Downhill From Here

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Tobogganing is a classic, fun-time activity for all ages during our long winters. Of course, plastic toboggans are a dime a dozen at your local big-box retailer, but at Minnesota-based Northern Toboggan Company the art of creating toboggans by hand, with natural wood material, lives on. John Harren started the company in the mid-1990s. A skilled carpenter by trade, he was mentored in the art of toboggan-making by Milton Chaboyer, one of the last hand-crafted toboggan makers, of Thompson, MB. For various reasons – economic, trade, and other makers dropping out – John seized the opportunity to make toboggans his business.

John’s sons, Jackson and Gabriel, took over the business in 2015 and expanded the product line from sleds used for cargo to other products, including recreational toboggans and snowshoes. 

“We primarily use red oak, which is traditional for a toboggan,” says Jackson. “We work with a lumber mill in Manitoba, Finmac Lumber, that works with a particular sawmill that hand-selects the grade of lumber we need to do what we do with the wood. It’s a higher grade than ‘select grade,’ which is the highest grade of lumber.” Because the wood used is even better than select grade, Jackson has dubbed it “toboggan grade.” 

Jackson also notes that red oak is very strong and is steam-bent more easily for shaping the wood. White ash is also used, and is also hand-selected. “These are strong hardwoods that are pliable and bendable,” says Jackson. Although all Northern Toboggan’s toboggans are made of wood, some customers do request a modification where plastic is put on the bottom. Despite the occasional inclusion of new materials, authentic, old-world craftsmanship and attention to customers’ needs and changing habits will keep the business from sliding too far from its roots.  

 –  Joel Kranc

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