An affinity for the outdoors and a love of canoeing led Michael Slyker to build his first stick-and-canvas boat when he was in high school. A self-described “history nut,” he also began constructing muskets and guns for French and Indian War reenactments. As he became more skilled in woodworking, Slyker tried his hand at furniture making, but quickly discovered the trade didn’t suit him. Then, in the 1990s, he restored an old canoe, and the hobby evolved.
“There’s just something about the wooden canoe, and when you’re out on the river in one of those,” Slyker explains. “It’s all about the aesthetics—much quieter. It’s almost like sitting in the belly of an animal; you feel more a part of nature.”
Slyker and his wife, Jody Byrne, are the founders of Daybreak Lavender Farm, which they operate in Streetsboro. In 2001, Slyker established his own business, WoodNymph WoodWorks, for his canoe building and restorations. He created his own mold for the WaterSprite, a traditional wood-and-canvas canoe inspired by the lines of an early-1900s model created by Ev Garrish, one of the first commercial builders of wooden canoes. According to Slyker, developing the mold is actually more difficult than making or building the canoe.
When Slyker first began building the form, or mold, for the WaterSprite, he says a number of things—like steambending the wood—scared him away. But after a little practice, he mastered the process. With the exception of milling out the lumber, which can be noisy, the process is quite tranquil. Alone with his canoes, listening to music and breathing in the smell of the cedar, Slyker is at peace.
Constructing the wooden part of a canoe doesn’t take very long, Slyker explains. It’s the preparation that is the most time-consuming. “You could have a canoe built in three or four days once you have everything milled out, which takes about three days,” he says. “What takes the most time is rubbing filler into the canvas. It takes a month to soak in. Painting and varnish also takes a long time—a couple of weeks.”
Most of Slyker’s experience is actually with restoration rather than new construction. In fact, he learned how new canoes are built by restoring old canoes to see how they’re put together. As a member of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, Slyker is listed on the organization Web site’s builder/restorer list. “The canoes kind of find me,” he explains. “As far as I know, there’s only one other person in Ohio who restores canoes.”
For Slyker, the satisfaction comes from giving new life to old boats. “My current canoe is a 1920 Old Town that I restored,” he says. “They can go on forever.”