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ORONO, Maine — Brandon Viger’s deft hands guided a centuries-old piece of wood along a fast-spinning sandpaper drum on Wednesday inside Shaw & Tenney on Water Street.
Within minutes, the 23-year-old Orono resident transformed the rough paddle-shaped cutout into a more finished product displaying the craftsmanship that has been a Shaw & Tenney staple for more than 150 years. Viger put the blade on the ground and pressed down on the grip to test the bend and durability. He stared down the shaft to make sure it was straight, even and smooth.
He bounced the throat of the paddle — or the place where the blade meets the shaft — against the grinding drum, spinning the paddle as he went to make sure the curves were even.
The process looked effortless and painstaking at the same time.
The paddle is one of hundreds Shaw & Tenney’s craftsmen will create this year to help L.L. Bean celebrate its 100th anniversary.
Shaw & Tenney, a company that started making wooden oars and paddles in 1858, is in the midst of producing its first batch of orders — nearly 300 paddles. L.L. Bean and Shaw & Tenney’s owner Steve Holt hope more follow.
“We’re very proud to make L.L. Bean’s 100th anniversary paddle,” Holt said Wednesday before giving a tour of his facility to a group that included U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Sen. Olympia Snowe, L.L. Bean Senior Product Developer for Equipment Scot Balentine and others.
“L.L. Bean is an icon in the state,” Holt said. “They’re known all over the world. And in our little niche, Shaw & Tenney is known worldwide for making oars and paddles.”
Balentine said the paddles make for a great celebration of L.L. Bean’s anniversary because they are “really steeped in Maine history.”
Less than two years ago, the wood being used to make these paddles rested at the bottom of Quakish Lake just west of Millinocket.
Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Maine was considered widely to be the logging, lumber and paper capital of the world.
Lumber flowed down the state’s rivers on its way to mills and ports.
Quakish Lake was a gathering point for wood heading to Millinocket’s mills for processing, but not every log finished the journey.
About 1 million cords of wood sank to the bottom of the lake, where they stayed for more than a century.
Enter West Branch Heritage Timber. Two years ago, the company began the largest sunken timber remediation project in New England, according to Managing Partner Tom Shafer.
Today, the lake is treacherous because of the million cords of wood resting ominously just below the surface, according to Shafer.
West Branch Heritage Timber uses a barge and crane to “fish” for logs. There are no divers to hook up or pick up lumber selectively, and the wood essentially is hauled up at random.
“You just don’t know what you’re going to find,” he said Wednesday. The crane has hauled items ranging from a car tire dated to 1915 to logging pick pulls and chains.
“It’s a treasure hunt every day,” Shafer said.
One log the West Branch Heritage Timber team pulled from the water had been unseen by human eyes for more than 400 years. A University of Maine professor estimated that the log had been under water since 1589, according to Shafer.
The company fishes deep in the lake for the most beautiful wood, Shafer said.
“The deeper the better,” he said. Lower oxygen levels will bring out unique colors and patterns in the wood after it’s submerged for decades, he said.
Every paddle that comes out of Shaw & Tenney for this L.L. Bean collection will be unique, according to Holt. Each log has been preserved in the lake for between one and five centuries, giving the minerals in the wood time to change the wood’s look and give each paddle its own character.
While state and local officials and businessmen milled around the Shaw & Tenney building on their tours, Viger and his fellow craftsmen continued to pump out paddles.
Viger said he has been working at Shaw & Tenney for a little more than a year and can produce 10-15 paddles per day if it’s his only task during a workday.
One of the jobs biggest hazards, he said, is the chance that you might hit your hand against the spinning 36-grit sandpaper cylinder.
“I’ve done it a few times, and it’ll take some skin with it,” he said with a cringe.
The job requires precise, graceful hands, according to Holt.
“I know within 15 minutes whether or not you can make a paddle,” he said. “You’ve either got the hand-eye coordination you need to do this or you don’t.”
More information on L.L. Bean 100th anniversary paddles and other items may be found at http://www.llbean.com/llb/shop/510045?nav=s4-hp.