A Visit to a Canoe Craftsman- Olmen, Belgium

When I travelled by train the three hours to visit the wood canoe builder, Bart Deseyn of FreeRanger Canoes, I was looking for a very different story than the one I found.  I expected a class in and a story about the making a cedar strip canoe. What I got, was insight into a new tourist destination opportunity. Take a wood canoe building class and then take it home when you are finished.  The story  I found at this small workshop in the Belgium countryside village was a much better story than what I was seeking.

Paddling at the Open Canoe Fest - FreeRanger solo

Paddling at the Open Canoe Fest – FreeRanger solo canoe

I met Bart and his son, Emiel, this year in early September when we attended the Dutch Open Canoe Festival.  They had graciously loaned me one of their handmade canoes for a solo canoe class.

The first thing that intrigued me when I first met Bart and his son Emiel, was that they were very passionate about the product they build.  Attention to detail,  wanting people to paddle their product on the water, and their excitement in explaining their canoes, was infectious.  As people at the canoe festival took the FreeRanger canoes out for a demo they would return from the water to tell other canoe paddlers of the experience.  I was one of those enthusiastic paddlers, I wasn’t planning on buying one, but I did want to tell everyone what a beautiful boat it was on the water. I wanted to visit his shop and learn how he made these sleek beautiful watercraft.

One Track Town -Balen, Belguim

One Track Town -Balen, Belgium

When I arrived in the small one train track town of Balen, Belgium I felt like I had stepped off the train in a slower time warp.  It had a very rural feel instantly, compared to the rush, rush, rush of the Dutch Randstad (the heavily populated western part of The Netherlands between Rotterdam and Amsterdam).

Bart flagged me down from the almost empty parking lot and we headed to the small town of Olmen where his wood canoe building shop is located.  We first sat and had coffee.  Chatted over my trip to Belgium and then the conversation turned to canoes.

FreeRanger Canoes at the shop

FreeRanger Canoes at the shop

Curious about his canoe business, I asked if it was his primary job. Bart is a commercial photographer by trade and profession.  This canoe building was a hobby that expanded into a business and now seems to be surpassing all his original expectations.  That can explain the passion I felt from them at the canoe festival.  I think his wood canoe shop success has caught him a bit by surprise.

I think Bart is still shocked by the amount of interest in his craftwork.  He has only been building canoes for two years. He shared with me that he has over 5000 instagram followers. The most “hits” he gets is when he shows pictures of one of his canoes on the water.

As I listened, I started to feel like maybe I was looking at a bigger or perhaps a different story than the one I had planned to write.

FreeRanger Paddles outside the woodshop

FreeRanger Paddles outside the woodshop

As we continued drinking our coffee at his kitchen table, I could see the supposed magic canoe making shed nestled between the trees in the large back garden. I drifted into a daydream as Bart continued to explain his business.

Wow- Hubby would love to have a large shed for all our stuff.  The ability to have all his tools to work with in one place undisturbed by my constant moving them around the various places in our house and garden, it would be his heaven.

My thoughts were interrupted as a tall man with bushy hair and a friendly grin walked into the house and past us to the bathroom.  Han, was introduced to me moments later as a Dutchman who lives just across the border. He was here for the day working on a canoe he was building under Bart’s supervision.  I had seen on the FreeRanger website that this was one of the unique features of FreeRanger Canoes, a workshop (class) in canoe making.  The workshop includes a complete or partial build depending on what the customer wanted to accomplish. Then the ability to purchase the canoe at a reduced cost at the end of the build.

Han and Bart in the wood shop discussing Epoxy application

Han and Bart in the wood shop discussing Epoxy application

Here is where the story I initially came to write changed. I wasn’t writing about building canoes I am writing about a whole new vacation opportunity.

Bart and Emiel have found a new tourist niche in the wooden canoe making market.  No other canoe craftsman offers the chance to build and purchase the canoe.

Already this year, FreeRanger Canoes has had a local Belgium family build a canoe, a man all the way from Korea, and Han (the Dutchman) who have all taken advantage of this unique opportunity.  Next summer Bart has an American scheduled to travel from Illinois to build a cedar strip canoe.

Cedar Strip Canoe under construction

Cedar Strip Canoe under construction

That is what I call a cool vacation!  I have never built a canoe on vacation and took it home as a souvenir!

I am sure the cost of such a vacation is not cheap with the cost of lodging, materials, airfare, and the shipping of the canoe back home once it is completed, but hey, it is something in the vacation industry that is darn original.

Bart cutting an oar from a piece of white ash. He has been commissioned to make ten for a rowing club.

Bart cutting an oar from a piece of white ash. He has been commissioned to make ten for a rowing club.

I could see why Bart is good at this sort of tourist experience.  He loves canoeing and kayaking with a passion. He loves woodworking.  I witnessed first hand that afternoon his intense love of sharing his craftsmanship, tips, tools and shop with his students. His workshop is a warm and comfortable space of creativity.

Prep for painting. Bart shows how to tape off the design on a student made paddle.

Prep for painting. Bart shows how to tape off the paint design. Paddle of left is a student made paddle getting ready for a painted design.

I would encourage anyone with a passion for woodworking, canoeing or just want to spend part of your European vacation doing something different, to spend a few hours or days in the FreeRanger workshop. It is an experience of a lifetime and the hosts are just cool, down to earth people, who have a genuine passion for canoeing.

A huge thank you to FreeRanger Canoes for the invite to their shop.


  • We would love to hear about a canoe craftsmen you have visited.


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