Mackinac Island Boat Builder

Mackinac Island wood boat builder, Roman “Emory” Barn- well, is a man for all seasons. // Photography by Jennifer L. Wohletz
Mackinac Island - boat rides

For some, the best path is the one less traveled. And Roman Emory Barnwell — Emory to friends — knows that well. He’s a master wood boat builder on Mackinac Island.

Barnwell has a degree in forestry from the University of Montana. He later earned a degree with distinction from the International Boatbuilding Training College in Lowestoft, England, which teaches traditional boatbuilding and joinery courses, as well as woodworking skills and maritime crafts.

For the past 10 years, Barnwell has been building boats the traditional way.

“Working with wood is wonderful,” Barnwell said. “It’s a natural material, it’s durable and it’s proven. Anybody that’s seen a varnished deck — it’s timeless.”

Barnwell Boatworks

Barnwell Boatworks is housed in the old coal dock warehouse on Mackinac Island. His family has lived on the island for three generations. His 90-year-old grandmother owns and still runs the Hotel Iroquois.

“I grew up in Harbor Springs, on the water, always on the water. I was also an art student and loved wood classes,” Barnwell said. “(Boat building) is just a combination of all my interests.”

Barnwell can design, construct or restore almost any type of wooden boat. His favorite so far is a 16-foot runabout call Sea Sea, a speedboat with classic lines. His biggest project was restoring the 32-foot racing sloop Bernida, the sailboat that won the inaugural Bayview Mackinac race in 1925. Bernida is now on display at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven.

Barnwell Boatworks

Robert Brown of St. Ignace was an early Barnwell Boatworks customer.

“He designed and built a couple of these Whitehall-type rowing boats, which I always loved and thought I would enjoy rowing in the Les Cheneaux Islands, where I have a cottage,” Brown said. “It rows beautifully. He is as good as any shipwright I’ve seen and doesn’t take years to build them.”

Barnwell took on other types of woodwork last winter — to pay the bills, he said laughing. He repaired an antique carriage for the Grand Hotel. The commission paid good money and was just as demanding.

Barnwell cutting wood

“The (carriage) I was working on was built in 1902, and a lot of the joinery and actual construction was very similar,” Barnwell said. “They just have different names for the parts and pieces.”

The work came from Dan Musser, the hotel’s owner and someone Barnwell calls his biggest benefactor.

“We both love the island … it is our home and we embrace it,” Musser said.

Musser also offered Barnwell another unique opportunity last winter — a stand of 120- to 140-year-old northern white cedar, a wood exceptionally good for boat building. Getting his hands on such a large amount was special, Barnwell said. He now has a stack of 20-foot cedar planks that are drying and will be used to build a boat for a new customer.

Barnwell Boatworks, Mackinac Island

“Helping Emory build one of the things I also adore, boats, on Mackinac and now with potentially wood from the island is very exciting,” Musser said. “More importantly, his craftsmanship in making something that is functional, fun and beautiful is a joy to watch.”

Barnwell also built himself a wooden house on the island’s bluffs, overlooking the Straits of Mackinac. He can’t imagine growing bored.

“My passion has only increased,” Barnwell said. “The projects are so different, I always feel like I’m making new things and learning new things.”

To see more of Barnwell’s work, go to

Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki is a sailing enthusiast and retired Detroit Free Press reporter.

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