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Canoe-making workshop shows students patience, precision

by KEITH UHLIG Daily Herald Media on May 13, 2014 11:00 AM

MERRILL, Wis. — Prairie River Middle School teacher Mark Pugh didn’t know what to expect last school year when he started hanging posters around the school, inviting students to participate in a wooden canoe-making workshop.

For the past several summers, Pugh, a technical-education instructor at the school, has been trekking to Brooklin, Maine, to attend courses at the WoodenBoat School, a prestigious program that teaches niche skills related to the art of wooden boat-building and repair. While taking courses, Pugh came down with the wooden-boat bug, a peculiar malady that transforms an otherwise normal person into a special kind of watercraft obsessive.

“I kind of went out there on a whim,” Pugh, 54, said. “And I found that I really, really like wooden boats.”

[PHOTO: In a Thursday, May 1, 2014 photo, technical ed teacher Mark Pugh, left, tutors Justin Tousignant, 14, as he builds his wood canoe, at Prairie River Middle School in Merrill, Wis. (AP Photo/The Wausau Daily Herald, T'xer Zhon Kha)]

The wooden-boat bug is infectious, and Pugh decided that maybe students could catch it, too. So he decided to set up an informal after-school activity, in which he would donate his time and expertise to middle-schoolers who also might be susceptible. He offered space in the school’s large wood shop, and all he asked was that students pay for their own materials and be willing to learn and work.

Pugh started it in the 2012-13 school year. Four boys signed up; three finished their canoes last May. One student, Justin Tousignant, 14, now a freshman at Merrill High School, got a late start and still is working on his boat after school, between golf and football and other teen activities.

Chrissy Doering, 13, an eighth-grader at the school, likes to work with wood and tools, so she signed up earlier this school year. Doering’s family doesn’t have storage room for a wood canoe, so she’s building a canoe-shaped wooden shelf for her mother.

“That’s a complicated project,” Pugh said. “She’s learning a lot of the same things the boys did.”

Tousignant thinks he might pursue a career in the medical field, but he plans to spend plenty of time on the water, too, as he gets older.

“I like fishing and going around with boats,” Tousignant said. “I thought it would be cool to build one.”

Pugh uses the most simple, least-expensive canoe-building plans he could find. “The designer calls them ‘Six-Hour Canoes,’” Pugh said. “We’ve found that they take a lot longer than that.”

Pugh estimates that Tousignant likely has spent about 70 hours on his canoe and now is nearing the end of the project. He was rounding out the sharp edges on his craft last week, using a small block plane that once was used by Pugh’s grandfather — a treasured heirloom for someone who works with wood.

“Take care of that,” Pugh advised the teen.

It’s appropriate that Pugh would lend out his grandfather’s plane. One reason the canoes take so long to build is that they require detail-oriented woodworking, much of it with hand tools used by carpenters and boatwrights for generations.

“The block plane is your friend,” Pugh said.

Pugh is teaching the students the practical skills they need to build a boat, including using hand and power tools and making precise measurements. But the deeper lessons they learn come from the simple tedium of much of the work, Pugh said.

The students are being raised in a “need-it-now” society, and building canoes requires patience and determination. But the payoff comes when the students take their boats home.

Tousignant said the project was frustrating at first, but now that he can see the end approaching, “it’s a lot easier.” For him, final satisfaction will come when he’s paddling the boat around.

The wooden-boat bug hasn’t bitten Tousignant as hard as it has his teacher. For him, building the boat is an exercise in skill and a chance to build something that he’ll be able to use himself. And it’s taught him resilience.

But for Pugh, working on a wooden boat is like working on a piece of art. The students’ canoes, he said, are made from the least-expensive marine-grade plywood, but the grain will pop through the paint when they’re completed. And they’ll handle better — flex more — than an aluminum canoe. They’ll be more rugged than a carbon fiber boat, which can easily crack if dropped.

“Wood boats, there’s just something about them,” Pugh said. “A wood motorboat, for example, will handle much better than a stiff aluminum or fiberglass craft.”

And then there’s pride in the work. “All these nails had to be hammered in,” Pugh said, pointing to rows of copper nails lining the top of the canoe. “I made the kids drill pilot holes for each one.”

Pugh is finding a different kind of fulfillment from the project. He’s nearing retirement — he plans to segue into a new business, building and restoring old wooden boats — and the project has been keeping him fresh as a teacher.

“If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “It’s been great for the school and the kids.”

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