A pivotal moment for Thomson as a restorer occurred in 1980 when an 18�-foot E.M. White canoe that had been flung against a tree by 60 mph winds was brought to his shop in two pieces. Many who saw the craft said it was unfixable. Thomson fixed it, confirming in his own mind his talent for doing difficult work.
"But that's the beauty of wood-canvas canoes," he says. "Because they're built of component parts, they can be rebuilt on a large scale. How do you replace one part of an aluminum or a fiber-glass canoe? You can't. You need esoteric tools to fix them—welding torches, chemistry sets. But with a piece of shirttail, a tube of glue and a roll of Ductape, you can take a wood-canvas canoe anywhere.
"From a repair standpoint, the big difference between wood-canvas canoes and synthetic ones is that there's hope for any wood-canvas canoe, no matter how damaged. So maybe a wooden canoe is a longer-lived and better investment than any synthetic one. Certainly its performance—the smoothness of its ride and its ability to flex through the water when necessary—is superior."
By late afternoon Thomson had recanvased, sanded or painted three other canoes and was cutting ribs for a fourth on one of the shop's two band saws. Many restorers buy their ribs precut, but Thomson prefers to fashion his own from eight-foot planks of traditional northern white cedar. Properly soaked and steamed, the wood is as pliant as taffy. "You can literally tie it in knots," says Thomson, pointing to a pretzel-shaped hunk of wood lying on the bench as proof.
When the ribs are cut and planed, he normally walks them a quarter of a mile up the road for a three-day soak in the Weekeepeemee River. While he is gone on that task, Marc de Rochefort arrives, ready to put in a full evening's restoration work. A former department supervisor for Union Carbide in nearby Danbury, de Rochefort, 29, apprenticed with Thomson for a year. Last fall he quit his job at Carbide to work full-time on canoes. He is admittedly anxious about the career switch but says, "I was tired of the corporate world. Then a friend told me about Schuyler, and I went over to see him and eventually asked if I could apprentice under him. My wife is a school teacher. We're both pretty nervous about this switch. But I'm willing to work extra jobs to make it work out.
"Schuyler's got a great reputation. His work has integrity, and he's been very patient in showing me how he does it. I can't tell you how glad I am to be here."
Thomson returns. "You ready to go to work?" he asks, grinning.
"Ready," says de Rochefort.
"Good." Thomson sighs. "I'm ready to go home." And after discussing the evening's work with de Rochefort, he does.