First wooden boat building course comes to Little Rock

January 14-20, 2019

By Becca Bona


“There is nothing you could be more proud of than taking the boat that you built to the water and putting it out on its maiden voyage only to realize it floats,” says Buddy Ellis. What Ellis speaks of is known as the ‘boat-building bug’ among enthusiasts. 


And while building a working watercraft might sound intimidating or out of reach, two local Little Rock companies are bringing a series of workshops focusing on this skill to those who are interested. Rock Town River Outfitters (RTRO) – Little Rock’s kayak and bike rental agency – is teaming up with Little Rock Boat Builder Supply to make this workshop happen. 


Samuel Ellis, owner at RTRO, has always had a love for the water. He and his dad, Buddy Ellis, built their first wooden boat a little over seven years ago. “Sam has always been fascinated with the river. The rivers are a part of Little Rock and Arkansas – a part of the scenery,” says Buddy. “We just don’t realize what beautiful natural lands we have across the state.” 


The two have since attended classes at the Wooden Boat School in Brooklyn, Maine as well as Chesapeake light Craft in Annapolis, Maryland, gaining knowledge and experience. While boat building might sound strange to Little Rock locals, it has a history in the northeast and is still alive and well there. 


Thanks to social media, Sam and Buddy were able to team up with Greg Johnson, owner of Little Rock Boat Builder Supply. Johnson began his company a little over a year ago, and brings ample experience in wood working to the table. In fact, the featured boat in the inaugural workshop is of his design. 


“I have had an interest in boats since I was young. I’m from a family of artists,” Johnson says. He spent many years building cabinets and working with wood in a way that he says began to be boring for him. Building boats is something else entirely – and he himself has been to boat building school more than a few times. 


“If you build enough square objects, you want to build something with shape and character,” says Johnson. “Boats have almost a feminine quality that just draws you to them.”


Materials: Why chose wood? 


In the land of duck boating and water skiing along many of Arkansas’s waterways and lakes, wooden boats aren’t the norm. 


Buddy thinks it’s only a matter of time, however, “I think this might be the next big hit. I think the options are limitless – it’s important right now to get the word out to the immediate area.”


Many might not know that fiber glass boats are the easiest, cheapest thing a manufacturer can make – and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it elevates wooden boats a bit. These boats take time, but when properly maintained, are an excellent, sturdy choice for a vessel. 


Think of it this way – wooden boats have been around for thousands of years, and quite notably so. But it can be intimidating to properly do it yourself when it comes to building one. 


For instance, people tend to be intimidated by processes involved with the building, including wood steaming – which helps define shape in the wood. 


“We’re going to show the class a few little things,” says Johnson. “We’re not going to get too deep into the steam bending, but we will demonstrate that this is a way you can fashion something to make it a little easier.” 


When Buddy and Sam first built a boat, they just worked with a straight piece of wood, forcing it to bend. “They broke several of them,” says Johnson, “and it’s just not necessary to do it that way – it’s so simple to steam. But the stigma is oh, steaming wood, that sounds complicated.”


As far as structure goes, wooden canoes are better made with a particular type of wood, which is important for upkeep and staying power. 


“Canoes are different, they’re very different,” says Johnson. “We are using a green plywood, which is sort of like a mahogany or in that family of wood. It is an imported plywood made with consistent veneers – all the veneers have to be perfect. There are also no voids in the plywood, and the glues in it are water proof – versus the stuff you build your house out of or furniture is not.”


The wood is also extremely lightweight which is a good quality for a vessel the size that the team plans on theirs being – nearly 16 feet. 


Sam, Buddy and Greg have been at the RTRO River Market location throughout the holidays, demonstrating how to put together the wooden boat. They fondly refer to the one on display as the Rock Town 16, and it comes in at 15.5 feet long and weights slightly less than 50 pounds.


With the right upkeep, this boat will be, as Buddy says, “bullet-proof.” 


Why build a canoe?


“What guy doesn’t want to build a boat? It’s the most human natural thing,” says Buddy. “The wooden boat industry is about how cool it is to build your own boat that you get to launch. You have to see it happening to really get it.”


The inaugural canoe building workshop is currently underway, but a secondary, February workshop has been set up to capture those interested who didn’t get into the first class. 


A lot of the building will take place at the Little Rock Boat Builder’s space, which is fully equipped with everything you might need to build a boat. 


Classes are one week long, from Feb. 6 – 11, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. The complete build (without finish) will come in at $2225, including an $800 tuition for class and $1425 for the materials. 


“I think of the class as a way to make it so that you can come out with a finished – well-built product. And what’s more, it doesn’t sit out half-built in the garage for four years,” says Sam. “That way you come in and dedicate five days and about 48 hours to put it together, but when you’re done, you’re done.”


Plus, you can have one person help you, without any added cost. 


Beyond forging new relationships, working with other local companies to bring Little Rockers closer to the water, Sam wanted to capture the experience he had with his own dad when he built his first boat – and share it with others. “I wanted to promote that togetherness – bring your son, bring your wife, bring your father,” he says. 


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From steam bending the wood to applying the proper epoxy and fiberglass layers, workshop participants will leave with a complete, ready-to-go watercraft – minus the finishing layer.

RTRO and Little Rock Boat Builder Supply will be teaming up throughout the year to offer more workshops like this. Follow their social media to keep informed. (Photos by Becca Bona)