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story.lead_photo.caption Sam Ellis (front) of Rock Town River Outfitters and Greg Johnson of Little Rock Boat Builders Supply will teach a workshop on building wooden boats, starting Wednesday in Ellis’ shop in Oppenheimer Market Hall at the Little Rock River Market. - Photo by Cary Jenkins

There they were, one with a boat-building business and one wanting to hold a boat-building class. Would they ever connect, or would they simply pass like ships in the night?

Of course they would get together, and the result is a wooden canoe-building class conducted by Sam Ellis of Rock Town River Outfitters and Greg Johnson of Little Rock Boat Builder Supply.

"I saw a post by Sam on social media where he asked if anyone wanted to build a boat," says Johnson at his office and workshop on South Victory Street a few blocks from the state Capitol. "I responded and said, 'We should get together.'"

Ellis, who grew up in Little Rock, is an avid paddler and former Colorado river guide who started Rock Town River Outfitters in 2017 to offer kayak trips on the Arkansas River. The 30-year-old moved his venture to Oppenheimer Market Hall in the Little Rock River Market and, along with offering kayak rentals and trips, also rents bicycles.

He and his father, Buddy, had taken classes in wooden boat building in Maine and Maryland, and he wanted to offer something similar in Little Rock during the winter, when kayak and bike rentals were slow. When he heard from Johnson after posting about boat-building on Facebook, his plan took shape.

"Greg was kind of the missing piece," Ellis says.

Clamps are used to hold boards together as glue dries during the boat-building process taught by Sam Ellis of Rock Town River Outfitters and Greg Johnson of Little Rock Boat Builders Supply.
Clamps are used to hold boards together as glue dries during the boat-building process taught by Sam Ellis of Rock Town River Outfitters and Greg Johnson of Little Rock Boat Builders Supply.

Johnson and Ellis taught four budding wooden-canoe builders during a five-day class in January and are now offering a second five-day class, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, at Rock Town River Outfitters. Cost is $2,225, which includes materials, instruction and, at the end, a nearly 16-foot-long, two-person wooden canoe.

"They come in to a pile of wood on the first day, and leave with a canoe on top of their car on the last day," Ellis says. "It's great to see them go from 'What is this,' to 'Oh, my gosh. We did this.'"

Chase Norris and his wife, Keri, took the course in January. The couple moved to Little Rock from Shreveport a couple of years ago and were looking for something outdoorsy to do.

"We'd been doing some kayaking, and it sounded like an awesome idea to make a one-of-a-kind watercraft that we got to build with our own two hands," says Norris, who turned 34 last week. "It was a blast."

...

Johnson, 62, grew up in Fort Worth. A job with Acme Brick took him to Malvern. He and his wife, Stephanie, spent some time in Georgia before settling in Little Rock.

He started woodworking professionally about 20 years ago and was working at Falcon Jet building cabinets and other woodwork for airplanes when he took an offer of an "early out" from the company. He started Little Rock Boat Builder Supply a little more than a year ago.

He is, of course, a boat fanatic. In his office, which includes two large computer monitors and a drafting table, are copies of WoodenBoat magazine, wooden models of boats, a boat-theme calendar and pictures of boats he has worked on.

One morning last week, he was watching a video of the start of a human-powered boat race from Port Townsend, Wash., to Ketchikan, Alaska.

"I've always been interested in boats," Johnson says. "My dad had powerboats and sailboats. My uncle lived in Arkansas and we'd visit him. The Little River and the Cossatot River down there in southwest Arkansas were stamping grounds for him, and we spent a lot of time there."

While he was attending a boat show, someone suggested Johnson combine his woodworking with his boat obsession.

The Rocktown 16, a wooden canoe that will be built by people taking the class, begins as a kit.
The Rocktown 16, a wooden canoe that will be built by people taking the class, begins as a kit.

"A light bulb went off over my head that probably blinded everybody," he says.

Johnson soon began collaborating with Laurie McGowan, a yacht designer from Nova Scotia. McGowan writes a column for WoodenBoat magazine called Sketchbook, where he develops designs for boat concepts submitted by readers.

Johnson wanted to take some of the more popular designs and turn them into kits that customers could build at home.

Their first craft was a two-person, pedal-powered boat called Miss Behavin', which won best in show for a human-powered craft at last year's Wooden Boat Show in Mystic, Conn.

Another kit project is a 13-foot micro cruiser sailboat called the Laurentia, crafted for a boater in Ohio.

"It's a tiny sailboat," Johnson says. "He's gonna put that on the Great Lakes up there and run around like a bobber."

...

The idea for the classes Ellis had in mind was to build a kit for an Arkansas-specific boat, Johnson says.

"I told him I'd like to do a boat specifically for us designed by Laurie and myself rather than get one from someone else that had no interest in us."

"It's designed with Arkansas rivers in mind," Ellis says. "When we were back east, there were a lot of wider canoes. We wanted something that was more suited for Arkansas rivers and streams in mind, a little narrower, something you would want to take on the Buffalo River or the Mulberry River."

The project took off last autumn. Ellis had already put out the call for the January class, which meant Johnson and McGowan had to get cracking.

"It usually takes up to a year to actually take a boat from concept to reality," Johnson says. "We went like mad."

After building a full-size prototype using plans made with 3-D computer models, they settled on a canoe kit they call the Rocktown 16, a two-person craft made from okoume waterproof marine plywood and hardwoods like mahogany and ash.

Much of the wood is cut using a computer numerical control machine at Johnson's shop, while other pieces are cut with a table saw. Some of the wood is also steam shaped by Johnson before being added to the kit.

The boats, which are covered with an epoxy and have a thin, clear layer of reinforcing fiberglass around the bottom, are strong enough to take scrapes from rocks or gravel on smaller rivers and are also suitable for flat water like the Arkansas River, Johnson says.

Boat-building kits have been around for years, he says, and they make the process less intimidating for newcomers.

Greg Johnson stands with a canoe built during the January class taught at the Little Rock River Market. After a few finishing touches, it will go home with the father and son who built it.
Greg Johnson stands with a canoe built during the January class taught at the Little Rock River Market. After a few finishing touches, it will go home with the father and son who built it.

"In the old methods of boat building, you took these bits and pieces and you had to shape them and steam them and bend them into complex things. It was a lot harder. This is more accessible."

The canoes are built using the stitch-and-glue method, which looks a lot like it sounds.

"You're putting these pieces on and connecting them with copper wire," Ellis says. "That's the stitch, and you're kind of stitching this whole thing together."

At times during the process, with the wire sticking out of the canoe's hull like porcupine quills, the project looks a bit like a model of a boat, Ellis says.

"At the end of the class, once the rails are on and it's fiberglassed, you see that this is not a toy. It's a rigid, well-built canoe."

...

Norris, an engineer, was impressed with how everything came together on his build.

"There are some steps that you wouldn't realize are involved, especially with all the materials. It's more than just wood, and there's the stitching technique where you tie the boards together with wire. You're taking all these different materials and techniques and combining them to make one solid piece. That was pretty interesting."

Along with the Norrises, the January class included a father and son who built their boat together.

"I like to do classes with two people per boat," Ellis says. "That's something my dad and I did and that's kind of where all of this started, as something unique to do with him. It's fun to have two buddies, or a father and son or husband and wife working together."

The price, he adds, is still the same for two people.

Classes take place at Ellis' River Market storefront. With its large windows, it's a highly visible spot in a well-trafficked area.

Soon, that space will be filled with bicycles as his two-wheeled rental business picks back up with the return of nicer weather.

No worries for the aspiring canoe builder, though, as classes will be offered March 20-24 and April 10-14 in Johnson's shop at 201 S. Victory St.

Norris says he and his wife haven't had a chance to launch their Rocktown 16 on its maiden voyage. It is winter, after all.

But he has an idea of where he'd like to paddle when it warms up.

"I'm going to have to say that I'm going to put it in the Arkansas River, probably somewhere around Two Rivers Park. We built it in Little Rock, and I'd like to say that the first time we put it in the water was in Little Rock."

ActiveStyle on 02/04/2019

Print Headline: Float a boat: After a five-day class with two Little Rock entrepreneurs, students have their own canoes

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