Crafting a Legacy

A craftsman knows the rules, teaches Great Lakes Boat Building School Director Patrick Mahon, and when and how to break them. // Photography By Narayan Mahon
Boat School

North beyond the Mackinac Bridge and east into Michigan’s unhurried Upper Peninsula, the Great Lakes Boat Building School (GLBBS) is ideally situated in Cedarville’s scenic Les Cheneaux Islands. Here, the goal of the non-profit center is to foster quality wooden and wood composite boat-building skills to ensure that the rich maritime heritage of the Great Lakes continues.

It is a legacy of art and science.

“We talk about teaching and preserving ‘craftsmanship’ as part of our mission statement,” says Patrick Mahon in “Learning Curves,” an in-depth textbook the master boat builder wrote for the core two-year certificate program he designed and directs at GLBBS.

Housed in a facility designed for teaching, GLBBS also offers special interest Artisan Classes.

While the non-gender specific term defies simple definitions, Mahon notes that a craftsman must have a passion for his or her chosen craft, one that drives him or her to learn and honor its history. A craftsman develops an artist’s eye for aesthetics, he says, and an understanding of how to apply this level of artistry within the craft’s traditions. But a craftsman, who is creating an object of utility, must also remain mindful of its function or purpose, and of the end user or client’s needs and resources.

Boat School Interior of Boat

“A craftsman,” defines Mahon, “knows the rules, and when and how to break them.”

Such skills are proven at the Great Lakes Boat Building School, where 87 percent of GLBBS alumni have found placement in some aspect of commercial or personal wooden boat building at Michigan-based companies including Tiara Yachts, Van Dam Custom Boats and Brion Rieff, among others in state and out.

“It blew my mind to see the skills a couple students brought to my business after only one year at the school,” shares Brad Koster, owner of Mertaugh Boat Works in Hessel. “I immediately hired them both, full-time.”

Housed in a 12,000-square-foot facility designed specifically for the teaching of woodworking, basic design, traditional and modern boat building and yacht joinery, GLBBS is the only licensed proprietary school of its kind in the state. Beyond its educational programs for students pursuing careers in boat building and restoration industries, GLBBS also offers an extensive Workshop Program in Boat Building along with special interest Artisan Classes every summer.

Boat School - Sanding

This past summer — due to the popularity over the past two summers of the school’s Build Your Own Boat Series — GLBBS teamed with the Maritime Heritage Alliance (MHA) to hold two Chesapeake Light Craft (CLC) workshops at the MHA’s Grand Traverse Bay facility in Traverse City.

Participants this year, taught by Adam Burks, learned to build a wider, shorter kayak ideal for fly fishermen, birders and nature photographers, and a hollow, wooden paddleboard with kayak-style bow and twin fins. Other special summer classes offered ranged from building artisan paddles, a sassafras canoe and 8-foot hydro cocktail racer to metal casting and women’s woodworking.

To learn more about the Great Lakes Boat Building School educational programs, summer workshops and artisan classes, visit

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