I’ve always been fascinated in seeing how things are made. When TV shows and Youtube videos started doing “How It’s Made” style videos, I ate em up! And while most of these are horribly interesting, I absolutely love seeing when products are made by hand.
Combine this fascination with the fact that ever since I was young and on my first canoe trip with family or with the Boy Scouts, I have always associated canoeing with Wenonah. To me, a canoe was a canoe, unless you had aWenonah.
It just so happens that one of the best canoe makers in the world happens to be located right here in Winona, Minnesota, only a 3 hour drive from my home and they still make their canoes by hand!
A Bit About Wenonah Canoe
What really sets Wenonah Canoe apart is that theiraward winning canoes are still hand made. While the technology of their canoe’s is second to none, the fact that each and every canoe is hand made every step of the way is an absolute testament to Wenonah’s commitment to quality.
Wenonah Canoe was founded in Mike Cichanowski in 1968. Mike grew up loving the outdoors and the Mississippi River and was building his first wooden canoe at the age of 16. Today, this canoe is hanging in the city of Winona’s musuem.
By the time Mike was in college he had built and sold many canoes and was creating molds to speed up his process. In his college days he made the decision to get a loan, purchase land and build a shop to start his own canoe building business called Wenonah Canoe.
As Mike told us, the rest of the story isn’t “history”, it’s hard work, lean years, ups, downs and lots of innovation to get his company where it is today, as the largest manufacturer of kevlar canoes in the world.
When I sat down with Mike, I fully expected a busy business man who would give me a 20-30 minute interview and send me off on my way. Instead I found a man who within 10 minutes of meeting, felt like I had known him for years.
His passion for canoeing and sharing the sport was overflowing in everything he said. By the time we were finished talking and checking out canoes (over 4 hours later), I was in absolute awe of the company he had built and the product he was producing.
The Canoe Making Process
The Wenonah Canoe factory is a lot like a Tetris game, built with many additions over the years as the company grew into what it is today. Different hallways, doors, sections and completely different buildings make up the entirety of the factory.
When we first entered we were able to see where workers took the pre-build fiberglass molds and placed layers of kevlar and resin into the molds to form the beginnings of a new canoe. This was carefully done in different stages in the factory.
Once the first few layers of kevlar have dried, pieces of carefully shaped foam are added to the inside of the kevlar canoe to give the canoe structure and firmness.
These pieces of foam are then covered with yet another layer of kevlar and resin.
Once the final layer of kevlar is applied, a plastic sheet is attached around the canoe and hooked up to a vacuum which then sucks all of the air out of the plastic and firmly holds the kevlar layers and foam together for the final drying process.
Wenonah was actually the first canoe manufacturer to introduce the vacuum process. Before this, pressing the layers of the canoe together for final drying was a very difficult process. Now, the process is actually rather simple.
Once the basic shell of the canoe has been formed, it goes to another area of the plant for trim, hardware, seats and any other specifications the canoe may call for.
Mike told us that each and every canoe built at Wenonah has a home before it is ever even started on. Mike seemed to find joy in checking every tag on each canoe as we passed by and seeing where the canoe was headed. From Minnesota, to Australia and everywhere in between.
Since each canoe was made for a specific customer, almost every canoe we saw was different in some way from the others. Whether it was color, body style or extras, the differences were apparent.
Seeing the storage area for all of the canoes at Wenonah was also quite a sight. With more canoes that I ever imagined seeing in one place, I was told that during the winter months their storage facilities are packed full as people order canoes but wait for delivery in the spring.
One thing I had no idea about is that Wenonah also owns two different kayak brands that are also sold all over the world. These brands include QCC Kayaks and Current Designs Kayaks, both of which make some incredible kayaks.
While the canoes produced at Wenonah were first class, the kayaks were a piece of art.
To me, the kayaks seemed to put more focus on aesthetics and style than the canoes. They made me think of a shiny new Dodge Charger coming off the assembly line and having a sparkle about it.
Admittedly, my only experience with kayaks has been the $500 plastic composite kayaks you would see at any outdoor sporting shop like REI (which currently does sell Current Design Kayaks!).
The one difference with the Kayak brands over Wenonah’s canoe brand is that the shop was built all at once and planned out more that the unique canoe facility. The kayaks are still made by hand, but the shop is much bigger and feels more modern (not a good or bad thing, just pointing it out).
For their plastic composite kayaks, a process that involves incredible steel molds, a gigantic oven, and many fans can create a new kayak every 20 minutes.
The plastic kayaks are probably the most automated part of any of the canoes or kayaks at Wenonah. First, a plastic in the form of a powder is placed into a giant kayak mold. It is then lifted by hoist system and put into a gigantic rotating oven. This oven melts and shakes the plastic for 20 minutes.
The mold is then removed from the oven and cooled quickly using a large row of fans. This keeps the kayak from shrinking.
After the mold has cooled, basic trimmings are added such as seat and ropes.
C4 Waterman Paddle Boards
We were in for one last surprise while visiting Wenonah. They also have a stand up paddleboard brand called C4 Waterman. Otherwise known as SUP, stand up paddle boarding has become huge all around the world in the last 5 – 7 years.
Even right here in Minnesota you can go out on nearly any lake and see at least one SUP boarder.
The C4 brand has tons of different paddle boards from 1 man inflatables to inflatables that hold 7 or more people to your standard foam core boards.
C4 Waterman was actually the first company to introduce the inflatable SUP, which they coined iSUP.
Personally, SUP boarding has become one of my new favorite hobbies over the last few years and I cannot wait to get out and try a C4 board!
Wrapping Up a Great Day
After everything we saw, we’d had a really great time at Wenonah Canoe. Mike was a blast and his passion for all things paddling and outdoors was evident throughout the day.
We are taking a Wenonah Minnesota Two to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area here in Northern Minnesota. Make sure to check back for updates on our trip, photos and to read about all of the different gear we will be using along the way.
Wednesday 3rd of February 2021
I opened and still run the first kayak fishing business in Louisiana. This was a great article. Congratulations on all your success in building such fine crafts.
Wednesday 18th of March 2020
Modern composite materials may well"Dry in an Oven" known as an autoclave, i have for years been involved in making composite products using carbon and kevlar as well as silk and a good few other fine cloths. These once dry form some of the most resilient and almost bulletproof products including my own Canadian style canoe which has bounced down many a whitewater creek or river sustaining a few deep gouges. My other boat is Wenonah which is just brilliant in all conditions.
Thursday 8th of September 2016
Composite canoes do not "dry" in the oven/ vacuum bags. They cure. Big difference.