Fellow Woody Boater, Classic Boat Collector and Hessel Correspondent Alex Watson is reaching out to the Woody Boater community for some opinions on what he should do with one of his rare wooden boats… And we know that many of you will have an opinion on this subject, so don’t hold back… Let er Rip!
A Little HALp From My Friends, Please
by Alex Watson
Anyhow, I’ve reached a crossroads with her care, and would appreciate the knowledge and opinions of our Woody Boater community to help me choose the best direction. The make of this boat, and her name, is HAL. Don’t bother looking it up. She’s a one-off, custom made in the late 30’s.
Matt did a small “dang” – type write up about HAL in late 2008, a couple years before I bought her, you can that story in the Woody Boater archive by clicking here.
Though HAL was first listed for $29,000, her price had dropped steeply. I paid a little under $8,000. A bargain? Probably not. In fact, I might be hard pressed to sell her for my purchase price. But she’s worth this to me.
Why did I buy her? Her hardware! I’d never seen anything like it. Every piece right down to the exhaust trim was cast, extruded, stamped, cut, etched, or otherwise formed from solid aluminum by Harland Cook. A keen eye will also notice each piece of hardware is monogrammed by Mr. Cook. See for yourself.
I’ve saved the two best hardware shots for last. First, take a look at the spotlight Harland made. It is remote adjustable from under the dash using, you guessed it, an aluminum handle. Monogrammed, of course.
When I researched the symbolism of hexagons, all kind of stuff came up. In nature, the hexagon is mainly associated with bees and is the foundation of their honeycomb. As a result, it is commonly a symbol of cooperation and community. Perhaps that’s why Harland chose the hexagon as the boat’s “theme.”
Here’s a little more I learned about HAL from the builder’s grandson, with whom I subsequently established contact…
“Alex, the name HAL came from the Cook family Harland Allen Lois (Cook). Harland built the boat in the barn at his home at 25 Elm Street, Massena, NY. They used the boat on the St. Lawrence river at their camp at Louisville Landing. The boat was maintained by my grandfather and father who were very good wood workers and mechanics. They both were tool and die men at Alcoa for 40+ years. The boat never left the Cook family until it was sold to Mr. Spottswood.”
[NOTE: I bought the boat from Mr. Spottswood, making me HAL’s third owner. – Alex]
“The boat was always stored and covered every fall in the barn at his home. I have the original bill of sale for the lumber to build the boat which I would be glad to mail to you, just send me your address. The motor was purchased from the same place the lumber was purchased, and somewhere we may have a bill of sale for the motor, can’t put our hands on it right now. Sent some pics of the boat that we have and the young lad in the boat is our son. …All the hardware on the boat was made by my Grandfather at Alcoa. The numbers, the letters, the cleats, bow rails, light, hatch cover rails, steering wheel, dash cluster for instruments, exhaust port, step pads, and his own spot light.” — Gary Cook
Here’s a copy of that bill of sale. Original 1939. Ohhhhh, Texx will love this!
I was thrilled to have historical photos of the boat. While they did not date from the time of construction, they did show some important missing components, including the original name and port on the transom, and the license numbers on the bow. As you can see, these were cut from aluminum sheet, not painted or leafed. Gary’s photos also showed the boat did not have a windshield originally.
I asked Tommy Mertaugh and his guys at Classic and Antique Boats in Hessel to look HAL over upon arrival. Her wood was deemed solid, including her original bottom. She needed a bilge pump for safety and a new battery, but that was about it… other than the fact that none of her lights worked, she lacked a fuel tank, her choke cable had seized, her gauges didn’t work, her motor needed to be started right at the starter, and she wouldn’t steer worth a damn. But hey, how about that good wood!
Tommy’s motor guy, Warren, went to work on HAL’s original power, a 1928 Willys Overland 4 cylinder making 31 horsepower (when new). The old Willys smokes a bit, but not out of the ordinary.
Each time I drive her or just look her over, I think “what a different boat!” In fact, she makes my whole family smile.
Ok, so enough of the preamble. On to my appeal for HALp.
I asked Tommy what it would cost to completely refinish HAL. Again, she needs no new wood whatsoever, making her a fine “preservation” candidate, not a “restoration.” Per ACBS rules: “A preserved boat shall have at least 60% of her original wood. Reconstruction of the bottom will not be counted in determining preserved or restored.” HAL had 100%.
When Tommy quoted me on stripping and refinishing her, I knew nearly every dollar would be another drop “underwater.” HAL is one of those eye-of-the-beholder boats, not a “collectible.” No one would pay a lot more for a completely restored HAL vs. an unrestored one. So I decided to “winter on it.”
Over that winter, I began to wonder if restoring HAL was the right thing to do. I remembered Mr. Spottswood, the man I bought the boat from, telling me it belonged “in a museum.” I also remembered, years back, reading “they can be restored 100 times, but they’re only original once.” And I remembered reading a story in Motor Trend about an unrestored car, an AC Cobra, with decades of chips, dings, cracks, discoloration, and grime. The owner prized this car over others in his collection for it’s originality. More accurately, what he prized was its authenticity. His AC wasn’t a show car. It was the real deal. A factory original. Here is that article. But please, read it after you’ve completed this story and suggested what you think I should do with HAL. (Click here to see the Motor Trend Cobra story)
In a classic car book called “It’s Only Original Once”, the dedication page reads: “To all the past and present car owners who had the foresight not to restore their original cars but to treasure and preserve them as the automative artifacts they truly are.” Now, I know cars aren’t boats. Cars don’t sink; boats do. (Well, Amphicars might…) My recent total restoration of a 1948 25’ Sportsman is a case in point. “Preserving” it was out of the question owing to its pervasive rot. “Preserving” it would have placed bragging rights for “factory original” above safety.
But HAL is a different case. She’s is in remarkable shape.
Would I be doing a boat with 1938 stain and lots of 1938-2012 patina a disservice to strip her and make her like new, or more likely, better than new?
I’ve come to see beauty in HAL’s condition. I don’t see worn, tired wood, faded paint, stain, and varnish, rust, grime, and dulled aluminum. I’m seeing… here it comes… patina. This wood, while bereft of stain and varnish in some areas, is golden in others.
Take a look.
I don’t see her patina as integral to her dollar value. Nor do I see removing it as harming her value or adding value. What I see “restoration” doing is potentially harming what makes HAL special to me and to those who will see her at boat shows.
Here she is on display at a boat show Hessel, Michigan in 2010. By the way you can click here to learn more about the 2012 Hessel Boat Show in August.
It was evident some in attendance didn’t see her as tired. They looked past that and could see her individuality and history. (Either that, or they were wondering what the hell a boat so weathered was doing next to mirror-perfect kin. Ha.)
So, if HAL is to become a “preserved” boat or, more accurately, original in a practical way, in what ways should I protect her?
I figure fresh bottom paint is a given.
And her beloved hardware should remain “as-is” too. Polishing that would be a crime. (Hey, I’ve seen Antiques Roadshow.)
But I’m less certain what’s right for her hull sides, transom and decks. Leaving that wood “as-is” is probably not responsible. As she is destined for a few weeks use per year, year after year, her wood needs protection from the elements.
Typically, that means varnish. In HAL’s case, to preserve her weathered look, varnish could be applied over the existing stain. Gloss varnish would make her shiny, yet keep the weathered look underneath it. Or, we could go with a satin varnish, preserving that weathered look while not adding a “restored” or “preserved” shine.
But perhaps varnish isn’t the way to go at all, as it will certainly affect the present look to a noticeable degree. A local fine artist and truly a master of color and finish, Rick Reichlin, brought an interesting third option to my attention. Last summer, he treated an antique oak tabletop of ours with top quality paste wax. The result? The paste wax showed a deeper woodgrain, but there was no material change in the wood’s wear, color, or reflectivity. And the surface he applied has since proven resistant to stains and watermarks.
I recognize traditionalists might think using paste wax on a boat is heretical. But if it largely preserves patina, enhances the grain, and protects the wood, why would this be bad?
So there you have it. My plea for HALp, especially re HAL’s exterior wood. Do you think I’m nuts to believe she should retain her wear?
Or, do you think that’s the right course, but have positives or negatives to add about the varnish and/or paste wax alternatives I mentioned? Or do you have a forth option I should consider for protecting wear and finish?
Please weigh in.
Thank you – Alex Watson