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Floating His Boats

Plainwell man creates custom wooden watercraft
encore-magazine-cary-mannaberg-boat-builder-plainwell-shop-july-2019
Cary Mannaberg stands amid the many watercraft he’s building or restoring in his Plainwell shop.

© 2019 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

Cary Mannaberg can generally be found in one of two places: on a Southwest Michigan waterway paddling a canoe or kayak or rowing a boat, or inside his shop, Gun River Wooden Watercraft in Plainwell, building and restoring wooden watercraft. Which begs the question: Exactly how many seaworthy vessels does a boatbuilder have at his disposal at any given time?

“A lot,” admits the 61-year-old Mannaberg, chuckling and shaking his head.

In 2014, Mannaberg launched Gun Lake Wooden Watercraft after retiring from Kentwood Public Schools, where he taught wood shop, drafting and electrical engineering. He enjoyed teaching and engineering — a subject he urged students to consider studying in college. But that could be a tough sell.

“It’s really hard to get kids into engineering,” Mannaberg says. “Everyone says, ‘It’s so hard …’" He shrugs and adds, “Yeah, so what’s wrong with too hard?”

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Learning to build boats

Some likely consider his post-retirement career building canoes and wooden boats as mind-boggling as engineering. People often wonder how you even start building a canoe, he says. His occupation was a hobby until 10 years ago, when he attended a weeklong class, “Building the King Fisher Canoe,” at WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine.

“I wanted to have my students build a canoe, which we never actually did,” he says.

But taking the class wasn’t for naught. Mannaberg discovered his retirement dream: building wooden watercraft. During that week at WoodenBoat School, eight to 10 students worked from morning to night, constructing two canoes. Theorizing about boat design never happened, Mannaberg says, because the instructor wanted students to dive right in.

“He already had the mold ready and had the cedar cut,” Mannaberg says. “(The instructor said,) ‘OK, today we’re going to steam the wood’ — and the steamer was already hot.”

Last month Mannaberg returned to WoodenBoat School for a two-week course called “Fundamentals of Boatbuilding.” He calls it “camp for adults.”

“You sleep out there in tents,” Mannaberg says. “You hang out with guys that all love boatbuilding (and have) different skill levels.”

Someday he might incorporate elements of wood carving into his watercraft, he says. To that end, Mannaberg has taken wood carving classes with Washington State-based artist and wood carver David Franklin. Though not of Native American descent, Franklin teaches Northwest Coast native woodcarving techniques. In class, Mannaberg carved a totem pole that features a bear and an eagle and also learned how to make Native American carving tools.

Holding up one of those tools, he says, “It’s a crooked knife. The way David carves (a piece) is it sits in his lap, and he carves like that instead of with a hammer and chisel.”

What Mannaberg enjoys most about building wooden watercraft — being creative — also presents the most challenge. Every day is a puzzle, he notes. One of his instructors gave this advice to students: Get a moaning chair. “Because you sit down and you just start moaning, ‘How do I get this piece to fit?’”

An extension of his hobbies

Mannaberg fell in love with Michigan’s waterways long before he began building wooden boats. In 1986, he moved from Newark, New Jersey, to take a job as a teacher at the State Technical Institute (now called the Michigan Career & Technical Institute) in Plainwell, which is on the shores of Pine Lake. He was astounded at Michigan’s recreational opportunities.

“Look at all the hiking and water!” Mannaberg says he remembers thinking.

He joined Kalamazoo Downstreamers, a 50-year-old organization that promotes fellowship among canoe lovers and organizes canoe trips, meetings and instructional clinics. The club knows river locations, where to put in, where to take out and how to run shuttles, he says.

Building his own wooden canoe was a natural extension of other hobbies he had: building furniture and, before that, constructing train sets. His architect father, Walter Mannaberg, possessed a passion for model trains, and Mannaberg started building things at a young age. If Mannaberg’s father saw something interesting for the set — like a train station — he would take a picture, draw the plans and then make a scale model. Mannaberg helped in any way his father wanted assistance. Working on the train set with his father allowed Mannaberg to develop proficiencies he uses today: attention to detail and artistry.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a model train or a full-size train station,” he says. “Attention to detail is a great skill.”

Skiffs, paddleboards and … yoga?

So far, Mannaberg has built five boats, including canoes and kayaks, for himself and to sell. He will build wooden watercraft for customers and can modify some designs to suit a customer’s needs.

He considers the lapstrake the most difficult boat to construct. In a lapstrake, the edges of the boat’s hull planks overlap each other. A Viking longship used this design. A lapstrake takes the longest to construct of any wooden boat he’s built, Mannaberg says, because it requires getting each board shaped precisely to match the next one.

He has also constructed wood-and-canvas canoes, which are similar to Native American birchbark canoes. These canoes he makes feature cedar ribs and planks, but, instead of being wrapped with birchbark, they are wrapped with canvas on the outside and then painted.

“You make a special paint and you rub it in with your hands,” Mannaberg explains, “and then after it’s dried (which takes a month) you sand it so it doesn’t look like canvas anymore.”

Mannaberg is currently working on a 17-foot canvas canoe for a customer. Canvas canoes are typically 16 or 17 feet long, he says, although historically they have been as short as 10 feet, allowing a smaller person to go on a solo canoe trip and easily carry the canoe.

“Of course, they (boatbuilders) make huge ones for people who go out moose hunting or something,” he says. “It’s very flexible what size you can make.”

Mannaberg also builds cedar-strip kayaks and canoes, cutting cedar into strips and gluing the strips together to form the sides of the hull. Mannaberg can glue only four strips at a time on each side and then has to let the glue dry overnight.

“That’s why there’s a lot of projects going on,” he says.

Customers also hire Mannaberg to restore watercraft. He points to a 1950s-era rowboat positioned on sawhorses that was the customer’s grandfather’s fishing boat.

“In the ’50s, those type of kit boats were very popular,” he says. “A truck would pull up and drop off all of the wood.”

Besides rowboats, canoes and kayaks, Mannaberg also constructs skiffs and paddleboards. In 2015, he heard about a paddleboard yoga class in Plainwell and thought it might provide an opportunity to sell watercraft to students. The class sold him on yoga instead.

Mannaberg joined the class, where students would paddle out to the middle of a lake, set anchor and perform yoga poses. Mannaberg learned poses like the tree pose, which proved extremely difficult on a paddleboard. Some students even performed handstands on the paddleboards. Not Mannaberg.

He laughs and says, “I can’t do a handstand against the wall.”

When asked to name his favorite vessel to build, Mannaberg shakes his head. “I like them all,” he says.

But there is one type of boat he hopes to build someday: a drift boat. It’s somewhat like a rowboat, he explains, but it’s designed for fly fishing on a river. It has a wide, flat bottom, with no keel so it can spin easily, and flared sides. And because of its flat bow and pointed stern, it can look as if the boat is traveling backwards.

Mannaberg is not a fly fisherman. His interest lies solely in constructing a drift boat. “It looks really cool,” he says.

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In the Details

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a model train or a full-size train station, attention to detail is a great skill.”

Cary Mannaberg, Gun River Wooden Watercraft