Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Story by Benjamin Lerner
Photography courtesy Adirondack Guideboat
When Adirondack-style guideboats were first developed in the mid 1800s, they were designed as sturdy transport boats that could move hunters and fishermen quickly through the Adirondack mountain lakes with all of their gear on board.
In the latter part of the 19th century, the tourism industry in the Adirondack Lakes region was booming. Wealthy vacationers would journey to the mountains of upstate New York to escape from the stresses of city life. Large lakefront estates were built where vacationing elites could enjoy the breathtaking scenery up close.
Many of these tourists flocked to the Adirondacks with the dream of going on a rejuvenating fishing or hunting voyage through the bucolic mountain wilderness. Local game guides were hired by visitors to serve as knowledgeable experts about local terrain and wildlife and to provide comfortable transport on expeditions through the mountains and lakes. In order to create a pleasant experience for their affluent and selective clients, game guides needed a boat that was durable, efficient, and light enough to carry. The Adirondack guideboat was a natural choice—it was a stable and speedy vessel that combined the best attributes of rowboats and canoes, and cut through the water like a hot knife through butter even in windy conditions.
At the time, the road systems in the Adirondacks were underdeveloped, and the mountain roads that did exist were treacherous, unpaved, and ill suited for travel by horse and carriage. Boats played a crucial role in the transportation networks within the Adirondack region. More than a century later, the owners of Adirondack Guideboat in Ferrisburgh, Vermont are continuing the legacy of utilitarian boat craftsmanship. They have taken full advantage of present-day technological advances to maximize production, and they successfully adapted to contemporary challenges as the leisure boating industry continues to evolve.
With more than 40 years of combined boatbuilding experience, Adirondack Guideboat’s owners Ian and Justin Martin have developed an innovative way to integrate traditional boatmaking techniques with modern production procedures and equipment. In doing so, they’ve created a hybrid of old and new build methods, resulting in a product that is both strikingly beautiful and durable for years to come.
Ian and Justin got their start in the boatmaking industry working at Mad River Canoe in Waitsfield, Vermont after graduating high school. The Martin brothers were intrigued by learning a skilled trade and working with their hands. They worked hard, demonstrated initiative, and quickly rose through the ranks of the company. According to Justin, by the age of 19, they were department heads on the production floor of Mad River Canoe’s facility. During their time at Mad River Canoe, they became experts at fast-paced boat production using Royalex vinyl composite materials. When Mad River Canoe moved down to North Carolina, they offered the Martin brothers a job at their new location, but after careful consideration, the brothers turned it down to stay in Vermont and to keep doing what they loved in their home state.
After leaving Mad River Canoe in 2001, Ian and Justin began working at Adirondack Guideboat, where they apprenticed under former owners Steve Kaulback and David Rosen. Here, they learned the intricacies and subtleties of wooden boatmaking and transitioned from the fast-paced production of composite boats to the slower pace of the pair’s Adirondack Guideboat operation. The Martin brothers took this time to strengthen their boatbuilding skills, learning crucial nuances of the craft and refining their woodworking abilities. Eleven years later, in 2012, David Rosen sold the company to Justin and Ian, one year after Steve Kaulback stepped away. The Martin brothers grabbed the reins with enthusiasm.
Ian and Justin pride themselves on the versatility and efficiency of their boatmaking process. When they first started at Adirondack Guideboat, Justin recalls, “There were less than 100 synthetic Kevlar boats made per year. Since then, we’ve greatly increased those production numbers to more
than 300 during our biggest year to date. We used to just focus on composite boatbuilding at Mad River Canoe, but working here at Adirondack Guideboat—and now owning the business has certainly made it so that we’ve gotten to know it all. We’ve probably built 50 to 60 wooden boats now, as well as more than 3,500 Kevlar boats.”
To construct their Kevlar boats, the brothers begin by building the hull in a custom-built boat mold. First, the sides of the mold are cleaned to prevent damage to the hull, they then dry-fit a 6-ounce fiberglass cloth into the mold, and hand-roll a pigmented polyester resin evenly into the cloth. The resin soaks through the porous fiberglass cloth, where the smooth surface of the mold gives it a bold and lustrous finish as it hardens overnight, forming the shape of the hull. After the initial polyester resin skin coat, two layers of Kevlar are applied, as well as structural pieces, adding strength and durability to the boat frame. When the skin coat and Kevlar dry, flotation tanks and seat risers are added in, and the interior is finished with a gel coat.
After a total of three days in the mold, the boat is ready to be taken out. Using a pressurized air hose and padded vice grips, they deftly work the boat free from the mold without damaging it. Next, they use clamps and epoxy glue to attach wooden reinforcing edges to the sides and ends of the boat. They then add wooden floorboards, seat bases, and seat backs. The hull and protective skid-plates on the bottom of the boat are coated with an additional black gel coat, and the boatmaking process is then complete.
The most popular boat made by the Martin brothers is the “Dory,” a sturdy and comfortable 14-foot-long model that provides a smooth and stable ride. Modeled after the original wooden guideboats, they also make a 15-foot traditional Adirondack- style guideboat. Even lighter, for solo adventures, is their 12-foot, 37-pound pack-boat.
While the Martin brothers have successfully expanded Adirondack Guideboat’s Kevlar boat operation to keep up with increasing demand, they have also perfected and streamlined their wooden boatbuilding process. The 400-hour process begins with the structure, which they build upside down on special workshop frames, using wooden parts that are custom cut in their workshop. According to Ian, “We start with the pine bottom board at the center of the frame and then add curved ribs made of spruce wood on the side to form the boat’s structure. The ribs are curved through a process of steam-bending, where heated water vapor is used to soften the pieces and bend them. This creates the form for the shape of the boat.”
They then add the spruce-wood stem of the boat on the front end. Once the structure of the boat is complete, the sides are filled in with long western cedar wood strips, which are added piece by piece with nearly 700 screws and layers of epoxy adhesive in-between.
Once the sides are set, the finish work begins. The gunwales are connected around the edges to reinforce the boat, and the seats are added in. The process of sanding and varnishing begins, giving the boats a magically brilliant luster and gloss. Once finished, each boat is coated with a thin, protective layer of fiberglass, which increases the fortitude and longevity of the hull. Justin and Ian are quick to admit that they are not practitioners of the entirely “traditional” Adirondack guideboat method that eschews all modern, synthetic materials in favor of a more natural approach. They take pride in delivering a top-quality product to the customer that uses modern compounds in its construction for fortification purposes. In the spirit of sharing the joy of wooden boatbuilding, the Martins have also started selling do-it-yourself kits for those who want to take on the project at home. It’s an opportunity for customers to take part in the boatbuilding process, and offers them a deep sense of connection to the finished product.
For approximately a quarter of the price, a customer can get the unassembled raw materials, and for roughly half the price, clients can get a partially assembled boat
and do the finishing touches themselves. The kits come with detailed written instructions on how to build and care for your boat, as well as access to priceless technical support from Ian and Justin themselves. As Justin puts it, “Building these boats is a tough and complicated process. Anyone who buys a kit can call us whenever they need help. If it’s a Sunday night and they just glued something up and think they messed up big time, they can call us, and we can tell them what to do.”
Justin and Ian have already found repeat customers for the do-it-yourself boatmaking kits, including one customer in Rochester, who Justin says is building one for each of his grandchildren. “It’s something that he wants to leave for them that they can have forever, an heirloom that he himself put 300 hours into,” he explains.
The brothers feel a sense of connection to their products and a responsibility to their customers, often embarking on cross-country journeys to deliver boats. They bring with them sample boats for others to try out at stops along the way. Adirondack Guideboat also has a loyal following on social media. Justin explains, “We send out emails and post on social media to notify people where we’ll be traveling. We give them the option to come and test-drive the boats, and we go out of our way to make it happen. When we go on a delivery run to Florida, if we send out an email and a customer replies and says they’re on the way in Georgia and that they want to try one of our boats, even if that customer is not sure that they are going to buy one, we’ll still stop as close as we can to let them try one out.”
Just as the original game guide pilots of the 19th century shared the joy of the area’s lakes with visitors, Ian and Justin Martin work long hours to create an enjoyable boating experience for all of their clients. With every carefully laid piece of wood and every dab of polyester resin applied, they are not only building a boat, they are also building a bridge from the past to the future. The Martin brothers have given a storied boatmaking tradition new life in the present day, pushing the craft forward and preserving its legacy for generations to come.
6821 US Route 7
North Ferrisburgh, VT 05473