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The Art of Boat Building in Wisconsin

By Olivia Eaker, Wood-Mizer

Joshua Swan Boat in Progress

Located on the beautiful shore of Lake Superior in Wisconsin, woodworker and sawyer Joshua Swan has been building unique wooden boats for more than two decades. 


Joshua Swan Boat in ProgressJoshua Swan Boat in Progress


“It started with my love for being in the woods and visiting mills,” said Joshua. “Initially, I needed my own lumber. It has grown from there.” With the need to mill his own lumber for woodworking projects, Joshua began using a small chainsaw mill but quickly noticed the shortcomings with this type of sawmill. With the wide kerf waste of the chainsaw blade and physical labor demands, Joshua quickly outgrew the chainsaw mill.  


Joshua Swan Sawmill ShedJoshua Swan Sawmill Shed


Joshua purchased a Wood-Mizer LT35 portable sawmill that allowed for easier operation and more flexibility in addition to less waste and more precision sawing with a thin kerf sawmill blade. “I couldn’t do what I do without the flexibility of a Wood-Mizer sawmill,” said Joshua. “I can go from sawing large Tamarack stumps by using the cantilevered head, to sawing cedar logs with all kinds of side bends for planking. It’s incredibly rewarding.”


Joshua Swan LT40Joshua Swan LT40


Equipped with his new sawmill, Joshua set out to build a 14’ Lapstrake rowing dory milled from Northern White Cedar and White Oak. Joshua explained that this rowing dory was lofted out and modified from a 13’ Lawton dory. “It was built almost entirely with local timber including Northern White Cedar planking on White Oak frames, Tamarack stem, transom and quarter knees, and a White Oak transom,” said Joshua. “Fastened with all copper and bronze.” 


Boat PlankingBoat Planking


Upon completion of his rowing dory project, Joshua received praise and support. "Everyone likes to ask questions and make positive comments. It’s part of the fun of it all,” said Joshua. 

Three years ago, Joshua upgraded his sawmill again to a Wood-Mizer LT40WIDE Super Hydraulic portable sawmill. “My favorite tool,” said Joshua. “What a fantastic machine. I largely work alone, and this machine has been refined and tuned for maximum safety and efficiency operating it singlehanded,” said Joshua. 


Joshua Swan Front of BoatJoshua Swan Front of Boat
Joshua Swan 2019 BoatJoshua Swan 2019 Boat

With this new sawmill, Joshua started another outstanding woodworking project and milled his own lumber for a second boat. “I was approached by a customer who wanted a replica of a boat he used as a lifeguard in college on Lake Michigan,” explained Joshua. By referencing historical photos Joshua made a scale model of the boat, which he then used to draw out the full-size plans, a process known as lofting. From there, he made the molds and jigs to build the boat.  “Starting with logs I either harvested myself or purchased, I constructed the building jig and then built the boat around that,” explained Joshua. “The framing (ribs) is all steam bent, and the boat is planked in three layers of cedar, all epoxied together.”     


Joshua Swan Boat PlansJoshua Swan Boat Plans


The 14’ replica Lake Michigan lifeguard rowboat was a 10-month project, but the Wood-Mizer portable sawmill provided the necessary precision needed. “The stem, keel, steam bending framing and transom are all White Oak. The planking is made up of three layers of Northern White Cedar. The gunwales are White Oak, and the interior seats are White Pine. Joshua said all the wood for the entire project came from Wisconsin trees. 


Original Boat PlansOriginal Boat Plans


“The owner couldn’t quite believe I could take photos and turn them into a boat from his youth,” shared Joshua. “When he was able to get in it on the water for the first time, he said it was like stepping back in time. For me, it was incredibly rewarding to build a replica of a Wisconsin workboat entirely out of trees from Wisconsin that I milled into high-quality boat lumber.”  


Joshua Swan Finished BoatJoshua Swan Finished Boat
Joshua Swan Latest BoatJoshua Swan Latest Boat


With more than 10 years of experience in sawmilling, Joshua has expanded his boat business by adding a Wood-Mizer MP260 four-sided planer/moulder and will soon be adding a lumber drying kiln as well. “I am really excited to continue to reduce waste and use as much of the logs I mill as possible,” said Joshua.  


Joshua Swan with SawmillJoshua Swan with Sawmill
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