Schuyler Thomson loves wooden canoes. He has built, paddled and poled them, guided wilderness trips in them, won a national downriver championship in one and, since 1979, has made a full-time profession of repairing and restoring them. His shop, a red post-and-beam bungalow, sits under some ancient maples in the yard of his boyhood home on Weekeepeemee Road in Woodbury, Conn. Thomson, 38, works six to seven days a week restoring life to moribund canoes. He works quickly, deftly, although that was not always the case. In his green days, jobs that now take him minutes, such as steaming and fitting a new cedar rib, took him hours. Or days. Or weeks. Hurled tools were an embarrassing feature of that period. So were hurled oaths, smashed fingers, broken windows. Thomson persevered. He did not do so for the money—there is very little money in canoe restoration—but in homage to his two major maxims: 1) If you own something worth having, it's worth taking care of and 2) If you're going to do something, do it all the way.
Thomson's commitment to full-time excellence in a field strewn with part-timers and hobbyists has won him a growing reputation as one of the best and most respected wooden canoe restorers in the country. Enthusiasts from as far afield as Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin have brought him their boats for repair.
"Schuyler is head and shoulders above every restorer I've seen," says Culver Modisette, head of the trips division of Great World, wilderness outfitters in Avon, Conn. "Plus, you just don't see many out there doing it full-time. Schuyler restored a 60-year-old, wood-and-canvas Morris canoe of mine—an antique—and did a beautiful job. His attention to detail is great."
The challenge for any canoe restorer lies in matching his work to that of the original craftsmen so that signs of repair are undetectable. In that, as in other aspects of his craft, Thomson excels. "I've seen a wood-and-canvas Old Town canoe that Thomson restored," says Jerry Stelmok, a wooden-canoe builder in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, "and you can't even tell it's been repaired."
"Schuyler's philosophy is an interesting one," says Jill Dean, who with her husband, Jeff, runs the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association in Madison, Wis. "He's not absolutely keyed to creating museum-or show-quality pieces, like a lot of restorers—which is not to say he's not capable of doing just that. He's more interested in keeping the boats in use, which means, besides making them look beautiful, making sure they're solid and structurally sound." Stan Wass, a Connecticut-based outdoor writer and former national-level canoe racer, adds, "Sky will take hulks and turn them into serviceable watercraft where others wouldn't touch them. He approaches his work from a real paddler's point of view."
That point of view has helped put more than 300 wooden canoes back on the water in the seven years that Thomson has been in business. He continues to repair 50 to 60 canoes a year. Most need recanvasing and stem work, the latter because of moisture's tendency to settle into a canoe's ends. Some also need new rails, ribs, thwarts, planking, or need to have their seats rewoven, their decks replaced. "I do maybe 30 complete overhauls a year," says Thomson, who may at a given time have six to 12 canoes in various stages of repair in his shop and the adjacent "ready yard."
The grounds, the shop and the massive 15-room colonial house where his parents reside hold special meaning for Thomson. He and his brothers, Peter, 36, and Alexander, 32, grew up there. The shop was once their playhouse, the lawn their island and ocean. When Thomson was eight, his mother began reading him a 12-book series by Arthur Ransome, the first of which was called Swallows and Amazons. It is a fictional account of four English children and their camping and sailing adventures, and it entranced Thomson. One day during this period, he fashioned a sailboat in the backyard, using play blocks for the hull, a flagpole and bed sheet for the mast and sail. Peter was dragooned as first mate. "I wasn't interested in sailing anywhere," says Thomson. "It was just being on that boat."
The lawn is flat and rectangular, a snug harbor for the canoes Thomson fixes. When one is 95% done—when its hull is painted and its insides await the fifth and final coat of golden spar varnish—Thomson often resists completing the work, preferring to let the unfinished boat sit for a few days on the grass. Maybe it's indolence, he says, or impatience to undertake more challenging jobs. "Or maybe I just like having lots of canoes around."
A summer morning; in the air there's a brothlike humidity. "Wretched drying weather," Thomson mutters. He nimbly unlashes the ropes binding an 18-foot Old Town canoe to the top of a visitor's car. At 6'2" and 185 pounds, the mustachioed Thomson is lean and fit, his long arms cabled with muscle developed from 11 years of racing. "It's an OTCA," he says, brushing the dust from a six-digit number branded on the canoe's stem. He goes to his shop, returning a moment later with a list of serial numbers and corresponding years of various Old Towns built since 1905. "Late '45," he says, locating the canoe's number. "A wartime boat," which explains why the seats are slatted, not caned. "Couldn't get Philippine cane in those years." He taps the iron stem band, and with pliers he extracts an iron tack from one of the canoe's planks. "Brass and bronze were scarce then, too." A history and Latin major (B.A. U. Conn., '69), he savors these physical contacts with the past. To the visitor, the canoe, recently rescued from a woodpile, is a mess: no canvas, rotted ends, cracked ribs and planking, broken thwarts and rails. "It's fixable," Thomson says, and draws up a repair estimate:
The visitor's face is numb from sticker shock. Thomson has seen that look before. To ease the pain, he explains that he tends to estimate high. His manner is doctorly, sympathetic. The visitor asks, "Is this canoe worth it?"
"You've got to decide that," Thomson says. "I will say that repairing this will put you in a wood-canvas canoe that, new, would run you over $2,000. Repaired, this canoe will be structurally as good as new."
Thomson learned early that in canoe restoration you must adapt your skills to what people can afford to pay. "After all, he says, canoes are essentially a cheap idea. I can't go charging the price of a new canoe to rebuild an old one. On the other hand, I've been living on $8,000 to $9,000 a year.
"Still, sometimes on a beautiful day, I'll sit outside the shop after I've finished a few boats and think, 'O.K., so it's not making me rich. There are worse ways to make a living.' "
When Thomson was eight, his parents, Woodward and Eleanor, sent him to Keewaydin, a camp for boys on Lake Dunmore, Vt. The oldest private camp still in existence in the U.S., Keewaydin is renowned for its wilderness canoeing program, whose alumni include author John McPhee, ex-Watergate prosecutor Earl Silbert and film executive Michael Eisner. Initially, Thomson was more interested in the camp's wrestling program than in canoeing. But soon he had become a competent paddler who appreciated wood-and-canvas canoes above all others. "My appreciation of them—and of canoeing—was upon me before I knew it," he says.
After graduating from The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. in 1965, Thomson returned to Keewaydin, first as a canoeing instructor, then, from 1970 until '74, as the man in charge of repairing camp canoes. The camp's maintenance chief, Chuck Conard, now 71, taught him the best approaches to patching and recanvasing. More important, Conard instilled in Thomson a taste for craftsmanship and hard work. "Chuck gave me my work credo," says Thomson, "and was patient enough to let me learn by trial and error."
After graduating from college, Thomson taught history at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington, Conn. for 10 years. He liked teaching but loved canoeing. In 1971 he bought a kayaklike closed canoe, called a C-l, from a policeman in Hartford, Conn. named Bob Allen. Allen, an expert canoeist, taught Thomson how to do an Eskimo roll to right an overturned boat and in the spring of '72 invited Thomson to be his paddling partner in the Hudson River Whitewater Derby. Thomson told Allen he had never paddled in serious white water. Allen laughed and said, "Nonsense, give it a try." A week before the race, the duo held its first and only practice. It lasted 20 minutes. When Allen and Thomson placed second in the derby, a whole new world opened to Thomson. Over the next 11 years he became one of the best amateur downriver canoe racers in the country. In 1975, using a strip canoe (a boat he and Allen built by gluing strips of white cedar over wooden hull forms), he and Allen competed in Westfield, Mass. in the oldest amateur white-water race in the U.S. Other entrants jeered at the wooden boat. "You're gonna smash up in that thing!" they hooted. Allen and Thomson won. Thomson pulled off a similar feat in 1980 when, with Cynthia Lynch, one of his ex-high school students, as his partner, he entered a strip boat against even lighter craft in the National Whitewater Open Canoe Downriver Championship—got ridiculed—and won. By 1984, when tendinitis in his right elbow curtailed further racing, Thomson had won a men's class National Whitewater Downriver Championship (1982) and 75 amateur races, including 16 of 18 in 1982 with his last partner, Bill Tingley.
The pain in Thomson's elbow was so intense it even precluded his holding a paddle. And so, because he had let his teaching certification lapse, he went full-time into the only other trade he knew, canoe restoration.
Today in his tidy shop, Thomson re-canvases a 12-foot Kennebec built in 1921. A well-designed, high-ended canoe of lesser workmanship than a J. Henry Rushton or a B.N. Morris ("the top canoes, historically," says Thomson), it was built by the Kennebec Canoe Company of Waterville, Maine and in its day sold for under $40. Like Rushton and Morris—and Carlton, Chestnut and Peterborough among others—the Kennebec Company eventually folded. Thomson says that today you couldn't build a Kennebec commercially for less than $1,400.
"When I first started, just recanvasing took me days," says Thomson. "At times it got frustrating—I threw my share of tools. But when you work at something 16 hours a day, as I did in the beginning, you can't help but get better."
A pivotal moment for Thomson as a restorer occurred in 1980 when an 18½-foot E.M. White canoe that had been flung against a tree by 60 mph winds was brought to his shop in two pieces. Many who saw the craft said it was unfixable. Thomson fixed it, confirming in his own mind his talent for doing difficult work.
"But that's the beauty of wood-canvas canoes," he says. "Because they're built of component parts, they can be rebuilt on a large scale. How do you replace one part of an aluminum or a fiber-glass canoe? You can't. You need esoteric tools to fix them—welding torches, chemistry sets. But with a piece of shirttail, a tube of glue and a roll of Ductape, you can take a wood-canvas canoe anywhere.
"From a repair standpoint, the big difference between wood-canvas canoes and synthetic ones is that there's hope for any wood-canvas canoe, no matter how damaged. So maybe a wooden canoe is a longer-lived and better investment than any synthetic one. Certainly its performance—the smoothness of its ride and its ability to flex through the water when necessary—is superior."
By late afternoon Thomson had recanvased, sanded or painted three other canoes and was cutting ribs for a fourth on one of the shop's two band saws. Many restorers buy their ribs precut, but Thomson prefers to fashion his own from eight-foot planks of traditional northern white cedar. Properly soaked and steamed, the wood is as pliant as taffy. "You can literally tie it in knots," says Thomson, pointing to a pretzel-shaped hunk of wood lying on the bench as proof.
When the ribs are cut and planed, he normally walks them a quarter of a mile up the road for a three-day soak in the Weekeepeemee River. While he is gone on that task, Marc de Rochefort arrives, ready to put in a full evening's restoration work. A former department supervisor for Union Carbide in nearby Danbury, de Rochefort, 29, apprenticed with Thomson for a year. Last fall he quit his job at Carbide to work full-time on canoes. He is admittedly anxious about the career switch but says, "I was tired of the corporate world. Then a friend told me about Schuyler, and I went over to see him and eventually asked if I could apprentice under him. My wife is a school teacher. We're both pretty nervous about this switch. But I'm willing to work extra jobs to make it work out.
"Schuyler's got a great reputation. His work has integrity, and he's been very patient in showing me how he does it. I can't tell you how glad I am to be here."
Thomson returns. "You ready to go to work?" he asks, grinning.
"Ready," says de Rochefort.
"Good." Thomson sighs. "I'm ready to go home." And after discussing the evening's work with de Rochefort, he does.
In the master's workshop: Thomson lavishes loving care on the craft that come to him.
William Jaspersohn lives in Moscow, Vt.
Replace four rails
Replace two seats
Rebuild bow and stem
Strip and refinish
Install bow & stem carry thwart
Brass diamond-head bolts