- Brian Chilson
- STITCH-AND-GLUE: Greg Johnson of Little Rock Boat Builder Supply hopes his plywood designs will make a splash in the boat-kit manufacturing world.
Greg Johnson recently found a photo of himself, age 3, painting a picture of a boat. When he was growing up, his family always had boats. As he got older, he began building watercraft for himself, including an 18-foot racing sailboat, when he could find the time between working as a professional carpenter — building houses, commercial properties and cabinets. After a brief stint working in the cabinet shop at Dassault Falcon Jet, Johnson, 61, decided to turn that lifelong passion into a business: Last November, he opened Little Rock Boat Builder Supply, a business that's likely unique in Arkansas.
Although this week a visitor to his large woodshop on Victory Street, just north of the state Capitol, would probably find Johnson and his crew putting the finishing touches on a 20-foot canoe called Miss Behavin', Johnson isn't in the boat building business. Instead, he's creating boat kits for customers who want to assemble their own watercrafts.
Miss Behavin' is made from what's known in the industry as a stitch-and-glue boat kit. Its parts are mostly marine-grade plywood made from Okoume (a tree from West-Central Africa) and Meranti (a tree that grows in the Philippines) wood, which is engineered to resist fungal decay when wet. Johnson cuts the plywood pieces for the canoe kit on a 5-foot-by-10-foot CNC (computer numerical control) machine he constructed himself. The CNC machine allows him to automate precise and repeatable cuts with a router. The plywood pieces that make up the hull come together with puzzle joints, which look like large puzzle pieces and fit together in only one way. Copper wire "stitches" that pass through pre-drilled holes connect the side and bottom pieces of the hull. Once the boat is assembled, each seam gets glued with an epoxy fillet (a raised bead) and Fiberglass tape. Once that dries, the copper wires are snipped and the seams get sanded smooth. Fiberglass cloth covers the exterior of the hull. You don't know the Fiberglass is there after epoxy is applied to it; the epoxy-covered Fiberglass cloth dries clear. Because it's made of plywood, the whole thing gets a coat of paint, too.
Johnson estimates that it takes about 80 hours to assemble the Miss Behavin' model and says no woodworking experience is required. He was assembling it last week in advance of The WoodenBoat Show in Mystic, Conn., June 22-24. It's one of the biggest in the country and Johnson is hoping it will help LRBBS make a splash in the boat-kit manufacturing world.
One aspect that sets Miss Behavin' apart from typical canoes is its dual pedal drive system: Passengers can power propellers attached to the back of the canoe by pedaling, similar to pedaling a recumbent bicycle.
The idea for the boat came out of Laurie McGowan's "Design Sketchbook" column for WoodenBoat magazine, the sponsor of the upcoming boat show. For each issue, McGowan, a Nova Scotia-based boat designer, takes a reader's idea for a "dream boat" and makes conceptual drawings and writes about it. The design for Miss Behavin' grew out of one of those columns. McGowan, who Johnson met years back at an international boat builders conference, is providing the plans for most of the boats Johnson will soon have for sale on his website, littlerockboatbuildersupply.com (only the kit for Miss Behavin', retailing from $2,150 to $2,450, is for sale now), and most come from concepts that originated in "Design Sketchbook."
Soon, Johnson plans to begin selling kits for the Laurentia, a 13-foot microcruiser sailboat, and, in the not-too-distant future, a 10-foot canoe made with thin strips of hardwood glued together around forms. He also wants to sell a sit-on-top kayak that he designed in hopes of taking it to the Everglades Challenge, an annual 300-mile small boat race from Tampa to Key Largo in Florida along the Gulf Coast. The boat will have a pedal drive and a kite sail option.
By the end of the year, Johnson hopes to have five models for sale. After two years, he hopes for 10 models, which might be the max, he said. For now, Johnson and his employees are still spending a lot of their time doing custom cabinetry jobs to keep LRBBS afloat, but Johnson said he's been surprised at how many walk-in customers have come in to buy sheets of plywood, epoxy or other boat building supplies that aren't easy to get in Central Arkansas. "There are a lot of boat builders out there," he said.