Out of the woods: Duluth project aims to build boat, sense of community
Shipwright John Finkle has been working with a crew of volunteers for the past 10 months to construct a wooden boat in a downtown Duluth storefront, but the vessel has occupied his imagination for a much longer time.
He recalls singling out a crooked bur oak growing in the woods on a friend's property.
"I saw it four years ago, and I was like — 'Dude, there's the bow of my boat,' " he said.
Now that vessel is nearing completion, the product of a local boat-building initiative that Finkle also hopes will build a stronger sense of community.
Hannah Grunzke, a coordinator for the Duluth Workforce Center's Youth Employment Services program, has placed several young clients under Finkle's direction, to hone their carpentry skills and help construct the boat.
The program is designed to provide work experience for people ages 16 to 24 who face barriers to employment.
"What's cool about John and his project is that most of the youth who have engaged in that work site have stuck with it, and we get a lot of kids who tend to come and go... He has really been able to keep kids coming back. He's usually down there at the shop, and his door is always open. It's a great community resource," Grunzke said.
Keenan Oswald, a 17-year-old Denfeld senior, has been working with Finkle since receiving a referral from the Workforce Center in June. In addition to assisting with the boat, he has joined Finkle on other jobs at other work sites.
"It's such an old style of work and craftsmanship," he said of the boat building. "It's so old and so new to me at the same time."
"It's like opening a dusty old book and discovering what's inside," said Oswald, describing Finkle as a skilled and patient teacher. Oswald said the experience has sharpened his own interest in carpentry as a possible career.
'Part of the tradition'
Finkle described the utilitarian four-oar Norwegian faering he and his crew are building at 134 W. First St. as "basically the Norwegian pickup truck of boats." The vessel is just shy of 19 feet long, and has been constructed almost exclusively with hand tools, save for several cedar boards procured from a local mill.
To make sure the faering was constructed in an authentic manner, Finkle returned to the land of his ancestors.
"I've built many small craft, but I always wanted to do a lap-strake double-ended faering, and so I went back to Norway last fall," he said.
The trip helped him tackle one particular challenge, namely: How to properly fashion the garboard — the tricky first set of strakes or planks laid along the keel of a boat. Those planks must be curved precisely to form the lines of the boat's prow.
Upon his return to Duluth, Finkle and his helpers harvested trees and limbs from the woods of supportive landowners. They also salvaged materials from the destructive windstorm of July 2016.
They worked with a keen eye toward the shape of the parts they would need, taking advantage of the strength of natural growth.
"That's part of the tradition — looking for all those natural curves," Finkle said.
Finkle has pulled together an eclectic assortment of volunteers, both young and old, to work on the faering since the project began last December.
"A lot of it's about the boat, but what's the most fun and magical thing about this entire project is that we're building a boat in downtown Duluth, and we have the doors open, so we get a lot of people coming through, including a lot of local kids that are on the street who are interested in working on this. So they keep coming back and volunteering," Finkle said.
He estimated that more than 100 people have worked on the boat, to date.
"We're learning together and seeing something positive being built and put together with many hands," Finkle said.
Some volunteers are at first a bit intimidated by the task of building from scratch with only hand tools, but Finkle insists that inexperience is no barrier.
"The tools and the wood might be difficult to approach initially, but things kick in, and people just kind of get it after a while. It's a different pace. That's kind of the tricky thing, is that it's slower. But it sounds good and it smells good," he said.
A variety of fragrant woods, including tamarack, cedar, black spruce and Norway pine, are incorporated into the boat.
Finkle's steady partner in the project, Justin Anderson, has inscribed the oak keel of the boat with Nordic runes.
The strakes are held in place with the help of pre-1981 pennies peened together with 4-gauge copper wire.
"The copper is nice, because it's not going to rust and it looks good," Finkle said. "It's really a very traditional rove-and-rivet system, where we make a rivet, we drive it through and then another penny goes on the other side. It draws it together and holds it together, but it also allows for some flexibility."
In all, the project will consume about 1,000 pennies — $10 worth of coins.
The Duluth Fiber Handcrafters Guild also has been involved in the project, working to produce an authentic Norwegian batrya — a useful piece of tightly-woven wool that can be used as anything from a blanket to a rain shelter. The piece of traditional fabric begins as raw wool colored with natural dyes, such as those made from hawkweed, dogbane and birch leaves.
Bruce Engebretson, a handweaver from Osage, Minn., set Finkle up with a loom from the 1800s.
"I like to find good homes for old looms," said Engebretson, an avid collector of pre-industrial weaving equipment.
When Engebretson learned of Finkle's boatbuilding project, he said he was most impressed by the collective nature of the endeavor
"John is a miracle worker," he said. "The phenomenal thing is that this is happening with people from the general community doing the work. It's not just a bunch of expert boat builders and woodworkers involved."
The faering is nearing completion, but Finkle acknowledged that nothing about the project has moved very quickly. He has learned to savor the experience of building the boat.
"It will take as long as it takes. Our main mission is to share this experience with others," he said
That being said, Finkle remains eager to get the boat in the water.
"Even if we have to cut a hole in the ice, we plan to launch it this year," he said.
Finkle is determined that the first faering will not be the last to be built in Duluth. He aims to launch an ongoing urban boat-building initiative.
"As soon as this boat is done and out of the cradle, I want to build another one right away. I've been getting the wood set up for the next one," he said.