— Few things are as pleasing as the sweet smell of wood. It fills your nostrils then seemingly goes straight to your soul. That aroma tells you immediately something is being hand crafted.
In today’s age, it seems many have forgotten the pure joy and satisfaction that comes from building something with your own two hands. Kokomo’s Greg Lutgen enjoys constructing things from wood. A tour through his shop is like a work in progress. Various tools cover his work bench and a light layer of fine sawdust coats almost everything.
Lutgen loves to fish. He also enjoys taking on challenges of doing things he has never tried before. So it was only natural when he decided to combine his two passions and construct his first wooden boat. Although he spends countless hours on our state’s rivers and streams, his real passion is fishing for trout in Michigan’s flowing waterways. So it came as no surprise his first project would entail constructing his very own drift boat, sometimes called a river dory.
These types of boats sport high sides, steep rocker and are made to take on rough water. They basically float in the middle and with long oars are one of the most maneuverable watercrafts made.
“After seeing many drift-style boats on the Pere Marquette River, I thought I could build one cheaper,” said Lutgen, explaining why he decided to take on such an endeavor.
After doing some research, he purchased a kit from Idaho, a state well known for the use of these types of watercraft. When fishing season had ended and fall turned to winter, he could be found most evenings working in his shop. By the time spring rolled around, the project was complete.
“I learned you can bend wood more than you think,” he added, stroking his hand along the boat’s steeply curved sides. “But overall, it wasn’t as difficult as I originally thought.”
Lutgen couldn’t wait for his maiden voyage. The epoxy barely had time to dry before he decided to try it out on the Tippecanoe River, near Monticello.
“I did get a few strange looks from people who had never seen this type of boat before,” he recalled. “And it didn’t even leak!” he added, with his frequent laugh. But nothing was a sweet as landing his first trout from the vessel he had constructed.
“That was a huge milestone for me.”
Lutgen resides in a rural portion of Howard County with the Wildcat Creek bordering his property. Along with his wife, Clare, the couple enjoys kayaking the picturesque stream on warm summer days.
“After building the drift boat, I wanted to see if I could build a wooden kayak without the aid of any plans,” he explained. “I wanted to make something I could use around here as well.”
There is no doubt building a boat, any boat, strictly by hand, requires an inordinate amount of skill, time and of course, patience. At the risk of being charged for practicing psychology without a license, I would venture to say people who build their own watercraft are motivated by factors that have little to do with the vessels themselves.
I suspect several reasons men build boats, when they could more quickly and easily purchase one, are as varied as the craftsmen themselves. After all, one famous boat builder constructed a large ark for reasons having nothing to do with fishing or enjoying a pleasurable pastime. He built it strictly out of faith, before leading animals on board two by two!
Lutgen explained his first boat, although much larger than a kayak, was fairly simple to construct.
“It was basically built out of small diameter lumber and marine grade plywood,” he explained. “As long as you followed the plans, it was pretty straightforward.”
Once the boat was completed, the final step involved coating the wood with epoxy.
The kayak would be a more difficult.
“It was strip-built,” Lutgen explained. “I was a little more dedicated to this project.”
To successfully build a kayak, every single strip of wood needed to be precisely cut, sanded and fitted together perfectly. His kayak is one of the most beautiful wooden boats I have personally ever seen. The varying tones of the numerous cedar strips seem to blend together like artwork, all thinly protected by a layer of epoxy and fiberglass.
“How does it make you feel when something this beautiful scrapes bottom or accidentally careens off an unseen rock?” I had to ask.
“Doesn’t bother me a bit,” said Lutgen, with his almost constant smile. “I consider it a tool. Besides, I know how to fix it!”
So what does Lutgen have up his sleeve for his next project?
“I want to build a sailboat,” was his quick reply. “It involves a construction style called stitch-and-glue, which I have never done before either. And besides, I want to learn to sail!”
• John Martino is the Tribune’s outdoors columnist. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.