Neil MacKay Boats, keeping a traditional trade afloat for 36 years

Posted on June 09, 2023 | By Alexander Chafe | 0 Comments


A wooden boat being built inside Neil MacKay Boats’ workshop (photo credit: Teresa Doyle/Facebook)


Prince Edward Island was once among the most productive shipbuilding areas in the world. Although the craft is less popular than it once was and many boat builders have moved on to using fibreglass, Neil MacKay continues the tradition of building boats from wood.

Learning the trade

In the 80s, teenage Neil MacKay travelled to Nova Scotia to complete a wooden boat-building course. According to MacKay, the course was one of the last of its kind in the Maritimes and someone would be hard-pressed to find a way to learn the trade today.

After returning home to Prince Edward Island, Neil set up a workshop outside his home in Murray Harbour and got to work on his first design. In 1987, Neil completed his first wooden boat and his namesake company set sail.


Raw wood (left) before being turned into the keel of a boat (right) inside MacKay’s workshop (photo credit: Spencer Norton)


Custom builds

Focusing on custom orders, Neil typically builds boats for the commercial fishery, primarily for lobster. He says his customers have been anywhere from 23 to 75-year-olds and all know the experience of wooden boats, either from a father or grandfather or years on the water themselves.

Inside MacKay’s shop, you’ll be greeted by the smell of cedar or spruce and will see a wide selection of tools, some new and some over a century old. The boat-building process often starts in the woods to search for the right materials to bring to a local mill for processing. From there, Neil assembles a keel — the spine of the boat from which the rest is built around. Altogether, it can take up to seven months to build a boat from scratch and Neil says things aren’t getting any faster. The increased size of engines and extra electronics added to boats today have added more time to the process.


The keel of a wooden boat in progress (photo credit: Spencer Norton)


Maintaining traditions

About 50 per cent of the wood used in Neil MacKay Boats comes from the woods of P.E.I. or N.S. Spruce is the prime material for wooden boat building, which has been used throughout Atlantic Canada for over 200 years.

To fully appreciate the difference between a wooden boat and one made of fibreglass, it takes first-hand experience. MacKay says wooden boats are more comfortable since the absorbent material becomes one with the water and is kinder to your body.


A special woodworking project inside Neil MacKay’s workshop (photo credit: Neil MacKay)


Still sailing

Although it has expanded a little since 1987, Neil still operates out of his small workshop in Murray Harbour, P.E.I. Over the years, Neil MacKay Boats has created about four or five custom designs and also started doing some repairs. Currently repairing a houseboat, Neil says in addition to his trade becoming scarce, supplies are harder to come by. With the housing market absorbing most of the available materials, Neil is patiently waiting to start his next commercial build.

Speaking of his years of experience in the trade, MacKay commented: “It’s a job that not many understand. Wooden boat building comes with a long learning curve; it takes a lifetime and I’m still learning myself.”

Keeping traditions afloat after 36 years.


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