Bibb County retiree crafts wooden kayaks to pass the time

Even with dust on them, the kayaks in Ray Berringer’s backyard workshop look like woodwork museum pieces.

They’re as sleek as fighter-jet wings, varnished as shiny as still water.

If Berringer sold them, they’d probably go for better than $5,000.

But the retired oral surgeon, who got the boat-building bug when he lived in Hawaii, figures making the boats for money would be too much like work.

“If you’ve been in a profession that demanded your attention all the time ... and all of a sudden you have this free time,” Berringer, 71, said, explaining the void that hand-crafting kayaks has filled for him.

In his shop, he can turn on classical music — much the way he did in the operating room — and while away the 250 or so hours it takes to turn out one of his floating jewels. “Creating,” he said, motioning to the under-construction, honey-colored 17-footer on the sawhorse in front of him, “something like this.”

“I can just get embroiled in this. Just get lost,” he said.

Berringer’s precision tools include a Depression-era jointer and a table saw, both so dialed in and vibration-free that you can stand a nickel on edge on top of them while they’re running. The saw cuts to 32nds of an inch, and the 2,700-pound jointer, which he bought on eBay, was salvaged from the USS Saratoga.

So here Berringer is using heavyweight equipment to build quarter-inch-thick vessels that weigh about 50 pounds and can haul 400 pounds of gear plus a paddler across mere inches of water.

Boat builders, Berringer said, can fall into two categories: ones who like making them more and ones who prefer riding in them more. He said he lands somewhere in the middle.

Berringer, who lives just up a hill from Lake Tobesofkee in west Bibb County, likes cruising the lake in his wide-bottomed sea kayak.

Some of his skinnier, more tippy models can make a first-time paddler feel like he is “riding a real thin-tired bicycle,” Berringer said.

He mostly uses cypress or basswood, but sometimes incorporates African mahogany and hard-to-get Hawaiian koa, slicing the wood into strips about as wide as your average tongue depressor and tacking them onto a curved form.

Berringer mostly builds the kayaks for family members and close friends, folks he knows will appreciate them. That is, their uniqueness and the two and a half months of time he puts into crafting them.

Berringer, who lived in Hawaii for 25 years, was first taken with kayaks when, in his sea-going motor boat, he helped escort paddlers in open-ocean races there. These days, though, paddle power suits him just fine.

“I don’t miss it much anymore,” he said of his old motor boat. “Not with diesel fuel at $5 a gallon. No thank you.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.