My Bug canoe built by Thomas MacKenzie
We’re excited to have a beautiful canoe on display at our office donated by the Heritage Canoe Museum. Built in 1986 by Thomas MacKenzie in Madison, WI it was built in the traditional wood canvas construction method. Red cedar was used for planking; with white cedar ribs. The gunwales, thwarts, decks and seat rails are all cherry.
Tom MacKenzie, owner of The Loon Works and a master at the bending and shaping of wood into a canoe that looks like artwork on water. Mr. MacKenzie, 67, has no helpers in his shop. No hired hands. There are no conveyor belts, no computers. He does the craft of canoe-building his way. “It’s the messing with wood,” Mr. MacKenzie is quoted as saying. “The making of something pretty that works real well. Most boats are designed generically. …” Not his. Mr. MacKenzie puts his hand on the painted coat, and he smiles. Some people think he uses a paint gun. Nope. That’s not his style. Just brushes. Building canoes is as important to him as breathing.
It is a hobby that surfaced in his world when he was a teenager. Standing in his shop, one leg crossed in front of the other and leaning against a canoe made in 1934, Mr. MacKenzie recalls the time he spent in high school, canoeing and camping with “minimal gear.” And one day, that passion for paddling around the water drew his eye to an article in the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press about Bill Hafeman, a man who spent his days building birch bark canoes, the canoe of America’s first explorers and its first settlers, the Indians. “I saw that article and I thought that’d be neat,” Mr. MacKenzie said.
Mr. MacKenzie said he held onto the memory of that article until he finished college and was in between graduation and his first job. It was the summer of 1973, and Mr. MacKenzie was 28. He decided to head west and “play in the Rockies” a little. On his trip, he looked up Mr. Hafeman, and he was hooked. Since 1975, the art of building canoes has been Mr. MacKenzie’s passion. For a while, he worked as an earth science teacher and worked on canoes during the summer. By 1980, he stopped teaching, built a house for him and his wife in New Jersey. And in that house, he built a shop.
Enter The Loon Works, a company he opened in a time when wooden canoes already were a dying breed of boats. By the 1960s, fiberglass canoes were hitting the market. New materials hit the market that made canoes cheaper to purchase and easier for companies to build. But he didn’t care. “I don’t like messing with resin,” he said with a laugh.
Under that corporate name, Mr. MacKenzie makes canoes to order, restores old ones and teaches the craft of canoeing to others. He’s quick to point out that he has not become a wealthy man with the craft he has chosen. Each boat takes approximately 100 to 120 hours to build. They can cost between $3,200 to $4,500 to build. But most of that money goes back into buying the materials, such as the sometimes six different types of wood he uses to craft one canoe.