Wood Or Nothing – The Henry Vokey Exhibit

vokey-1In His Blood

Henry Vokey was born with boat building in his blood. He grew up in Little Harbour, Newfoundland located in Trinity Bay North. Henry took an interest in boat building at an early age. At age 12 He built his first model which measured six feet long. Later at age 24 he built his first full size boat. It was a trap skiff, that not even his father knew he was building, until he had the boat partly timbered out. Henry eventually married and had a family. To provide for his family he worked at a number of jobs including making windows and doors. However he was always called back to building boats, he built fifty one boats for himself and customers while living in Little Harbour.  In 1964 Henry & his family resettled to the community of Trinity and that’s when he took up boat building full time.

Henry on why he prefers wood to fiberglass:


I was more use to wood. I didn’t want to go at anything else, especially the fibreglass. I didn’t want to go at that.  I don’t like the smell of it and it’s not good for you, that I know. So that’s why it got to be wood or nothing…Wood or nothing and that’s what I loves about it.

Turning a Passion into a Living

After moving to Trinity, Henry continued boat building. Through hard work he turned his business from a one man shop into a shipyard. Vokey’s shipyard opened in 1965. For generations the shipyard was one of the biggest employers in the area, employing upwards of 40 people at times. While it was in operation, many people were turning to steel vessels built outside of Newfoundland. But not Henry- he is a firm believer that the best boat is a planked wooden boat built by Newfoundlanders who know the ocean and what makes a vessel seaworthy. In Henry’s own words “its wood or nothing”. In the early 1990’s Vokey’s shipyard closed but that didn’t stop Henry from building. He simply began building out of his shed.

Henry on his father’s reaction to him building boats for a living:

“Do you know what he told me, when I started building boats. He said you’re going to starve to death at that, building boats. There was no money at it. But that’s what he told me. But I never starved and I’m still here.”

Henry’s Boats

In his lifetime Henry Vokey built over 1,000 boats of all types. This includes more than 50 punts, 100 plus trap boats & speed boats, and over 50 dory`s. In addition to this Henry has built schooners, long liners, sailboats and upwards of 40 models. It is believed that no one in Newfoundland and Labrador has built as many boats as Henry. He built boats for customers worldwide who appreciated the workmanship and knowledge that goes into a Henry Vokey Boat.

On his love of building boats:

It’s going to be the last thing I do is work on a boat. I’m not going working at anything else. I loves to be at it. Nothing I loves to do any better than at a piece of crooked wood. I’m Happy. I don’t see nothing wrong with it.”




The J & B

Henry built the J & B in 1985 and launched her in 1986. The vessel is named after Henry`s daughters Jane, Josephine, Bonnie and Bernice. Although it was built as a pleasure craft, the vessel was characterized as a fisherman’s schooner, gaff-rigged with eight sails; including a gaff main and foresail, topgallants on both masts, and three head sails. The schooner was sold in 1994, and operated for a number of years as a tour boat in St. John’s. In 2001 the vessel was sold to a tour company in Florida. After changing owners a few times, it was renamed The Wanderer and was lost off the coast of Georgia in 2007 during hurricane Wilma.

Henry on building the J&B in his spare time:

“I used to work a lot of times to nine in the night and I would be out an hour or two early. When I built the J&B I’d be out there some mornings, a lot of mornings, before anyone else would come to work. I’d be sawing and stuff, getting ready to build the boat, because I was building the J&B in my own time… my spare time. When the crowd would come, to go to work, I’d quit at that and go work [too].”

His Legacy

vokey-9Henry has gained recognition province wide for his contribution to the wooden boat building industry. In 2007 Henry received the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Order recognizes individuals who have demonstrated excellence and achievement in any field of endeavour benefiting Newfoundland and Labrador and its residents. As well, in 2008, the Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador presented an honorary lifetime membership to Henry, in recognition of his lifetime devotion to building wooden boats. Henry has also been the subject of numerous news articles, an episode of Land and Sea, and an upcoming documentary produced by Springwater Productions.

Josephine Johnson (Henry’s Daughter) on her father:

“I just admire his tenacity. You know, his drive, his will. I admire that at his age that he still wants to be  doing what he has always done.”

One More Schooner…

In 2008 Henry announced he would build one more schooner. In this province she will likely be the last of her kind, Henry’s legacy. According to Henry the idea for the schooner must have come from a dream. From his dream Henry built a model of the schooner. The model built from his mind’s eye is how he imagines the schooner will look. During the fall of 2008 he began collecting lumber and the  necessary hardware. The schooner is primarily constructed of spruce and fir. These pieces of timber have been cut locally, bought from local sources and some pieces have been imported. In spring 2009 he began work on his schooner. During the first year Henry laid the keel which measured 44ft long by 14ft wide. He then attached the stem, the stern, the counter and put in the main frames. Next he attached the battens and put in the remaining frames . Henry next began to plank. Each plank was temporarily attached to the frames using clamps. This was so the plank would take the shape of the hull. The clamps were then removed and the plank was secured in place using brass screws. During the winter Henry took a break from the schooner and built models in his basement. By the spring of 2010 he started construction again and worked on planking, decking and getting the hull completed. The schooner will be launched by 2012 and once again a Vokey schooner will sail Newfoundland’s waters.