Urban Boatbuilders and Their Work with Young People

5-minute read

Urban Boatbuilders is a Saint Paul, Minnesota-based 501c3 non-profit organization that “empowers youth to succeed in work and life through experiential learning.” This includes building and using canoes, kayaks, paddles and longboards.

group of adults and kids in canoes and kayaks on a small lake

A crew of excited paddlers on a local lake in boats they built themselves

The second-oldest boatbuilding non-profit of its kind in the US, Urban Boatbuilders was formed in 1995 when two different sets of people had the same idea. They decided to work together to see their mutual dreams come to fruition.

We sat down with Gretchen Wilbrandt, Director of Development and Community Engagement, and Gloria Lee, Communications Associate, to find out more about the young people they serve, their mission and their processes.

Here’s our conversation with Gretchen and Gloria of Urban Boatbuilders:


URBAN BOATBUILDERS: Boat building is a detailed and complex process that helps build several different skills. It’s very technical but also incorporates social and emotional learning components. Young people are impacted at several levels, including getting out into the environment and experiencing the boat they just built.

In our apprenticeship program we offer wilderness trips once our young people have finished building their boats. We offer a 3-5 day trip on the St Croix River—this year it’s Wild River State Park [the St Croix forms part of the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin]. And we do an annual 5-day trip in the Boundary Waters.

In our partnership programs, young people have an opportunity to launch their newly made watercraft on a local lake (and yes, we've even launched in a school swimming pool)—sometimes including as many as 300 students out on the water in a day!

For many of our participants, it’s their first opportunity to be able to take a trip like this, engage in nature, or even go outside of the Twin Cities. For some, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—a wonderful point in their life to be able to experience the world around them. And then to continue to steward and foster an appreciation for the environment.

Inside Urban Boatbuilders' shop with several boats in progress

Inside Urban Boatbuilders’ shop—several boats in process

We like to tell them it’s a kind of starting point. You get in a boat in Minnesota and can get to the ocean! It’s this nice metaphor of how woodworking, experiential learning and handcrafting are the starting point that can transport you to many places.

Our apprenticeship program involves a lot of technical woodworking skills, but also social-emotional skills and career readiness.

One of the ways Urban Boatbuilders really excels is in fostering a caring, supportive environment. We meet each person who walks through our door where they’re at and create a sense of family and community.

BRANCHES: Tell us about the young people and partners you work with.

URBAN BOATBUILDERS: In 2023 we worked with 978 young people between our partnership and apprenticeship programs. Our focus is on under-served young people. Everyone in our apprenticeship program has a barrier to employment—socio-economic, juvenile corrections, learning challenges or disabilities, chemical dependency, et cetera.

Urban Boatbuilders works with a lot of intermediate school districts—schools that focus on 18-21-year-olds building life skills through experiential projects.

A large group of people next to a lake with several canoes and kayaks built through Urban Boatbuilders

This partnering group built several boats and paddles

We also just had a partnership between public school 5th graders and juniors and seniors from a local private school who had gone through our longboard program. The older kids mentored the younger ones on how to build them.

We have strategic partnerships to help young people interested in the trades overcome barriers they may face. For example, helping a young woman get into a traditionally male-dominated trade or helping a young man overcome a racial barrier. A core component of the curriculum at Urban Boatbuilders is self-identity and being able to advocate for oneself in the workplace and in life.

We also do a lot of community involvement in general. We’re hosting a block party next month as a free networking event for youth. We’ve been reaching out to other organizations to participate as well. The University of Minnesota’s design museum is exhibiting some of our boats. You can find us at the Minnesota State Fair making a boat at the DNR building!

BRANCHES: Explain your Apprenticeship and Partnership programs to us.

URBAN BOATBUILDERS: Our partnership program works with young people ages 12-21 in the classroom for creative, hands-on education. We provide the tools and materials, and our instructors work directly with students. We tailor our STEM curriculum to the needs of the organization. Some want more emphasis on supplementary math, others on science, or the water or history.

A school girl works on an Urban Boatbuilders canoe

 In our apprenticeship program, we work with older students, ages 16-21, in a more highly-skilled environment. They can start as Junior Apprentices then come back and join as a Senior Apprentice, then as a Youth Instructor. There are different skills assessments they need to pass to progress on that journey so then they can teach other apprentices.

Young men work together to frame a canoe with Urban Boatbuilders

 Apprentices learn a variety of career-building hard and soft skills

We’ve found many want to come back to gain more skills and take on more responsibility. It’s another level of learning about accountability on the job and career readiness.

The apprenticeship positions are paid jobs where students go through an interview process and meet with two cohorts each semester. It gives them skills and work history to help them either further their education or land well-paid, stable employment.

BRANCHES: Let’s talk about the canoes built in your programs.

URBAN BOATBUILDERS: These are skin-on-frame canoes of various lengths and shapes. Everything is lashed (hand-tied). The number one question we get is: What is the skin? It’s nylon coated in a two-part epoxy. It's incredibly strong and durable while being super lightweight. A 15-foot canoe is just 32 pounds. I can throw it over my shoulders and put it on my car. These are the canoes we bring on wilderness trips once the apprentices complete them. They’re very durable and steady.

[The apprentices build several different types of canoe shapes and lengths, from urban to wilderness styles, a skin-on-frame kayak, all-wood paddleboard and Adirondack guide boat. These boats then go on sale to the public. Check them out here.]

A young man varnishes a canoe seat

 Urban Boatbuilders’ paid Apprentices gain valuable work experience

We also have a restoration program. We have a team of highly skilled volunteers who come in. They focus on restoring wood and canvas canoes. We’re currently working on a canoe first built in 1921 and another from a scout camp that was the first to create many on-the-water safety techniques we still use today. Sometimes we get canoe kits people have started and never finished.

You can learn more about Urban Boatbuilders on their website. They’re also on all the popular social media platforms.

A big thank you to Gretchen Wilbrandt and Gloria Lee for their time, and to Urban Boatbuilders for the good they’ve been doing for almost three decades!

All photos courtesy of Urban Boatbuilders.

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact us: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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