SWAN LAKE — Foot-pedal power drives two antique jigsaws. A woodstove heats the shop. There’s no internet service. There’s no cell service.
Steve Morley does not argue when visitors to Morley Cedar Canoes in Swan Lake describe the handmade watercraft he and his father build as works of art. But he gently suggests a distinction.
“They’re functional works of art,” he said.
Steve Morley, 50, and his father, Greg Morley, 75, craft cedar-strip canoes, kayaks, skiffs and paddleboards.
Greg Morley, the son of an aeronautics engineer, and his wife, Anne, founded Morley Cedar Canoes in 1972. Greg studied hydrodynamics to help him design and build watercraft that glide smoothly through the water.
He was asked during an interview at the shop last week whether customers respond more to the beauty of the vessels he and Steve painstakingly craft or to their performance.
“I would think aesthetics is real strong,” Greg said. “I think performance is, too.”
That was, and is, true for customer Roy Caldwell, 65, of Helena.
On Labor Day weekend, Caldwell drove to Swan Lake to fetch the Swan Lake Skiff he had commissioned seven months before. The 14.5-foot-long skiff is designed for rowing and sailing.
Caldwell said he and Steve Morley put the boat in Swan Lake so that Caldwell could learn the finer points of sailing the skiff.
It would be an understatement to describe Caldwell as a satisfied customer.
“I would suggest that Greg is probably one of the top small-boat architects in the country,” Caldwell said.
He said he had been searching for a small, open boat that would support what he described as “cruise camping” — akin to backpacking or bike-packing but with travel powered by wind or oar.
“I looked at an awful lot of boats, kits, plans and manufactured boats,” Caldwell said, before discovering that Morley Cedar Canoes actually produced more than just canoes.
After learning about the Swan Lake Skiff, Caldwell jumped in his car, drove from Helena to the shop at Swan Lake and spent two hours talking to Greg and Steve about the boat’s characteristics.
“Initially, it was 100 percent about the performance, about the design, about what I could do with the boat,” Caldwell said.
But there is no question that the Swan Lake Skiff is a beautiful craft, he said.
“I get 100 percent performance along with 100 percent aesthetics,” Caldwell said.
In 2004, Steve Morley moved back to Montana from Hawaii with his wife, Jill, and the couple’s three children to join his father at Morley Cedar Canoes. Steve has a bachelor’s degree in business finance. His father has a Bachelor of Science degree in forestry from the University of Montana.
During the past year, Morley Cedar Canoes has sold watercraft ranging in price from about $6,000 to about $10,000.
Steve said a canoe can take three to four weeks to build. A skiff can require five to six weeks, he said.
“We make enough to be comfortable, but not a lot more,” Steve said. “We’re not in it for the profit as much as for the enjoyment of building the boats and using the boats.”
A clear and beautiful Montana day might lure Steve out in a canoe to paddle Swan Lake or the Swan River for a few hours, time he said he will make up by working into the evening.
The cedar-strip process begins with 20-foot, rough-cut red cedar that Steve and his father have hand-selected from mills on the Washington coast. The cedar can vary in color, from dark to light, and some customers specify the color they’d like to dominate.
Cedar is rot-resistant, lightweight, bends well “and just happens to be very pretty,” Steve said.
With a bandsaw, the Morleys cut the cedar into strips that are about one-quarter inch thick and vary in width from about one inch to one-and-three-quarters of an inch. Cove and bead edges, with one side rounded and one side recessed, allow the strips to fit together snugly.
With a “strongback” and forms to provide a temporary skeleton of sorts, the building begins. Glue, screws and fiberglass add strength. And the finishing process brings out the beauty in the wood.
Morley Cedar Canoes also crafts paddles and oars.
Demands for its products dipped somewhat during the Great Recession. But even then the business had an order list of five to six months, Steve said.
For a time, some consumers abandoned canoes for kayaks, but the pendulum seems to be swinging back, Greg said.
“There were always people around who knew that the open canoe experience was superior to just wearing a canoe down the river,” he said.
Right now, the order list at Morley Cedar Canoes stretches out to February 2020. Customers find the business primarily through word-of-mouth or by driving past on Montana 83 and spotting one of the company’s works of art displayed outside the shop.
The website has been down for a while. It’s something Steve hopes to remedy soon.
He was asked whether he ever feels reluctant to let go of a kayak, canoe or skiff he and his father have built.
“Just about every one,” he said, smiling.
But there is pleasure, Steve said, in meeting and exceeding customers’ expectations.
“It’s nice to be able to craft something that becomes a family heirloom,” he said.
Caldwell said his children have engaged already in playful banter about the skiff’s future.
“Everybody has already had the conversation about how the bequest will be handled,” he said.
A contact for Morley Cedar Canoes is: email@example.com.
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.