From firewood to refurbished canoes

Local craftsman’s focus is preserving history

Craig Kitchen uses mainly red cedar wood for planking he gets from Menards but the white cedar he gets from Great Lakes Wood Products.


Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — Chiseled cedar ribs, fainted varnish and a busted stern don’t appear to leave much of an opportunity to set sail in any kind of waters.

However, where some may see rustic wood for a bonfire, local craftsman Craig Kitchen sees a historical story to tell. For the past 10 years, Kitchen has spent his free time saving wooden canoes — that some might call firewood — in order to preserve the rich history.

“Wooden canoes are silent, and that’s one of things that’s so neat about them is that you can paddle the things and critters come right up to the side of the canoe,” Kitchen said. “Paddling a 100-year-old canoe, that’s pretty incredible.”

Craig Kitchen inspects the ribs of his 1915 wooden canoe he is in the middle of restoring. In order to bend the wood into the canoe, Kitchen uses a steamer and places each rib in the steamer for around 45 minutes. The ribs give canoes form. After the steaming process, Kitchen installs them into the wood infrastructure using a clinching iron and tacks. An average canoe has approximately 2,500 tacks.

Kitchen detailed the process of rebuilding a wooden canoe in a presentation entitled “Wooden Canoes — An Historical Restoration Process” Monday at the Marquette Arts and Culture Center, and explained the finer points of canoe construction.

Hosted by the Northern Center for Lifelong Learning, Kitchen explained the finer points of canoe construction as he walked attendees through a slideshow of photographs of previous canoe restorations.

Rebuilding a canoe involves several different operations that require time and perfect execution, he said.

The wood canoe requires a brand new canvas and it must be stretched and stapled onto the structure with delicate precision, Kitchen noted.

Long wood pieces called ribs — which give the canoe shape — are then steamed so they “bend like spaghetti” when you place them into the structure, Kitchen said. This step takes about 45 minutes and Kitchen puts steamed ribs onto a wooden mechanism to hold its shape using wood stoppers until he tacks them into the canoe. But a canoe has around 16 ribs, so the entire process takes about an hour and a half. Certain tools become lifesavers during this three to month restoration process, he added.

Craig Kitchen, Craftsman and Head of UP of MI Chapter of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, examines his 1915 wooden canoe he purchased from a friend and is now in the process of restoring it so he can one day set sail in it. Restoring a historical canoe requires intricate steps such as sanding, staining and re-canvasing it. (Journal photo by Jackie Jahfetson)

“There’s no such thing as too many clamps,” he said as the crowd giggled. “You use clamps like you wouldn’t believe.”

Craig Kitchen moved to Marquette in 1996 from the East Coast because his wife Judy was from Ishpeming, and decided they wanted a change of scenery.

Kitchen said he didn’t have much prior experience in carpentry or woodwork, but he and his wife shared a passion for canoeing and camping.

So, Kitchen began building wood kayaks for 10 years and then started dabbling his hands in restoring wood-canvas canoes and has been doing that for eight to nine years.

“I enjoy paddling them. To me, there’s nothing like getting out into the water and just all that wood and everything around you is incredible,” Kitchen said. “It’s silent, so I enjoy building the canoes. But I enjoy paddling them even more.”

The wooden canoes are much heavier than regular aluminum canoes, but wooden canoes have more historical character that makes them unique, he added.

“There’s a faness to paddling a canoe well and I really like that,” he said. “The canoe is just movable, it’s silent and I just enjoy the art of paddling them.”

The NCLL is a volunteer member-directed organization that plans and provide informational programs and events from tous and field trips, demonstration and hands-on workshops, social events, presentations, outdoor activities and on-going activities.

For more information, visit the NCLL website at nmu.edu/ncll or call 906-227-2979.

Jackie Jahfetson can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is jjahfetson@miningjournal.net.