Lazy River’s Artful Canoes

These gallery-worthy showstoppers from craftsman Jim Dodd are turning heads on the water.

Not all canoes are created equal, and master woodcrafter Jim Dodd, owner of Lazy River Canoes in Buchanan, is proving that point. Dodd specializes in hand-built solo wood strip canoes, which he says are traditional in “big water” states in the north and west, but not commonly seen in Virginia.

A few times a year, Dodd hitches six of his finest varnished beauties onto a trailer to show off at festivals, where they never fail to turn heads. “These canoes stop people in their tracks; most folks around here have never seen one before,” says Dodd. “Everyone asks if I really can put them in the water,” he laughs.

Unquestionably gorgeous, with glossy, elegant curves and alternating wood grains and hues, Dodd’s gallery-worthy canoes are indeed intended to be enjoyed as boats. “I work hard to make them pretty, but these babies are tough, and if treated right, they will provide a lifetime of enjoyment on the water,” says Dodd. “I guarantee anyone who paddles one will get lots of compliments,” he adds.

Dodd, a self-described “river rat” who grew up in Salem, began making canoes about seven years ago, after retiring from a lifelong career as a furniture builder. When he was younger, he would unwind on a lake or river after work, floating alone in his aluminum Grumman to hook a few catfish. “I got tired of lifting that heavy metal canoe by myself up on my Jeep,” he sighs, “so I thought maybe I should build the boat I really wanted.”

That boat was a lightweight cedar strip canoe, like the one that caught his eye 20 years earlier while paddling on the James River, prompting him to buy the book that later taught him everything he needed to know, Featherweight Boatbuilding: A Woodenboat Book, by Henry McCarthy. “I was working 50 hours a week, so I toted that book around for years before I ever had time to open it,” he says.

Retirement finally gave him time. He cleaned up his former furniture shop—a 34-by-60-foot woodworker’s dream located beside the Buchanan mountainside home he built himself—and began applying a lifetime of skills to build his first canoe, a 40-pound, 13-foot sturdy favorite, which remains his first choice for private use.“My hands can’t be idle—I have to create things,” says Dodd. That explains the 14 canoes that quickly followed, each possibly more beautiful than the one before. Dodd spends at least 200 hours building each boat, not including the design, which he says often comes to him when he’s half-dreaming at night. One canoe, Sweet Baby Jane, is just 9-feet, 3-inches, and 21 pounds, making it incredibly easy to carry.

“These canoes stop people in their tracks; most folks around here have never seen one before.” —Jim Dodd

“Anyone can see these canoes are different,” says Dodd, who mills both sides of each thin strip of cedar, cherry, pine, walnut, or mahogany himself and then glues them together to create an interlocking ball and cove system that requires no nails or staples. Fiberglass cloth bonded with multiple layers of epoxy and marine spar varnish creates a richly hued vessel that is beautiful, lightweight, and durable enough to navigate through anything but rocky rapids. Dodd’s favorite? The light pine-starred 13-foot 4-inch Flagship 2, with unusual woodgrain stripes that wrap around as though flapping in the wind, listed at a bargain price of $5,000. “It’s so beautiful,” he grins, “I’m not even sure I can part with it.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue.

Jill Devine
I’m a Northern Virginia-based freelance writer specializing in human interest stories and business profiles.
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