The unique system of waterways is one of the key features of Southern Appalachia’s geography. For generations, natives have looked at the water as a tool, a source of food, and a general center of life. In order to fully utilize and take advantage of the resources available through the water, generations of carpenters and craftsmen have created boats, rafts, canoes, and kayaks from the resources around them. In this episode, we explore Celton and Jayton’s SEED Project regarding the traditional methods of boat construction and the modern methods through which they have updated the historic craft. Listen and read along to this week’s episode of “It Still Lives: The Foxfire Podcast” as we find out why these two are not afraid of Rocking the Boat.
Madi: Hello again! It’s Madi Perdue, back with “It Still Lives: The Foxfire Podcast.” Today, we will be adding yet another episode to our SEED series as we follow along with the Foxfire Fellows on their journeys through learning and creation. As always, please remember to consider the theme throughout this series: how tradition finds a new generation. Today’s episode will follow Jayton and Celton’s journey as they focus on creating a functional boat through traditional methods of construction. Without further ado, let’s get started.
The evolution of watercraft has yielded greatly varied products over time. From Cherokee dugout canoes and reed rafts to primitive kayaks for navigating mountain rivers and streams to modern speedboats and pontoons, the art of boatbuilding has undoubtedly affected the course of history and human activities for centuries. While there are several methods of boatbuilding, each dependent upon the desired outcome, let’s explore a little more into the steps of building Jayton and Celton’s specific boat. This is a brief guide to boatbuilding according to the guys:
Step 1: Find the square footage of the boards you’re going to need to construct your boat. Since most wooden boats are constructed from planks, it is important to make sure the total area of the wood you plan to use for your boat is enough to cover the bottom and both sides of the boat once the planks have been warped to form the rounded shape. It is also important to find the correct type of wood for the boat you intend to build based on the density and expense.
Step 2: You can either purchase or collect the lumber you intend to use. Purchased lumber may prove less costly in terms of the time necessary to craft the wood, but it may also be extremely dry and chemically treated, therefore making the rest of the process more taxing.
Step 3: In order to make sure the wood is of the right thickness, you will need to plane it. While this process can be done by hand, modern planing machines ensure smoother and more consistent finishes. The thickness to which the wood will need to be planed is up to the carpenter.
Step 4: Cut out and measure the design you have in mind for your boat. Make sure you have all of the necessary pieces and that they are all of the correct sizes.
Step 5: Where a hand saw would have been the traditional method for ripping (or cutting boards in half to thin them and produce more boards), the boys used a table saw to make the job a little more efficient.
Step 6: Once all the boards have been cut, planed, and ripped, cut your stringers — the ribs of the boat — and lay them out flat. Put the boards for the bottom of the boat over the stringers to your desired length and width. Make sure to space them evenly and ensure that you have enough stringers to run the entire length of the boat.
Step 7: Secure the planks for the bottom of the boat over the stringers using an adhesive of some kind. Modernly, waterproof wood glue will do the trick; however, traditional methods would have included the use of resins and saps, wood pegs, or similar methods of fastening the boards to the frame. Once the bottom is attached to the stringers, attach the sides and back in a similar manner.
Step 8: Set the sides down on the bottom of the boat. Bend the sides to create a point in the front, and then nail the sides into the bottom boards, angling them towards the point in the front. Once the sides have been fully nailed down, nail the point together in the front, bringing the sides together. Add any necessary supports inside the boat to stabilize the sides at this point.
Step 9: Line up the panel for the back of the boat with the sides and the bottom. Just like with the sides, attach the back to the bottom first and then to the sides.
Step 10: Sand down the inside of the boat and seal any holes to ensure the boat will be air (and water) tight. Modern materials can include caulk and other sealants while traditional methods, again, would have been comprised mostly of plant derivatives such as saps or resins. In a final (and more modern) step, Celton and Jayton used a wood primer to seal and finish the boat. A similar traditional practice would have been to seal the wood for waterproofing purposes with tar.
As you can see, boatbuilding methods have changed and become more time-efficient over the years, but the basic craft remains the same: a time-honored art form vital to human excellence for centuries past and centuries to come. With that, let’s hear some insights from Celton and Jayton themselves.
Celton: I’m Celton, and I go to Rabun County. I am 15 years old. I play 3 different sports, and if I stay in all the extracurricular activities that I do in school now, I’ll be the only person in the recorded history of Rabun County Schools to letter in 4 different things, which I will be very proud of. I like the outdoors. My heritage skill is blacksmithing, and I have already done carpentry while I’m taking two engineering and manufacturing classes, which is woodworking and technological building. So, I think it’d be good to have a different skill to learn.
Jayton: I’m Jayton, and I go to Rabun County. I’m 16. I play for Rabun County’s basketball team. I like the outdoors, and it’s just more of being able to go out and like do stuff because most people can’t go outside and know what they’re looking at and know what they’re doing and being able to be here, and after living here for a while, I am able to go out there and look at all these different kinds of plants and which ones are poisonous and which ones you can eat. It’s just good to be able to come out and know what you are doing out here.
Celton: I did the same thing; I did blacksmithing. And I just thought it would be cool to learn something new and something that I could use. Like, if I needed to make something or if I needed something that I know I could make from blacksmithing, it would be a lot easier to go and buy it. Math is a big thing for me. I actually want to be a math teacher when I grow up, and by using math, I am able to find the buoyancy formula for the boat to make sure that it stays afloat, and the wood and stuff too to be the right length that we need it to be.
Madi: So can y’all explain to me what it is you are going to be studying?
Celton: Well, our SEED project is to build a boat based on the traditional practices of our ancestors that lived in the mountains here—just to learn about how they did it and how anyone our age can still do it. We have a friend that is doing another project that will be using our boat to fish in the waterways and talk about how the waterways have changed throughout history.
Madi: So this is a kind of niche project, so what really inspired you to pursue this project, in particular?
Celton: Just the fact that my dad, and his uncle, is a carpenter, and he’s been working on boats for 40 plus years. And, he’ll be a great help to us, and I think it would just be fun to learn what he does for a living for a day.
Madi: So, I know y’all have some pretty significant background knowledge on this topic. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Celton: A lot of carpentry work, and some blacksmithing that we’ve learned so far, and I reckon that’s about it, for now. That’ll be really helpful, but I think we’ll definitely need to learn a little bit more about it. The rest of our family has been around for at least 60 plus odd years, and they all had to go fishing and hunting before machinery was widely used and boating was alive. So, they all know a good bit about boating and how to build it.
Madi: What do y’all hope to see as the final product of your project?
Celton: Well, I think the result we’re looking for is something that actually floats and can hold the two people that are going to be fishing off of our boat for their project.
Madi: So, do you think that’s going to be difficult to achieve?
Celton: No, not exactly since we can use modern tools that we have now and some of the tools that they have from the historical point. I’d think it’d be pretty easy to get it to float and get it to carry the people we need to.
Madi: So, other than the boat itself, are you going to be constructing anything else?
Celton: We are making paddles and paddle holders on the side of the boat.
Jayton: And we’ll be using our blacksmithing to make the paddle holders. We’re gonna be making a guide for the canoe that we’re gonna be making. That means like step one, step two, step three. We’re gonna be doing the wood that we’re gonna be using, what size wood that you’re gonna be needing, the different things that you’re gonna need like a steamer to bend the wood to shape it the way you want it.
Celton: We’ll have pictures involved, so you can see what it looks like step by step to see if you’re doing it correctly or incorrectly.
Madi: What sorts of research and resources and people are you going to be using to do your research for your project?
Celton: Well, we’re using people that are well-trained in building boats and that have done it for a lifetime and for a living. And we’ll be using just some flexible but solid and hard-to-break wood, some sealants like putty and silicone, just something that will keep the water out of the boat and make sure it stays afloat.
Madi: What type of wood are you going to be using for your boat? And also, what type of wood are you gonna be using for your paddles?
Celton: Well, we’re using cedar and red cherry wood. The cherry wood is for the paddles because it’s much denser and heavier wood, so it will be easier to cut through the water with it and pull yourself along. And the cedar is a lighter, more flexible wood, that we can use to bend for the boat shape and for the ribs of the boat, and it will be very light and very floatatious (sic).
Madi: So, since you’re building this boat from scratch, how are you going about making up a blueprint for it and making sure you have all the right materials and all the right measurements and everything?
Celton: Well, I’m doing a step-by-step, like one picture of the ribs, each one set a certain inch or footage apart, and one set for the outside, the shell of the boat, which is showing like how far apart you want the wood or how close together you want it.
Madi: What do you personally hope to gain from this whole experience?
Celton: Personally, I’d like to gain just the know-how to build a boat or to build anything along the lines that would help me survive in the wild, or if I lost power, or if I need anything to survive.
Madi: So, aside from the end goal, are there any other skills that you maybe hope to pick up along the way?
Celton: Carpentry, and a deeper understanding of carpentry and weaving. Well, you can always have a tie-down around the rim of the boat, and you can put a string around it that you can tie off, so you don’t get lost, or so that the boat doesn’t float off.
Madi: So, aside from the end goal, are there any other skills that you maybe hope to pick up along the way?
Jayton: I’d like to learn a lot more about blacksmithing and being able to build stuff that I can use, not just on the project, but at home. I mean, that goes down to making nails that I would need, or even making forks or spoons.
Madi: So, what are your preparations and steps leading up to the completion of your project going to look like?
Celton: Well, I definitely would like to have the blueprints, before I even think about getting the wood to start building the boat, and once we actually have the blueprints, I’d start thinking about the board footage and the wood that we need to start building and then start bending and steaming the wood to our desired arch and angle and then just make the ribs to put in the inside and finish building the boat, putty up all the sides that might have leaks.
Madi: Are you planning on having any tests or trial runs before the completion of your project?
Celton: Definitely. We have lots of rivers by our house, and we live right by the handle lakes, so anytime we need to we can take it to the dock at the lake and just drop it off and go for a test run.
Celton: If it sinks, it’s shallow, so we can get it, we can get it out.
Jayton: But, we want to first use it on a pond though, because of the fact that the water is not moving, that’ll make it a lot easier to get out.
Celton: Our uncle does have a pond that we can use to test it.
Jayton: So, after that, if it survives the pond, then we’ll take it to rougher waters on the river, and then the lake.
Madi: What most excites you about this experience as a whole?
Celton: Just the fact that we get to learn something new and that it would be really fun to have a boat. And it would be nice to have a legacy in Foxfire, and if we could leave the boat here, it would be a great part of it.
Jayton: Leave a lasting story of because there’s probably not gonna be a lot of people that build a boat and that are able to get it complete, and if we are able to do that, we’ll be probably one of the first, and be the only ones to do it, and that’s probably gonna be here forever.
Madi: Can you explain to me some of the historical implications of your project and some of the history behind boatbuilding?
Jayton: Well, we’re doing it on what it was like in the past and what it is kinda like now and looking from what we have now to then. Because then really all you had was you had to go get all the woods and have to do that yourself, cutting down all the trees, you’d have to do the work by hand, that means steaming that wood and waiting to be able to bend it. And as it progressed, you go from kind of like kayaks to canoes holding more people, from what a kayak you could only hold one person, and then you get boats. Further up the line, where you’re fitting two people but it’s going faster. And then as it progresses and evolves, you would get engines and propellers that would push you without manual labor. You wouldn’t have to use paddles or anything. It was kinda just the engine, and that’s where we are now, so-
Madi: What impact do you hope to make through your project’s completion?
Celton: Well, I hope to make a lasting impact, and one that is seen as a very helpful impact throughout the years, and that it teaches future generations and even our generation that anyone can do whatever they set their minds to, and that it’s not just set in the past.
Madi: I know you guys are pretty passionate about this project, so what really fuels your passion for boatbuilding and carpentry?
Celton: Okay, well, we’re very into it because well, our entire family has had a long line of boatbuilding, and we’re all used to it, and we’ve had some form of interaction with boats our entire life. And it’s a dying art, that the—old-time boatbuilding—and that the ways that people made boats, it’s… not a lot of people know how to do it anymore. And it’d be great to get the future generations to read this article or listen to the podcast and just learn from it and just figure out how to bring back dying arts. And it’s a fun hobby to do for many people.
Madi: Are there a lot of boat builders in this area?
Celton: In Rabun County, yes, because there’s two different lakes that are in Clayton: Lake Rabun and Lake Burton. And I live three minutes away from Lake Burton, and lots of people down my road and throughout the highway are boat builders or at least own a boat. They know a lot about it.
Madi: To y’all, what makes boat building, carpentry, and construction—what makes those things art forms?
Celton: Well, it’s very meaningful to have and the fact that carpentry is a big part of architecture and how houses are made and that if you don’t have carpentry you won’t have a stable house or lake houses. They won’t be stable at all. Boat docks, you won’t have those.They are all made by carpenters that have years of experience in carpentry, and it’s been declining rapidly ever since the start of the twentieth century. There’s less and less people wanting to do it, and I think that doing this would shine some light on future generations to try it, see if they like it, and see if they could make a job out of it.
Madi: How do you think history would have been different thus far if carpentry hadn’t been preserved so well in the past?
Celton: Well, it’s very valuable to most people. It’d be good to learn, and I mean, if you have a broken ceiling in your house, broken chairs, broken tables, it’d be good to know how to fix those and instead of going and spending 200 dollars on a new table, you can fix it yourself by finding the same kind of wood, sanding it down, fixing it up, and just making a new table out of it, or anything else you might need.
Madi: So, how would history have been different up to this point had carpentry not really been preserved thus far?
Celton: Well, I mean, it’s a big factor in houses and even boats that are being used now. I mean, the kayaks you see at Walmart, they’re based off of something from historical books or any type of memories that people have of boats; they’re all based off of that. And if you didn’t have that, there would be no speed boats, no pontoons, anything you could ride on the lake with, or houses, you couldn’t build houses if it wasn’t preserved. You’d have to go off of just straight architecture and forging skills, which is a lot harder than just building a house with carpentry skills.
Madi: So, without this stepping stone from the past on the way to the present, we probably wouldn’t even have had the blueprint for what we have now. We probably would have had a completely different historical progression, of not only boat building but carpentry in general.
Celton: yeah, we would not be in the same place we are now in building standards, architectural standards. We would not have the bridges we do, we would not have the skyscrapers, the tall buildings we have in cities, we wouldn’t have those if we didn’t have the stepping stones of carpentry and architecture.
Madi: Okay so, what will the future be like if this generation forgets this skill, like if it stopped today, what would the future be like?
Celton: Well, the future would be very different because even now, the generations are banking on knowing carpentry and architecture. And if it just stops now, it’s a lost art. And everyone would have to relearn it to even continue with building or evolving our learning of crafting and carpentry. It would be very hard to move forward in life.
Madi: So, what’s something that people need to know about this topic that a lot of people don’t know about it?
Celton: That some people think that you can just grab a random piece of wood and throw it together and make a canoe out of it. It’s a lot more gruelling steps to it, and a lot of time it takes to make the boat, and you’d have to work 24/7 to get it done in a quick timeframe that you’d like.
Madi: So, what has motivated you to keep this fire burning and make sure that knowledge of this specific skill is preserved?
Celton: Well, mainly the heritage of my family and my dad. He is a big impact on me, and it’s a great thing that he has taught me throughout my life, and it’s great to know, and I think I’ll happily pass it down to my children.
Jayton: To be able to pass it down from generations to generations, and just being able—not just to show my kids—but to show other people that are interested in it.
Celton: Well, if I could summarize it, it’d be that a great way to learn a new skill and a great way to refine my skills that I’ve already learned and, just to be able to learn what my dad did for a living, what his parents did for a living, what my family continues to do, and that I can pass that on to my family, that my dad has done well passing it to me, and just it’s going to be a great feeling knowing that I contributed to Foxfire and the way that I can continue to be thought of in this future generation.
Madi: Since man discovered rivers, boats have been vital to the development of civilizations around the world; however, in Southern Appalachia, the craft remains prevalent in its most natural form. Those who take advantage of the lakes, rivers, and streams in the area are no strangers to the beauty and severity of the great outdoors or the structures necessary to enjoy these natural resources to their fullest extents. Carpentry, like many other Appalachian crafts, is truly a family skill. It knows no generational boundaries and it supersedes time itself. Thank you for tuning in today! I’m Madi Perdue, and this has been “It Still Lives: The Foxfire Podcast.” Keep the fire burning, y’all! Have a great day. Thank you!