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By Tom Cherveny, Published August 05 2007

A ‘work of art’ that floats

MONTEVIDEO, Minn. –Whether the preferred mode of travel is by boat, hiking shoes or all-terrain-vehicle, our means of getting around in the great outdoors is usually the product of modern industry.

Not so for J.J. Nieuwbeerta, who relied on his own craftsmanship to create his mode of travel to discover the outdoors.

“It’s a work of art,” said Ralph Heidorn.

Or, in the words of Matt Olson: “An unbelievable project.”

They are describing the cedar strip canoe that Nieuwbeerta made his special project for his final year of high school.

The canoe proved to be an award winner for the 2007 Montevideo High School graduate. It won both the instructor’s and craftsman of the year awards in competition held last May by the Birch Coulee tech association. The group represents industrial arts programs at high schools from New London-Spicer to Redwood Falls.

Olson is an industrial arts instructor in Montevideo. Heidorn continues to teach part time in retirement. He also makes his own cedar strip canoes and kayaks and operates a small business in Montevideo, Chippewa Canoe and Kayak.

Nieuwbeerta decided to make his own canoe after seeing one of Heidorn’s. Heidorn provided the forms over which the cedar strips are placed in the assembly process.

“He got me going on it, and I went from there,” said Nieuwbeerta.

He went a long ways with it, according to both Olson and Heidorn. Nieuwbeerta took his project the extra step, they said. He made his gunwales of ash, and used dark walnut for the spacers to accent the lighter colored ash. He made his own cane seats of walnut and birch, eschewing the easy shortcut of buying ready-made seats.

He cut the deck plates from walnut. He took advantage of the school’s access to a $10,000 laser inscriber to decorate them.

All of the work was done by hand. He used only hand tools to saw, scribe and bevel the cedar strips that he fitted to form the body of the canoe. And when it came to sanding, it was all elbow work as well.

Olson admitted that he was a little leery when Nieuwbeerta first raised the idea of building a canoe. Olson had never made one. And, he knew that a canoe would be a challenging and time-consuming project. The instructor said he wondered: Could Nieuwbeerta devote the time needed, and could he find enough of his own time to help him?

Nieuwbeerta started the project last January and completed it in early May. He devoted three hours to it every school day, and returned to it on the weekends as well. That’s despite a spring schedule that saw him qualify for state competition in track.

He enjoyed the work, and said it went fast. Nieuwbeerta said he often thought about the project during the day. By the time he got to the shop room, he knew just what he wanted to do and accomplish each day.

All told, he estimates that he devoted about 200 hours of his time to the project, and purchased nearly $1,000 worth of materials for it. He applied a coating of epoxy and fiberglass, which waterproofs the craft and gives it structural strength.

On his graduation day – well before he could launch the canoe – he was offered $5,000 for the award winning craft.

He launched the canoe on its maiden voyage at his family’s cabin on Games Lake.

“It’s so fast,” said his father, Jeff. He said there is a “world of difference” between the canoe and aluminum and other manufactured models he has paddled.

The canoe weighs around 60 pounds, is 16½ feet in length and 46-inches wide at the center thwart.

Nieuwbeerta is planning to attend Minnesota West Technical College in Granite Falls next fall. He’s working a summer job and building a second, cedar strip canoe for the man who offered to buy his original.

He has no plans of ever parting with the canoe, but he’s already contacted Heidorn about his next project. He liked the hand-crafted kayak that Heidorn made, and wants to make one of his own.

Tom Cherveny is a reporter for the West Central Tribune in Willmar, Minn., a Forum Communications newspaper