2017-08-12 / Top News

Mackinac Island Boatbuilder Expands His Craft

By Sasha Zidar


Roman Emory Barnwell shows off a wooden boat he created at Barnwell Boatworks on the Coal Dock. He helps boat customers capture their dreams, he says, and has created 10 boats and renovated many others during his 10 years in business. Now, he is also building horse-drawn carriages. Roman Emory Barnwell shows off a wooden boat he created at Barnwell Boatworks on the Coal Dock. He helps boat customers capture their dreams, he says, and has created 10 boats and renovated many others during his 10 years in business. Now, he is also building horse-drawn carriages. A more than 100-year-old carriage sits in the corner, wood chips are scattered across the floor, sheets half-cover boats and a black and red carriage shines in the middle of Roman Emory Barnwell’s workshop.

Having created 10 boats from scratch and restored others, Mr. Barnwell is a man with a talent for woodworking, who now has added the restoration of carriages to his occupations. It’s a natural service for Mackinac Island because the carriages need regular maintenance and occasional restoration to keep them attractive and running smoothly.

Working on wood boats still is his primary focus, but this past winter he tested his talents by restoring a Victorian carriage for Grand Hotel over a period of five months. The unique piece of work now waits in the Grand Hotel carriage house for special guests. Meanwhile, customers from around the country seek out Mr. Barnwell for his way of bringing woodwork to life with custom designs.


Roman Barnwell initially draws up a design for the watercraft he plans to construct. Once he is ready to start construction, he creates a full-size version of the design and uses the lines to help build the frame and ribs of the boat. Roman Barnwell initially draws up a design for the watercraft he plans to construct. Once he is ready to start construction, he creates a full-size version of the design and uses the lines to help build the frame and ribs of the boat. Growing up along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Harbor Springs, Mr. Barnwell developed a love for the Great Lakes and the history and traditions of vessels that sailed the fresh water.

He was graduated from the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana and studied at the International Boatbuilding Training College in Lowestoft, England.


This past winter, Roman Barnwell restored his first carriage for Grand Hotel and now is finishing his second, above. While his primary focus is on boats, he sees carriage building and restoration as a way to expand his services on Mackinac Island. He is also producing window casings for the community hall. This past winter, Roman Barnwell restored his first carriage for Grand Hotel and now is finishing his second, above. While his primary focus is on boats, he sees carriage building and restoration as a way to expand his services on Mackinac Island. He is also producing window casings for the community hall. Wanting to be close to his family, he started his business, Barnwell Boatworks, on Mackinac Island, where his mother and two brothers also reside.

“The cool part about building boats for me is the whole process,” said Mr. Barnwell of his work. “It’s something that evolves, starting from scratch and creating something from nothing. In the end of the process, when you actually get the thing in the water and see how it performs, you sort of get this euphoric feeling.”

Mr. Barnwell is two weeks away from finishing his second carriage restoration for Grand Hotel and is already on to his next boat project, which will take two years and 2,000 hours of work, he estimates.

The biggest boat he has built from scratch is 22 feet long and his goal is to start taking on bigger boat projects in the future.

Specializing in traditional and modern wood boat construction and restoration, Mr. Barnwell works in a shop on the Coal Dock, where customers can come in, view his creations in progress, and discuss his designs and plans.

“I build what people want. I’m able to work with somebody as far as arrangement of the seats and where the motor is going to go and how they’re going to use it,” said Mr. Barnwell. “People can really come to me and get exactly what they want, which is kind of unique.”

One of his most challenging restoration projects was working though two freezing winters in a large, plastic tent rebuilding the Bernida, a 10,000-pound, 32-foot Universal Rule R-Class Sloop designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor George Owen and built in Boston in 1921.

Living on an island that uses horse-drawn transportation, however, Mr. Barnwell has found a new challenge with carriage restoration work he undertakes when he’s between boat projects.

“People approach me with all kinds of weird stuff and, from time to time, I do build other things,” said Mr. Barnwell. “I want projects to be creatively satisfying and the carriages, for me, are still challenging, and so I enjoy picking up some of that work, and it keeps me busy and my shop busy.”

Starting with scraps of wood or a 100-year-old carriage stored for years in a barn, each project takes time that involves planning, design, and hundreds or thousands of hours of construction.

“You had this idea in your head for so long and you’ve worked on it for years, you have hundreds and thousands of hours into it and, finally, when you’re all finished, you get to use it and feel how your ideas work. It comes to life.”

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