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UW-Madison Art Students Learn Boatbuilding Skills Firsthand

February 24, 2005
Barbara Wolff, 608-262-8292 bjwolff@wisc.edu

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MADISON - Are we in a dockyard or an art studio?

You'd be hard pressed to answer at the moment, for master boatbuilder Josh Swan is in residence in the seventh-floor woodworking studio at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Swan, owner and founder since 2003 of JW Swan Boatworks in Madison, is a classically trained boatbuilder who earned his boatbuilding chops at the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, R.I. He says that since opening his shop in 2003 he has built an 18-foot lapstrake rowboat for a client in Middleton, and he also has done a good deal of restoration work, mostly wood-and-canvas canoes, and a fair bit of custom woodworking.

"I was drawn to boats as a vehicle to learn about traditional woodworking - I figured if I could learn how to build a boat from wood, I would be able to transfer those skills to anything else I might want to do," says Swan, who has been building wooden boats for about five years. "Turns out, I fell in love with working on boats, and I don't want to earn a living doing anything else."

He and about 10 students - "They drop in and out, depending on who has the time," Swan says - are carrying out all the steps of constructing a 13.5-foot Maine "peapod" rowboat.

The craft, so named because its matching ends make it look like a peapod, is made in the traditional style of cedar planking on an oak frame. Today, about six students are engaged in steam bending, a process in which wood is made soft and pliable by spending time in a tube and exposed to steam.

Swan and his crew already have fitted some of the "ribs" of the little boat. In its present state it looks like a prehistoric skeleton proudly displayed in a museum.

"I hope that the students pick up some of the techniques unique to boat construction, since the skills involved in boatbuilding are very relevant to furniture design and sculpture," he says.

Annika Oshio, a senior majoring in art with designs on graduate school some day, works in the wood shop as a safety monitor. She's also been very involved with the construction of the peapod.

"Josh emphasizes he's not an artist - it's kind of ironic that he's in residence in the art department," she says. "He sees himself as a craftsperson, and I like the fact that his pieces are more pragmatic - I can't see dedicating months or years to a really expensive piece that's just for show. It's been inspiring for me to see that Josh is able to apply his training and make a living at it.

"It's good to know that in the end, the boat will work," she adds.

And in the end, the boat, which Swan will be working on until about Saturday, March 12, in 7241 Mosse Humanities Building, also will be sold, he says.

"My hope is that my customers use their boats and use them often," he says.

For more information, contact -
Joshua Swan, j_swan@sbcglobal.net

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