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From printer to shipbuilder

Harm Roelfsema worked as a printer and pressman most of his life, first in Holland, then in New Zealand and finally in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. In retirement he has taken up bookbinding and book repair and building sailing boats, both large and small. He and his wife Liny operated a pet business for over 20 years as well, so Roelfsema is a man of many trades and talents.

He started his printing career in 1939 at the age of 16 in Rotterdam, Holland and later worked in New Zealand as a printer at the Auckland Star and from 1952-57 in commercial printing for Maory Mission in New Zealand doing its printing work.

“New Zealand was a fairyland with free medical care and education but then the economy collapsed, everything went down and commercial printing went down with it,” Roelfsema said. They came to Canada in 1959.

“I thought I would try something else but automatically I was back in printing in no time because printing was the only thing I knew.”

After coming to Weyburn in the early 1970s the Roelfsemas opened a pet store which they ran for 23 years. The Weyburn Review editor visited the store and lured Harm back into the world of printing at the weekly newspaper while his wife carried on the pet store business.

After retirement Roelfsema decided to do book repair. “I was hoping it would be a sideline I could do at home because people would ask me if I could repair books. Sometimes the books people brought for repair were real disasters,” Roelfsema said.

He made a book press to hold pages together so he could stitch them, and also built an electric gold-stamping machine to letter the covers.

Although his life has been spent as a printer, Roelfsema has a love of sailing ships. “When I was a boy I wanted to be a sailor but it didn’t happen.” It happened when he grew up.

He hand built a 14-foot sailing boat complete with a small cabin which the family used for many happy hours. Eventually he took the cabin off to make more room for the passengers (they raised six children). This was later sold and a larger one was purchased which has a cabin so they can spend the night out on the water.

After building his sailing boat Roelfsema built a canoe which they also used for family recreation. “I love sailing; it is so peaceful and quiet out on the water. I have no interest in motor boats.”

Roelfsema’s interest in boats was transformed into the hobby of building various models of sailing boats, from several inches to several feet long. He has made models of what he imagines the Santa Maria, the ship Columbus sailed in, would look like. He also made models of the Bluenose, the Canadian ship from Nova Scotia, working from photos. The model sailboats he makes are complete with carved anchors, gun ports, ladders, oars, lifeboats and cloth sails. They are on display in his workshop and have also been shown at craft shows.

Some of the hand-carved ships were sold but these replicas of sailing ships are Roelfsema’s way of translating his love of sailing into something concrete.

“I give away more than I sell,” he said.

After living and travelling in a number of far-off places the Roelfsemas are content now to live on an acreage just west of Weyburn.

Jean Fahlman writes from Weyburn, Saskatchewan

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