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May 18, 2003

Artistry in wood

From: Knoxville News Sentinel, TN - May 18, 2003

Shop students at Tennessee School for the Deaf learn intricacies of woodworking building cedar-strip canoes


The canoes are so elegant, you almost hate to see them get wet.

For the past five years students at the Tennessee School for the Deaf have been turning out wooden canoes in a woodworking class taught by Dick Hancock, an outdoor enthusiast who has taught and coached at TSD for 28 years.

Earlier this month the school's canoe club took three of the boats on a 34-mile trip down the French Broad River from Douglas Dam to the Island Home area school.

They camped at the Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge, a new park in East Knox County, and they traveled in style.

"The canoes performed beautifully," Hancock said. "Next, we want to do a two-nighter, maybe at Fontana (Lake) or Dale Hollow Lake."

Hancock started the school's canoe-building course five years ago with Richard Davis, who also teaches physical education at TSD. They wrote up a proposal and began cramming because while both men were proficient paddlers, neither knew much about building wooden canoes.

"That first two years, we stayed about a week ahead of the kids," Hancock said.

Today TSD's woodworking shop turns out the kind of wooden canoes featured in craft shows. The boats are made of interlocking cedar strips ss-inch thick and of an inch wide. For added strength, fiberglass is applied over the cedar strips both inside and outside of the canoes. Screw heads along the gunnels are hidden beneath wooden plugs.

A combination of western red cedar and northern white cedar are used to create intricate patterns, and multiple coats of varnish give each boat a warm, honey-like glow.

The canoes come in two classic designs - the Bob's Special and the Prospector - that hark back to the golden age of fur trapping in Canada. The Bob's Specials made by the school weigh 70 pounds and are 16 feet long. The Prospectors also measure 16 feet in length but are deeper, and have more curvature along the bottom.

Both models are built to glide and to accommodate heavy loads.

"The canoe to Canadians is similar to the covered wagon down here," Hancock said.

Situated along the headwaters of the Tennessee River just upriver from downtown Knoxville, Tennessee School for the Deaf is in a prime location for using canoes made in the shop.

So far, TSD students have built four wooden canoes. As part of the woodworking course, they also make their own paddles, which they're allowed to keep. Like the canoes themselves, the paddles adhere to traditional designs. They're made of aspen, western cedar, basswood and mahogany, and many feature intricate inlays of whales and fish.

One of the paddles produced by the class is a bent-shaft design similar to the one Hancock used when he paddled the entire 2,301-mile Mississippi River by himself in the summers of 1989 and 1991.

The school's woodworking classes are also turning out equipment boxes and folding chairs made of ash that can be used as third seats in a canoe, or taken out and used around the campsite.

Some of the canoes made by the students have been displayed at the Foothills Craft Guild's fall shows at the Jacob Building in Chilhowee Park. In a few weeks the woodworking class will exhibit examples of their handiwork at a craft show in Stevenson, Ala.

Working on his own time last summer, Hancock built two wooden canoes - the Wee Lassie and Wee Lassie II. Both are solo boats designed to be paddled by one person using a double-bladed paddle. The Wee Lassie is 12 feet, 4 inches long and weighs 24 pounds, and the Wee Lassie II is 13 feet, 4 inches long and weighs 35 pounds.

Both boats were displayed at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg late last year.

The Wee Lassie is made from royal paulownia, a species native to China that's also known as the princess tree. Hancock built it for his daughter, and the boat is now on display at Woodcraft, in the Suburban Center in Knoxville.

The Wee Lassie II is constructed of western red cedar with strips of northern white cedar added for aesthetic effect. The canoe is on display in the lobby of TSD's administration building, where it shines under the lights like a work of art.

Hancock made the Wee Lassie II for himself, but he has never had it in the water.

"That first rock I hit is going to be like getting the first scratch on a car," Hancock said. "That's going to be tough."

Copyright 2003, Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.