Strip by strip, John Culbreth painstakingly builds wooden boats that are so beautiful they could make a veteran outdoorsman weep.
For Omer Register, it was love at first sight. A Rockfish resident, he has been dipping his paddle in the waters of Southeastern North Carolina for more than 50 years. Register saw one of Culbreth’s canoes at a recent event at the Lumber River State Park.
The meeting resulted in a kayak that was completed in late July in Culbreth’s workshop near Linden.
“A lot of people have the skill to build a boat like this, but not the patience,” Register said.
It is the boat builder’s first kayak and will not be the last, as Culbreth’s passion for building “strip” boats has caught fire. The boats are made from three-quarter by one-quarter inch wood strips that are steamed and glued into a boat one at a time.
Register’s kayak is so light it can be easily picked up with one hand. With alternating strips of juniper and red cedar, the boat is a thing of beauty as well as utility.
Growing up in Lumberton, Culbreth enjoyed hunting, fishing and the outdoor life in general. At The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, he majored in Art with a concentration in ceramics. He is also an accomplished cabinet maker.
Culbreth’s artistic sensibilities, coupled with his woodworking skills, patience and a little ingenuity, converged to build boats that are museum worthy. They are catching on with outdoorsmen far and wide.
“I started building them four years ago as a project with my grandson Jordan (Donald),” Culbreth said. “We found people liked them too. One is headed for Alaska. I’ll build about four boats this year, so this will never be a money-making project. I’ve built things all along, and I don’t see myself doing anything else. It’s a great stress reliever, and the grandchildren love it.”
Culbreth and his wife Katrina have seven grandchildren who spend a lot of time with them. His shop is located next to one of three lakes at the edge of Castlebrook, an upscale housing development.
The Culbreth family lived there as John developed the project and sold lots. Real estate development is also in Culbreth’s DNA. His father John built some of modern-day Lumberton.
The family has been at Castlebrook since 2003, although he recently sold the family home and is planning a smaller one not far from the two-story shop. The shop has a woodworking studio on the first floor and a second floor, which features hunting trophies, memorabilia and a porch overlooking the water.
Omer dropped by in his van to look at his kayak and to talk. He tested the nearly completed craft on the lake and declared it seaworthy.
Culbreth described the construction process.
“You measure eight times and cut once,” he said. “You don’t want to make a mistake with wood this expensive.”
“It takes two months to build one boat,” he said. “The darker wood is Western red cedar from Washington State, and the lighter wood is juniper from the Big Swamp. It’s milled by Marsh Road Lumber Company near Tar Heel. Juniper is the perfect wood for a strip boat, because it has a great strength-to-weight ratio.”
Culbreth steams each strip using a tea kettle attached to long piece of PVC pipe. Steam makes the wood pliable enough to conform to the curve of the boat. Five coats of clear marine finish, and the result is waterproof, tough and striking.
“The changing color of the strips gives the boat its identity,” he said. “Every strip in my boats is matched to the one from the board it was cut from.”
Culbreth shows the boats at outdoor events and shows.
“I learn a lot at the shows, and I get exposure,” he said.
Strip boats have a long history and are growing in popularity. The book, “Building Strip-Planked Boats,” by Nick Schade and published in 2008, is partly responsible. It offers step-by-step instructions for building a canoe, kayak and dingy.
“That is the bible of strip-boat building,” Culbreth said. His copy is in a stack of books with a Bible on top. The style is inspired by the Chris-Craft motor boats from the mid-20th century.
Culbreth has made three boats — a two-man canoe, a kayak and a one-man canoe for freestyle competition. The freestyle canoe is constructed without a keel so that it can perform ballet-like pirouettes.
The kayak is 9 feet, 4 inches, made to fit in Omer’s van. Future projects including a longer kayak and a johnboat, which is a small fishing boat favored by black-water fishermen.
The future of strip-boat building in Southeastern North Carolina looks secure in the hands of master craftsman and artist John Culbreth. Look for him at the next Lumber River Day.
By Scott Bigelow
Around Robeson is Scott Bigelow’s monthly feature about area destinations and hidden gems. Suggestions for future entries in the series can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.