A Visit With Wenonah and Sanborn Canoe

May 4, 2022
Amanda Hefner
An image of a Sanborn canoe

With in-person events steadily creaking back to life, our outreach team was busy attending and hosting events all across the state. While storms and rough weather pestered most of Minnesota, I was able to visit Rochester and Winona for a long overdue visit. During my trip, I stopped by two of Save the Boundary Waters’ Business Coalition Members  — Wenonah and Sanborn Canoe. Both companies graciously invited me to tour their facilities and see how their products are made while I was in town.

I began my journey at Wenonah Canoe. Located just about a mile down the road from Winona’s towering Sugar Loaf Bluff, their building sits nestled right off the main drag of U.S. 14. Before my arrival, I was advised by Brian Day, one of Wenonah’s sales representatives, that Wenonah doesn’t necessarily have a large store front with a lot of bells and whistles. Rather, they have an expansive factory behind closed doors where all the magic happens.

I felt incredibly stoked to be getting a behind the scenes glimpse at what goes into making a Wenonah Canoe. And Brian was an incredibly knowledgeable host and tour guide. He walked me through the entire canoe making process from start to finish, and showed me the different stages of the process. From the molding, foam core placement, painting, and finishing, there are a lot of intricate parts that need to perfectly fall together to create the finished product. Their canoes are tough, light, and built for the Boundary Waters.

The typical turnaround time for a Wenonah Canoe is a mere few days. Which is impressive, given how many steps there are in the building process. Walking around the warehouse, I tried to soak it all in. There are stacks on stacks of Wenonah Canoes in various stages of production. Most get sent up to outfitters in Ely once they are finished.

Before seeing the Wenonah warehouse in person, I don’t think I fully appreciated how much love, care, and precision goes into making these watercrafts. Every single piece of their canoes are made entirely by hand. I walked away with so much new knowledge and insight about the canoe building process. So thank you to Brian and Wenonah for letting me take a peek behind the scenes!

Later in the day, I met up with Todd Randall at Sanborn Canoe. In similar fashion to Wenonah, Sanborn doesn’t have a large storefront (something that is actually subject to change very soon!). Instead, they have three main sections in their warehouse - a small painting room, a canoe workshop, and paddle workshop.

At Sanborn, everything is also made by hand - including their paddles which are all entirely carved, sanded, and finished freehanded and measured by eye. Sanborn offers a lot of custom designs on their canoes and paddles. As Todd and I walked around the factory, he showed me a few custom canoe designs that were recently made for some customers. Whether it be etching, prints, or special engraving, they have the capability to get creative with personalizing their craft.

So what about the paddles? It’s certainly no secret that Sanborn paddles are stunning with unique designs. As Todd and I walked into the workshop area, I learned that wood dust is an important component of their paddle making. This dust gives Sanborn paddles their unique wood-like appearance, and is added to the paddle as it is finished and painted. By including the dust, the paddles depict a glossy wooden color. 

In addition to canoes and paddles, Sanborn also makes cribbage boards in all shapes and sizes. Todd showed me the equipment that is used to measure and cut these boards, as well as the large stack of them sitting in the warehouse ready to be distributed. Personally, I was totally unaware of how popular cribbage is among campers, but these boards are becoming a larger and larger part of what Sanborn makes. 

Overall, while the space in Sanborn can seem somewhat small, it offers such a warm and inviting vibe. The employees seem tight knit, and everyone seems to love what they do. As Todd walked me around the factory, I kept finding new treasures and beautiful artwork to look at. I appreciated having the chance to visit their facility for the first time and hope I will be back again soon!

If you are interested in joining the Boundary Waters Business Coalition, click here.