Boats are likely one of the oldest modes of transportation known to man, and they serve many functions – from travel and transport to sport and recreation. But boats are not just utilitarian. They can be beautiful too.
Some of the most beautiful boats are hand-crafted with love and labor. Several of those creators live in North Georgia.
Boats ‘meant to be paddled’
When Chris Romberg wants to get away, he often turns to his cedar-strip canoe.
“I’m just letting it go where it wants to go, but it is very therapeutic to get in and have nobody around,” says Romberg, a Realtor who lives in Gainesville.
But that’s actually how he feels well before the boat ever hits the water – it’s the satisfaction he gets from crafting the custom vessels.
Romberg will head to his shop in downtown Gainesville, in a building that once housed a family business, to add a couple of wood strips to the hull. There’s no clock ticking down to a deadline. The roughly 100 to 120 hours he invests into variations of the cedar-strip technique are spent at his leisure.
What may seem like tedium in scraping excess wood glue or sanding edges of the western red cedar strips is his self-paced escape from the daily rush.
“You get into doing those menial tasks and you can really lose yourself,” Romberg says with a laugh. “It’s nice because you can work on it a little bit and then walk away from it. There’s gratification all through the process.”
He’s working on his eighth canoe, a 16-foot tandem unit that will weigh around 40 pounds. His previous boats were made to sell, given as gifts, used for trades – and some were keepers.
“The ones I do for myself, I don’t get in a hurry,” he says.
Romberg considers what he does as a hobby, though he has registered the Wahoo Creek Canoe name that appears on one of his latest creations in the shop.
“I’d love for it to be a job at some point,” he says, pausing slightly. “But I’m in no rush for that.”
Romberg grew up around his father’s woodworking, but says constructing canoes challenged him to further develop his own skillset.
And have patience.
Amid attaching each wood strip meticulously to curve around the frame that helps create the hull, then sanding it to satisfaction, Romberg says every step requires precision before moving ahead and sealing it in fiberglass cloth using epoxy resin. He even does the caning that makes up the woven pattern on the seats.
The finished product can be a sight to admire, he says, but it’s better seen on Lake Lanier or one of his other favorite waterways in Northeast Georgia.
“There’s nothing like being in a boat you built. There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction,” Romberg says, touting both the beauty and ruggedness of cedar-strip canoes.
“They’re not meant to hang on walls,” he says. “They’re meant to be paddled.”
Handcrafted canoes, a labor of love
“A labor of love” is how Carley Abner, owner of First Mountain Woodcraft, describes his hand-built canoes and kayaks.
Carley and Shirley Abner, both retired from Georgia Power Co., work on the boats in their Habersham County workshop. They build canoes and kayaks primarily from cedar strips, using other woods – sapele, mahogany, western red cedar, Spanish cedar, birdseye maple and oak – for accents.
The wood he chooses “complement each other,” Carley Abner said. “We don’t use any stain to color the wood, just varnish.”
The Abners have even created boats with engraved text, such as Bible verses, down the side.
For that technique, Carley Abner said, “We engrave it in, and then we fill the part that’s engraved with colored epoxy and sawdust. Then we sand it back off, and when you sand it off, the letters pop out.”
Carley Abner said his boats are made to be used in the water, and one of his biggest customers is a man who owns a duck hunting lodge in Mississippi. But some people choose to hang them in a cabin, as well.
Carley Abner has done woodworking “just about all my life,” but he started building boats around 2010.
“I did my first one and sort of fell in love with it,” he said. “They’re fun to build.”
Each boat is coated with a fiberglass weave on the inside and outside.
When asked if she helps her husband create the boats, Shirley Abner said, “Everybody needs a good supervisor.”
Carley Abner disagrees.
“She does [help] quite a bit,” he said. “She does a lot of the sanding and helping me finish them and that kind of stuff.”
The Abners exhibit their boats at about four shows per year, including one in Cashiers, North Carolina, a couple in Blue Ridge, and they’ve won first place three different times at the Georgetown Wooden Boat Show in Georgetown, South Carolina.
While the time to create a boat varies, it generally takes three to four months, because the Abners, in their retirement, take their time with the process. They usually work on one or two boats at a time.
“We can do them faster, but most people aren’t in a big hurry,” Carley Abner said.
With the amount of time it takes to create one of the Abners’ boats, “It’s more a labor of love than it is going after money,” Carley Abner said. “They’re all custom, so we don’t build inventory and keep a bunch of boats. The only ones we try to keep are the ones we’re going to show.
“The Lord’s been good to us,” he added. “When we finish one, somebody will buy another one. … I could probably do four or five at a time, but I don’t want to get where it takes the fun out of it.”
For more information about the Abners’ canoes and kayaks, visit firstmountainwoodcraft.com.
Flat-bottomed pirogues, functional and beautiful
With Louisiana roots, Mike and Jennifer Hennigan of Gainesville, owners of Southern
Moss Creations, primarily create flat-bottomed pirogues, pronounced "pe-rows."
Trees have been important to Mike Hennigan all his life, and he carried that into adulthood, being a forester with the U.S. Forest Service.
“I grew up playing in the woods in South Louisiana, so I made a career out of it," he said.
The Hennigans even used trees in their daughters’ names: Hailey Aspen Hennigan, 18, and Abbigail Leland Hennigan, 8.
Mike Hennigan has done woodworking since he was a child, learning from his father, “an architect turned farmer.”
Jennifer Hennigan said she wasn’t a woodworker growing up, but when Hailey was little, the family wanted something to do together.
“We started doing random outdoor stuff, but we didn’t start making the boats until about 10 years ago,” she said. “It’s was fun, to come home in the afternoon, talk about our day and destress.”
Jennifer Hennigan said it has been good for her children to stay away from screens and instead work with their hands.
“The more we get into the technological age, we lose so much,” she said. “So, it was neat for her (Hailey) to see what all goes into (boat building).”
Hailey Hennigan agrees and said working on the boats with her parents gave her time to talk with them about life.
“I enjoy it,” she said. “I have a lot more time with my parents than people my age do.”
Abbigail Hennigan, who recently joined scouting, said she helps clip pieces together.
The Hennigans create their pirogues primarily from cypress, except for the ribs, which are a Brazilian chestnut.
“I like using a darker wood for the ribs as it provides a nice contrast to the cypress,” Mike Hennigan said. “We could build them out of just about anything, and custom orders are welcome.”
He said he selects wood pieces that will complement each other, and he looks for pieces “with character in them,” such as knots, which he fills with epoxy so they’ll be watertight.
Because the pirogues are flat-bottomed, they're "great for fishing," Mike Hennigan said. "There's been a lot of game brought in in boats just like this. Deer, alligators, catfish, you name it, those boats have brought it in.
"That's what the early Creoles and Cajuns used them for," he added. "They're more of a utility boat than anything, with easy access getting them in and out of the swamps."
Mike Hennigan said they work on their boats slowly, so it takes about six months to finish one. After a boat is formed and sanded, it’s covered “from bow to stern” with fiberglass and epoxy.
Though they are works of art, the boats are made to be used, and owners need to perform the proper maintenance on them, Mike Hennigan said.
"The thing about a wooden boat is, they're a labor of love building them, and they're a labor of love owning them," he said. "If you take it out and use it, you're going to get little scratches on it, there's no doubt about that. But every year or two years, depending on how much you have it out in the sun, you're going to have to refinish it, a light sanding and another coat of varnish."
Mike Hennigan said his boats evoke different emotions in different people. He and his family recently showed their boats at Mule Camp Market in Gainesville.
"We had the old-timers come through, and they wanted to tell you about their youth and how they used these boats down in South Georgia," he said. "We had some people from Louisiana come by, and this is what they grew up in. Then we had people middle-aged come through, and they talked about how they built a boat like that with their grandfather. Hearing that was really awesome."