By Bryan Wheeler, Blue Ridge Chapter Member
As I neared retirement, I had planned to restore a wooden boat. I had always had a passion for them but not the time or funding needed to pursue it during my working career. My knowledge of antique boats was very limited; however, a close friend had been into the hobby for many years. He would assist me to getting started. Toward the end of my working career, I was looking for my first restoration project. I was in Michigan with my friend picking up a boat engine for his current restoration. While there, we looked at a 1937 Hacker Craft in extremely poor condition. My first thought was, OMG is this really restorable? However, surrounded by a small group of experienced boat hobbyist, and other boats in various degrees of condition I was reassured that this was a viable project.
I returned home with many different forms of documents, literature, and boat photos, excited about the prospects of my potential new hobby. I shared my experience with my lovely supportive wife about the trip, the boat found, the knowledge gained and potential return on investment of this rare find for my first restoration project. Of course, looking back now, I was completely clueless regarding restored boat values, and dependent on others input. The decision to buy a boat at this time was put on hold, as I worked closer to retirement, acquiring more knowledge of wooden boats. As my working career shortened, so did my work week, therefore providing some free time to actually work on my friend’s next project gaining some valuable experience. During this time, I learned a significant amount of what was required in an actual boat restoration.
My work on the boat began with the original bottom removal, followed by replacing many frames, a chine, keel repair, a stringer replacement, and installing a 5200 bottom. Then followed by the installation of all new side and top planking. Learning this type of work was obtained surprisingly easily for myself. Although many of the repairs were done together, much of it was done on my own with my friend nearby if I had any questions. It was a great opportunity gaining the confidence that I would be able to restore that 1937 Hacker Craft I had looked at. Many months had passed since viewing the Hacker Craft and with my new found confidence I came to an agreement with the owner on the purchase, including a road worthy trailer that would make the trip from Michigan to Georgia. The next step was scheduling the750-mile trip and bringing it home. My good friend was purchasing a similar Hacker Caft in the same area as well. We planned to restore them both together in his shop.
With some excitement and anticipation, we both make the trip north to retrieve our purchases and return home. We go to pick up my boat first. I inspected it with my new found experience and knowledge of boat restoration. I am quickly overwhelmed at the poor condition of the skeletal structure, with many of the top frames rotted completely through. The bottom framing wasn’t any better with sections rotted away completely. The trailer bunks pressing against the weakened bottom had altered the original shape. I now know that the condition of the boat I purchased, (my very first restoration project), was much more lost to father time than I originally realized. The boat which I had gained my experience, required more extensive structural repairs than my experienced friend had previously completed. The amount of work, needed to save this historic Hacker Craft, was going to greatly exceed that of the previous boat I had worked on. The doubt sinks in, a tight knot forms in my stomach. Questions cross my mind. What have I committed to? Can I actually restore this boat? What will my wife say when she sees it? ETC…. As all the questions run through my mind. My friend senses my apprehension and provides some reassurance, although comforting it doesn’t provide much relief at the time.
We pick up my friends Hacker Craft from another location nearby. I had also seen this boat during the previous trip. Although, I had thought then it was in worst condition, structurally it was in much better condition maintaining its original shape. However, it was quickly obvious, that we were returning with (2) boats that would test any restorers’ skills and abilities.
We leave early the next morning heading south toward GA with each boat in tow. The trip doesn’t start well, having to stop and secure some wood parts flapping in the wind with bungee cords on my boat. Within the first 100 miles a tire shreds on my not so road worthy trailer. We mount the spare and continue the trip until we locate an open tire store, purchasing another spare taking more than an hour. It was a wise purchase, because the other tire exploded destroying the fender of the trailer about 250 miles from home. A second spare is acquired for the remaining trip but fortunately was not needed. Not far from home we stopped at a rest area only to discover a missing engine hatch on my friend’s boat. It was not attached and had simply blow off. Having no idea where it was lost, we continue home returning much later than planned. It was a stressful and exhausting trip but a trip we laugh and joke about now.
Eventually I’m ready to start the restoration. My good friend graciously allows me the use of his well-equipped shop. Although I’m certain that many boats in worst condition had been previously restored, I expect few were done as a first restoration project! One experienced restorer even said I was crazy, after he looked if over. Where to begin was the early challenge? This boat’s structural condition was so weak that the typical starting point of the bottom was not possible without risk of crushing it during the roll over process. Therefore, the decision was made to restore the sides and top framing first. About one half of all the original screws were broken. Once started, I found myself in a familiar and comfortable situation. Not regarding the actual restoration but as an Engineer for many years, my strength was problem solving and developing solutions. Therefore, I found the entire process intriguing and rewarding. Simply every step was a new problem for which I would develop a solution.
I become more comfortable as my work continued. I used jacks, wooded blocks and braces to return the bottom and chines back to their original shape. I methodically replaced one board at a time using the remaining pieces for patterns when possible or recreated from what pieces remained. Within just 5 short weeks, the framing for the deck, sides, and stern were reconstructed and the boat was rolled over. It took another 20 weeks to complete the new 5200 bottom. At this point, not a single board was salvaged and every frame had been replaced. 10 weeks later all the planking is completed, the engine is installed and I begin the staining and finishing process. 9 months total have passed since starting and now it was time to take it home to my shop for completion.
It took another 4 months of varnishing, wiring, mechanical, interior & etc. After 13 months she is officially completed. I picked her up from the upholstery shop and went directly to the Greenville, SC boat show on January 27th. The Blue Ridge chapter has 6 wooden boats on display among the hundreds of new boats.
It showed extremely well getting a lot of attention and many complements. It was a humbling experience making all the hard work and effort more rewarding.
The following week I launched her on Lake Hartwell for a very cool/cold ride. In March we were able to attend the Mount Dora boat show after the 2 previous years of cancellation. It was great that we were debuting “RESURRECTED” at her first Antique boat show. All went well during the show while on display and the trips through the scenic canals. She attracted a lot of attention and received many complements. Directly after the show we attended the St John River run. Those 2 weeks were a great test of her sea worthiness performing flawlessly.
Looking back, it has been a great experience learning every step of the way. I truly enjoyed the challenge and many skills required during the restoration process. Going into it, I had no idea of the amount of work and hours required to restore a wooden boat. Only those that have actually done it truly understand. It’s a hobby that requires a labor of love and passion to participate in.
As the saying goes “How do you eat an elephant”? “One bite at a time”. When restoring a boat simply just progress forward one bite at a time until there is nothing left to eat.
I have certainly become a dedicated wooden boat enthusiast looking forward to my next restoration project. A special thanks go to all those who provided support and assistant a long the way.