The Life and Artistry of Boat Builder Stu Williams


Henry David Thoreau once said, “Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.”

Similar to Walden’s famous philosopher, Missoula boat builder Stu Williams believes in the splendid sentiment of peace and paddling. Peace and paddling are two words bound together in the deepest corridors of his heart and mind.

Perhaps most importantly, Williams also believes that, while everything is designed, there are few things designed well.

Since 1971, Williams has used this mantra as his motivation, working in harmony with raw materials, and figuring out just how to get along with those resources; through the process, he has always learned a little more about himself. Through building blocks and careful steps, from premise to careful execution, to the final reward, he discovered that boat building is a pattern of living that makes sense – both on a personal and business level.

“A successful business transaction to me means everyone feels like they got a good deal,” says Williams.

What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more quickly and inescapably than any other travel. Paddle ten or twenty miles in a canoe and you are a child of nature. To canoe is swell, to canoe in a handcrafted boat made by Stu Williams is an exercise in pride, it perpetuates the feeling that you are connected to something crafted by one of the most dedicated builders under the Big Sky.

Built on the banks of the Clark Fork River, in a countrified Orchard Homes farm setting, in the Missoula Valley, Williams’ boats are made to order, constructed under huge maple trees in summer and inside a 1,000-square-foot solar longhouse in the winter.

There is toil, labor, and as much coolness, dexterity, and skill as a man can throw into the work of hand, eye, and head; in Williams’ world there is knowledge of when to carve and cut and how to do it; awareness of man, water, and wood, and of the thousand combinations which man, water, and wood can assume.

There is also a strong familiarity with timber’s shape and utilization, an expertise reflecting Williams’ Kentucky woodworking heritage and Louisville riverbed roots.

“Wood works great,” says Williams, who also builds raft and drift boat trailers and custom steel projects. “Wood is quiet, warm, tough, light, adaptable, and wears its experience well. Its character and integrity gives it family heirloom status. Wood on water has been part of our survival evolution and commercial business success as a species. A well cared for wooden boat becomes one of the best liked members of the family.”

One of Stu Williams's custom-built boats on the river at sunset.

The built, finished product is a real utilitarian joy, but it is the process, the experimentation, the embarkation, the art form, that Williams says he and other boat builders often cherish even more. Completed boats not only become a source of pride, but even tangible illustrations of personal identity.

Stu Williams as Artist

It was C.S. Lewis who once said that, “This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there’s a rumor going around the shop that some of us are someday going to come to life.”

In his world, Stu Williams’ is walking on water and his boats are vessels of life. The artist in Williams knows that a great product isn’t finished until somebody is using it, until it can be applied on the river on a gorgeous Western Montana night, until it glides across the Clark Fork River in the heat of August.

Over four decades, Williams has created more than 100 wooden river boats, sailboats, and power skiffs. On or off the river, when talking about one of his own beloved boats or the perks of his craft, Williams remains visibly jazzed.

“A boat is a front row seat for wild kingdom,” says Williams.


Read more of Brian’s stories about the fascinating places and personalities that shape Western Montana in his blog archive.


Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country News, USA Today, Wisconsin Trails, Bark Magazine, Montana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine.

His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle. He is also the author of Montana Summer: 101 Great Adventures in Big Sky Country. D’Ambrosio’s next book, Desert Horse: A Life of Marvin Camel, a biography of the Montana boxing legend, will be published by Riverbend Publishing in 2013.