Canoe building hobbyist Karl Koch of North Londonderry Township shows one of the many wooden vessels he’s made throughout the years. He currently enjoys fishing from this 15-foot red cedar strip canoe he built in 2008. (Lebanon Daily News)
Most people who want an item bad enough will break down, go out and buy it. Others, however, simply aren’t wired that way.
Karl Koch, age 75, certainly has a mind and drive of his own, for as long as the task is doable, he prefers to build whatever it is he wants with his own two hands. Take for example the four – soon to be five — wooden canoes the retired schoolteacher has built all by himself, just for fun.
Koch’s first canoe, a heavy canvas-hulled 15-footer, was finished in 1963 and lasted him nearly 50 years before giving it away to a younger man with a stronger back. Koch then built three more wooden crafts since 2005, and he’s currently working on a 14-foot strip canoe, which needs just a few more finishing touches.
“When I graduated from Penn State in 1961, a friend of mine bought an old broken canoe for $5 at a yard sale,” Koch explained. “It had a huge, gaping hole in the bottom, but he went out and fixed that thing and boy was it beautiful.
“For two years, I marveled over my friend’s canoe, until one day I decided I would build my own. So I bought a 35-cent canoe building plan I saw advertised in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and that’s how it all began.”
As Koch sat on a shaded bench outside his family’s North Londonderry Township home the talented handyman recalled the mistakes he made on his first canoe.
“I used a table saw to cut the boards, which wasted lumber. I sanded some spots too thinly, and if I hit a rock, that canvas started taking on water fast,” he explained. “It wasn’t sealed right.”
But over the years Koch solidly patched up the old canoe so it no longer leaked and the boat really handled well.
Canoe Two: Later, he started in on his second project, a watertight plywood bind-and-seal kit canoe, which he gave this one to his niece.
Canoe Three: His next was a strip canoe, Koch said. “They are lighter, more beautiful, and you have more flexibility in building exactly what you want.”
“The whole process takes about 200 hours depending on how hard you want to work at it,” said Koch. “I really wanted a red cedar canoe, and to me, it didn’t matter how long it took, so I just built one.”
But even this third attempt did not completely satisfy the mindset of the always-improving craftsman. He found that he built the gunwales a little too high for his liking, and they caught the wind too much, making the craft a bit tippy. He gave this one to his son and started over again with a few adjustments.
Canoe Four: On his fourth attempt, Koch got it right. The lower-riding 15-footer he now uses is perfect for him to handle, it steers well and is light enough for him to portage to the water using the wooden wheel and axle system he rigged up for easy transport.
It has a self-woven deer rawhide seat, custom-built kayak-style paddles, and it perfectly clears the back of Koch’s little Volkswagen Jetta, which he uniquely uses for transferring his wooden vessel to various local lakes, streams and rivers.
“I fish this one pretty hard, as you can see from the nicks on the Kevlar scratch pads,” said Koch. “It’s muddy and dinged up pretty good, but it looks beautiful when it’s wet, and that’s when it really matters.”
Canoe Five: As for Koch’s fifth canoe in progress, which currently resides in his shop among an assortment of homemade snowshoes, woven milkweed ropes and “hobo-style” camp stoves, it may well be his last stint at canoe building.
“I think this might be my final one, but you never know,” Koch said with a smile. “I’m just a farm kid at heart, and I’d rather work with my hands than watch television. Building stuff is in my blood.”
Reported by TYLER FRANTZ of The (Lebanon) Daily News from NORTH LONDONDERRY TOWNSHIP, Pennsylvania.