Great Lakes Boat Building School: Building boats, minds and careers

Bud McIntire knows the allure of the Great Lakes Boat Building School. It captured his imagination as a student, and now, as the school’s Student Services and Industry Relations Director, he sees how it calls to others.

“For those of us who enjoy working with our hands – crafting something that’s both aesthetically beautiful and functional – it’s just a great place to be,” McIntire said of the 7-year-old school overlooking the Les Cheneaux Islands on Lake Huron in Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula. “Some people know at a young age that this is what they were born to do, and some of us realize it later in life. Either way, I can’t imagine a better place to fulfill that dream.”

McIntire, 64, lived and worked as an architect in Atlanta for 41 years before retiring in 2008. One summer he drove his RV to Maine, where he stumbled upon a wooden boat show. He was hooked. By fall 2010, McIntire was a first-year student at the Great Lakes Boat Building School.

“I knew I wanted to work with my hands; I just hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do yet,” he said. “Wooden boatbuilding seemed like the perfect fit for me.”

McIntire is hardly alone. Since opening its doors in 2007, the GLBBS has graduated nearly 75 students, young and old alike. One graduate was 81 when he completed the program. Many of the older students consider boat building a serious hobby, and they simply want to increase their knowledge and become more proficient in the craft. But for those who want to make it a career, the school’s reputation packs a punch – 92 percent of last year’s GLBBS graduates found work at reputable wooden boat building shops or started a shop of their own.

Brad Koster, who owns Mertaugh Boat Works in Hessel, Mich., four miles from the school, is certainly impressed.

“It blew my mind to see the skills that a couple students brought to my business after only one year at the school,” Koster said. “I immediately hired them both full time.”

Mike Green, of Maritime Classics LLC in Traverse City, Mich., was sold too. “Because of the attention to detail and quality craftsmanship needed in my business, I’m always a little leery about trying new people. But after meeting (GLBBS graduate) Eric Seefeld, I was impressed… Six months later, I could not be more pleased.”

Geoffrey Hamilton, a 2011 graduate, can vouch for how the industry looks at GLBBS students. “I started working the Monday after graduation,” he said.

McIntire said the key to the school’s success is its teaching staff – Pat Mahon, the school’s program director and lead instructor, teaches first-year students, while Andy James handles second-year instruction.

“They’re the backbone of the program,” McIntire said. “Pat’s a career wooden boat builder with more than 35 years of experience as a builder and 17 as a teacher. He’s worked for some high-end wooden boat shops in England, Maine and the state of Washington. He set up the program, wrote the textbook and equipped the shop. Andy is an excellent teacher as well. He’s skillful, patient and a real mentor to the advanced second-year students. He’s been interested in wooden boats and engines since he was a kid, and he has an interesting background as a retired Navy Commander, pilot and flight instructor. Coincidentally, he was also a student of Pat’s several years ago.”

Devised and created by a core group of dedicated founders, the Great Lakes Boat Building School is located in in the heart of a region steeped in tradition and resolutely focused on maintaining its Great Lakes maritime heritage. So, naturally, the GLBBS teaches traditional wooden boat-building methods – right down to the tools. First-year students spend nine months learning every facet of the building process, and they create new wooden boats – based on traditional specs – from 8 to 30 feet long.

“Many of them come here with no woodworking experience at all,” McIntire said. “They learn the basics and work their way up. The program is very progressive and builds on every skill. Pat wants them to have a complete understanding of the process – from A to Z – and by the time they complete the program, they can build a boat from scratch.”

Second-year students focus on more complex skills and are expected to master modern wood and epoxy composite construction, marine systems (mechanical) and yacht joinery (cabinetry).

Because a number of people are interested in learning traditional boat-building skills but have neither the time nor finances to become full-time students, in 2008 the Great Lakes Boat Building School began offering three- and six-day summer classes while full-time students are on break. McIntire said that of the four major boat-building schools in the country, only the GLBBS offers such an extensive summer lineup.

“We’ve built a solid reputation in a relatively short time,” McIntire said. “Considering the quality of our staff and students, and the quality of their work, we’re pretty proud of what we’re doing up here.”

For more information about the Great Lakes Boat Building School, visit or call (906) 484-1081.

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