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Letter to Ted: Notes on the Joy of Making Things by Jon Belton

A dog sits in front of a wooden Redbird canoe with rural landscape in the backgroun

Jon Belton's heartfelt letter on the pleasure he's gotten from building boats over the years left us gratified to know we've played a role in his creative process. Jon kindly allowed us to repost the letter on our blog for the benefit of builders dreaming about the projects on their bucket list.

Hello Ted and Joan,

It must have been twenty-five years ago I sat on a park bench in Argyll, Scotland, staring in wonder at a woodstrip canoe, upside down on top of a Volvo roof rack. Every bloke that walked passed ran his hands along it – it was a visual and tactile sight to behold.  I vowed to make one someday, but life took over and it remained a memory. Ten years later, I signed up to do a canoe trip down the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson. The guy running the trip had your original Canoecraft book, and I couldn’t put it down.  I bought the book (later version) and started plotting and scheming, eventually buying another house simply because it had a workshop of suitable size.

At the time I was a social worker working with young offenders, but I had a history as a carpenter, albeit unqualified, as did my colleague, friend, and eventual boat building buddy Matt.  Both of us had spent time fitting out narrow boats for the canal system in England. I don’t know about Matt, but being an untrained carpenter meant each job, despite years of experience, involved a level of guesswork and working out from scratch.  Being a Capricorn I’m pretty rubbish at taking instruction, which meant taking on new projects was often a mental workout.

Jon Belton paddling a Redbird wooden canoe on Loch Awe

Jon paddles his Redbird on Loch Awe

Your  book was so precise and, dare I say, pedantic that I decided to treat myself and simply follow the instructions, word for word, page by page.  What a fantastic and liberating experience it was – I could enjoy the process without any head scratching.  Making the strongback was a joy.

We made the Redbird first, how could we not? It’s such a sexy shape. And it was, as you have mentioned, a tough one to do. But we succeeded and we learnt a lot. Tragedy nearly struck when we almost used the 206 resin hardener for the fibreglassing instead of the 207 but, hey, there had to be some near misses!

Jon Belton and his friend stand side by side in front of the three wooden boats they built together

Jon and Matt pose with their work

As you can see from the photo, we went on to build a Prospector and then a skiff (that’s me on the right, Matt on the left).  And so emboldened were we that we moved on to a lapstrake build, an Orkney Yole.  A significant project that is still ongoing. But grandchildren are growing fast and the need to make some wee woodstrip canoes for them is becoming imperative.

I guess my reason for this message is that for over ten years now I have derived significant pleasure both from building the three woodstrip boats, and from knowing that I have built three woodstrip boats. The pleasure continues even though I haven’t made one in the past five years.  And I would like to thank you very much for that; your book inspired and guided me, and my life and the joy of making things has been enhanced by that.

Cheers

Jon Belton

Lining up the mold stations for a Prospector canoe

Wooden Prospector canoe under construction with clamps all down the inner gunwale

Jon Belton sits in the stern of skiff with a woman in the bow

Bow detail showing mahogany and black walnut decks on a wooden skiff

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