Perfection is the Goal

Everyone expects Shaw & Tenney oars and paddles to be flawless — especially the owners.

By Virginia M. Wright   Photograph by Jason P. Smith

Brad Wright lowers the throat of a wooden canoe paddle onto a drum sander in the Shaw & Tenney factory, a barnlike building sitting inconspicuously on a quiet side street in downtown Orono. The fast-spinning cylinder twirls the shaft upward through Wright’s hands, then he lowers the paddle and guides it across the drum once more. Raising the paddle to eye level, Wright tilts his head, closes one eye, and gazes down its length. He repeats the sequence — sand, sand, sight; sand, sand, sight — until he is satisfied that the paddle is perfectly straight and smooth.

Shaw & Tenney occupies a tiny niche in the paddle sports industry. Instead of mass-producing gear from an ever-evolving array of high-performance plastics, Wright and his seven coworkers handcraft each and every one of the roughly three thousand oars and paddles that leave the workshop each year, working in much the same manner that their predecessors did when the company was founded 154 years ago. What was once the state-of-the-art in paddling technology is now an art, a status that comes with both advantages and challenges: On the one hand, a Shaw & Tenney paddle or oar is regarded as a stamp of quality, the crowning touch on a custom or restored wooden vessel; on the other hand, the demand for handcrafted oars would seem to be limited.

So it comes as some surprise to learn that Shaw & Tenney’s sales have grown more than 250 percent since Steve Holt and Nancy Forster-Holt purchased the business in 2003. They did it not by changing their products — “there’s no way to perfect something that is already the right design,” Holt says — but by developing new customers, many of whom will never dip their purchases into a lake or stream. “An ever-increasing percentage of our business is the nontraditional use of our traditional products,” Holt explains. “For example, we make and laser-engrave a large number of paddles to be awarded as trophies for events like the Everglades Challenge and the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race.”

Regular customers include the United States Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance companies, which present a Shaw & Tenney paddle, its blade etched with the creed of the reconnaissance marine, to every departing member, and Old Town, the venerable canoe and kayak manufacturer, which awards canoe-shaped plaques to employees as a way of recognizing their years of service. For its one hundredth anniversary this year, L.L.Bean commissioned Shaw & Tenney to make five hundred full-size paddles from centuries-old wood salvaged from Quakish Lake, most of which will likely end up mounted on living room walls. And this past summer, Steve Holt fielded a call from some first-time customers who wanted to give an engraved paddle to their father for his birthday. The father? Paul McCartney, who joins Jimmy Buffett and Billy Joel in the unofficial brotherhood of famous musicians with Orono-made oars.

Shaw & Tenney paddles and oars, as well as flagpoles, masts, spars, and other marine tools, are increasingly showing up in unexpected places as well. Gondoliers at the Venetian Las Vegas Casino steer their vessels down the resort’s quarter-mile-long Grand Canal with Shaw & Tenney oars of Maine red maple. Children in Manhattan’s new Imagination Playground play in a sandbox dominated by four Shaw & Tenney masts made from Douglas fir. And if you go to see 20th Century Fox’s new movie, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you might want to keep an eye out for a Shaw & Tenney’s eastern red spruce flagpole.

When Frank Tenney founded the company as Orono Manufacturing on the banks of the Stillwater River in 1858, oars and paddles were needed to propel vessels of commerce, but over the next several decades demand for the products gradually shifted to recreational users. Sometime after the business merged with the George Shaw Company, a Boston oar and paddle maker, in the 1890s, it moved to a new building on Main Street, then moved again in 1951 to the wood-frame factory on Water Street it still calls home. It was Paul Reagan, a boating enthusiast who bought the business in 1978, who built Shaw & Tenney’s international reputation as a manufacturer of artisan wooden boating supplies and steered its focus away from a wholesale business model to direct-to-consumer sales.

The Holts had been actively looking for a business to buy for several years when they bought Reagan’s workshop in 2003. “It was a combination of being ready with our business skills and a midlife crisis  — we wanted something that at the end of the day is really ours,” Nancy says. “Shaw & Tenney was a jewel that just needed to be dusted off and grown.”

To that task, she and her husband brought different, but critical skills. Her background is in accounting, banking, and small business management. Steve had worked as an engineering and marketing manger, and he had launched his own business, Holt Associates, which did engineering and design management for several Maine companies.

Still, they had a few things to learn. Shaw & Tenney, for example, has virtually no inventory; almost every product is made to order. “That was difficult for us to adjust to because we were used to more conventional business practices with more standard products and inventory,” says Nancy, who teaches entrepreneurship and executive development at Husson University. “This is a legacy or niche product. And in the tiny, small niche that we’re in, we’re the icon.”

The Holts’ strategy in part expanded on Reagan’s efforts. Reagan had, for example, introduced Shaw & Tenney products to Disney World, providing it with period-correct oars for the Canada Pavilion at Epcot as well as other specialty items. The Holts followed his lead, raising the company’s profile as a supplier of props for the entertainment industry. Shaw & Tenney’s big screen presence this year includes not only the aforementioned flagpole in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but also the Dwarves’ pack baskets in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Even as they move the business in these new directions, the Holts allow no exceptions to Shaw & Tenney’s standard. The paddles that are suspended from the ceiling of the Ancient Mariner restaurant in Mystic, Connecticut, are as perfectly straight and smooth as those that outfit Jerry Stelmok’s famous wood-and-canvas canoes. “We have only one quality,” Steve says. “If it isn’t perfectly clear — the wood must have no knots, pitch pockets, or other defects — and perfectly straight, it becomes a second.”

The Holts have maintained the retail model that Reagan established, but transitioned the business from catalog to Internet sales. “Expanding our Web presence has been a major part of our growth — that’s become our primary marketing tool,” Steve says. “We’re about to revamp our Web site as part of our marketing effort. The traditional use of our products remains a big part of our sales. If you’re in the small boat community or traditional rowing community, you know who we are, but we feel we have not fully tapped the market because people simply don’t know about us.” They also are using Facebook and other social media to introduce their products to a new generation of paddlers and rowers.

The oars and paddles are surprisingly light, comparable to those made of engineered materials. “We’ve had people pit them against carbon fiber for performance and they’ve held up for strength, flexibility, and warmth in the hand,” Nancy says. “And when they’re done rowing, they bring it in and hang it above the fireplace.”