Musician carves out business making canoes

Dennis Anderson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT
Benjamin Skroch, a concert musician from St. Paul, Minnesota, builds custom...
Story by Dennis Anderson
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
January 30, 2011
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MINNEAPOLIS — Boat shows are wondrous places for dreamers. But not just for those who dream of buying a glittering new bass boat, a 16-foot walleye rig, a wakeboarding plaything or a yacht awaiting a Lake Superior sea trial.

It’s also a place where boat builders dream of finding customers who share their visions of what a specific craft should look like, whether it’s a retro-looking lake cruiser or a 17-foot canoe.

Benjamin Skroch is such a boat builder — and an unlikely one at that.

Professionally, Skroch, of St. Paul, is a concert musician who is a member of the Duluth-Superior Symphony. He also performs, as needed, with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Madison (Wis.) Symphony.

But for present purposes, Skroch is a canoe builder, a good one, and his exhibit of sleek one-at-a-time-constructed Kevlar and Kevlar/fiberglass models is tucked away against a wall of the Minneapolis Convention Center, where the Boat Show holds forth through Sunday.

“I grew up in the (Washington) D.C. suburbs, and moved to the Twin Cities when my wife was accepted in graduate school here,” Skroch said. His wife, Angela Reisetter, is now a physicist who teaches at St. Olaf.

Though employed in Duluth, Skroch on some days commutes to north Minneapolis, where he has set up a canoe-building shop.

Handy with tools, and always fixing things, Skroch for many years was into radio-controlled model airplanes. But all the water in Minnesota got him thinking about other projects, canoes specifically, and a few years ago he began exploring the possibility of custom-building canoes, one by one, as ordered by individual paddlers.

Counterintuitively perhaps, Skroch isn’t a big-time wilderness canoeist. He and his wife paddle the boundary waters but prefer to do so along the region’s margins, where, at night, retreats can be made to comfortable beds in cozy cabins or lodges.

But don’t let that fool you: One look at Skroch’s Nighthawk canoes — which he bills as “light, strong, beautiful” — and you’ll know this boat builder is a thinker.

“I built my first canoe three years ago,” he said. “And spent the last year and a half or so establishing the business, so I can build the canoes as orders come in.”

His goal is to provide canoeists, of which Minnesota has more than any other state, with options, so that ordering a craft can be as individual an experience as, say, ordering a car.

His canoes come in three lengths: 16 feet; 17 feet, 3 inches; and 18 feet, 6 inches. His standard craft is covered with two layers of Kevlar and a light — think skim — layer of fiberglass and weighs a skimpy 43 pounds.

“I want to be able to give the customer the canoe he or she wants,” Skroch said. “So I also offer the three lengths of canoes in a variety of finish coats.”

Other options include black-anodized aluminum or ash gunwales, skid plates, extra seats and yoke pads.

Skroch has carefully studied canoes on the market and believes his fit a niche that will appeal to paddlers. He likes the freeboard he incorporates into his craft; believes his foam-core ribs provide a balance of stiffness and durability; thinks paddlers will find his colorful Kevlar and carbon finishes attractive; and believes he has settled on the proper amount of tumblehome to allow for ease of paddling.

So is his long-range goal to hang up his trombone and be a canoe builder full time?

Not at all.

“Being a musician, I was looking for something to do when I’m not playing,” he said. “But I’ve thought it through, and I don’t want to run a business for a hobby. I want to make canoes. If I make 20 or 30 a year, that would be good.”

(c) 2011, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Dennis Anderson

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