In an age where many consumer products like furniture are created en masse in faraway factories and shipped to department stores, Keith Ledford’s wood shop stands out as an example of the value of skilled local craftsmanship.
Ledford, the owner of Blue Dog Furniture in Missoula, pays the bills by making custom chairs, beds, closets, tables and cabinets for customers all over the country, often using reclaimed or salvaged wood. But in his spare time, he puts his skills to work on his labors of love. One of his creations is a beautiful, handmade, 15-foot wooden driftboat called the Dolly Varden.
He spent over 300 hours building the boat from scratch with a seldom-used method called triangular chine log construction.
“I lost count at 250 hours,” he said. “A lot of that was scratchin’ my head and figuring out what I was gonna do. I didn’t have a plan and I didn’t have a kit and I had to make all my parts.”
Ledford used a mixture of wood species for his boat. The raised floor is pine, the chine logs are fir and other parts are walnut, maple or Siberian elm. The hull is made from plywood joined together with an angled scarf joint. Ledford added his custom touch to every part of the boat, including dry storage compartments on the side decks, swiveling captains chairs and artistic screwhole plugs made from different types of dark wood to stand out from the light-colored hull as an added flair.
“I wanted to accent them rather than trying to hide ‘em,” he explained.
He used a technique called “bookmatching” for the side panel, where a single log is sawn in half and used in symmetrical parts so that each knot, grain and whirl matches up with the opposite side.
He covered the whole thing with a thin fiberglass sheet to keep it waterproof.
Ledford went into the project having never built a boat before.
“It was nerve-wracking when you mix up that epoxy because you can’t go backwards once you start putting that epoxy on stuff,” he said.
Ledford has had the boat for eight years. It isn’t just for show, although he keeps it in a prominent place in his shop at 806 W. Spruce St.
“It’s done hundreds of trips,” he said. “I’ve crashed though some big waves that were breaking, you know, five or six-foot-tall waves that were breaking and big ol’ gallons of water coming up over the bow. The guy up front got drenched. It filled it enough to get up above the floors.”
The bottom is made of three layers of fiberglass, but Ledford mixed the last coat of epoxy with a graphite mixture.
“It just gives it a slickness to where it just slides over the rocks,” he explained. “A lotta guys will use a Rino liner on the bottom, but that’s really grabby, that’ll throw you off if you stop at a dead stop in the middle of a little rapid or something.”
Ledford said around Missoula, people often give him a double-take when they see he’s rowing a fully-wooden boat.
“Down around Bozeman there’s quite a few maybe,” he said. “Most people prefer to go with the less expensive fiberglass or metal. I think they really first introduced in Oregon on the McKenzie River. The Grand Canyon was first run in a boat similar to this, I think a dory is what they call them. They had a closed off front and back, all dry in there, for flotation. John Wesley Powell pioneered it down there with one arm.”
He keeps busy with other unique projects too. He teamed up with the guys next door at LB Snow to create a line of handbuilt snowboards made from what Ledford calls “chin chin” wood, and he constantly has custom furniture orders coming in. He has a stack of burl wood in his shop that he’s going to use to make bedframes. Many times, his orders have special stipulations. Once, a customer told him he couldn’t use any chemicals in a set of cabinets, so he had to use “old brown glue” made from horse carcasses.
“I got it and went to pour it out and it was solid, like a gel, and it wouldn’t pour,” he said. “I read the label and it says you have to heat it to 100 degrees every time you use the stuff. You can’t microwave it because you can’t get it over 100 because it degrades the bond of the glue, so I had to fix a water bath every time I wanted to use the wood.”
The owner of a small business has to be flexible and quick on his or her feet, but that’s part of what makes Blue Dog products so unique.
“It’s always something different,” Ledford says.