Craft Culture: Great Northern Boatworks turns unusable boats into show pieces

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Great Northern Boatworks // Photo by Tj Turner

Along the eastern edge of a chewed-up dirt lot off Como Avenue in St. Paul, the pristine white bow of a Windsor Craft boat noses through a large garage door, reflecting the bright afternoon sun. It’s an odd place to spot a boat, considering there’s not a drop of water in sight.

The buildings around the lot, with their weathered brick and sheet-metal exteriors, once comprised the Oliver Farm Equipment foundry, but today they’re home to businesses like the Station 280 Sports Bar, Maypop Tires, and Great Northern Boatworks, a full-service shop for boat repair and restoration established in the spring of 2008. Co-owners Tim Weber, Theo Halvorson, and Russell Roque, all within an arm’s reach of 40, moved their business into this space in November 2015.

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The people behind Great Northern Boatworks are, L to R, Theo Halverson, Russel Roque, and Tim Weber // Photo by Tj Turner

“We chose this space,” says Weber, a New Brighton native who completed a boatbuilding apprenticeship in 2001 at the Arques School in San Francisco, “because it’s big, it’s cheap, and it has lots of light.” He pours coffee from a thermos and points to a long row of skylights in the exposed ceiling. In the background, electric saws and buffing machines scream. The Black Keys howl from a pair of speakers placed on a workbench among hand planes, bevel gauges, and tool belts.

“It’s also pretty hard to find a place that you can drive big things into,” adds Halvorson, a shipwright who began his career in 2003 at the Watergate Marina in St. Paul. Tall and soft-spoken, he nods at the giant garage door at the front of the shop. Originally just 8 feet long and 8 feet wide, they expanded the door to its current 15 foot by 14 foot size to accommodate the large boats moving in and out.

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Photo by Tj Turner

Prior to the move, Great Northern Boatworks occupied a much smaller space about a mile west down Como, across the train tracks from the Bunge grain elevator. Before that, in 2008 when they were just starting out, they shared a workspace in Frogtown with a now-defunct cabinet shop.

Those were lean days, says Roque, an animated Ontarian with a big, curling mustache and a background in home remodeling. When the recession hit in autumn 2008, business all but dried up. “We had enough boats in there to keep the shop open,” Roque says, “but we didn’t make any money that year.”

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Russel Roque // Photo by Tj Turner

Unwilling to abandon their dream just yet, the three co-owners, who had worked together for roughly five years at St. Paul Shipwrights before launching their business, all did odd jobs while waiting for business to return.

“We had a shop we could work out of,” Weber says, “so we did remodels and home renovations. I did a couple patios for people. And so we just kept on. We’re handy, so we can do other things if the boats aren’t there.”

Great Northern Boatworks caught a break in 2010 when Mahogany Bay—a business that stores and brokers vintage boats out of Winsted, Minnesota—signed on to source work for them. Since then, the trio and their four-person staff have kept busy year-round, completing annual maintenance on 10–15 boats each year, working on everything from kayaks to cruisers. To date they’ve performed about 100 major renovations and restorations together, often seeing the same boats again and again, sometimes even with new owners.

Next page: Step inside the shop

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About Brendan Kennealy

Brendan Kennealy is a writing and PR professional who lives and works in St. Paul. Find him on Twitter here: @extrapalemale.

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