Photos by David Ellis
Growing up with an arborist grandfather and a mother who lived her life on the lakes, Todd Randall has water—and woodcarving—in his blood. At a family reunion in 2009, Randall’s grandfather (also a wood- worker) recounted a time he made canoes back in the 1960s, and Randall and his cousins got to thinking: “Gosh, we could do that.”
They made their first canoe shortly after, and with the leftover wood, crafted a paddle to accompany it. Just like that, Sanborn Canoe Co. was born. The group of guys—Randall, his cousin, and some friends—pooled their money and time, and by year’s end, had their first sale. Now, Sanborn has been around for nearly 12 years, and Randall has been woodworking ever since.
To Randall, his Minnesota roots on the water have made all the difference. Lake culture runs in his family, and he brings that love for the outdoors into his handiwork.
What does woodworking mean to you?
I believe in the interconnectedness of things. I believe that, as a paddler, you’re more connected to your surroundings. With paddling, you’re in it, you’re doing it, and your canoe is affected by the wind, waves, and how you move the paddle through the water.
That applies to woodworking in the same way—how a craftsman is connected to the art and what they’re working on. Paddle-making is so rewarding because it’s the art of taking a piece of wood and bringing the value out of it. Then, it’s used by somebody to connect them to their environment, the river, the lake, their paddling. It connects them to the sense, smell, and feel of being in the woods.
Describe the paddle-making process.
We’re most known for our painted, decorative paddles. Those begin as planks of wood. We take those pieces, and based on the tone of the wood and also the durability of the piece, we cut them into strips and glue them together. The goal is to fit together contrasting pieces. We’ll then carve it on a band saw based on sight and feel. Then comes the sanding portion, which we do on a drum sander—going from coarse to fine grit. For the painted paddles, we give them a few coats of oil that seal the wood and protect it. When painting, we use fairly simple tools: masking tape and spray paint. We do the painting in layers—putting tape over each layer to create patterns. Typically, the painting will take about a day, but most of that time is spent waiting. Pulling the tape off is so rewarding. We coat the final product with a clear coat, and the paddle is ready to go.
How has living in Minnesota, surrounded by water, influenced you and your work?
The Boundary Waters, this special jewel to Minnesota, is so unique. It works its way into our culture and into a person’s character. We take for granted all the water and trees. The lakes have shaped me.
Where is your favorite place to canoe or be on the water?
I love the Boundary Waters. I go there as often as I can, but I have a young family, so I don’t get up there often enough. In terms of where I can be, I live in Winona, so the backwaters of the Mississippi are right in my backyard. I can see the river from my house. Within five minutes I can make the decision to go paddling, get the canoe out, put it on my car, drive down, and be on the river.
What’s next for Sanborn Canoe Co.?
We’re exploring modern composites in old, classic aesthetics. We use carbon fiber, DuPont Kevlar, and fiberglass to enhance the look but also the function of the product. We’re also making a handful of new things. Last fall, we started making cribbage boards, painting them the same way we paint our paddles. Another thing we’re putting a lot of energy into is being able to rent out our products and actually guide people on canoe trips along the Mississippi. We love the river, and we want everyone to experience how truly great it is. Our goal is not just making things, but physically putting people into them as well.