Building boats - and friendships - in Sheffield


SHEFFIELD — When Hilary Russell finished constructing model airplanes as a child, he would often discover pieces left over. Following directions wasn't a typical creative route for him.

"I just wanted to go ahead and build it," Russell said during the first day of his most recent session at Berkshire Boat Building School.

Tom Kelly, Russell's student for the week at the Sheffield shop, chuckled upon hearing this. Given that Kelly would be taking home the skin-on-frame, double-paddle canoe that Russell was teaching him how to construct, a casual observer might have been surprised by Kelly finding humor in his instructor's early lack of forethought. By this time, however, the 60-year-old student had read (or at least skimmed) Russell's book, "Building Skin-on-Frame Double Paddle Canoes," that not only describes the steps required to create such a vessel but also champions a flexible mindset throughout the process.

"I build things by trial-and-error. There's a word for that. It's called 'design-build,'" the 75-year-old Russell said.

Design-building integrates the planning and construction processes to increase efficiency and ingenuity. The concept is rooted in the master builder method that dates back thousands of years, but the new moniker is in vogue at the moment as an alternative to clunky multi-contractor projects. It now regularly appears in stories about major metropolitan infrastructure projects and companies' mission statements.

While Russell was skeptical upon first learning of the process — would he really want someone to build his house that way? — he realized that he had long used a similar method when composing poetry, a passion of his that has resulted in the publication of a chapbook and acceptances by major literary journals. Design-building reminds him of writing his way into a poem.

"It just fits me because I'm able to make decisions in terms of how the boat's going to be built as I go along," said Russell, who has taught at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield, Vt. "The job is not sticking to the plan so much as it is kind of working with the plans."

Russell has ample experience doing so, having constructed more than 100 boats since beginning his courses at Berkshire School in 1997. Like a paddler caught in a strong current, Russell doesn't fight unexpected deviations during canoe-building so much as he listens to them, adjusting accordingly. He doesn't mind discovering new shores, as long as he finds one.


Russell's Sheffield home doubles as his school's headquarters. He and his wife, Jenny, have lived in a barn-like structure on Berkshire School Road since 1985. The living area connects to a garage with a loft, where the Russells store two of their canoes on-site. (A third sits on planks below the garage's ceiling.) Russell's shop inhabits an adjoining room. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by a band saw and sander to the left and tools hanging above a table to the right. Across the room, various canoe part templates hang on hooks. Wood surrounds.

"You get more than three people in here, it's pretty tight," says Russell, a bearded, bespectacled man who speaks softly and moves economically these days.

Kelly, who worked in commercial and industrial construction before retiring recently, has a sturdier bearing. His wife, Barbie, and children had chipped in to buy him the five-day, $1,500 class as a 60th birthday present. The Kellys already had canoes at their Granby, Ct., home, but they didn't own a lighter skin-on-frame model. Moreover, they had never built one.

"It's always been one of our bucket list things to do," Kelly said, adding that Barbie couldn't take a vacation from her nursing job to join him.

By the time Kelly pulled his GMC truck into the Russells' looping driveway on Monday morning, Russell had already set up a 14-foot wooden box in the center of the room for the canoe to be built on. This "strongback" balanced on two sawhorses and held six plywood forms. These wooden forms each resembled the Greek letter omega, providing ledges and holes to secure longitudinal pieces of wood (the parts that run the length of the boat) that would mimic the boat's curvature in an upside-down position. Essentially, they would facilitate the construction of the wooden frame, a necessary measure even for a design-builder like Russell.

Shortly after 9 a.m., the men started attaching the stem and knee to the bow and stern using a combination of drilling, gluing and clamping. In this case, the two parts combined to form crescent moon-like hooks connecting the top of the boat to the bottom. Russell demonstrated on one end before Kelly tried on the other. From the outset, Russell was more guide than lecturer, observing quietly as Kelly lined up the parts and finished the task.

"So much of this is experience," Russell told Kelly as they hunched next to the canoe, evaluating its "rocker," or amount of curvature.

Russell grew up on a pond in Westchester County, N.Y. He fell in love with canoeing while attending camp in New Hampshire from the ages of 9 to 13. But it wasn't until his mid-40s that he truly reclaimed this passion. In the early 1990s, he started a canoeing and camping program at Berkshire School, where he was the chairman of the English department. During a sabbatical in 1997, he built two double-paddle canoes, which inspired him to start a boat-building class when he returned that fall. After a course at Maine's WoodenBoat School in the summer of 1998, Russell decided he would specialize in teaching skin-on-frame models.

"It was a class on building kayaks in a traditional way, and I was inspired by what I felt was the beauty of the lashing. [I] thought it would look great in a double-paddle canoe where you would see all the lashing as opposed to a kayak where you'd have to look down in the cockpit," recalled Russell, who opened his school in 2002 to supplement the classes he led at Berkshire School until 2005.

Paying homage to the birch-bark canoes lashed together by Native Americans centuries ago, skin-on-frame canoes merely require wooden pieces bound by twine beneath nylon or polyester skins. Paddlers sit in the bottom of these boats like kayakers. They are considerably lighter than the more popular planked models.

"This is a great way to get your feet wet," Russell said of the safer construction involved with skin-on-frames.

The boat's stability largely stems from its wood segments that cross the width of the boat — the ribs. After securing the longitudinal pieces to the forms with wire ties, Russell and Kelly began the ribbing process. The ribs are roughly a foot apart and arch to fit the curve created by the lengthwise pieces. To generate this effect, Russell placed the requisite northern white cedar strips in a steamer (a wooden box, in this case) for about 20 minutes. The dampness increased their pliability.

"I like wet wood," he would say later. (He soaks the longitudinal parts in a gutter behind his house for at least 24 hours, too.)

He then brought the ribs to a work table, where he pressed them against forms of different widths to ensure that the northern white cedar suited the boat's curves. Still, Russell said he prefers the "old-fashioned" ribbing method sometimes, manually forming a "U" shape by grabbing each end of a piece and balancing it against his midsection. During one demonstration of this maneuver, Russell cracked the wood.

"Breakage is part of it," he said, tossing that strip aside.

The men applied clamps to force the ribs and longitudinal pieces together. When they were done, Kelly walked to one end of the 14-foot boat, sizing up its symmetry and rocker. He had been reserved and deferential to this point, calling his teacher "Mr. Russell." Without saying much, he suggested a few minor adjustments, altering some of the longitudinal pieces.

"You've just got to allow some play," Russell said, reassuring Kelly. "Otherwise, you go nuts."

Before lunch, Russell wanted to start the lashing process, in which the lengthwise pieces of wood get tied to the ribs and stems.

"Lashing the stringers to the ribs is an ancient, decidedly sane, relaxing process that produces a beautiful visual rhythm, and creates much of the boat's strength through flexibility," Russell writes in his book.

Russell demonstrated how to execute a square lashing.

"So, that's what we do for a few hours," he said.

Soon thereafter, Jenny, a longtime English teacher who had supplied cookies and drinks for the men throughout the morning, walked into the room.

"You got a boat already!" she said, admiring the wooden skeleton. "Is this a one-day course?"

"This is like framing a house," her husband cautioned, implying that the canoe seemed further along than it was.

Kelly had proven to be a quick learner. Russell had even invited him to help him out at the upcoming WoodenBoat Show in Mystic, Ct. Kelly accepted the offer.

"He's great," Russell said while Kelly sanded the eight-foot floorboards next door.

The duo later steamed and bent short ribs, which provide reinforcement for their lengthier namesakes by extending from garboard stringer to garboard stringer (the two longitudinal pieces immediately flanking the keel stringer, or bottom of the boat). At one point, Russell had to further trim some short ribs for a better fit.

"Sometimes," he said. "I do things because I made a mistake."

"So, you're design-building," Kelly observed.

"There's a lot of art involved," Russell reflected a few moments later.

The two soon began talking about history, a conversation that revealed Kelly's chattier, inquisitive side for the first time. After Russell said that he had been reading Andrew Burstein's "The Passions of Andrew Jackson," Kelly mentioned that he had finished biographies of Thomas Jefferson and King Leopold II. He devoured many books while traveling for work, though he said many of the best ones he read came from the college reading list of his son, Dylan, who had attended Maine Maritime Academy. Russell glanced up from the canoe skeleton and met Kelly's eyes. He had taught multiple Maine Maritime students, he said excitedly.

"Wish I had known they had a program like that when I was growing up," Kelly said of the school.

Their conversations persisted as they lashed in the early afternoon. They eventually disassembled the strongback, resting the canoe on sawhorses and inserting the canoe's inwales. These longitudinal pieces run along the interior edges of the boat like rails, stopping just before the boat's tips. (Gunwales are outside of them, followed by rubrails.) Their installation represented the men's greatest struggle to this point in the class. The first inwale didn't reach one of the tips, coming somewhere between 1/64" and 1/128" shy.

"Jesus Christ," Russell said, his voice rising for the first time during class, "I've been doing this well for years."

His measurements before sanding and positioning had been accurate until this moment.

"Well, now we get to make some fillers," he said, shifting to a new plan. With some more glue and a sliver of wood, they plugged the gap.


During the last three days of class, a visitor could have been forgiven for thinking another student had joined. "Poly," the exterior water-based polyurethane Russell and Kelly were using to waterproof the boat, was referenced like an animate being. It certainly required plenty of attention. With long, smooth brushstrokes, Russell and Kelly applied the substance to the wood pieces for extended periods, waiting an hour for it to dry.

When he wasn't applying poly, Kelly worked on side tasks such as assembling the floorboards, a paddle, two taut wicker seats, a thwart (a wood piece that connects the port and starboard sides for more stability) and backrests. One of the backrests was double-sided. Jackie Rines, a former Berkshire School student of Russell's, had created the template for it. Essentially, it allows a solo paddler to reverse the direction he or she would normally face when paddling with someone else without generating a weight imbalance in the boat.

"She ought to have a patent," Russell said of Rines. " ... Without it, we would have to have three separate backrests."

By Thursday morning, the thwart and backrests had been installed. The two were fiddling with the floorboards. A plank was caught on one of the short ribs.

"We could always shorten the floorboards," Russell suggested, ever comfortable exploring a new course.

The two settled on a slightly different placement and were soon covering the boat in an eight-ounce white polyester sheet — the skin. Flipping the boat, they used a staple gun to secure the material to the gunwales and stems. They then cut along the outline of the boat with a soldering iron, ridding themselves of the excess polyester. (To be reused in another capacity, Russell hoped.) Executing this precise work required one of them to pull the material like a shirt over an ironing board to prevent any wrinkles. When they were done, they used a hot gun to shrink the polyester against the wood. In the late-afternoon light, the translucent skin allowed its applicants to admire the woodwork below it.

"Looks nice," Kelly said. "Looks real nice."

Russell had mentioned that he has had at least one student hang it on a wall, never bringing it out to the water.

Kelly, who was already planning to bring the boat on an upcoming trip to Acadia National Park in Maine, had no such designs.

"It's not going to be a wallflower," he said. "It's going to go in the water."

The two finished up late that night, spreading a coat of poly across the entire boat until about 6:15 p.m. (Days typically followed a 9-5 schedule.) In the morning, it was more poly work. The canoe rested on sawhorses in the lawn. With temperatures rising on a steamy Friday, both men wore bucket hats for shade. Kelly, whose wry sense of humor had become increasingly apparent as the week progressed, was also donning a T-shirt with the words "SAWDUST IS MAN GLITTER."

Later that morning, they fixed brass stem bands to each end of the boat, covering staples in the process.

"This is like jewelry," Kelly said.

Russell spent much of the time spectating.

"The last guy who did it this well was a captain in the Navy," Russell said of Kelly's performance throughout the week. He had even let his student work on a wooden paddle. That process usually causes delays.

"He knows what he's doing," Russell said.

They soon began strapping the seats to the floorboards with bungee cord. Russell was struggling.

"I think we're getting to where it's your boat," he quipped, allowing Kelly to take over.

They weighed the vessel using a hanging scale (it was 26 1/2 pounds), tied a hemp rope handle to one end and smeared more poly on the hull before heading to Sheffield's Marketplace Cafe for a late lunch. Throughout the week, Russell and Kelly had primarily dined at a table between the back of the shop and Jenny's garden, chatting about their families and history, among other matters, according to Russell. Kelly hadn't known he would be the only student in Russell's class.

"You're both strangers, but you both have something in common," Kelly said. "I've always had an appreciation for bark canoes."

From the garage, he and Kelly reveled in the school's latest creation leaning on the lawn.

"That's a really pretty boat, if I say so myself," Russell said.

Yet, as the class neared its conclusion, it was clear something more abstract — friendship — had been forged over the past week.

"I'm bad at transitions," Russell confessed toward the end of the day after nudging Kelly to hit the road.

Kelly loaded the nearly 14-foot-long, 30-inch-wide canoe into the back of his pickup.

"You're not going to be going on any high-speed roads, right?" Russell said like a concerned parent to a party-going teen.

Kelly reminded Russell that he would be helping out at the WoodenBoat Show in Mystic at the end of June. A month later, Russell would be meeting more students while teaching a course at Maine's WoodenBoat School, not to mention those who might contact him to schedule classes at the Sheffield shop.

But overseen by a design-builder, the canoes produced in those courses are destined to diverge from Kelly's.

"They're always different," Jenny said, watching her husband's latest student depart.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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