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In addition to the local news, WXPR Public Radio also likes to find stories that are outside the general news cycle... Listen below to stories about history, people, culture, art, and the environment in the Northwoods that go a little deeper than a traditional news story allows us to do. Here are all of the series we include in this podcast: Curious North, We Live Up Here, A Northwoods Moment in History, Field Notes, and Wildlife Matters.These features are also available as a podcast by searching "WXPR Local Features" wherever you get your podcasts.

Northwoods Wood Boat Maker

Image Courtesy of Josh Swan


Have you ever stopped and admired an old wooden canoe or an early motorboat on a lake? If you have, you are not alone as the beauty and craftsmanship of these early watercraft captivates many including boat builder Josh Swan who is keeping the tradition alive.

Nestled in woods just outside of Ashland, Wisconsin is the Swan and Sons Boat Works. For the last 20 years Josh Swan has been making and restoring wooden boats. Most wooden boat makers get started because of their love for sailing, paddling or rowing, but Swan got into it because he so appreciated the craftmanship and the challenges that come with wooden boat construction.

Credit Image Courtesy of Josh Swan
Josh Swan

“I immediately fell in love with building and working on wooden boats. The rules, the discipline and logic. Curves look very mysterious and are really challenging. I would much rather be building something that has shape and complex curves then say cabinets or things with lots of angles.”

I talked to Swan as he sat in his 32’ by 50’ workshop surrounded by stacks of drying lumber, a variety of power and hand tools, and his current projects, including a 1940s Lucius guide canoe from the historic Brule River resort era.

His professional career started with an apprenticeship with a boat maker in Newport Rhode Island where he developed a deep appreciation of the craft.

“I went out there with the idea of developing my woodworking skills but then just immediately I didn’t want to work on anything but boats.”

He both restores and builds boats that range in size from 13 to 25 feet.

Credit Image Courtesy of Josh Swan
Swan's workshop

“I build what I would refer to as plank on frame boats that are mechanically fastened. It has either steam-bent or sawn frames or what you might call ribs. Solid wood planking over the top of that. There are not a lot of adhesives holding it together. It is made watertight through joinery.”

Swan’s modern work draws on a rich history of boatmaking in the area. Rhinelander’s Pioneer Park Historical Complex has a boat exhibit, and Museum Director, Kerry Bloedorn, notes that there were several Northwoods wood boat makers at one time. 

“There was also a number of boat manufacturing companies here in Rhinelander, most notably the Rhinelander Boat Company.”

According to Bloedorn, what separates the early boat makers from those of today was the fine craftsmanship involved.

“The boat making and woodworking that went into these boats was really artwork. And real pride was taken in making these boats and keeping them in good shape.”

Although nowadays, Swan’s shop has all the power tools, much of his work is done using techniques that go back hundreds of years.

“What I find neat about boat building is the use of hand tools, because you are dealing with shapes and curves. They are still the most practical way to get the job done. There are times for power tools, but even today hand tools are the quickest, most efficient and most accurate way to perform a task in wooden boat construction.”

What is unique about Swan’s boat building is that he starts with logs harvested right in Wisconsin.

“I’ve got a Wood Mizer sawmill outside that really lets me control a lot of how I am processing logs into boat specific lumber.”

It takes specifically sawn lumber to make the wood he steam-bends to make the ribs and also to make the “knees,” which are curved pieces of wood that are used in boats where extra strength is required. He makes the knees from the rootstock of a Tamarack tree, which he harvests near his shop.

Credit Image Courtesy of Josh Swan
Tamarack Knee

“At the base of that tree we have a shallow root system that goes down 90 to 110 degrees. The long grain in that wood stock would curve so you could use it in a stem of a boat where the keel meets a transom. That curving grain is incredibly strong. I harvest those knees. I go out and cut the trees down and pull those out.”

During the pandemic, Swan has also been using his sawmill to make boat lumber for amateur boat builders.

“I have sold a lot of boat lumber, almost in the form of kits to people who are home and are looking for projects. They will specifically refer to this as ‘Oh this is my COVID boat.’”

The project not only can take months to construct but one is left with functional piece of art that Swan notes not only connects them to the past but will look good gliding on the water this coming summer. To learn more about Swan’s boat building you can visit his web site: http://jwswanandsons.com/

James M. Skibo is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. He is the author of five books, including two written for the general audience, Ants for Breakfast, and Bear Cave Hill. In 2021 James moved to the Madison area and is now the State Archeologist.