When wood and canvas canoes first appeared more than a century ago, no one had dreamed of personal watercraft, jet boats or water skiing. A lake was a place for paddling.
If you were lucky, you were paddling something like the canoe Steve Ambrose pilots on this fall evening, a handcrafted vessel made of mahogany, birch, ash, spruce and cedar. It looks like a symphony of wood, an intricate harmony of shapes and shades. And it’s as stunning in its own way as the reflected sunset animating Lake Martin in front of him.
Ambrose builds and repairs these boats, painstakingly assembling them plank by plank. He mills the wood himself and carefully fits pieces into place with the skill and patience of a surgeon. When the canoe’s frame is complete, he attaches a canvas skin that’s then treated, primed, buffed, sanded and sprayed with several coats of paint.
The end result is a floating work of art that looks as natural on a lake as a trio of ducks flapping across the horizon.
“You’re paddling something that uses products that came out of the woods,” says Ambrose, a Shelby County resident and forklift salesman by day. “You feel closer to nature.”
Paddling one feels different, too. A wooden canoe slips through the water. It moves smoothly and is quieter.
He demonstrates by tapping the boat rail with his paddle. There’s a quiet thump, not the clanging you’d get in an aluminum canoe. Good for sneaking up on wildlife for fishing or photography. Another advantage is strength. If you put two 200-pound men in a plastic canoe, the middle will pop up like a bent beer can, he says. A wooden canoe is stronger and will keep its shape.
But it’s clear that these selling points aren’t really an issue. Ambrose doesn’t even try very hard to make the case. Given that a big box store can sell a new plastic canoe for less than $500 and a wooden one can run into the thousands, there’s something else clearly at play.
For the 49-year-old, it goes back to childhood, and the summers he and his brother spent paddling on a Maine lake in their grandfather’s wood and canvas canoe. Ambrose didn’t know what made the boat special until years later when he came across its deteriorating frame. He donated The end result is a floating it to a local maritime museum with the promise it would be restored. But the museum went belly-up and the collection — and Ambrose’s family boat – disappeared.
“To this day I don’t know what happened to it,” he says.
Ambrose wants to make sure it doesn’t happen to others. Although he builds canoes from scratch, much of his work these days is restoring ones that have spent decades in boathouses or garages. He understands when owners tell him the boat has been in the family for generations. And he carefully pieces them back together. Since he does this work part-time and works on several boats at once, the process may take more than a year.
The payoff comes when it’s time to give the boat back.
“There’s nothing like handing a restored canoe back to a family and the kids’ eyes light up, knowing it was Dad’s or Granddad’s, and now it’s our turn to put it through its paces,” Ambrose says.
Alabama doesn’t have the canoe heritage of New England, where boat builders in the 19th century first developed ways to replicate the birch-bark canoes that Native Americans had long used. Instead of starting with sheets of bark and building a frame inside it like the Indians had, the craftsmen constructed a wooden canoe frame over a form, and then covered it with canvas.
A few builders and companies like Old Town in Maine continued making boats this way into the 1960s. But then technology took over. “When fiberglass and aluminum showed up it pretty much killed the mass demand for wooden canoes,” Ambrose says.
His customers include collectors and people who only recently have discovered the beauty of the boats. Lex Brown, of Heflin, learned about them when he was working with a canoe livery business on the Tallapoosa River. He was astonished to find a builder just an hour away on Lake Martin.
“Steve is an incredible talent. I know several folks that work on old canoes across the country, and he is one of the best,” says Brown, who has had Ambrose restore canoes for him. “I’m a little hesitant to put them in the water; they’re that perfect.”
It’s all the more astonishing when you see what Ambrose starts with. Quite often, the canoes have been ignored for decades and are literally falling apart. Sometimes a collector gets lucky, though. Ambrose just received a boat from Houston that had been sitting in a front yard. When a customer of Ambrose’s asked if it was for sale, the owner gave it to him. After a few thousand dollars and months of work, it will look better than new.
Although his skills are widely praised, Ambrose didn’t start working on canoes until a decade ago. His mother gave him a book on wooden canoes for Christmas, and he was hooked.
Ambrose had never built a boat, but he knew woodworking. As a child growing up in Cincinnati, he made furniture with his father, who was an engineer. It certainly helped that Ambrose was comfortable with tools and wood, but the hardest part was having to forget much of what he had learned about furniture making. “After you have been taught to make everything straight, plumb and square, it’s hard to work with a boat that’s all curves.”
Ambrose has brought his own style to this rich tradition. He works in a Lake Martin aircraft hangar that once held former Health South CE O Richard Scrushy’s planes. His techniques are surprising, too. Take the cedar canoe ribs, which give the boat its curved shape. They’re softened in an Ambrose-designed wood steamer powered by a converted turkey fryer. “ It’s about as redneck as you can get,” he says.
Still, there’s no arguing with the results.
Alicia Huey, of Birmingham, displays her honey-brown canoe in her Lake Martin home. “It’s a work of art,” she says, noting that it was just the second boat Ambrose had made. “ This is something Steve crafted with his hands by scratch, and a lot of things you see today are not.”
Ambrose says he doesn’t mind that the boat doesn’t touch water. “ She said, ‘You’re not going to be mad at me if I put it on the wall?’ And I said, ‘ No, as long as you don’t put screws through it.’” He made sure by providing brackets when he delivered the boat.
Huey couldn’t be happier with her nautical conversation piece. “You can really see the beauty of it,” she says. “Steve is such a perfectionist.”