Skin-On-Frame: Ontario Canoes Navigable Works Of Art

In the Ontario studio for South Street Boatbuilders, art and boats are made, with the beautiful, traditionally designed skin-on-frame canoes custom-built to order.

Small South Street Boat

South Street labels itself a “creative studio,” though its boats are rugged and functional. We sat down with founder Tim Richards to learn how he got started building these unique water crafts.


Tell us about South Street. How did it start? Why did it start?

South Street Boatbuilders started, as one would suspect, on South Street in Southampton, Ontario, where my family has had a cottage for years.

South street skin on frame canoe

Aside from inflatable dinghies, we had never actually had a boat up at the cottage. My partner and I felt that it needed one, a boat that was more durable, more efficient, and more attractive than a rubber dinghy, one that we could take up and down the shore, over to the island, or up the river, and one that was light weight enough that we could still feel like we’re on vacation when portaging between the cottage and the lake.

We had the woodworking skills and knowledge to build a skin-on-frame canoe, and it matched all of our criteria, so we set out to build our first boat, test it, show it off, and maybe sell a few to the neighboring cottagers and boaters.

Tell me about the construction of your boats? How do they differ from other boats you can purchase on the market? 

We offer two models of the canoe, a 14-footer and a solo 8-foot boat. Both weigh less than 40 pounds, making them ultralight and highly maneuverable. We build using Platt Monfort’s geodesic airolite skin-on-frame designs. It’s a sort of hybrid between traditional SOF construction, like Inuit kayaks, and more modern materials like Dacron, Kevlar, and epoxies.

We still use an all solid wood frame, with steam bent ash ribs, rather than cnc-cut panels, but some of our future designs may incorporate cnc parts. Steam bending is such an interesting process, and it produces such a beautiful and unique hull.

skin-on-frame

Perhaps the closest thing to compare our boats to, aside from other skin-on-frame craft, is a handmade cedar strip canoe. It’s in a similar market niche anyway: that of finely-crafted wooden boats. It’s an object of beauty and performance more so than an object of strict utility; it’s not something the owner will want to intentionally put in harm’s way.

Where did your passion for boat building come from?

It came from my passion around aircraft, ironically. Perhaps more broadly it came from the drive to create things that, quite literally, move you. It’s an incredible feeling to be supported by, and to paddle, across water, something that you built with your own hands.

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I grew up in a small town on the Ottawa River. I learned whitewater kayaking in high school, but I guess owning a boat was never a high priority for my family, and it always sort of bothered me that so many kids I went to school with were learning to sail, and racing at the local yacht club, or going on canoe trips with their families.

My friends and I would sometimes pirate abandoned, perforated rowboats along the river, patch them with duct tape, and paddle around with found rough planks for paddles. We also once built a R/C boat, from scratch, to motor out to the middle of a pond and launch some of our more ‘experimental’ rockets. It took a few prototypes to correct the steering and balance.

I’ve been building skin-on-frame canoes under the SSBB banner for 3 years now.

Who is your typical customer? What draws people to your boats? 

Our typical customer is in the upper end of the market and has an eye for contemporary design, likely has a cottage or country home on or near a lake, and wants a nice, playful boat, that is easy to portage to the water, and effortless to get moving through the water. They also have an appreciation for hand-made quality, or simply prefer a canoe more interesting than your standard red plastic jug or aluminum workhorse.

South Street Boat builders
Occasionally, people just want to hang one on the wall, but we also get interest from fly fishers who like the portability, low draft and traditional feel of the skin-on-frame design.

Some of our customers are older and still love to paddle, but can’t easily do so on their own due to the challenge of carrying a heavy canoe down to the water. We can’t really compete with the big name, ultra durable tripping canoes, or Kevlar or carbon fibre racing hulls, though I would love to see a side-by-side trial and comparison; the skin-on-frame design is much more durable than people tend to expect.

Did South Street start with boat building or some of the other products?

We started with the canoes, but quickly began applying some of the boat building techniques to furniture and lighting pieces.

solo-canoe
How do the boats paddle?

They paddle very well, easily and fast, and are a joy to use. They tend to feel a bit unstable at first; people aren’t used to the low weight, but tend to find they have loads of secondary stability and are quite forgiving on the water. My mom hasn’t paddled a canoe since I was a small child, and she took our smallest, solo canoe out — easily our least stable; it paddles almost like a whitewater kayak — and had a great time with it.

Their strongest pursuit is that of recreation. That’s not to say that they can’t be used for touring; their portability over land and easy field repairs are great advantages over some other designs, but they really excel as cottage playboats or brag-worthy day-trippers. They’re super easy to load on top of a car, too.

boat-building-studio

What’s next for South Street Boat Builders?

My hope is to hire more staff to help grow our product offerings and eventually open a storefront in Toronto. I’ve been working on new designs for bike accessories, and we would love to start producing soft goods and other well-made outdoor gear. In spite of the wide range of products we offer, and even more varied custom projects, the “boat builders” name has just stuck.
–Visit South Street Boat Builders to learn more about its skin-on-frame canoes. 

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Eric is a contributing writer based in Bozeman, MT. An avid climber, mountain biker, backpacker, and snowboarder, he earned his degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota - Duluth. When not living the GearJunkie life, he can be found exploring the Montana backcountry.
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