Plumley.  From Brandreth, by O. B. Potter and D. B. Potter, page 4.

They are posing with the last wolf in the Adirondacks shot by Reuben Cary.  Incidentally, wolves have returned to the Adirondacks (I have seen one).  They are Coy-wolves, a hybrid of western coyotes and Canadian red wolves.

Blandford and Honest John scouted several townships being sold.  They recommended that Township 39 be purchased.  The purchase was recorded on March 21, 1851.  Purchase price was $3605.70 or about 15 cents an acre.

Old map of Township 39. From Brandreth by O. B. Potter and D. B. Potter, page 5.

The prominent body of water is Brandreth Lake.

I have known for some time that guideboats held a special place in the hearts of the Brandreth clan. I was told that only guideboats are allowed on the enclave waters (powerboats only in emergencies).  The Potter brothers go on in Brandreth to say:

“It is with quiet pride that Brandreth owners extol their principal means of locomotion on all the water bodies of the Park: the Adirondack guideboat.  This enduring aspect of our inheritance has its roots in the very first days of ownership, and persists over one hundred and fifty years later.”  In the early days of the enclave so called freighter guideboats were used to haul the family’s possessions up the lake.

I was told that even today only guideboats are allowed on the enclave waters (power boats only in emergencies).  As of the year 2008 there were 41 wooden guideboats in Brandreth Park. They represented craft built by many of the major guideboat builders of the 1800’s; John Blanchard, the Grant brothers, Reuben Cary, Wallace Emerson, and the Parson brothers.

The brothers also give a rather profound statement about the virtues of the Adirondack guideboat that reflects the love of the craft.

“The Adirondack guideboat is like a magnificent piece of furniture, painstakingly crafted by patient and skillful workers who spend months building a single boat.  The keel bottom board is straight-grain pine, the thin ribs are spruce laboriously cut from the roots of a giant stump. The planking on the sides is white pine or white cedar, three inches wide and three sixteenths inch thick, each plank beveled at top and bottom, so as to overlap its neighbor to which it is fastened with copper tacks.  Flathead wood screws hold the siding to the ribs, each of which is precisely beveled as to determine not only the beam of the boat but the shape of her sides.  Viewed from above, the sides converge gracefully to the thin spruce stems at bow and stern.

When completed, the guideboat is a sleek double-ender, whose end-on profile, unlike the oval profile of a canoe, is more like that of a delicate teacup: from the narrow flat keel, sides rise straight up at the bow and stern.  Before flaring out and continuing upward in a broad, gentle curve to the gunnels.  The brass oarlock pins on the long oars, fit precisely into oarlock socket straps on the gunnels, making her very efficient to row from either the middle or bow seat, and some energetic crews have been known to row from both positions at the same time.  Importantly, the caned seats, unlike those in a common rowboat, are set low so that the rower’s legs and knees do not interfere with the oar handles.  The Adirondack guideboat is light in weight, tipping the scales between fifty and seventy pounds, and is readily carried by one person using a handcrafted wooden yoke.”

Brandreth Park holds an Adirondack treasure of inestimable value, the Book Case boat.  I’ll talk about that next time.

The Adirondack Guideboat-Mother Wherry

In the last post we talked about how two boat builders immigrated to the Adirondacks from Vermont around 1850.  They brought with them a wooden boat design that could be adapted to guiding.  The style was known as a wherry.  Wherries were quite popular in the colonies because they could assume many roles from hauling freight (coal) and passengers, to fishing for cod and salmon.

So why do I suspect that a wherry was the mom of the guideboat?  Well, both have flat bottom boards, both were lapstrake or clinker planked, and both are the about the same length, 14-16 feet.  And both used natural crooks, or roots for ribs, stems, and the transom.  The beam of colonial wherries was wider than that of a guideboat.   The reason for the guideboat’s narrower beam was that guideboats were carried over one’s head using a yoke.  The boat was steadied by placing your hands on the yoke cleats on each side of the hull.

Here is the old Adirondack Museum’s logo showing how the guideboat was carried. (I wish they had kept the old logo.  Everyone has mountains, but only the Adirondacks has guideboats).

The old logo for the Adirondack Museum. It shows how guideboats were carried.

Here I am demonstrating the optimum width of a guideboat as to how far apart my arms can comfortably spread to steady the boat while carrying it with a yoke.  It is about a yard apart.  The beam on the Chase boat I am reproducing is 38″.

Demonstrating that the maximum beam of a guideboat depends on how far apart one can comfortably spread your arms. I have a yard stick in my hands,

John Gardner points out that wherries were built by “amateurs” or fellows who made their living doing other things than building boats, like farming and fishing.

In his book, Building Classic Small Craft, he describes how clever the “amateurs” were in putting together a wherry.  It was done in someone’s barn or wherever there was shelter.  No elaborate strong back for them.  A couple of saw horses did just fine.  The bottom board was gotten out and stem and transom fastened to it.  The rocker was put in and this first stage was braced and shored.   Next, a “shadow” or mold was placed amidships.  Once everything was judged “plumb and level”, planking began starting with the garboard plank.  Planks were bent around the shadow and allowed to take their natural curvature as they went around to the stem and transom.  Since there was no talk of scarfing, the planking stock must have been long enough to go from stem to transom.  These builders relied very much on their “eye” to ensure that the hull shape came out true.  The planking stock, cedar, was lapped to butt tightly to its neighbor.  Planks were bound together with copper rivets to render the seams water tight.  This provided a very rugged hull that would last 50+ years of hard use.

The getting out of the transom is of special note.  Gardner refers to Reuben Cary’s guideboat at the Adirondack Museum although not by name.  Transom stock was carefully selected from cedar or spruce stumps,  It required four roots all orthogonal (right angles) to one another.  One opposing pair formed the transom itself.  Of the remaining opposing pair, one formed the stern knee that attached it to the bottom board, and the other formed the  curved stern post.

Here is the stern of Cary’s guideboat built sometime around 1870.

View of the elaborate stern on Reuben Cary’s guideboat. The transom was gotten out of a single spruce stump by careful axe work.

Gardner says ” these had to be hewed out of a single stump requiring much skillful and patient axe work.” He says as the specialized boat shops came on the scene in the nineteenth century they could not afford the time necessary to make such a handsome, functional and integral part of the boat.

Here is another sketch of the early guideboats at the Raquette River Falls carry.

Early guideboats at the Raquette River Carry.

Next time we talk about boatbuilder William Austin and the “bookcase boat”.


Thw Adirondack Guideboat-Where did it come from?

The origin of the Adirondack guideboat has intrigued me ever since I became fascinated by this lovely craft.  Did it truly originate within the bounds of the Adirondack Park or was it imported by someone from outside of the Park?  It is such a creative masterpiece that I  found it difficult to grasp that  someone living in the vast Adirondack wilderness conceived and bore this object of worldwide acclaim.

As I came to know the native Adirondackers it became clear that, indeed, it could be a product of their creativity and hands-on talent.  People of the Adirondacks today share the same natural abilities as their ancestors; they are practical problem solvers.  Back in the mid 1800’s sportsmen started to trickle into the Adirondacks looking to enjoy the nearly limitless opportunities to hunt and fish.  They needed a guide; someone to lead them in this wilderness that only few knew how to navigate.  In turn the guides needed a boat, the only practical way to penetrate the maze of lakes and ponds.  The boat had to satisfy contradictory requirements.  It had to be light enough for the guide alone to carry between lakes and ponds.  But it had to hold enough duffel for two men to exist in the wilderness for at least a week.

Suddenly, something I read Dr. Stephen Sulavik’s book The Origin of the Adirondack Guideboat connected the dots for me.  Two builders he cited as being crucial to the development of the Adirondack guideboat had something in common.  One of them, William Austin, lived at the northern end of Long Lake.  The other, William McLenathen, began building boats for a hotel owner on the Saranac Lakes.  Both began building boats around 1850.  So what was the coincidence about them that stopped me dead in my tracks in my search for the origin of the Adirondack guideboat?  They both immigrated to the Adirondacks from Vermont.  So what, you say,  that’s the land of milk and honey and maple syrup.  But there is a very large lake there, Lake Champlain.  Lake Champlain was a very important waterway during the Revolutionary War.  If the Colonists held it they could threaten the British forces in Canada.  Likewise, if the British held the Champlain waterway they could threaten New York City.

So Lake Champlain was humming with boat traffic during the Revolutionary War period.  A major naval battle was fought there at Valcour Island in October, 1776.  No doubt many smaller craft were employed to service the U. S. Navy during that time.

John Gardener’s book, Building Classic Small Craft,  is a great resource for imagining the role row boats played in colonial America.  Although he cites boating activity in Boston and Maine, I am sure the same conditions held true for Lake Champlain.  John has an amazing sense of how small craft builders went about building boats in colonial and later times.

He is especially fond of the wherry, a flat bottomed (plank keeled) boat.  It was rowed cross-handed (hmm, same as the guideboat).  Their ribs were made of natural crooks or steam bent oak.  Wherries were about 14 feet long and had a beam of about 4 feet.  They originated in Old World England.

Gardner says they were built in the colonies by “amateurs”, or men not working regularly at building small craft.  The term “amateurs” was not meant as a slur  but only to designate that they built boats in their spare time.  They were largely farmers and fishermen.

Gardner says that in Colonial New England (I am going to include the Champlain Valley here, as well) nearly everyone lived within sight of the water.  Travel was generally easier by water than by land.  Hitching up the horse and buggy took much more time than pushing off in your wherry.  Gardner says” the small boat occupied the same place in the economic and social life as the auto does today”.

So what is known about the early days of boat building in the Adirondacks.  You have heard me speak of Bunny Austin, of Long Lake, whose family of boat builders reaches back 5 generations.  William Austin, Bunny’s great grandfather came to Long lake from Ferrisburgh, Vermont around 1850 and began building boats for sale and hire.  (Ferrisburgh is at the southern end of Lake Champlain.)  It is said that he built boats during the winter months and could build one a week.  William had an excellent reputation as a boat builder and his boats sold  for around $15.  In a succeeding post we will talk about one of his boats that survives to this day.

Another builder, William McLenathen began building boats in the Lake Placid area about the same time.  He worked in a boat shop that was part of a hotel owned by William Martin.  Martin needed a constant supply of boats to satisfy the needs of his clientele.  According to Sulavik’s guideboat book, McLenathen was the father of the Adirondack guideboat.  His boats had a narrow square stern and provided a model for all succeeding guideboats.  Here is a sketch of one of his boats.

From Dr. Sulavikic’s The Adirondack Guideboat, Fig. 1-14.  “A pencil sketch dated September 13, 1853, by T. Addison Richards of Harvey Moody’s Polly Ann.  It is the same basic construction as the original boat, built by William McLenathen for W. F. Martin in 1851.  The hull is rounded of clapboard-lapstrake construction, though not particularly slender, and the upright position indicates a flat bottom.  Note the slight sheer, the yoke cleat, oarlocks pinned to the boards and the board seat.  This sketch appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine,  August 1859.  (Courtesy of the Adirondack Museum).”

So my suspicion that the guideboat originated with the bounds of the Adirondack Park was not the case.  The basic design, a wherry, was brought to the Adirondacks by outsiders from Vermont who adapted it to the needs of the guides there.

In the next post we will talk more about how wherries were built by the colonists.


Scribe Ribs-What are they?

There are two pairs of scribe ribs on the Chase guideboat I am reproducing.  Scribe ribs, sometimes called stitched ribs, have no feet.  The reason they have no feet is that they go way forward and aft in the boat.  The bottom board is so narrow there that there is no room for rib feet.  They are called scribe after the geometric technique used to precisely define their shape.  Here is one ready for mounting,

A scribe rib.

When I wrote my book Tale of an Adirondack Guideboat and How to Build One I expected builders would pick up something amiss in the book about my instructions.  After all, building a guideboat is not at all straightforward.  But so far, after 13 years of being in print and a number of boats built using my book, there have been no complaints.

I did have one fellow say to me “I only had one problem using your book.”  On no, I thought, what did I miss? He said, “Oh, it was my omission.  You know when you say to install the scribe rib as soon as the garboard strake is hung?  Well, I waited too long and it was a devil to install it later on when I had nearly finished planking.

Well this time around I was at round 5 of planking when I suddenly remembered the scribe, or stitched, ribs.  So I failed to take my own advice.  Fortunately I installed them without much trouble.  Here they are after installation.

Scribe ribs installed. They are the ones closest to the Pony clamp.

So what’s the use of scribe ribs anyway?  Not all guideboats have them.  One reason, I believe, is to shape the hull nearest the stems to present a more a graceful appearance.  They are also useful in providing a support for the seat cleats.

By the way, I did finish planking the 5th round.  Here it is after round five:

Hull after the fifth round of planking.

Phew! Onward.