By Tessa Raebeck
For one week last fall, Barry Walz navigated the rivers and streams of the Canadian wilderness, with only his dog, his canoe and his paddle for company.
“It was a bit lonely at times, I found myself talking to myself—but I didn’t answer,” he joked about his first solo canoe trip.
Not only did Mr. Walz manage the trip on his own, it was also entirely self-supported: He built his canoe and paddle by hand.
A master craftsman on the East End for nearly 30 years, Mr. Walz will teach a paddle-building workshop this spring at his East Hampton shop in conjunction with Surfrider Foundation.
“Barry has many years’ experience building beautiful and functional paddles and canoes, and is an excellent teacher,” said event organizer Mike Bottini, chair of the Eastern Long Island Chapter of Surfrider Foundation.
After coming to Shelter Island in 1985 to remodel the house of his brother, internationally known designer Kevin Walz, Mr. Walz decided to stay, making a name for himself on Shelter Island first in general construction. Later, after finding himself happiest doing detail work, he began to focus primarily on cabinetry and custom furniture. He moved Walz Woodworks to East Hampton in 2013.
The Walz brothers share two lines of furniture, as well as a patent for a technology that enables them to build graceful, lightweight, but very strong, furniture.
“It’s just a way to put things together so it can be very, very light, but very, very strong,” explained Mr. Walz. “We made a chair that weighs about two pounds—pretty cool.”
“I like being able to put things together so they fit well and they make sense to me,” continued Mr. Walz. “When you build cabinets or furniture, you have to be able to see things in three dimensions, so as they go together, you kind of anticipate certain joinery. I just like the way things fit. It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, but you’re actually creating the pieces.”
After seeing Mr. Walz’s work, Mr. Bottini decided to pursue a collaboration between the craftsman and Surfrider Foundation, coming up with the idea for a paddle workshop. Participants in the workshop will be able to choose between canoe, kayak, and stand-up paddleboard paddle designs. Mr. Walz, who will guide each participant through the entire process of constructing their custom-made paddle, will provide all materials.
An avid adventurer, Mr. Walz started building paddles in the late 1980s for his own use. “I was doing research, development so to speak,” he said. “I would take them down the rivers and say, ‘Oh this works’ or ‘This doesn’t work.’” He sent his paddles to experts to have them critiqued and took lessons to fine tune his craft, all the while using friends and his own wilderness canoe trips to test out his creations on the water.
“The first thing is function and then the next thing is the beauty of it,” he said. “Wood is a gorgeous way to build things. It talks to me, I guess, a little bit. That’s where you get a choice—to have it talk to the individual that’s designing it. Whether it’s the blade design or the key grip, it’s all custom; it’s all shaped to the individual hand and the person, so, really, the individual’s going to get a completely custom paddle that they like and talks to them.”
“There is a bit of a science and there’s a balance in everything,” he added. “Some people are talented in one way and you lean toward that and other people are the opposite. But there’s a science and that’s half the fun of it all—the functionality and the beauty of it all—being able to put something together and make it very functional and beautiful.”
People have been calling Mr. Walz’s work “functional art,” he said, but the craftsman is always focused on function first. He gets frustrated when he visits a client’s house to find one of his paddles hanging on a wall, rather than lying outside next to the canoe. “Although they’re very beautiful, I make them to be used. You can always refinish them and make it look pretty again if it gets scratched up,” he said.
The function sustains his love for his craft, as creating a paddle or canoe is a way for Mr. Walz to experience his true passion, wilderness canoeing, from home. “When I’m building a paddle, it kind of takes me there. I’m in the back of my mind as I’m constructing a blade; it kind of brings me back to that spot I love so much,” he said.
In his younger days, he would do 100-mile loops through northern Minnesota and Canada. “It’s a million acres of anywhere you want to go,” he said of the region, called the Arrowhead. Today, his custom-made canoe has over 1,600 wilderness miles on it and will earn even more this fall, when he guides six novices on a trip up north.
Throughout it all, he always has his dog, his canoe and his paddle. He hopes to share that connection with others through the workshop, creating paddles that are “a special thing for them—something that means something to them,” he said.
With times and dates to be arranged with Mr. Walz, the workshop is limited to five participants and will be held evenings at Walz Woodworks, 216 Springs-Fireplace Road in East Hampton. The fee is $400 for Surfrider Foundation members and $425 for non-members, with a one-year membership included. For more information, contact Barry Walz at 767-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.