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the Zen of Canoe Building PDF Print E-mail
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Written by JOHN MORTON   
Wednesday, 30 August 2017 18:33

The slow, painstaking, hands-on process of crafting canoes was a far cry from Jim Charewicz’s career as an information technology specialist . . . and that’s why he loves the hobby

Jim Charewicz’s passion for canoes began 45 years ago in a rather humbling manner.
“When I was first married I couldn’t afford a boat but I wanted to go out on the water,” he said. “We lived in Menomonee Falls near a quarry with a small beach and you couldn’t swim out past a little marked-off area. The only way to go out to the middle was in something that floated.”
He knew was a handy guy, so Charewicz bought a $100 canoe-building kit, unpacked it in his basement, spread out his primitive redwood pieces, and got to work.
Eventually, he, his wife Teresa  and 4-year-old son Gregory were paddling out into what felt like paradise in the middle of the Lannon quarry.
“That sure was fun,” said Charewicz, now a resident of Terrace Drive in Port Washington. “I was amazed it could actually float.”
A 15-foot solo kayak came next, now that Charewicz had discovered the value of on-the-water tranquility.
He would later restore it and give it to a friend who had just remarried into a blended family.
“She also needed to get away from it all,” he said.
Charewicz’s  boat-making resume now includes four canoes and a kayak. He has also restored a vintage 1954 12-foot rowboat, a prototype of the first fiberglass types, and later refurbished a friend’s 30-foot sailboat.
So, Charewicz is some sort of carpenter, right?
“No, I was in computer support for 50 years,” he said. “I was an IT guy.
“I worked on my boats at nights and on weekends and it took me about a year to finish one.”
But things have changed.
“I retired three years ago,” he said, “so now I can actually use them.”
Assuming he can find the time. Eager to travel, he and his wife this year went on an Alaskan cruise, visited Yellowstone National Park and just returned from a five-day convertible tour of central Wisconsin’s back roads.
Plus, they spend three months a year in Florida.
Earlier this year, Charewicz and some buddies did take a two-week, 200-mile canoe journey through the Boundary Waters, but they used rentals.
“Mine are too pretty for that,” he chuckled. “I don’t like beating them up. That trip required about 50 portages.”
Instead, he prefers relaxing outings along the Milwaukee River, dropping in out of Mequon or Newburg.
And with some time finally at his disposal, he has recently started construction of a fifth canoe. Without distractions it should take about a month to build, he said, and he hopes to model its shape after his original creation — the redwood classic he has kept all these years and cherishes. He will incorporate the old look with today’s common method of using cedar-strip and fiberglass materials — the manner in which he built his two most recent boats, beginning in 1995.
“I love that canoe so much,” Charewicz said of his 1977 creation. “It’s my favorite to paddle and it goes real straight. It just needs a new canvas.”
His canoes vary in size, the longest being 17-1/2 feet, and range in capacity — one, two and three seats.
He’s been approached to sell them, or take orders, but Charewicz said he’s not interested.
“I don’t want a business. I just want to build canoes,” he said. “It’s a good hobby and helped me relax and get away from computers.”
It’s a mindset he shared years ago with a business associate who came to visit from Germany. Charewicz took him on a canoe ride after a stressful day, and the man was hooked.  
“I helped him build his own from across the world,” he said. “I’d send him instructions (by computer) and coached him, and he’d send me pictures of his progress.”
Another friend asked for Charewicz’s expertise when the friend decided to build an electric-powered boat. The work that went into it has special meaning for Charewicz.
“It was to be 18 feet long, partially decked with two bench seats. He wanted to use the traditional wood and canvas building methods,” Charewicz said.
Twelve-hour days were common during its creation over the course of five years.
“Steaming, cutting, sanding, pounding canoe nails and canvassing,” was the routine, he said.
“We completed the woodworking of the hull just a few weeks before he died of lung cancer,” Charewicz said.
The canoe has since graced the walls of Charewicz’s garage.
As for his time in Florida, the lack of a basement needed for work space doesn’t curtail Charewicz’s woodworking passions.
“I build canoe paddles while I’m there,” he said. “I customized some for my grandchildren and they thought it was pretty neat.”
His advice for someone who wants to take up the canoe-building hobby?
“Make sure you have a good chair in your workshop — something you can sit in comfortably that allows you to think about things. It’s important to take your time,” Charewicz said.
The basics for building go like this, he said:
“Canoe building forms are similar to wood frames used when building a wall in a house. The frames determine the shape of the wall when you add the drywall.
“Canoe forms, or frames, determine the shape of the hull when you add the planks. The forms are mounted on some type of bench to hold them in place. It looks a bit like a skeleton.
“Once all the planks are in place the forms are removed. The planks are covered either with canvas and then paint, or fiberglass and resin. The fiberglass cloth disappears when the resin is applied and you end up seeing the beauty of the cedar wood grain showing through.”
Oh, and quite possibly most important of all,  Charewicz recommends taking precautionary measures — literally.
“Make sure in advance that when you’re done you can get it out of your basement,” he said with a laugh. “From my basement door you can walk straight out, which certainly helps.
“I got lucky.”

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