Roots on the way

You might remember that the old time Adirondack guideboat builders used roots of red spruce trees for constructing the ribs and stems of their guideboats.  They cut sections from the stumps where the root fanned out.  The stumps were huge and it took enormous amount of work to dig the stump out of the ground and cut out the sections.  All this was done by hand!  But it gave these frontier boat builders strong, light ribs and stems for their boats.  Since they had none of the modern glues we have today, it was an ingenious solution that overcame the major boatbuilding obstacle confronting them.

I built my first three guideboats using ribs and stems that were laminated.  I took thin strips of wood and  glued them together in a mold having the shape of the desired rib or stem.  This gave me very strong, light-weight ribs.  The problem was that it took forever to produce a set of guideboat ribs.

For my last guideboat I was able to acquire red spruce roots from a local Adirondack boat builder.  This time around I wasn’t as fortunate.  There were no red spruce roots to be had.  All available roots were spoken for.  Then  I remembered my old friend Josh.  Josh was the first boat builder-in-residence at the Adirondack Museum.  One of his first tasks was to renovate the steam launch Osprey.  The osprey is on permanent exbibit on the Museum’s campus.

The Osprey has a small wheel house to protect the captain from foul weather.  Josh thought it would be a good idea to restore the vertical side boards of wheel house.  To add some spice to the wheel house he decided to use dark and light varnish to give a striped appearance.  Here I am following orders.

Yours truly varnishing the wheel house of the steam launch Osprey.

Josh became the first boat builder in residence at the Museum.  His job was to build an Adirondack guideboat employing  the same  materials and methods used by the original builders.  This was all done in full view of the visitors.  To give him time to work, I acted as a docent to answer questions posed by visitors.

Josh then struck out on his own and formed his own venture, J. W. Swan Boat shop in Northern Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Superior.   He became aware of bogs there where hackmatack trees grew.  He knew that a fella named Newman had started a business, Newman’s Knees, that harvested the “knees” or roots from these trees. Newman sold the knees to boatbuilders, furniture makers and others who could exploit these unusual materials.   Tragically Newman was killed when  a tree he was harvesting fell on him.

I gave Josh a call and we renewed an old friendship.   Sure enough he could supply my needs for roots to provide the ribs and stems for my next guideboat.  He now has a family of two boys who love helping their father in the boat shop.  Here they are steam bending canoe ribs.

Josh and his two boys, Axel and Forest, bending canoe ribs.

As you’ll see from his telling below, Josh takes extra care in transforming roots into ribs and stems.  It starts in the shop where he has just started converting roots to ribs.  Here is his narrative about the rib preparation.

“With all of that I am closing the gap on your ribs/stems.  It sure feels good to open them up.  The shop smells fantastic!  Some folks find it off putting but I do love the astringent pungent aroma of tamarack.  I get the same satisfaction when I am cutting them out in the swamps  It’s clean and crisp, like pine sol concentrate.  I think there is a misconception that it would be boggy and anaerobic.”

In another missive Josh writes, ” Everything got resawn last week.  I moved everything outside when I wasn’t processing it.  I didn’t want it to dry too quickly.  I left some scraps in here over the weekend to see how it’d do in the dry heat.  I checked the scraps this morning.  They were down to 16-18% moisture content with no checking or other issues.  I moved everything back in and stickered it up.  I’ll keep it in here to peal off more moisture to get it down to 16-18% (its 20% now) which will take a few more days.  I probably could have been a little braver and kept it all inside, but I tend to move cautiously.  Once it is drier, I’ll thickness sand it, get it boxed, and route it to you.  Thanks so much for your patience.”

Here are the ribs almost ready to ship.

Ribs almost ready to ship.

Below is a flyer advertising Josh’s tamarack roots.  If you need knees you can contact Josh at BOATSHOPTRICKS.COM/KNEES or call him at (715) 373-0126


Next time we make guideboat furniture.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *