From Woodworking Novices to Canoe Paddle Pros

Sanborn Canoe Company has quickly become one of the darlings of the outdoor industry.

“When we started out, we didn’t know a thing about woodworking”, Todd Randall says as he switches on a table saw and dons some ear protection. “We learned as we went and got a lot of advice from our grandfather.”

This statement is surprising coming from a guy standing in the middle of a well-equipped woodshop surrounded by dozens of canoe paddles in various states of completion. But Randall and his cousin, Zak Fellman, must have been fast learners because their business, Sanborn Canoe Company, has quickly become one of the darlings of the outdoor industry, with their handmade wooden paddles selling across the country and drawing the attention of established names like Filson and Jack Daniels, with whom they have collaborations in the works.


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If you were to set out to design a trendy new outdoor brand, you’d probably end up with something close to Sanborn Canoe Company. Randall and Fellman are right out of Central Casting, with requisite beards and flannel shirts, a great backstory, and even a picturesque workshop in southern Minnesota on a steep gravel lane called, of course, Little Trout Valley Road. Their painted wooden paddles look as good hanging in a Manhattan apartment as they do in a Boundary Waters canoe. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if these guys are for real.

But Sanborn Canoe Company is for real, and a look around their shop is evidence. On one wall hangs an ancient wooden canoe, its hull bearing the marks of countless beachings and rock scrapes. On another wall, there’s a framed black-and-white photo of two old guys, one of whom was their grandfather, who built the canoe. Following in the tradition of true Minnesota boys, Fellman and Randall grew up making annual trips way up north for weeklong paddling trips into the Boundary Water Canoe Area, which forms a watery border of linked lakes between the US and Canada. They also saw their grandfather making things in his woodshop. These seminal experiences inspired them to build their own cedar strip canoe and later, leave their day jobs and start making paddles full time.

The paddles Sanborn builds are made by gluing strips of different woods — cherry, ash, cedar, black walnut — together into a rough outline and then gradually shaping it by running it through saws, planers and sanders. The results are classic Voyageurs’ paddles, like those used by the early explorers of the Great Lakes region, with long shafts and narrow blades. They build different versions: a performance line, with fiberglass-coated blades and epoxied edges for protection against rocks, and a lighter-duty version, which is dipped in varnish but forgoes the extra reinforcements. But make no mistake, these paddles are built to propel a boat, not languish as mere decoration.

“I wonder when this whole lumbersexual fad will go away”, Todd Randall says. “Then we’ll just go back to being who we always were: Minnesotans.”

The cousins work well together, with a division of labor no doubt honed on countless wilderness trips. Randall, a history major and former substitute teacher, heads up the woodshop, while Fellman, who has an art degree, handles the finishing work, which not only includes the varnishing, fiberglassing and epoxy work, but also the painting on the Artisan series. In a separate room, paddles are dipped, sprayed and hung to dry. The Artisan paddles feature different colorful patterns with arrows, crosses and stripes that conjure Native American art, European crests and Great Camp lodges, all sprung from Fellman’s fertile imagination.

Sanborn produces about 25 paddles a day and recently brought on a full-time woodshop hand to help Randall, and a part-timer to help with packing and shipping. Business is good, based on the reputation of their product, some homespun savvy marketing and of course the current vogue of beards, boots and retro Americana. In the corner of the room that serves as the office and the shipping department sits a barrel with familiar markings. Jack Daniels, that most venerable of American heritage brands, has sent over several of its used barrels for a collaboration that will see a limited run of paddles made from the wood.

What’s next for Sanborn? Already in addition to their paddles, they sell well curated soft goods like t-shirts, patches, camp mugs and pocket knives. But the cousins may be thinking bigger.

“We’ve got a prototype canoe half-built in the garage”, Fellman cagily hints. Clearly Sanborn is thinking beyond the fleeting fashion trends that see their painted paddles hanging on walls from Tokyo to Topeka. Expedition-ready canoes aren’t exactly trendy.

“I wonder when this whole lumbersexual fad will go away”, Todd Randall says. “Then we’ll just go back to being who we always were: Minnesotans.”

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