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Ashland boat builder keeps traditions alive

Josh Swan works in his boat shop. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Public Radio)

While many of the boats Wisconsinites use on the state’s lakes and rivers are made of aluminum or fiberglass, a craftsman in Ashland is keeping an older tradition alive: hand-crafted wooden boats.

Josh Swan builds and restores wooden boats in his workshop, from small canoes to 18-foot-long sailboats. He tailors his building techniques to the needs of Lake Superior and inland lakes, and when possible, uses Wisconsin timber resources.

Swan said he feels that there is an inherent appeal to using wood to create boats.

“Wood feels pretty intuitive to me,” he said. “Minus a couple species globally, it’s naturally buoyant, and so I feel like it makes sense to make a boat out of wood.”

Swan also enjoys planning and building the boats as a mental activity.

“I think people look at them as these real mysterious things because there’s no straight lines,” he said. “It’s a really elegant form of logic, and just feels really intuitive.”

As a teenager, Swan enjoyed woodworking, but his main inspiration was musical.

“I discovered the music of Stan Rogers,” Swan said. “And he was a Canadian folk singer and stuck pretty much to the theme of wooden boats and the Maritime Provinces and life on the water.”

Swan said he wanted to channel the inspiration he felt from those songs of the sea.

“So I moved on out to Newport, Rhode Island, and enrolled in a two-year boatbuilding program with some awfully romantic notions. It’s a little silly when I reflect back on how I got into it,” he said.

Since his time in Rhode Island, he has worked in Norway and New York state, before opening up shop in Ashland. Since then, one of Swan’s most cherished experiences was restoring the Oslo, a boat originally commissioned by the Norwegian royal families in 1925.

“It was a boat that was designed to go really, really fast and be right on the age of failure,” Swan said. “It was very lightly built — very challenging.”

Though wooden boats are a small part of today’s overall boating industry, it’s still a thriving craft, Swan said. He believes that they have their advantages, he said — for example, they can be a more peaceful way to enjoy the water.

“They’re quiet,” Swan said. “If you’ve ever had the experience of being in an aluminum canoe or rowboat, and banging an oar or a paddle against it, it’s really loud. (On) wooden, boats, wood is an insulator. You never get that loud noise.”

Swan said that insulating effect also makes wooden boats a nice way to counteract cold or hot weather.

“On a cold day, they feel really warm to be inside,” he said. “And on a really hot day, there’s really no better place to take a nap than on the inside of a wooden boat. You feel like you’re leaning up against a bench in a sauna.”

Ironically, while Swan owns a few of the boats he’s created, his busy work schedule makes it hard to make use of them on Lake Superior.

“It’s a little frustrating to be so close to the lake and yet not get on it more,” he said.

Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard in the Twin Ports at 91.3 FM or online at