Cousins Todd Randall and Zak Fellman founded Sanborn Canoe Co. in 2009 in their buddy’s garage on Sanborn Street. Now nestled in a workshop with eight employees in the small town of Winona, Minnesota, Sanborn Canoe Co. is making a big splash in the outdoor recreation category. From handcrafted canoe paddles to wool beanies inspired by the wool toques French fur traders wore, this Minnesota born and bred company has everything to outfit your next adventure in beautiful form.
Learn more about co-founder Todd Randall and his growing company in our exclusive Modern Midwest Q&A.
Modern Midwest: What was the inspiration behind the company?
Todd Randall: One of our earliest inspirations was our grandpa telling us about making canoes and paddles back in the sixties with local youths. So Zak and I and a few others went together and built a canoe in our buddy’s garage, and it turned out pretty good, better than we had expected. If you have a brand new cedar-strip canoe, it doesn’t feel right using paddles that are grey, worn, and warped, so we decided to try making paddles, and we discovered pretty quickly that making paddles is easier than making canoes. We enjoyed making those paddles, and thought that it might be a good business opportunity.
MM: Can you tell me a little about the paddle-making process?
TR: It depends on how you measure it. The actual time elapsed from getting an order to shipping is usually about two weeks, but if we’re busier, it’s usually a little longer than that. But the actual hands-on time if you don’t count all of the time waiting for glue and epoxy to dry is much closer to an hour to an hour and a half.
MM: Does only one person touch a paddle from start to finish or are multiple hands involved in the creation of a single paddle?
TR: We have one guy who basically does all of the prep work for all of our paddles. His hands are involved in the production of every paddle. Then, the Wilderness Paddles go to me once they’ve been glued up. All of the shaping, sanding, and finishing with the fiberglass is all me. The Artisan Painted Paddles, our bread and butter at this point, go to another craftsman but there are a couple of people involved in the painting, one of those being Zak.
MM: What’s the inspiration behind the artwork on the Artisan Paddles?
TR: All of them have a different story, and Zak is the artist behind those. We like to go camping in the Boundary Waters so the North paddle is a symbol of adventure. But sometimes, Zak creates a cool color scheme, names it afterwards, and tells a story to fit.
MM: What wood do you use for your paddles?
TR: Most of our paddles are multiple kinds of woods. The primary kind of wood is Western Red Cedar. If you see the dark red tones in the paddles, that’s typically Western Red Cedar. We also use aspen, which is a hardwood with bright white color and contrasts beautifully with the cedar. Then we also work in a few different types of hardwoods with cherry and ash being the primary ones.
Europeans came here, and it was a brand new place and the mode of exploring was the canoe. That kind of heritage goes back, at least in United States history, in a way that is really cool, and so we are carrying that forth.Todd Randall
MM: Do you get your wood from Minnesota?
TR: Well, the cedar comes from the western United States and Canada. I wish it grew around here, that would be fantastic, but unfortunately it doesn’t. But the hardwoods come from a lumber mill about an hour away from us.
MM: What encouraged you to make an expansion into products outside of paddles like sleeping bags, axes, and hats?
TR: That started a few years ago. Initially, at least, we started primarily with things we could make ourselves. We had a lot of scraps from our paddle making that we just didn’t want to throw onto a burn pile. So we tried to recycle it into various things and then that sort of lead to the possibility of basically being the place to go to be outfitted for canoe camping. Part of that is presenting a lifestyle of the canoeist, but the other thing is actually outfitting people. We sell the various paddles, but then also the gear for camping like a firestarter kit and stuff like that.
MM: What do you see next for Sanborn Canoe Co.?
TR: We are hoping to offer some various larger items soon. The biggest one is that we plan on offering canoes in the very near future. Cedar-strip canoes take around 100 hours to make but once you get the skills down, it takes quite a bit less. But even then that’s quite a bit more work than making a paddle. Recently, we had the opportunity to purchase one of the country’s oldest canoe companies, Merrimack Canoe Company. We are going to be selling those canoes as a partnership between Sanborn and the Merrimack name. It’s been around since 1954, so we are really excited about it.
MM: With business booming right now, do you still have time to get out and paddle for yourself?
TR: Well, we have a handful of trips planned already. I know for myself if I don’t have it on the calendar and planned, then I’ll just keep my nose to the paddle, working and cranking out paddles. We’ve got a big trip planned as a company in the next couple of months.
MM: What is the meaning behind Sanborn’s hashtag #ScoutForth?
TR: Europeans came here, and it was a brand new place and the mode of exploring was the canoe. That kind of heritage goes back, at least in United States history, in a way that is really cool, and so we are carrying that forth. Beyond that, each day you are in a canoe in the Boundary Waters or just hiking through Minneapolis, you can be on an adventure. #ScoutForth means carrying the intrepid spirit.
Connect with Sanborn Canoe Co.
Facebook: Sanborne Canoe Co.
Images compliments of Sanborn Canoe Co.