Tom Kaarhus

A craftsman, by definition, is a person that practices a craft with great skill and artistry. Much has been written about the roll of the craftsman in the growth and betterment of society with suggestions that within the craftsman is the drive for function, the intellect for change, and the joy of entertaining discovery. Tom Kaarhus was all of this; he was a craftsman. As a renaissance man his eclectic life included singing, dancing, fishing, poetry, and teaching, but his craft and legacy was woodworking.

Tom Kaarhus was borne 1893 in Nedre Vats, Norway, an island in the southwest coast that is surrounded by protected inland waters where the ocean’s shore and boats would be a part of everyday life. He was there until he was sixteen when he immigrated to the United States. There he spent time commercial fishing and boat building in Alaska and learning home construction in Silverton, Oregon until finally landing in Eugene in 1923, Oregon to help build the Pacific Christian Hospital, later renamed Sacred Heart. In 1935 he opened the Kaarhus Craft Shop where as a master woodworker he built, cabinets, skis, and boats. He built all kinds of boats from lightning class sailboats and hydroplanes, to an experimental trimaran and, of course, he built McKenzie River drift boats. For the first two years he built the square ended board-and-batten boat popular among guides on the McKenzie River in the mid 1930’s. But a quiet revolution was happening in the manufactured wood industry of America’s Northwest that would provide Tom with the material to alter the course of the McKenzie River drift boat.Tom-Kaarhus

In 1934 Dr. James Nevin, a chemist at Harbor Plywood Corporation in Aberdeen, Washington developed a fully waterproof adhesive to be used in the manufacture of, what would become, marine grade plywood. The introduction of plywood simplified riverboat construction because a plywood boat could be built in half the time it took to form a board-and–batten boat. By 1938 a plywood panel with waterproof glue could be provided in 14-foot panels and Tom was able to build a white water boat based on the lines of the John West “bathtub with oarlocks”. Tom discovered that he could cut two sides of the boat from one four by 14-foot panel. This economic use of material also determined some characteristics of the boat such as the height of the panel at the stem, and the height of the panel at the oarlock, and the maximum width of the bottom, but the craftsman boat builder was able to balance the design compromises to create a distinctive shape that is highly functional and also beautiful. The John West bathtub had been transformed into a classic white water riverboat that is still in use today. In his shop catalog Tom honored this boat’s inspiration naming it the John West.

Innovation didn’t stop there with Tom. Plywood construction allowed him to provide river guides and adventurers with kits of boats boat kits. These kits came with parts, patterns, materials and instructions for anyone to assemble their own boat. The instructions included a type of skin-on-frame construction that allows allowed the boat to be built free-form. In other words, the traditional and time-consuming strongback or into which frames, transom and stem post were set was no longer needed to define the boat’s shape. In a Kaarhus kit the frame placement is predetermined and marked on the side panel. Then it is the strength of the plywood sides that support the boat frames as they are being attached. The known dimensions of the frame at each of the their placements determine the boat’s shape. Today the framed plywood boat is still the fastest and simplest boatbuilding method for the McKenzie River drift boat.

A fleet of Tom Kaarhus square enders that he called the

A fleet of Tom Kaarhus square enders that he called the “John West boat” in a McKenzie River White Water Parade”