In the grain: Canoes built by hand hold special magic

The art and science of canoe building serve as quiet relaxation for Davis Lovelace, who's wrought more than a dozen in his time. (Kevin Tate)

The art and science of canoe building serve as quiet relaxation for Davis Lovelace, who’s wrought more than a dozen in his time. (Kevin Tate)

By Kevin Tate
Outdoors Writer

Shaping land’s natural building materials into craft born for water has become a key part of life for one local man.

Davis Lovelace, of the Becker community in Monroe County, has been building boats by hand for more than 20 years. The hobby-turned-side business began when his dad brought home a magazine about wooden boats. The notion that sparked his father’s interest soon infected him as well and, within a week, the two had plans in place, materials in hand and construction underway.

After work, after school, the two began learning the subtleties of the art through hands-on practice while their imagination came to life in ash and cedar. The first craft they turned out taught them a lot. Today that boat still plies its trade, carrying duck hunters over the waves as recently as last season. Many more have followed from the Lovelace boatwright tradition.

When he left his hometown of Jackson for college, his dad continued building boats where they’d started, and today Lovelace carries on the work himself at his home in Becker. The two continue to consult on projects, sharing ideas and solutions, commiserating on problems and enjoying the separate pursuits of their joint hobby.
ties that bind

“One of the greatest things about this passion for canoe building is it has fostered a great love between my father and I,” Lovelace said, “mainly because it wasn’t necessarily something that he taught me how to do, but something that we learned how to do together. We have gotten into arguments with one another, told stories, laughed, cried, bled on and said several bad words to many boats over the years.”

Lovelace, a procurement forester for Enviva Pellets in Amory, spends his days with a company that supplies wood pellets for fuel to much of Europe’s electrical power industry. At night his love of the woods is expressed in the long, graceful lines of craft intended to tap power of another kind.

“I have long thought there’s a ministry there, like the potter and the clay,” Lovelace said. “You’re forcing that wood to do something it doesn’t want to do. You’re molding it against its will. Some people look at a pile of wood and see a woodpile.

We see a boat.

“It can be frustrating. Like anything else worth doing, it comes with pain. It really can test your mental state at times, and you’ll solve problems in your sleep.”

Blueprints for canoes, complete with full-sized transfer pages used to outline forms, are available from a number of sources. The plywood forms are attached at intervals along a strongback, effectively a sawhorse designed to support and steady the upside down outline of a canoe. Lumber that will become the hull is ripped into thin strips, which are then run across a router table to put a cove in one side and a bead on the other so they’ll fit together tongue-and-groove style around the canoe. When all the strips are in place, they’re sanded smooth then covered with a layer of clear fiberglass for protection. The forms are removed, interior parts installed and it’s ready to be put into the water. Protected from the weather when not in use, the boats can last for generations.

Properties that last
“I make heirlooms,” Lovelace says, “something that can be passed down to children or grandchildren.”

Typically he builds the boats to order, incorporating the customer’s ideas and desires as he goes.

“The whole building process is rewarding,” Lovelace said, “but the first time you put one in the water, make the first paddle stroke and feel it ride, it’s like magic.”