Dream Job: Craftsman Boat Builder

The woodworks

If you’ve ever fantasized about what’s like to live next to the water and handcraft wooden boats, meet Josh Swan.

The Wisconsin-based tradesman learned his skill at the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, Rhode Island and perfected his skill in upstate New York, restoring canoes for a small private company and working as a boatbuilder-in-residence at the Adirondack Museum.

Now, Josh operates his own restoration and from-scratch boat building operation in Ashland, which sits along Lake Superior (the largest freshwater lake in the world).

Inspired by our latest Pier 24 Collection, we talked to Swan about how he got into this niche craft, what he's most proud of and his favorite projects.

How did you get into boat building?

I always had an interest in traditional or hand-tooled woodworking. Growing up, I don't know if I watched too many TV shows on woodworking, but after high school, I wanted to find an avenue to explore that a lot more.

I just ended up really falling in love with building boats and working on boats themselves. The rules and the disciplines of it just really appealed to me a lot. It wasn't through a love of sailing, though I did spend time on the water when I was growing up.

Also, when I was in high school I used to listen to a somewhat whimsical, Canadian maritime folk musician called Stan Rogers – that was also a seed that germinated, too. 

What inspires your craft?

A few different things. One of the reasons I like boat building is that both hand tools and slowing things down are still a real practical part of the trade.

I get a real tactile satisfaction in the sense that the process is as important to me as the result. I love being able to use hand tools, listening to the radio and building a boat from scratch.

But there's also a lot of sanding and grinding away and dealing with stuff that's rotten. Restoration is a big part of my business, too. 

What are the challenges of what you do?

It's pretty labor-intensive and, especially with the restoration and repair, there are a lot of unknowns. I have to think, 'How do I make that intersection of new and old so that it's safe for the customer?'

I'm also a one-man shop, so my job does involve wearing a lot of different hats in lots of different roles.

How long does it take to build a boat from scratch?

A typical 16-foot lapstrake rowing skiff with kind of a Chevy finish can take anywhere between 250 and 400 hours. 

Do you have a favorite project?

I like small boats because they feel more accessible to more people because the cost associated with big wooden boats is exponential. 

The boats are always very different, but I love anything that I can build from scratch. 

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