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Artisans of Michigan: Boats and paddles from Canoe Mike's garage

For several months now, we’ve been traveling around the state, talking to people who make useful things with their hands. We’re calling the series Artisans of Michigan.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Canoe Mike in his workshop.

This time, we found ourselves in Tecumseh, in MikeThomsen’s garage. Some people call him “Canoe Mike” because, among other things, he makes wood canoes.

Thomsen started on this line of work after talking to a coworker in Maine who had built five canoes.

“He told me the name of the book that he used to … learn how to do it,” Thomsen says. “I bought the book and literally read that book for five years before I got up the nerve to try it. And that boat’s still in operation.”

His primary motivation was “to fish.”

“I’ve always had boats, I’ve always liked boats,” he says, “and if we went in the backyard, you’d see I’ve got three or four of them back there, so it was a natural thing to say, ‘Well I think I can do that.’”

Thomsen builds canoes most of the time, but his latest finished project is more like a rowing shell.

“It’s called a ‘liz,’” he says. “It’s an 18-foot pulling boat, but it’s designed to have a drop-in rowing unit, which is a sliding seat, which is the same thing that the racing shells use.”

“It’s a wood strip construction, quarter-inch by three-quarter-inch strips glued together and then covered with fiberglass inside and out.”

The oars are made out of red wood, which Thomsen says makes them lightweight.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Canoe Mike's workshop.

Thomsen built four boats his first year out of retirement. But he says he’s not going to do that again. It ate up all of his fishing time. Now, he makes one boat during the winter. The rest of the time, he’s found something that's a little easier to manage.

“I make boats, but in addition to that, I make paddles,” he says. “I make stand-up paddles. I make bent-shaft paddles. All kinds of canoe paddles, laminated shafts, laminated blades.”

Thomsen says you can drop by, talk with him while he works, but most of the time he likes to work alone.

“I don’t think I could do it any other way,” he says. “I worked in construction for 41 years and my work was always subject to be in critique. I don’t have to worry about that [now]. If I mess up, then I fix it. And the finished project is all that matters.”

Thomsen says he’ll build a canoe or boat for the various shows or display at big stores, but he’d rather a costumer just tell him what they want and he’ll build it.

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Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.