Amidst the beautified bombshells and out-of-touch actors of Hollywood Boulevard stands a man who goes against the grain—the wood grain. When Nick Offerman is not playing burly and beloved Ron Swanson, his character on the hugely popular NBC television show Parks and Recreation, he is busy inside Offerman Woodshop building cedar-strip canoes and custom furniture pieces.
Inside Offerman Woodshop, Hollywood’s A-list canoe builder
It’s not just comedic prowess and perfect deadpan delivery that has given the 44-year-old actor a cult following, it’s also his bacon-and-eggs-loving, Paul Bunyan-esque persona, an alter ego he embraces.
Late last year Offerman released Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living. It’s a part-memoir and part tongue-in-cheek guide to leading a better life, including ruminations devoted to meat, manliness and moustaches.
Off Parks and Rec, Offerman has starred in box office hits, including 2014’s We’re The Millers, and off-Broadway productions alongside his comedian wife, Megan Mullally, known for her role on sitcom Will & Grace. Offerman also tours the country, performing his one-man comedy show, “American Ham.”
Though acting is one of his great loves, Offerman’s time woodworking and paddling is his greatest medicine.
“In the middle of this insane business—the entertainment industry is so full of ugly, superficial bullshit—to escape into my shop and build something with my hands, just feels like medicine.”
“Woodworking is an incredibly Zen discipline,” says Offerman. “In the middle of this insane business—the entertainment industry is so full of ugly, superficial bullshit—to escape into my shop and build something with my hands, out of the organic material that trees provide, just feels like medicine. It feels like I’m rubbing Neosporin on the open wounds of my artistic soul.”
For Offerman, canoeing goes way back
Born in Joilet, Illinois, Offerman grew up in a family of hardworking farmers, public servants, schoolteachers, nurses, paramedics and firemen. “My whole family learned that to have a good time on a meager income, all we had to do was find a place to experience nature as richly as possible,” he says.
“No matter where I am, or how stressful or high-octane my life has become,” Offerman adds, “just getting out in nature and breathing in the smells, sights and sounds is incredibly healthy and therapeutic.”
As a struggling actor during his thirties, Offerman used manual labor to pay the bills and discovered he had a natural talent for carpentry. As his interest in woodworking increased, Offerman was drawn to building a canoe.
“The canoe was the Fender Stratocaster of my young, watersports life. Canoeing down the creeks in my neighborhood was the ultimate escape,” he says. “It was only natural, given the choice of building any boat style, that I would gravitate towards the canoe.”
In his book, Offerman gives another reason for his love for canoes: He lost his virginity in one. “Is it any wonder that I have grown to become obsessed with building wooden canoes and luxuriously running my hands along their hulls?” he writes.
With an itch to build a canoe, Offerman went looking for help. “All the research pointed towards the book Canoecraft by Ted Moores, who runs Bear Mountain Boats with his partner, Joan Barrett,” he says.
Moores and Barrett saw Offerman as more than a customer and requested he use his confidence in front of the camera to make a how-to video for other would-be boat builders.
“I felt like Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi were suggesting I make a lightsaber instructional video,” says Offerman.
He visited the Bear Mountain Boats workshop in Peterborough, Ontario, to meet the couple and pick up his materials. Back in New York, Offerman began building a red cedar strip canoe he named Huckleberry while filming the process. The 126-minute “Fine Woodstrip Canoe Building with Nick Offerman” was released in 2008, and won the Paddling Film Festival’s best instructional film award.
Taking a vacation from fame
Living in Los Angeles, Offerman spends as much time as he can in his 3,200-square-foot woodshop in between shooting episodes of Parks and Rec. Now that Offerman Woodshop has a staff of woodworkers, he spends less time elbow-deep in sawdust and more time as a mentor.
Though Offerman claims he’s not the only canoeist in Hollywood, he can’t name names—“I’m sworn to secrecy.”
“I design a lot of our pieces and advise on how best to create them,” says Offerman with audible enthusiasm. “I envy them though, that they get to enjoy all the hours of actual, hands-on card scraping.”
Though Offerman claims he’s not the only canoeist in Hollywood, he can’t name names—“I’m sworn to secrecy,” he says. He doesn’t do much paddling while he’s in L.A., but each year he escapes with his family on an annual trip to Minnesota, staying in rustic fishing cabins.
“Growing up in a pretty thrifty farm family, I never would have known they were rustic—that’s from the point of view of living in Los Angeles and having been spoiled by the ridiculous thread counts my wife has introduced me to,” he says.
There’s nothing fancy about these vacations, but that’s fine with Offerman. “You can’t beat the landscape, water, forest and sky of Minnesota’s North Woods, combined with the camaraderie of family, fresh fish, plenty of beer and libations and euchre,” says Offerman. “I’ve been all over the world on expensive vacations and I’ve never found a recreation to beat those Minnesota activities.”
These vacations are also a chance to shed his famous alter ego, including shaving off Ron Swanson’s trademark moustache.
“As an actor, I’m not Ron Swanson,” says Offerman. “I love to shave it off; I love to shave my entire head at the end of a season, if I can. It turns out that my clean-shaven face is the ultimate disguise. I love playing Ron, but when we shut off the lights at the end of a season, I love peeling him off like a mask.”
Still, the moustache comes with its fair share of benefits. When asked how important facial hair is to being a good canoeist and outdoorsman, Offerman replies, “Incredibly important,” without missing a beat. “On the left hemisphere of my moustache I store beef tallow, which can provide calories if I should get lost or I can fashion a small candle out of it. It’s a great survival item,” he deadpans. “On the right side, I store a few ounces of epoxy resin, in two parts, so that if I am fishing for a marlin and it should puncture my hull, using the whiskers and the resin, I can fashion a quick little fiberglass patch.”
Offerman’s tips for would-be builders
For paddlers interested in building their own canoe, Offerman recommends more than just growing a moustache (“Though it will help,” he advises). “A paddle is a great place to start; that’s where you can get hooked.” Once familiar with the basic tools of woodworking, a canoe is much less daunting.
“Ted Moores put it well,” Offerman says. “He says, ‘Don’t look at the whole thing; don’t look at the skyscraper as a whole. Look at each piece, one at a time. A concrete foundation, some steel girders—you can only do one piece at a time.’ When you break it down like that, it’s a lot less daunting. You might feel like, ‘God, I don’t think I could make a Corvette, but I know I could thread the lug nuts onto that wheel.’ Building a Corvette is only a sequence of lug nuts when you get down to it.”
Offerman is looking forward to his next personal woodworking project, a 17-foot sleek and modern kayak design called the Endeavor.
When paddling, Offerman says he feels a direct kinship with his ancestors and the natural world. “Lest we get too cocky, though,” he writes in his book, “as soon as I start to think this way Ma Nature slaps me with a squall and dumps my canoe over a submerged tree trunk, reminding me that behind that spoke shave there still stands a jackass.”
Ben Duchesney is the former web editor of Kayak Angler. He’s a fan of Nick Offerman, Parks and Recreation and bacon.
This article originally appeared in the Summer/Fall 2014 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine and get 25 years of digital magazine archives including our legacy titles: Rapid, Adventure Kayak and Canoeroots.
The cast of characters at Offerman Woodshop.| Feature photo: John Lichtwardt
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