Craftsman’s wooden canoes honor the past

CorrespondentJune 19, 2013 

— Clayton “Corky” Gray’s boatbuilding operation is no backyard affair. For 33 years, he’s crafted canoes reminiscent of Native American’s first canoes.

Each is built with an artistic eye and a passion for authenticity. He also builds canoe models and restores old wooden boats. Don’t bring him a power boat; he’s not interested.

“Sailboats are my love; canoes are my business,” he said.

To find Gray, take a ride through Davidson County. Head south of Lexington and a couple of turns later you run into Dogpatch Trail. Down a narrow paved road, he’s the third driveway on the left. Nestled under a canopy of oak trees, you’ll see his boatbuilding shop, a large wooden building a stone’s throw from High Rock Lake.

Gray, a Lexington native, grew up on the lake sailing and paddling with his dad and fellow Boy Scouts.

“When I was 16, dad and I built a sailboat of the lightning class,” he said.

Gray eventually ventured not too far down the road to Pfeiffer University where he studied accounting and met his wife, Pam.

“She’s the last of the pioneer women,” he joked. “She’s a Methodist from suburban Boston who came south to find a Methodist school as far away from Boston as she could get.”

Gray never practiced accounting but from a summer job he landed full time work with the Hatteras Yacht Co. in nearby High Point. That experience helped pave the way for his real career.

“I learned from Hatteras to build first-class boats and spare no expense,” he said.

After five years, Gray also learned that a big-time power boat corporation was not in his future.

“I wanted to live in the woods and build green boats,” he said. “So with Pam’s blessing, I quit.”

The Grays now live on 16 acres beside High Rock Lake with their horses, dogs, cats, a sawmill and an assortment of sailboats, canoes and kayaks.

“We love stuff many people are trying to get away from. We’re back-to-the-land people,” he said. “When we built a new home and installed a wood burning stove, my grandmother just could not understand it.”

Gray says he never wants for work. Word of mouth has been his only advertising.

“Most of my customers are from the Atlanta to (Washington) D.C. corridor, a day’s drive away,” he said.

A significant boost to Gray’s career has resulted from a longtime friendship with Bob Timberlake, the renowned artist and namesake to lines of furniture and home accessories.

Both share a love of wooden boats and the outdoors. Timberlake has one of the largest canoe collections in the southeast, some 30 originating from Gray’s hands.

“He wants his canoes to be authentic and real,” Gray said. “My first work with Bob was on a birch bark canoe to be used in the original Keep America Beautiful campaign featuring the noted actor Iron Eyes Cody.”

Gray built these canoes based on a publication from the Smithsonian Institute about Edwin Tappan Adney, a turn-of-the-century researcher of Native American canoes.

“My favorite is the Abenaki canoe,” Gray said. “ It’s beautiful with sweeping lines, rockered ends and V-shaped broken ribs … It’s not only rugged but pleasing to the eye.”

Gray also builds three canoe models ranging from 4 to 9 feet in length for accenting a room or office.

“I don’t work for Bob, but he gave me an opportunity that’s made my business,” Gray said. ‘He’s the meat and taters of my business.”

Gray’s works are displayed at the Bob Timberlake Gallery in Lexington but are not for sale. Interested parties receive Gray’s business card.

The model canoes are $1,000 to $3,500. Seaworthy canoes fetch between $6,500 to $9,500.

Gray works the same schedule as his wife, an exceptional children’s teacher at Lexington Senior High School.

“When school’s in I’m in, when school’s out, I am out,” he said.

So with the start of June, Gray closes down his boat building operation until the middle of August. He already has work on the books for next season. So what do the Grays do for the summer? They are off to Maine to live and sail on their 34-foot sloop, “Lyra.”

At age 62, is Gray looking to retirement?

“You’re looking at it,” he said. “This is a good lifestyle. Why retire? I’m free to do when and what I please. If I don’t want to work, I go sailing.”

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