CHIPPEWA LAKE — In addition to his family, Keith Riedel has two great loves: boats and making things with his hands.
It seems only natural the retired Medina High School industrial arts teacher would eventually find a way to combine all three. Riedel has been building wooden canoes — plus a kayak, with one of his neighbors – and they are things of beauty.
He builds them from redwood. It’s lightweight and stronger than cedar, he said.
“It’s pretty,” he said. “Flat pretty.”
Not only do his canoes look beautiful — he’s built an 11-footer and a 15-footer — they go beautifully. There’s just something about a wooden canoe that glides through the water more handsomely than a composite or aluminum canoe ever could.
“It just has good, graceful lines,” Riedel said.
A tan and limber 65 years old, he lifted the 15-footer from its cradle in the garage, put it on his shoulders, and carried it the two blocks or so down to Chippewa Lake for a ride. His head tucked inside the canoe as he walked, Riedel’s feet seemed to know the way to the
shore by heart.
Neighbors hailed him as he passed.
“Going out on the lake?” one hollered.
“Oh, yeah,” Riedel answered from inside the canoe.
As promised, even on a breezy day and with a slight bit of choppiness to the lake, the redwood canoe traveled smoothly over the water, effortless and sure. Everything else being equal, if a wooden canoe and an aluminum canoe were paddling to the other side of the lake, he said, the wooden canoe would get there faster.
Riedel has six children and nine grandchildren. He loves sending his grandkids out on Chippewa Lake in one of his canoes — with lifejackets, of course, and plenty of instruction — to go wherever the water and their imaginations take them.
His adult children fret about the canoes getting banged up or scratched on the rocks. They’re almost like fine furniture, after all.
Riedel laughs. That’s what the canoes are for, he tells them. They’re meant to be used and enjoyed. Let the kids have fun with them, he says.
“They’re plotting the course, they’re supplying the energy,” he said. “They’re having an adventure.”
He’ll spend about $1,500 on materials to build a canoe. Sure, you could go out and buy one for half that, Riedel said, but it’ll be heavy, not as pretty, and everybody and his brother will have one just like it. A wooden canoe — built by your own two hands — is something special, almost spiritual. Everyone should have the experience of making one, he said.
For those ambitious enough to try, the first step is to build a plywood form with ribs that hold the bent redwood strips in place while the glue dries. Where the strips meet at an angle, Riedel hand-planes them to fit. The hard-wearing keel, seat frames and accents are made from oak.
“It’s exciting because you can picture what’s happening, what it’s going to look like,” he said of the assembly process.
With all the pieces in place, Riedel planes and sands the whole thing, applies fiberglass cloth for added strength, and pops it off the form. A final coating of crystal-clear epoxy gives the canoe a tight, glossy finish.
It’s a deliberate process. If he worked eight hours a day at it — which he didn’t — it might take three months to build a canoe from scratch. Riedel prefers multitasking. Other projects, gardening, travel, boating, running, as well as church and community activities, all keep him busy.
He might start supper on the stove, then go out to glue a strip of wood on the canoe. While waiting for that to dry, he finishes dinner. Glue another strip. Eat. Glue another strip, do dishes. Glue another strip, go to bed. Wake up in the middle of the night, glue another strip, go back to sleep. Perchance to dream about boats. Riedel has his sights set on building an ocean kayak.
His philosophy: “You can either watch television or have fun,” he said.
You can bet he’ll be having fun.
Contact John Gladden at firstname.lastname@example.org.