Is there any conceivable reason to pay $100,000 for a canoe? Seriously? Dear reader, the answer is yes, if it’s made by Trent Preszler, the Founder of the Preszler Woodshop on the North Fork of Long Island.
His canoes are objects of great beauty, made from hundreds of layers of sustainable timber, and his story is one that will inspire you to find the maker that lives inside us all.
Last week the Dandelion Chandelier Style Council made a field trip to the North Fork of Long Island. We kept hearing that there were interesting developments in the world of luxury quietly unfolding there, and we decided to investigate.
Trent was our guide, and we couldn’t have asked for a better person to reveal the secret North Fork to us. A native of South Dakota, a PhD from Cornell, a botanist, a CEO, a restorer of an old truck, a photographer, a voyager, and a craftsman, Trent is someone you could happily spend hours with: he speaks like a poet, in lyrical, beautifully-crafted sentences; he has an incredible eye for design; he’s seen a great deal of the world; and is also one of the most genuine and sincere people you could ever hope to meet.
Yes, we do have a big crush on him.
After a morning at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, where he’s been the CEO since 2002 (more about that in another post), we drove to the charming hamlet of Mattituck to see his other workplace.
The Preszler Workshop is headquartered in a little cedar shed just off Love Lane that seems to have been sent straight from Central Casting: unfinished wood-beam ceiling, walls lined with shelves upon which sit power tools, rusted license plates from South Dakota and a pair of elk antlers. We later learned that the structure was originally a barn built in 1820; it was the home of the Mattituck Village Blacksmith. So the entire spirit of the place is about being a maker.
Filling almost the entire woodshop? Four works in progress: hand-made canoes in the making, each one distinct and with a dazzling artistic vision that will make them completely original in the boat/woodworking world.
Each boat is constructed from hundreds of hand-cut wood strips, and each one takes over a year to make. The seats are wrapped in hemp and leather, and the fittings are made of bronze. They’re completely functional vessels, sturdy enough to take out on the water, and also so well-crafted that they can be passed down from one generation to the next.
–The “veneer” canoe will be constructed like a typical cedar canoe, and then covered in a thin veneer of sliced cross-sections of Siberian Larch logs, so when completed, it will look like a canoe carved from logs. Trent noted that “in a sense, that’s an homage to the historic practice of Native American dugout canoes.”
–My eye lit immediately on the “Ombré” canoe: it’s a gorgeous sweep of caramel colors, from toasty brown to milky white. Trent explained: “it’s made from successively darker shades of wood leading from the top of the canoe (sheerline) to the bottom (keel).” He’s using six different types of timber to create it: Basswood (AKA Linden Tree), Alaskan Yellow Cedar, Western Red Cedar, Peruvian Walnut, Black Walnut, and Mexican Ziricote. He never stains the wood, so the colors are true to nature. It’s absolutely stunning. In Trent’s words: “This one will appear to rise gradually from the water – and perhaps on a foggy day even blend in with the landscape like an ombré camouflage. This canoe was inspired by ‘gloaming’ – my favorite color, the pink-blue transition at the horizon between ocean and sky.” Wow.
–A third seems even more whimsical and ambitious artistically: a canoe that, when completed, will appear to have been made from bricks of wood. It’s being made with Western Red Cedar and Walnut, with strips of white Basswood as the “mortar” to separate the dark woods into bricks. Trent explained: “I want it to literally look like floating bricks; it’s an ironic statement about modern man’s insistence on building everything higher and bigger and taller. The NYC skyline defies comprehension to me and I often ask myself ‘How do those tall buildings support their own massive weight?’ And I feel the same way about massive cruise ships – like how is it even possible? So I set out to make a ‘brick’ canoe to explore some of these same questions of engineering, design, and industrial materials.”
–The fourth is the stunning “feather” canoe: an intricate working of strips of Zebrawood (a rare West African hardwood) into a basket-weave pattern resembling a bird’s feathers. There will be “whale tail” cutouts on the ends made from Black Walnut. Trent’s enthusiasm for this one is infectious: “It’s going to be luxe beyond belief in every way. I chose Zebrawood because of its grain patterns, but also because it was used by Mercedes-Benz on their car dashboards and interior trim in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and was for a moment mid-century considered THE most luxurious wood. Because of Mercedes, basically the species was over-harvested and is now extremely rare and expensive and no longer used much in commercial productions. This canoe is a nod to the luxury excesses of the world midcentury, before sustainability was a ‘thing.’ I’m planning to hand-carve the top railings of this canoe to look like actual braided thick marine ropes, and it will have solid bronze trim, and seats made from Argentinian polo pony saddle leather.” As he describes it, I can already see this “feather” canoe just flying across the water.
How did this operation come into existence? Trent explains that his father was a rancher in South Dakota, and he grew up on the frontier (he literally attended classes in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie). When his father passed away in 2014, he left behind a workshop full of tools. After ruminating on what to do with them, and how to use them in a way that honored his father’s memory, while watching the finale of the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, Trent had an epiphany. The show ends with a character getting into a canoe and paddling toward the horizon. He decided at that moment: “I’m going to make a canoe.”
‘Cause why not, right? Isn’t that what you would have concluded?
He taught himself the craft of woodworking, and devoted his free time to creating his first boat. In his living room. Asked to elaborate, Trent explained: “I leaned heavily on the book Canoecraft, written by Ted Moores from Bear Mountain Boats in Peterborough, Ontario. I also traveled to Ontario to take a master class immersion with Ted, and tried to absorb as much knowledge as I could. Ted has been making canoes for over 40 years and he even made a canoe in 1981 that was the official wedding gift from the Canadian Government to Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer. I couldn’t have learned from a better person.”
Because he’s an explorer, Trent uncovered many elements of woodworking and boat-building that were totally new to me. For example, in Japan, there is a real reverence for trees, which are believed to have their own spirits. When a master carpenter there begins the process of cutting down a tree, he first prays “I vow to commit no act that will extinguish the life of this tree.” The tree must be put to good use, otherwise a crime against nature will have been committed.
Even in an ancient craft, there’s room for modernity. Trent noted that while building his woodworking skills, “my biggest source of inspiration and encouragement [was] the woodworking community on Instagram. I have made dozens of new friends on Instagram all around the world who share passions for woodworking and wooden boats. There is no ‘can’t do’ in this community. All I get is encouragement and friendly advice and inspiration, any time I put an idea out there for the group to consider. I’ve met many of these people in real life, too, and it felt like we’ve been friends for a long time.”
Making the North Fork of Long Island home base has also helped him stay close to a community of makers: there are other wooden boat builders on the North Fork; for example, Greenport Wooden Boatworks is a huge player in the large wooden yacht market, making $2 million wooden sailboats for ultra-high-net-worth clients.
The Preszler Workshop Instagram gallery is filled with the kinds of stunning images that can only result when a well-traveled outdoorsman also has a way with a camera lens. You’ll never think about a canoe quite the same way again: all memories of aluminum summer-camp versions will be erased, and you’ll start to see these ancient boats as emblems of self-sufficiency, exploration, solitude, and freedom itself.
The woodshop also illustrates a larger trend in the realm of luxury: in an era of fast fashion, virtual reality and ideas that move at light speed, there’s a market for the artisanal that goes well beyond food and drink. Bespoke shoes; handmade skis, custom-blended fragrances – all are markers of the deep desire for the authentic, the unique, the slow, the enduring. It’s easy to caricature the “Brooklyn” aesthetic of hand-crafted everything. But there’s something precious and admirable about people who are willing to take the time to learn ancient skills, to burrow into their local milieu and find ways to create sustainable and beautiful objects, to create a community of makers and consumers who respect tradition; to get their hands dirty.
Trent’s creative output is extraordinary, and we wondered if he had any advice for mere mortals like us as we strive for the right balance of creativity and pragmatism in our lives. His response? “I live by the credo ‘Little and often makes much.’ If you do just a little bit every day, at the end of the year, you’ve made a boat.”
If you visit the Preszler Woodshop website (and you should) you’ll find poems about the water, the sky, and life itself that will move you to tears and leave you feeling hopeful for really no reason at all. It’s the same way that one might feel in a canoe made lovingly by hand, setting out on a journey in the brightness of a new morning, open to whatever the day brings.