TAMWORTH — Over the last four decades, Geoffrey Burke has gone from a student of nature who paddled Alaska’s rivers in his 20s to a master boat builder.
“Some people say I took my retirement in my 20s,” said Burke, who returned to New Hampshire in 1979 after his father suffered a stroke.
Burke found himself working a series of dead-end jobs in construction. One day he picked up a copy of WoodenBoat magazine.
“It was like being struck by lightning,” he said, adding he “suddenly knew how I could use all my disparate skills.”
Knowing that the Maine coast was the world center of boat building, he visited boat wrights at their work, asked questions, observed, took classes and read everything he could find on crafting wooden boats.
“I persevered and built a boat. Someone saw it and said, ‘I want one,’” Burke said of how he launched a career that has spanned 35 years and allowed him to make a modest income and live a family-centered life with his wife, Annie, and their two children.
In 1998, the couple purchased the former main lodge of Camp Chocorua, one of the White Mountain Camps that opened in 1910 and was shuttered in 1932. The structure had no running water or electricity, but had 50 acres and a $40,000 price tag.
Burke deployed his woodworking skills to transform it.
“We camped in the backyard. My daughter was the only kid in kindergarten that lived in a tent,” Burke said.
His workshop is attached to the house and is outfitted with giant and ancient band saws that he has resurrected and restored, as well as several lathes, a joiner and drill press. Among the machinery are the hand tools at the heart of his trade, many sourced from antique shops.
“A band saw to a boat builder is what a pen is to a writer,” Burke said as he pointed to a J.A. Fay & Egan Company-made 2,200-pound behemoth he characterized as the Rolls Royce model. He bought it for $1,000 and had to truck it back from Philadelphia.
There are draw shaves and spokeshaves of various sizes, wooden block planes and heavy steel “slicks” that Burke explains allow him to cut a rolling bevel where a plank goes into the keel. All have an edge that is razor sharp and handles that bear the touch mark of generations of craftsmen.
“There is a saying in boat building, ‘What looks right is right,’” said Burke as he pushed back the sliding door of his shop to reveal a dainty lapstrake canoe with a lithesome hull shape.
Named SCHERZO, a musical term meaning light and playful, the canoe weighs a scant 38 pounds. It was built in 1889 in Clayton, N.Y., by the St. Lawrence River Skiff, Canoe and Steam Launch Company.
Nancy Cawley Jerome, who owned SCHERZO for 57 years, wrote in the June 2005 issue of Wooden Canoe Heritage Association’s journal, that she was facing the conundrum of what to do with the historic canoe.
Burke said he called Jerome with an intriguing suggestion: “If you really want to preserve a boat like this, the best thing to do is to let it have babies – let’s take the lines off her and build some copies.”
Jerome ultimately gifted Burke with the boat and he kept to his end of the bargain. In the winter of 2005, he developed exacting plans and worked out a teaching schedule. In the summer of 2006, he taught his first SCHERZO class at WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine. Two boats, the first of SCHERZO’s offspring, were built by 10 students.
Burke credits some of his success as a boat builder to the quality of the wood that is available in New Hampshire. Because of the state’s wide weather swings, native trees grow in adverse conditions, he said. It makes the wood fibrous, strong and amenable to being bent.
He uses oak for the backbone of his boats, northern white cedar for the planking and tamarack for the stem, the curved edge stretching from the keel to the gunwale, deploying each to their fullest potential to achieve the delicate balance between strength and weight and form and function. For Burke it’s a perfect fit.
Plans for dozens of canoes and boats as well as finished boats designed for sail, paddle and oar are available from Burke at Chocorua Boatworks. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or by calling 603-323-8172.