True Craftsmanship: The Sanborn Canoe Co.

What started as a summer project building a canoe from scratch turned into a successful business crafting some of the most recognizable and sought-after canoes the world over.

Words by Robert Humphries

The Sanborn Canoe Company signifies a quiet renaissance of craftsmanship in the American heartland. Since 2010, Sanborn has turned out exquisitely crafted and sturdy paddles, as well as a range of sleek canoes that combine the best of traditional and state-of-the-art construction techniques.

Sanborn’s inspiring products, craftsmanship and commitment to quality prompted the Lands’ End Outfitters creative team to use their workshop as the location of the latest Workwear photo and video shoot. Founders and cousins Zak Fellman and Todd Randall, as well as several members of the Sanborn crew, also modeled the latest Workwear collection and put it to the test in their workshop, lending authenticity to the imagery and attire.

The humble headquarters of The Sanborn Canoe Company are located just a stone’s throw from the banks of the Mississippi River in Winona, Minnesota, in a repurposed metalworking shop built in the 1930s.

One corner of their shop serves as the shipping department where, on the steel and wooden beams of a storage platform, generations of workers have chalked or penciled important family dates, first snowfalls and national events. The oldest one reads “New shipping Dept. start Jan 30/56.”

In another corner is a stack of bright red, blue and yellow canoes. Dozens of wooden paddles in various stages of manufacture hang from racks around the concrete-walled workspace. Cedar sawdust adds a pleasant scent to the air. “People say our shop smells nice. My wife thinks I smell nice,” jokes Todd. “That’s good because I just sweat all day.”

Suspended overhead is the canoe that started it all—built by Zak and Todd’s grandfather and some fellow Boy Scouts half a century ago. “They made that canoe out of redwood and old hockey sticks and pews from church, whatever they could find,” explains Zak. After hearing the story at a family reunion and tracking the canoe down to a shed on Lake Minnetonka, Zak and Todd decided to give canoe building a try.

“Summer of 2009 we built our first cedar strip canoe with some buddies to hopefully use on our fall trip that year, and it worked,” says Zak. “By the spring of 2010 we had made some paddles and people liked them, so we tried to sell them. So it grew from there.”

Sanborn canoes have a timeless quality thanks to beautifully crafted cherry wood ribs, ash seats and hardwood trims. Underneath the colorful gelcoat is a resilient canoe body made from carbon fiber, Kevlar and fiberglass. They’re a joy to look at, but also built for years of outdoor adventures. In 2015, Sanborn acquired the Merrimack brand, the company that pioneered what Todd describes as “a marriage of new technologies with an old school look.”

“We started Sanborn just making unpainted performance paddles for using on the Boundary Waters, camping trips … and a couple years in we started painting them and that kind of took off,” says Zak, adding that the painted paddle designs are inspired by a tradition that stretches back to the 18th-century French voyageurs. “Even the shape of the paddle we’ve created for the painted line is a throwback to that time period. Kind of the heyday of canoeing.”

As Todd and Zak share their family stories about growing up on Minnesota’s myriad lakes, it’s easy to imagine them dressed in buckskin, plying the waters of the Old Northwest.

“Canoeing and camping and paddling is family heritage,” says Zak. “We did it all growing up.” He adds that the Sanborn crew is heading to the Boundary Waters for a camping and canoeing trip in the fall.

“We try to take a Friday off a month and go canoeing or hiking,” says Todd.

“Just being from Minnesota, being on the water is a part of life.”

Both cousins are upbeat and relaxed. Hard work seems as easy to them as a calm paddle on a quiet backwater.

 

No doubt Sanborn’s continued success contributes to their confidence. Their colorful paddles have won them customers around the globe, from as far away as Japan, Australia and France, where they are stocked by a Paris boutique. Nevertheless, resilient performance is still important, and like their canoes, Sanborn’s more functional paddles marry classic design to modern, practical construction. “One of the blade faces is carbon fiber,” says Todd. “That allows us to make that paddle 12.5 oz. which is about as light as you can find for a wooden paddle. Normally a wooden paddle weighs a pound and a half.”

What’s most inspiring about the Sanborn Canoe Company though is that its founders have learned their craft on the job in just a few short years.

“We didn’t know anything when we started … we knew the smell of a woodshop from our grandpa’s. That’s about as far as our woodworking skills went,” says Zak. Adds Todd: “ We didn’t know what a plane was, let alone how to use it.”

With just a handful of employees, Sanborn is the kind of place where everybody pitches in. “Being a small company, everybody has a lot of hats,” says Zak, whose primary role is designer.

Todd, on the other hand, prefers the informal title of “craftsman.” “I like the pride in a paddle that’s well made and knowing that it’s going to be used,” he says, “building something that can pass as a piece of art but is also a functional tool. We put a lot of energy and effort and care into the products we’re making. We’re also selling them at a price that encourages them to actually be used.”

It’s this commitment to quality and craftsmanship that drew the Lands’ End creative team to select the Sanborn Canoe Company as the location for our fall Workwear photo shoot. Whether Sanborn employees are shown crafting a paddle, adding the finishing touches to a canoe or packing products for shipping, Lands’ End Workwear has the right combination of durability and comfort for the job. And, like Lands’ End, the Sanborn Canoe Company is dedicated to providing top-notch customer service. Says Todd, “we hope that when somebody buys something from us we know that we stand by what we make, that they’ll be well taken care of.”

For Zak, Todd and the rest of the crew, hard work, craftsmanship and a passion for the great outdoors define the Sanborn Canoe Company brand. “We’re either inspiring or equipping people to go on adventures,” says Todd. “That’s fun.”