Skin and bones: Backcountry Custom Canoes

In 2015, Jon Babulic had the opportunity to leave a successful career in construction management, and with it the incentive to pursue a new career. The 43-year-old calls himself “a bit of a waterman.” The Guelph, Ontario resident grew up on Lake Superior around boats of all kinds, especially canoes. He dedicated 2015 to “paddling his brains out”—and discovering what his future held in store.

An avid angler, canoeing has been Babulic’s means to remote trout lakes in the northern Ontario bush. He developed advanced woodworking skills building bamboo fly rods, and unsatisfied with existing ultralight canoes (“There wasn’t a shape that screamed 4,000 bucks to me,” he says) Babulic decided to apply his talents to boatbuilding. First, he fast-tracked an open source naval architecture course from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then stumbled upon the skin-on-frame construction technique, which over centuries of seafaring has been used for everything from Inuit sea kayaks to Irish fishing boats. “I started building frantically,” he says.

His first canoe, a 12-foot solo, went together in four days. “I built it with simple plywood forms and stuff from Home Depot,” says Babulic. “I threw it in the lake and instantly was like, ‘This thing paddles like a real canoe!’” It was also substantially lighter than a comparable composite canoe and just as durable, he insists.

For Babulic, canoes are “infinitely” less finicky to build than fly rods. He starts with an objective and specs the boat’s ribs and stringers to achieve the desired performance characteristics and a balance of weight and strength. Typically, he uses a combination of white ash, douglas fir and red cedar for the frame. Each intersection of steam-bent ribs and longitudinal stringers is hand sewn with nylon, a tedious 14-hour job. After a few prototypes, he developed a technique to stretch a single sheet of ballistic nylon over the frame using icewater, which causes the material to swell and that contract into a taught, wrinkle-free finish. He then treats the skin with urethane and adds seats and thwarts.

When a high-volume, 17-foot, nine-inch tandem canoe weighed in at a feathery 39 pounds, Babulic was duly impressed. Durability-wise, he says the skin flexes to withstand impacts and is easy to patch using contact cement. Even after a weeklong wilderness trip, Babulic’s prototype incurred only a few scuffs—easily refinished by a thin coat of varnish. Meanwhile, his translucent hulls caught people’s attention around town. “There’s no better way to pimp out your truck,” he says. “I realized that I had something that was light, paddled well and was tough as hell. Plus I had something that was totally customizable. If you can dream up a shape, I can build it.”

Babulic launched Backcountry Custom Canoes last year and built 20 canoes and sea kayaks. His website lists general ranges of boats—solo canoe, tandem canoe and sea kayak; a 25-pound, base model solo canoe starts at $2,000 (Canadian). He works with clients to design their boat from the ground up, based on their height, weight, intended use and aesthetics. Currently, Babulic figures he could build up to 45 boats per year, though he admits kayaks are about twice as labor-intensive to build as canoes. Because the nylon skins are easily removed, Babulic’s boats can be easily restored after heavy use.

Babulic admits that he’s still amazed every time he paddles one of his boats. “The experience is unique,” he says. “It’s not a glass bottom boat but it’s pretty close. They make you a better paddler because you can see the waterline and how it changes with every stroke. It’s almost mesmerizing.”

More on C&K:

—Read the story behind of John “Kaz” Kazimierczyk’s Millbrook Boats, handcrafted in New Hampshire

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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