Engineering can be elegant. But drop-dead gorgeous? U-M alum Randy Torno’s (BSE ME ’73) handmade boats fit solidly into both categories. And perhaps that’s no surprise, since he has always considered himself an artist first and an engineer second.
Torno has dedicated much of his life to creating things that are both beautiful and functional: airplanes, furniture, ceramics, stained glass, and these days, custom wooden boats. Together with his wife Janet, he founded Torno Boat Works in 2014, using his engineer’s grit and artist’s eye to fashion gliding, glistening works of art.
He’s meticulous about every detail, right down to the Dutch varnish he uses to give them just the right smell. He hand-picks every stick of wood, using local sources when he can.
“Design and composition make my boats unique,” Torno said. “I like hand-working things. I feel that has value. I think people appreciate [my boats] because it’s not one out of 100.”
Torno has mastered an impressive variety of historical and modern boat styles: English birding canoes, kayaks, scale models, even a reproduction of a 1930s boat called a Gentleman’s Runabout.
“I have always liked to design and build functional things in my career and for myself. Building allows me to use my engineering knowledge and skills as well as my artistic background to create something that is superior in design and performance. However, the best part is that they are great to use.”
Torno worked for several years as a model builder at Ford Motor Company until teaming up with fellow U-M alum Phil Jenkins (BSE ME ’47) at Jenkins Equipment Company, which later became part of International Equipment Solutions. These days, he spends much of his time in his home workshop in northwest Ann Arbor. And, of course, out on the water, where he and Janet often canoe together.
Torno has been involved with boats all his life, racing three-point hydroplanes in high school and sailboats as an adult.
He also admits to another, nerdier passion: spreadsheets, which he has used to hone his boat building process to a science. It takes him about 50 hours to put a boat together from start to finish. When he’s not building boats, Torno builds furniture for friends, and he has also helped develop an educational curriculum in patents and copyrights for students at Michigan Engineering.
His lifelong passion for art and engineering is a combination that lends a special quality to the work he does, and Torno takes great pride in it. That passion hasn’t slowed down, and Torno doubts that it ever will.
Have a story you’d like us to consider for the next issue’s Alumni Notes? Let us know by sending an email to MichiganEngineer@umich.edu with “Alumni Notes” in the subject line.