Boat builders celebrate once-prevalent tradition

At the Library in May
May 1, 2013
Andrew J. Cantrelle
May 2, 2013
At the Library in May
May 1, 2013
Andrew J. Cantrelle
May 2, 2013

A few times a week, Donald LeBoeuf can be found among the wooden boats housed at the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boat Building in Lockport.

LeBoeuf, of Mathews, has enjoyed giving museum tours to visitors and discussing characteristics of the different wooden boats on display for two years. When he’s not busy with tourists, LeBoeuf is engaging in one of his favorite pastimes, crafting items out of wood – and at the center, his project is a 12-foot pirogue.

Constructed of quarter-inch thick plywood, the pirogue will be painted in a drab color for camouflaging the boat from view during duck hunting before being auctioned off at the Bateaux de Bois Festival, the center’s festival celebrating the art and culture of wooden boatbuilding, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. May 11 in Lockport.

“I’ve been around wooden boats all my life,” LeBoeuf says. His father owned wooden boats, including an oyster boat converted into an oilfield lugger (which hauled equipment to the drilling rigs), as well as a boat repair yard in Buras.

“That’s where I learned about wooden boatbuilding. I got to see how old-time carpenters went about changing a board,” says LeBoeuf, who also learned welding and machining from the boat yard. The woodworking and other skills have come in handy as he’s also helped his brother build a 25-foot sailing vessel and a steel-hulled oilfield lugger. He still uses those skills to maintain or repair equipment in the center’s boat building workshop.

“I like woodworking, and I like wooden boats; I love them,” he says. “It’s the pleasure of working with the wood and the challenge of putting something together that will be functional and will be well put together.”

The retired boat captain has built cypress cabinets and a dining table with a natural cypress top for his home, and enjoys crafting smaller projects like little “what-not” boxes with dovetail or boxtail joints and turning ballpoint pens. He enjoys the challenge of building items that showcase the beautiful grain patterns.

As he discusses various boats under construction by the boat building class, LeBoeuf’s deep appreciation for beautiful and quality wood is obvious. He points out the tight grain patterns of sunken cypress, planks cut from logs that have sat under water for many, many years.

Although a volunteer and not a member of the class, LeBoeuf enjoys the camaraderie of the center’s Monday-night boat building class, watching the progress of other boat builders and lending a hand if necessary. “You can always use an extra pair of hands” when building a boat, LeBoeuf says, and he learns more tips and tricks from instructor Danny Weimer, local carpenter and general handyman.

The class has three boat builders enrolled, two of whose skiffs are coming along nicely – one made of that sunken cypress plank wood, the other of plywood and Spanish cedar that should be ready for showing at the boat building festival – and a third who has only gotten as far as crafting three ribs for a flat boat.

Wooden boatbuilding is part of the regional cultural heritage, says Joseph T. Butler, center director. Many wooden boat owners from the region are expected to bring their traditional watercrafts – pirogues and putt putt boats — out to Bayouside Park and to line Main Street for the festival. Putt putt boats were the first motorized boats, used for everything from fishing and hunting to hauling logs out of the swamp.

Not only will festivalgoers be able to view the museum’s collection of nostalgic wooden boats for free, but the center’s 27-foot sailing lugger will also be on display. The lugger, a vessel design that once was quite common for harvesting seafood in southeast Louisiana, was built at Nicholls State University before the center moved to Lockport three years ago. Luggers were converted for oilfield use by adding a cabin and a false deck for carrying heavy equipment.

The festival will also feature craftsmen demonstrating their skills in splitting shingles, building cisterns, making nets, forging metal, tying flies in a traditional manner and carving ducks. Storytellers and musical entertainment will be showcased, local vendors will sell traditional carvings and paintings, and Cajun food will be available.

Funds raised from the festival help finance the center’s projects. Butler is also hoping the festival will inspire people who appreciate wooden boats to volunteer their time and talents to the center. But those interested in woodworking and giving tours aren’t the only talents welcome: Someone with computer skills would be valuable in helping build a database of the center’s inventory of exhibits and promoting the center on the Internet.

The festival is from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., May 11 in downtown Lockport. Admission is free.

For more information on the festival or the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boat Building, call (985) 532-5106. The center is open 10 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturdays.

Donald LeBoeuf discusses work remaining not he 12-foot pirogue he’s building for auction at the Bateaux de Bois Festival May 11 in Lockport.