People think I don't use power tools," said my friend Harry Bryan, a wooden boat builder and designer I was visiting on the coast of New Brunswick, Canada. Maybe that's because his shop is unusual: It's off the grid.

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Harry Bryan

Credit: Photo:Matt Murphy

That doesn't mean there's no electricity. A wind generator and solar panels run lights, but that's only part of it. To get the power this shop requires, Bryan has installed a neat little Volkswagen Jetta engine under the shop floor. This rebuilt diesel engine drives a 12-inch planer and 36-inch band saw. And, because he's not exactly living a suburban lifestyle where he can run down to the corner to get gasoline, this 4-cylinder burns bio-diesel, which Harry brews himself. There's one more power tool tucked into the woods above the shop: a sawmill powered by a 6-cylinder Chevy engine.

Working off the grid does foster reliance on sharp hand tools, so bringing up a tool's edge is essential. Solution: a pedal-driven grinding wheel. There's also a hand-cranked drill press. Bryan's 12-inch band saw is treadle-powered, like an old sewing machine.

Despite its frontier feel and modern ingenuity, Bryan's shop isn't a museum or hobby shop. It's a working boat shop where he's made his living for more than 30 years, turning out beautiful small craft and well-founded boats that approach 40 feet in length.

Outside the shop, which he built himself, I surveyed the sawmill–the long open building, the sawmill carriage, and the 6-cylinder engine powering the massive 4-foot blade–and I realized it was one huge machine. Harry just grinned. "And they say I don't use power tools."