Jay Larson’s handcrafted wooden vessels get people on the water
Jay Larson owns Cedarfish Boat Co., which he started four years ago after becoming a full-time woodworker.
Living in Seattle — the only major U.S. city apart from Madison built on an isthmus — Jay Larson was frequently near the water. “Growing up I spent a lot of time on the water either in boats or swimming or playing in the water,” Larson says.
Now as an adult residing in Madison, Larson is still near the water, but he traded saltwater for freshwater, Seattle’s isthmus for Madison’s and, instead of sitting in boats, he’s building them.
Larson owns Cedarfish Boat Co., which he started four years ago after becoming a full-time woodworker. His first experience with the woodworking craft came in high school, where he won the Washington Award for Vocational Excellence based on his woodworking. After college, he worked in consulting for eight years and largely put his art practice aside. “After that I became a teacher, and during that time I started woodworking again,” Larson says.
For the past eight years, Larson has called Madison home. He taught math for a while until starting Cedarfish and pivoting from teaching. “[I] just decided that I wanted to do more woodworking, so [I] made a career change — took a big leap to become a boat builder,” Larson says.
Larson joined The Bodgery, an east-side makerspace with more than 400 members. Woodworking can involve a lot of expensive tools; most of the members are woodworkers using donated equipment or tools purchased through fundraising or by The Bodgery. The wood shop is also home to one of the world’s biggest saws housed in a makerspace.
“I had looked into having my own shop somewhere and the startup costs to acquire the tools that we have here was pretty prohibitive,” Larson says, adding that The Bodgery not only provides access to tools, but also the expertise of the other members who collaborate and provide advice on different projects. “We have enough expertise within our community that they’ll help each other.”
One of Larson’s recent projects was a trailer that one of the jewelers at The Bodgery could use to transport her wares to markets. Larson and another woodworker made a cart using a child’s bike trailer and the jeweler painted it. When Larson worked on a drift boat last year and needed to make an anchor, one member helped build a mold and another showed Larson how to get metal to the right melting temperature.
At The Bodgery, Larson has a studio space and access to most of the tools he needs to create projects within his three primary areas of woodworking: boat building, timber framing and custom furniture. Boat building is his main focus, but he started creating timber frames last year after taking a course at North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota, and building a cabin for his mother-in-law. He’s currently working on another timber frame for a garden shed.
“It’s been a lot of fun to get involved in timber framing in the last few months starting last summer, but it’s pretty physically difficult just moving the timbers around,” Larson says. “I definitely have enjoyed doing a variety of projects.”
Larson is also making a bespoke food cart, pieces of custom furniture — including walnut live-edge floating shelves he recently finished — a bike trailer and an expedition open-water rowboat. He’ll occasionally work on smaller projects, too. Larson operates Canis Studios on Etsy, along with fellow woodworker Jim Fortner, to sell things like cutting boards, clocks and boxes.
“It’s really fun to work on a small project that I can finish in a week or two,” Larson says. “Some of these take 100 hours or more.”
Boats were Larson’s first creations and remain his favorite projects. Handcrafting wooden boats can be incredibly challenging, he says.
There’s a lot to consider. He says the boats have to be stable, buoyant and keep the water out. Apart from the construction, he has to decide how the boat is propelled — most of his boats are human-powered. One thing he enjoys is problem-solving and figuring out how to make everything structurally sound.
“There’s sort of a tradeoff between the cost of the boat, the stability of the boat [and] the speed of the boat, and it’s pretty difficult to have a cheap boat that’s highly stable and very fast,” Larson says. “As you make the boat longer, the cost increases. As you make it wider, it displaces more water and it becomes more stable — but then there’s other issues that arise, too.”
Larson has taken three classes at Maine’s WoodenBoat School, which teaches woodworking, boat building, kayaking, metalworking and more. He says that after classes are done each day, the students are able to get out on the water using their boats to understand the designs of the watercrafts. He’s also met other boatbuilders who have become resources and sounding boards.
Larson is taking another class in Maine this summer focused on design-related boat building to continue advancing his skill set. He’s largely created boats based on others’ proven designs, but next he wants to create an expedition-style rowboat based on his own plans as he works. Larson’s goal is to design and build a boat that could win the Seventy48 race, a human-powered boat race in Washington that has competitors travel 70 miles in the Salish Sea from Tacoma to Port Townsend in 48 hours.
Maija Inveiss is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.
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