The wood instantly darkens and shines like honey as the brush, filled with lacquer, carefully moves along the shaft of the paddle. This final moment celebrates the hours that he has focused on turning the wood from its original rough, sharp-edged form into a curvy wooden masterpiece.
Whether it’s a custom built paddle or a stunning canoe, Mike Thomsen is busy building works of nautical art in his two-car garage turned woodshop nestled near the edge of Tecumseh, Michigan. Among the sandpaper, custom Swiss rasps, and handsaws he is creating canoes from a time long forgotten.
It is hard to pinpoint the events in Mike’s life that fostered a desire in him to build his very own canoe. Perhaps it was watching his father, who immigrated from Scandinavia as a child, construct a boat in the garage of his childhood home. It could be his competitive rowing experience for a team in Austin, Texas, or his love for casting his lure over calm waters in the early morning hours. Maybe it’s the innate desire he recognizes within himself to try new things, learn new skills, or prove that he can do something.
“You know, I’ve got that boy gene that says, ‘I can do that.’” he reflects. “I see something that is broken, or something that someone has built, and I think that’s something I can figure out how to do.” He pauses and chuckles, “That has gotten me in a lot of trouble over the years.”
Likely, many things worked together to lead Mike to where he is today as a boat maker. He tells the story of his experience 25 years ago when he was working in Maine, one of his many assignments in the construction trade. A co-worker happened to mention that he had built five canoes and this casual conversation sparked a desire in Mike to learn more.
As he flipped through the pages of the boat-making book he purchased and studied the techniques of the craft, he slowly got the courage to attempt constructing his first canoe. “That first boat I made is 25 years old and still going strong,” he proudly states. “Ten years later, I made another and then 10 years after that I built a different kind of boat, a rowing and sailing one that I still have out in the back yard.”
While he admits the time in between his initial designs wasn’t ideal, building boats while living in foreign countries is not a feasible task. Mike spent many of his working years traveling the globe with top secret clearance, remodeling, building, and adding on to many United States Embassies. In all, he has worked in over 30 countries including Switzerland, China, Russia, and Greece.
“I always worked for someone else, on their schedule. That was another motivation for me to do this after I retired,” he says, leaning against the workbench as the hum of the cars float in from the busy street outside his small shop. “When it was time to renew my security clearance, I knew it was time for me to pursue something else.”
Wanting the flexibility to work on his boats and paddles anytime he likes, he created a cozy workplace just steps from his home. Inside that small garage, tools neatly organized among the hints of sawdust, he cuts, carves, and molds wood into creations that makes any true boat lover drool.
“When I’m at a show people come around the corner and see the boat and say, ‘Wow!’” he reenacts, running his hand along the canoe he displays in front of his home. “And they’ll walk up to it and put their hand on it. Then they’ll go to look at the other end of the boat and they won’t take their hand off it. That’s worth everything to me. If I had a dollar for every wow…”
Forming and perfecting the design can take a couple of months, but once finished his vessels have traveled by road to their final watery destinations throughout Michigan and even to Pennsylvania and Colorado.
In the northwestern side of the country grows Western Red Cedar, his wood of choice for the hull because of to its light weight. He then seals it with fiberglass and resin. “The wood makes it pretty, but 95% of the strength comes from the fiberglass,” he says while pulling out a sample of the fiberglass sheet.
Less time intensive, but just as beautiful, are Mike’s wooden paddles. He has created then from cherry, walnut, sycamore, or combinations of several types of wood that make unique patterns. The paddles are typically commissioned by water lovers like Mike, and are customized for their particular choice of paddling and their body type. Kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, or decorating a home are all reasons for the custom orders he receives.
“People may want narrow blades, or longer shafts. If people do a lot of paddling, they know what they want,” he describes as he runs his hand along a Greenland style kayak paddle that he recently created for the first time.