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Randall Torno with his handcrafted boats

Randall Torno

Canoe artisan

by Shelley Daily

From the August, 2015 issue

Randall Torno builds his canoes for the water--even though some of them may never touch a river or lake. "Many people buy them to hang on the wall," he explains, leading a tour of his basement workshop, where half a dozen gleaming wooden boats, all handcrafted from strips of local and exotic wood, are ready for sale. "People see them, and they fall in love with them!" says Torno's wife, Janet.

Torno--a sixty-six-year-old retired design engineer--has fine-tuned his boat design, which features a "kayak-style hull that looks like a canoe," for two decades. The vessels are so smooth and light (at twenty-three pounds the single-person model is less than half the weight of a typical aluminum canoe) that paddlers can "sneak up on things without being known," says Torno. He recalls a long-ago trip with their son, Jarrett, where, rounding a bend softly, they came upon a dozen grazing deer. That same canoe, now hanging on his basement wall, also gave the father-son team a first-place finish in a ten-mile race on the Huron River twenty years ago. Torno smiles, recalling that, incredulous that they'd won, the pair collapsed on the shore.


For many years, Torno's outdoor adventures took him to the skies as well. But in 2000 he was flying his award-winning aerobatic biplane--one of three planes he'd meticulously built by hand--when it crashed shortly after takeoff from a private airfield south of Ann Arbor because of a defective part. Torno suffered thirty-three broken bones and injured his spinal cord.

"They said at best I'd use a wheelchair," he says. "I was pretty damaged." Janet (a former arts administrator now employed at Conlin Travel) and Jarrett, then training to be a pilot in Arizona, rallied around Torno and coordinated his care.

Torno went through more than two dozen surgeries--many experimental--plus physical therapy. "He was determined he would get through it," Janet says. For her part, she explains she's "one of those people who is very good at being positive

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for other people ... and I have a lot of really good friends who supported me." Jarrett returned to Ann Arbor, helped care for his father, and earned a master's in accounting from U-M. Married, he now works for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C.

A few months after the accident, Torno started working from home for the former Jenkins Equipment Company (now International Equipment Solutions), and eventually returned to the company's Sweepster facility in Scio Twp. He retired a few years ago. Torno says he's at "about 75 percent of my former [energy] level" and uses crutches.

He launched Torno Boatworks at the end of last year. "The way I look at it is you can choose to do nothing or you can choose to do something," he says. He uses an office chair with wheels to maneuver around his workshop, where he spends about four hours each day. He's adapted his power tools for use while seated and personally adapted his spacious cedar home in the Loch Alpine subdivision to make it easier to navigate.

Torno's passion for handcrafted design is everywhere in the house: his stained-glass designs decorate the windows--including a recent creation that pays homage to the couple's obsession with Game of Thrones--his painted wooden dog sculptures greet visitors at the front door, and his handblown glass creations and pottery line the shelves.

Born in Detroit and raised in Dearborn, Torno studied visual arts at Northern Michigan University for two years then quit to work at Ford, where his jobs included wood model maker and tool and die maker. Eventually, he earned an engineering degree from U-M in 1973. In 1970, he served a stint as a medic on a rescue helicopter in Vietnam. Later, suffering job burnout at Ford, he and Janet, whom he met through a mutual friend and married in 1980, traveled the country for a year, then returned to settle in Ann Arbor. At Jenkins, he created products for John Deere and Caterpillar, as well as airport runway equipment--and even the control system for a Disneyland ride.

"For me, design is paramount in everything," says Torno. Five years ago he built a replica 1940s-era mahogany "gentlemen's runabout" motorboat that he named the "Ran Jan," which won top honors at an antique boat show. "I'm attracted to designs from the 1930s and '40s when there were more craftsmen--before the big companies came in to try to make it better and faster." He made the metal pieces from scratch; he fashioned the windshield from the side windows of an old Cadillac.

"The smell of the varnish and the wood is very intoxicating all stirred together," says Torno, as he leans into the motorboat, parked in his driveway. Janet, however, prefers the more peaceful kayak. "I mentioned selling [the motorboat] once, but that didn't go over so well," she laughs.

For his canoes, Torno chooses local wood from Recycle Ann Arbor's ReUse Center and visits a Charlotte lumberyard for more exotic wood. The hulls are made from Alaska cedar as well as oak and maple; the trim is mahogany. He wraps the hulls in S-glass fiberglass cloth--used in airplane construction--that he chose for its strength and lightness. "As a design engineer I'm excited and very involved in getting it there [using] nonstandard tooling," he says. He explains that the fiberglass and resin "merge with the wood" to create a seamless structure. Instead of the staples found in most wood canoes, he uses clamps and bungee cords to hold the wood together as it dries. "It's a game to one-up the competition," he says.

Torno's one-person canoes sell for $3,000, with two-person models going for $5,000 to $6,000. He also makes paddles as well as decorative half-size models, which sell for $500.

The Tornos use his canoes themselves; their favorite spot is Pickerel Lake. And every summer, he and Janet, also a U-M grad, visit Camp Michigania and bring one of their canoes along--but they usually don't return with it, because they end up selling it to a fellow camper. This year, they plan to bring two.


This article has been edited since it was published in the August 2015 Ann Arbor Observer. Jarrett Torno's reason for returning to Ann Arbor, and his degree from the U-M, have been corrected.     (end of article)

[Originally published in August, 2015.]


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