“Working with Wood while Following God”

By: Stephen Shay

Volume 19, Issue 1, January 2024
[Editor's note:  What is the wood Shepherd doing now? Yes, this was the question I asked Stephen Shay several months ago?  However, his answer is just what makes an editor smile on the first day of January 2024 - a New Year. He says that writing about himself is not easy and he does not want to sound boastful - but we can just sit back and smile at that comment, for we know his work speaks to his talents and those talents and his joy of life are appreciated by all. Readers enjoy!]
41' paddlewheel day cruiser. 

“Working with Wood while Following God”

I never started out to be called an artisan. An artisan is someone who has practiced a trade or a craft, producing something unique by hand, in limited quantities, using traditional methods, tools, and techniques. An artisan is a person, who over the test of time, becomes heralded as a skilled crafts-person, by their work. No one starts out known as an artisan. Age has little to do with it, experience is a better yardstick. Education, observation, mentorship, and opportunity have been equal partners in my journey. They all have been the significant markers of my life’s creative journey as a worker of wood.

My name is Stephen Shay. My creative life has spanned over 80 years. I grew up on New York’s Keuka Lake and on the St. Lawrence River. My art career started by doing pencil drawings on reams of typing paper, colouring with finger paint and crayons, then painting with milk paint and acrylics. Later on I studied design and drafting. I have always been a keen observer of experienced workmanship and excellence. These days I do art on wood.

I have a shop with both power and hand tools. I particularly like working wood with hand tools, some of which were used by my grandfathers and my father. The three most valuable tools I use are: (1) an observant and inquiring mind, (2) a divergent imagination, and (3) my hands.

The very first thing I constructed from wood was a little boat: two scraps of driftwood, a couple of nails, a stick to hold on a piece of cloth for a sail. It is not much different today, just more experience, better wood, better glue, and some quality paint. These days I also make live edge cutting and bread boards with bread knives, and cheese boards with cheese knives, and beautiful charcuterie boards. I use wood with names like red heart, yellow heart, purple heart, quilted wood, zebra wood, rosewood, and lace wood. Don’t forget our North American native maple, cherry, ash, pine, elm, white eastern cedar, red oak, white oak, walnut, hickory, butternut, and basswood.

I am a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a US Marine. On my business card it says, “Working Wood while Following God.” Jesus was known as the Good Shepherd; my professional name is “The Wood Shepherd.” I consider wood to be one of God’s must beautiful and useful creations.

Not long before his death, North Country metal sculptor and artisan Will Salisbury recognized what I was doing in my unique style with the early St. Lawrence River tour boats. He contacted me, and heartily affirmed my work and encouraged me to keep going. High praise coming from that master craftsman. I have made hundreds of small nautical pieces ranging from light houses, island Christmas villages, and large whimsical fish, to an 8 ½ ft hand carved sturgeon, and several large 1800s era weathervanes.

The "Lindy Anne", from Westminster Park, a Chris-Craft

Over the last decade, I have welcomed commissions: a River-cottage sign; a replica 1935 Chris Craft Deluxe Utility boat; a 1928s Chris Craft runabout with triple cockpit; a Piper Colt; and several other airplanes. I built a model of what was referred to as the “Wedding Barge,” The IDA M out of Rockport, and restored a 50 year old solid wood, hand-carved model of the historic Toronto Islands steam tug, the “Ned Hanlon.” I built a Brockville harbour tug that I named “Tunnel Bay II.” I have and will build anything that relates to cars and trucks, planes, trains, and automobiles. Over the last two decades, my nautical art has found forever homes in Denmark, Sweden, England, Ontario, Nova Scotia, BC, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Colorado, Cape Cod, Florida, Ohio, and Asia. I like building vintage Thousand Islands tour boats best.

Over the last two decades my nautical art has found forever homes in Denmark, Sweden, England, Ontario, Nova Scotia, BC, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Colorado, Cape Cod, Florida, Ohio and Asia. I like building vintage Thousand Islands tour boats best.

The GBL mid-century tour boat, "Lynda VII"

In an article in Thousand Island’s Life dated 1/13/2019, author Tom King wrote,

“Another person working diligently to keep the spirit of the old classic Thousand Islands tour boats alive is Stephen Shay. Stephen is a passionate, life-long woodworker who now lives in Maitland, Ontario, near the St. Lawrence River. He makes wooden “folk art” items in his shop and among the nautical pieces that he creates are replicas of the old tour boats. Although Stephen’s models aren’t exact reproductions of the original boats, they certainly capture the essence of them, and there is no mistake as to what you are looking at when you see one of them.”

My nautical art and 20th century Thousand Islands tour boats are in three nautical museums and many galleries and gift shops on both sides of the St Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands region.

Other model ships include a paddle-wheel River day cruiser, a ferry boat, along with several double-decker tour boats that sailed out of Clayton, NY and Rockport, ON. I recently finished work on two of my favourite “Lakers,” the 70 year old flat deck bulk carrier “Ojibway” and the yellow “salty” Big Lift ship, “Happy River.”

These days, I am building early to mid-20th century Thousand Islands wooden tour boats, which celebrate the beginning of the island’s tourist industry, their history, huge homes, castles, and their magic and romance. For the most part what I create is accomplished using no kits, no instructions, no plans, just an old photograph or two, and sometimes a build information sheet. I build what I want and like, posting them on St. Lawrence River ship-oriented sites and on my own Facebook pages.

ANNA the Cape Vincent mystery boat.


In the July, 2021 issue of Thousand Islands Life I authored an article entitled “The Mystery Boat of Cape Vincent.” That article led to several newspaper articles and an interview on North Country Public Radio and started a firestorm of activity centered on the old fishing trawler ANNA. Soon a Facebook group started by Steve Porter called “ANNA” began to attract friends and foes alike. That group now has over 890 members, all lovers of the old New England trawler ANNA, grounded in Cape Vincent, NY, not ten feet from the St. Lawrence River. I, too, love her and have built many ANNA models.

After many years of neglect, what previously had not been for sale, is now for sale. Buying ANNA should be the easy part. However, it will be a labour intensive, costly undertaking, first to remove her fuel tanks and diesel engine, then to stabilize her decaying shell, to find a suitable resting place, conduct the necessary environmental and engineering studies, build a proper cradle, and finally lift and move her to the new site. I hope it will be done.

I have been asked about building a mid-century Gananoque Boat Line (GBL) tour boat model. That I can do but that build will have to wait, as there are several commissioned tour boat builds ahead of it. I consider that a nice problem to have! For many years, my happy place has been my wood shop. I do my art because it pleases God, it pleases me, it pleases others, and it scratches my creative itch.

As with all art forms, and with nearly all other artisans’ work, my art form and techniques have morphed from 2”x4”s, string and stick figures, to hand-carved boats with sculpted bows, mahogany decks, stern lettering, company signs, life-rings, propellers, wooden seats, heads, hardwood cradles, and company or country flags.

55" hand carved muskie, which is replicates the Clayton House weathervane 

My uniquely styled boats tend to elicit smiles, bring back memories, recall personal histories, and the thoughts of people who rode on them, in what has been called “simpler times.”

Someone asked me what my legacy was. A legacy comes from one's character, reputation, and the life you lived – ultimately setting an example for others to guide their futures. I believe my faith and witness for Jesus Christ, and these Thousand Islands boat models will be my legacy.

What’s ahead for the Wood Shepherd nautical art and Thousand Islands tour boat models? Most of them are sold and in collections. Well, I did just acquire a 13” planer with helical cutter heads, a long awaited Saw Stop 10” table saw, a portable laser printer/engraver outfit, and a Cricut cutting machine. As I look to the future, what will I do with these tools? Perhaps I will craft a model boat for you or yours. Only the Lord knows.

By Stephen Shay, the Wood Shepard Maitland, ON.

Stephen Shay was born in Penn Yan, NY. He grew up on Keuka Lake and spent several summers on the St. Lawrence River between Clayton and Alexandria Bay at Point Vivian. Stephen spent his life around boats, as he says, "drawing them, carving the, and driving them." He is a retired clergyman, now living and building boats in Maitland, ON. Canada, on the St. Lawrence River. He is known as the Wood Shepherd.

Posted in: Volume 19, Issue 1, January 2024, Artists

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