We bet you don't know builders that specialize in wooden boats are still creating woodies with a classic look and feel, with modern amenities.
Wooden boats, like books, are something to hold, to savor, to cherish. Perhaps it has something to do with the heft of a wooden boat or a book, and that substantial quality adds to one’s pleasure, whether on the water or reading a mystery tale.
Wooden boats have been with us since the first caveman floated past on a tree trunk, eventually hollowing it to get his feet out of the water. Today, vintage wooden boats are celebrated nationwide at gatherings of “woodies” with legendary names from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s such as Chris-Craft, Gar Wood and Hacker. Acres of varnish and polished chrome harken back to a gentler time of golden afternoons on a lake or river, with the warmth of varnished wood and the tingle of spray on the skin.
Then, of course, came fiberglass, the miracle material that promised to be maintenance free (sound of laughter). Boats made of it were called plastic toys or worse: legendary yacht designer L. Francis Herreshoff compared fiberglass to “frozen snot.” With the advent of fiberglass, wooden speedboats were devalued and many once-gorgeous runabouts ended up being chain-sawed as firewood.
But those of us of a certain age tend to celebrate the objects of our childhood dreams, which accounts for so many middle-aged men driving (or at least collecting) ’58 Corvettes or wire-wheeled Jaguars.
There is a downside to owning anything vintage, however. It is old, as those with vintage ’Vettes or Jags soon discover. Classic “woodies” require maintenance. Lots. Of. Maintenance. They require varnishing regularly and re-caulking to keep those deck stripes white. Old can also be a synonym for unreliable, because the world has moved so far forward in technology that you never wonder today, as you put the key in the ignition of a car or boat, whether your treasure will actually start.
The good news, at least for skippers lusting for an oldie speedboat, is they can now choose from several boat builders that are still using wood to build “contemporary classics” with all the lines of those childhood runabouts and none of the problems. The difference is that these boats benefit from modern engines, modern electrical systems, modern everything. And they not only offer the reliability of today’s systems, but owners can get parts and service everywhere.
What They Are
First and foremost, they are still wood. Mostly. Mahogany remains the material of choice, often with oak for frames and/or teak for cockpit floors, but here’s where the similarity stops. Vintage boats were nailed or screwed together, while modern incarnations often rely on high-tech resins such as West System epoxies to hold the wood together better than even screws.
The craftsmen at Grand-Craft, located just three miles from the original Chris-Craft factory in Holland, Mich., prefer Philippine mahogany for its flexible strength and sound/shock absorption, but especially for its lasting beauty. Each piece is selected for a particular use, with straight-grain for the sides and ribbon grain for the transom, while walnut and oak are used on dashboards and storage compartments. Comitti boats, built in the foothills near Italy’s Lake Como, start with African mahogany logs that are cut and seasoned for a year. Grand-Craft uses two layers of color-matched mahogany on the sides with three layers of one-quarter-inch mahogany on the bottoms (larger boats get added layers).
Using laminated keels and chines and modern cold-molded mahogany for the sides, each Sea Sonic deck is finished with mahogany strips separated by blond Canadian maple dividers for a classic look.
One advantage that old-time builders lacked was precision when it came to fitting pieces: every piece of wood was hand-cut and relied on the craftsman for a proper fit. Today, five-axis computer-controlled routers such as those used by Comitti shape the mahogany precisely, making complex shapes such as the transom, frames and stringers with extreme accuracy.
Builders of modern classics can also change the “look” of a woodie by careful wood selection: the StanCraft Darkside 35-footer uses black mahogany for a stealth-fighter look.
But there are still secrets. Boesch from Switzerland uses a proprietary “laminate construction” that the folks there claim eliminates the disadvantages of conventional planked wooden hulls and is as easy to maintain as fiberglass.
Modern epoxy resins have come to the rescue of buyers who fear cans of varnish, badger brushes or dreaded sandpaper. Gleaming mahogany hulls are encased in epoxy coatings, so the pain of owning a woody is gone. At Comitti, the modern vacuum-bagging technique created for building cored fiberglass boats is used to fully saturate the mahogany planks with epoxy resins, encasing the hull with epoxy to create a low-maintenance hull that looks great.
Other builders use two-and even three-part epoxy finishes that offer up to eight years between refinishing. At Hacker-Craft, the entire hull is sheathed in fiberglass, which provides long-term protection in fresh or salt water and gives the builder the ability to add color to the hull.
Who Designs Them?
Some boat builders have resurrected old designs, such as Gar Wood and Hacker, while others, such as StanCraft and Sea Sonic, are creating new designs with classic styling. Chris Casparis, the owner of Sea Sonic, has a passion for Riva Aquaramas, collecting and restoring them since learning his trade in Switzerland, so it’s no surprise that his boats, now built in British Columbia, draw on Riva styling.
Van Dam, a family-owned builder in Michigan, works with many notable designers and is currently building a Michael Peters design, among others. Peters has drawn up Cigarette race boats but also loves classic styling.
Gar Wood, located on Brant Lake in New York, started by restoring Gar Wood’s classic boats, so its custom limited editions are naturally inspired by designs by Wood, a legendary boat builder and racer.
Who Buys Them and Why?
Modern classics appeal to skippers who want to reinvent childhood memories, or simply because a wooden boat is undeniably a delight to behold.
“‘It’s a work of art’ is perhaps the comment we most often hear,” said Eric Badcock of Hacker Craft. “The retro/timeless look of wood boats offers a classic with great lines. They are, simply put, beautiful to look at.”
Several of the builders offer custom construction, which has been embraced by the owners of megayachts who not only want a tender that is unique but one that can even match the styling of their yacht.
What Makes Them Go?
One of the problems owners of vintage vehicles face, whether it’s a 1940s Jaguar or a 1920s Chris-Craft, is they can’t just pop in to a neighborhood auto supply for parts. After World War I, Chris Smith bought huge quantities of engines from surplus Jenny biplanes, and these inexpensive but “powerful” — 90 hp! — engines allowed him to not only reduce the cost of his boats but also increase the performance at the same time. While it may seem laughable today, his 1923 guarantee that the Chris-Craft three-cockpit runabout could reach a speed of 28 mph was a powerful selling tool.
Even Chrysler Crown inline-six engines of the ’30s maxed out at … wait for it … 120 hp. And they usually had cloth-covered wiring to route the feeble 6v power to the sparkplugs. Fuel injection? Unknown. Low emissions? Who cared? Fuel efficiency? Why bother at 20 cents a gallon for gas in 1930?
Today, however, you’re more likely to find a current Detroit V-8 (or two) in these woodies, punching out 400-plus hp without breathing hard. Grand Craft uses 430 hp Ilmor engines, derived from modern NASCAR racers, to push its 26-footer to 53 mph. A StanCraft Rivelle 380, with twin MerCruiser 8.2 Bravo engines, tops out at 62 mph.
Van Dam is working on a 35-foot speedster with a triple-planked mahogany hull and a pair of Ford 550 hp engines. No final speed estimate has been projected, because the engines are being custom built, but we expect it to be fast. Comitti, with its European background, offers both MerCruiser and Volvo diesel engines, and its SanRemo 21 and Portofino 25 models still top 55 mph.
Modern fiberglass boats have features that are so expected we don’t even think about them but, for example, there was no such thing as a swim platform in the 1930s. Modern builders don’t let that tradition interfere with stern-situated accoutrements.
StanCraft includes transom platforms on all of its models, Hacker-Craft has a seamless boarding package on its Sportabout models, and the Riva-styled Sea Sonic and Comitti boats naturally have integrated platforms. And the custom builders will gladly add platforms to make swimming and waterskiing easy.
An offshoot of the transom platform is the freshwater shower for rinsing off after a swim, which didn’t occur to early builders because of the voluminous “swimming costumes” worn by both ladies and gents.
Another “modern” invention is the bow thruster, which can change docking a triple-cockpit woody that is 36 feet long but just 7 feet wide from a white-knuckle procedure to finger-tip easy.
Speaking of finger-tip easy, most of the original classics had wire-and-pulley steering systems to turn the rudder, which not only kinked but could fail or jam at the most inopportune moments. Modern classics rely instead on hydraulic and mechanical steering that adds power as well as reliability.
On boats with enclosed cabins, such as the Grand-Craft Commuters, options include air conditioning and heating, electric toilets, and even microwave ovens.
And, of course, today’s sound systems were unheard of (bad pun) in boats of the ’20s and ’30s, but every modern classic offers a full sound system with plug-and-play or Bluetooth capability for mobile music, as well as recharging ports for cellphones.