The antique & classic boat workshops in the Muskoka Region of southern Ontario are a “beehive of activity” these days, with wooden boats of every size, shape, model and description being prepared by some of the country’s top restorers for the upcoming boating season. And based on today’s in-depth report from our busy correspondent “Cobourg Kid” – there appears to be some “serious stuff” going on in the area. Here’s Part 1 of his 2 Part report from last Saturday’s Spring Workshop Tour, which is organized by the nice folks at the Toronto Chapter ACBS.
Toronto Chapter ACBS – 2013 Spring Workshop Tour
One Day, 13 Stops and No Sleep ‘til Cobourg – Part 1
by Cobourg Kid
As an active member of the ACBS Toronto Chapter back in the late 1980s, I considered it an absolute ritual to attend the annual spring workshop tour in Muskoka. At that time, there were a limited number of boat shops included and the day was spent at a leisurely pace with the largest amount of time devoted to lunch, which was habitually convened at ancient resorts like the now (dearly) departed Edenvale Inn.
So with these warm and fuzzy thoughts marinating in my mind I floated the idea of covering the 2013 Spring Tour for Woody Boater. I mean how difficult could it be? I would soon get a rude awakening.
After completing my last minute registration, the heretofore unseen itinerary quickly appeared in my inbox. I clicked on it. “Whaaat? Thirteen stops?!” Thirteen stops and only eight hours (seven if you exclude lunch) to get the whole story!
Living south of Muskoka has its disadvantages, the biggest one being that it takes three hours to get there. Frantically, I devised a strategy to save precious time (and sleep) and Friday night found me ensconced at my uncle and aunt’s home in Orillia, with a plan to head out to Gravenhurst early on Saturday morning (an easy 20 minute drive).
The next morning started out cool and rainy as I wound my way along Highway 11, north to Gravenhurst and our first destination. Windsor Boat Works.
The owner of this company, Mike Windsor, is a well-known fixture in Muskoka, not only for his quality restoration and new build abilities, but also his design capabilities and use of new technology such as computer controlled router equipment.
Although it was 8:30 am when I arrived at the shop, I was astounded by the large number of folks who were already milling around, sipping coffee and munching donuts.
At present Mike is working on restoring three boats.
One of them, “Adelia”, was built in 1913 by George Lawley and sons (Naponset Mass.) as a gas powered tender for an 85 foot yacht. Work on “Adelia” was extensive. She received a complete new bottom, new interior and was completely refinished. In addition the modifications made to her engine bay and decks when her original power was replaced were reversed.
Serendipitously, the original engine (a rare four cylinder Sterling made in Buffalo NY) was boxed and stored by the owner when a “modern atomic four was installed in the 1970s. In an odd turn of events the now old atomic four was, as part of the restoration, extracted by Mike and replaced with a now fresh 100 year old engine. This summer “Adelia” will celebrate her 100th birthday looking pretty much like that long ago day she was completed.
Another boat that is undergoing complete restoration is “Bimbi”, a 26 foot Minett launch originally constructed in 1916; “Bimbi” suffered a significant fire in the early 1940s and part of the hull burned to the waterline. Although salvaged and subsequently rebuilt, “Bimbi’s” hull design was significantly modified. By the time that Mike acquired her a few years ago, “Bimbi” was in very poor shape.
Determined to restore the launch as close as possible to its original design, Mike subsequently measured three other Minett launches of the same era, gathering sufficient data to allow him to reconstruct “Bimbi’s” hull to conform to its original design.
The third boat currently in the Windsor shop is “2 Li Git” a 1995 Hackercraft gentleman’s racer. Work performed involved a comprehensive reconstruction of the chines and bottom, using the 5200 system, as well as a full stripping of the finish and re-varnishing. As the picture attests it is almost ready to return home to its owner.
For the sake of saving some time (and only because I had recently been there) I elected to skip the next scheduled stop at the Grace and Speed Museum at Gravenhurst Warf. This is a fantastic family-friendly museum and those viewers who have not had the privilege of visiting should definitely check it out this summer.
Next stop was Brackley Boats, also located in Gravenhurst. Owner Paul Brackley has been a Muskoka resident since birth. His introduction to building watercraft began in 1986 when he secured a job with Muskoka Fine Watercraft 1986: he subsequently worked for other well-known Muskoka builders such as Ron and Tim Butson before striking out on his own in the early 1990s.
Since then, Paul has built a strong team of master craftsmen and has tackled diverse restoration projects ranging from 16 foot heirloom canoes to a 70 foot converted steam yacht built in 1903.
Evidence of that diversity of product was found when I entered Paul’s shop. The largest restoration currently in the shop involves a freshening of the finishes on a 1929 Chris-Craft Commuter named “Red Witch”. This six-ton 9.9 foot beam boat was recently sold out of the Alan Jackson collection to a new owner who will use her on Lake Muskoka.
On the opposite end of the scale, visitors could also inspect an extremely well refurbished 1970s Chestnut canoe and a flawless 1963 Richardson Aqua Craft (Lakefield Ontario) skiff, both freshly restored.
Paul also had the refinished helm of the “Rambler” on display. At seventy feet in length and 10 feet in beam, the “Rambler” (a product of Toronto-based Polson Iron Works, built in 1903) was once a familiar site on Lake Joseph and Rosseau. “Rambler” was owned by the late Tim Chisholm, a well-known boat collector and resident of Port Carling and Toronto who unfortunately passed away in 2008.
I asked Paul about the helm and he explained that late last year Mr. Chisholm’s estate had agreed to sell the “Rambler” to a new owner, who plans to keep the well-known Muskoka icon on Lake Rosseau. To that end, “Rambler’s” new owner commissioned team Brackley to restore the boat from stem to stern. Not surprisingly given its monumental size, almost all of the work thus far has had to be done on-site at “Rambler’s” existing Lake Joseph boathouse.
Work undertaken has involved stripping of all upper woodwork, repairing millwork and panels and fixing windows (which were largely jammed or broken). The team is also busy installing new wooden floors, renovating the washroom, integrating a new bow and stern thruster to improve maneuverability and tackling the most massive task of all, complete stripping and re-varnishing of the topside both inside and out.
Departing Brackley Boats, I headed along a backcountry route toward Gary Clark’s shop. With no leaves on the trees and little snow left, spring is the perfect time of the year in Muskoka to scope out old wooden vessels that may have been left lying in backyards or the woods. While this time I didn’t find anything particularly notable, I did spot at least one overlooked example just waiting for a new captain.
Up next was Clark Wooden Boats. Gary Clark has been in the wooden boat building profession for a little over thirty years, having practiced his trade at the original Duke Boat Company for five years before striking out on his own. The last time I visited Gary was during an ACBS Spring Tour in the late 1980s. At that time he was essentially a one man band working out of a small shop south of Gravenhurst. I was therefore pleased to see that both his facilities (now just south of Bracebridge) and the number of craftspersons on his team have expanded dramatically, reflecting his firm’s obvious skills and knowledge.
You may recall that in May of last year Woody Boater featured a story about “Wa Chee We” a beautiful 1923 Ditchburn Fisher-Allison Class Race Boat which was completely reconstructed and repowered (with a V10 Ilmor 710 producing 700 horsepower) by Gary and his crew for his client (and fellow Woody Boater) John Unsworth.
Well Gary is at it again. The first thing you see when you walk in his shop is an absolutely massive 37 foot elephantine race boat named “Spirit”. Designed by Steve Killing using George Crouch’s (Ditchburn built) Rainbow I design as inspiration, “Spirit” is powered by twin (that’s not a typo) 625 horse Ilmor engines! “Spirit’s” owner plans to operate her on the Muskoka lakes.
Three other boats are also currently receiving attention from Gary’s capable crew, they are:
“Penn”; a replica of a Minett Shields gentleman’s racer that was built in the 1970s by Bob Pridday of Milford Bay. It’s undergoing minor wood work repairs, new chrome, and a complete strip and refinish.
“Bubbles”; a 1921 Ditchburn Long deck launch has received new full length ribs, a new bottom and refinishing work, and;
“Rare vintage”; a 1938 Ditchburn (probably the last one off the production floor at the Ditchburn plant and possibly finished by Greavette) which is undergoing a complete restoration. According to Gary this boat was originally ordered and used by members of the McLaughlin family (the founders of GM Canada). As part of their work, team Clark will arrange for restoration and re-installation of the two original Buchanan (Orillia) straight six engines.
Recently brought back from the US by new owners, “Rare Vintage” along with “Bubbles” and “Penn” will, once work is complete, be used by their respective owners back on the Muskoka Lakes.
As I was about to leave, Gary pulled me aside and asked if I had seen the Mahogany Humidor yet? Noticing the quizzical look on my face he quickly noted that it’s the storage building out back… “I think you might want to have a look”. So I did, and what I saw was not a humidor, it was a stable full of mahogany thoroughbreds, tack shining in the pale light, just itching to get out and run wild through the surf.
Leaving Clark Wooden Boats behind me, I hopped on nearby Highway 11 and ambled northbound a few miles to the Taylor Road interchange. Exiting the highway I quickly rolled up to Tim Butson’s new shop, located just off the cloverleaf on Barron Drive.
The Butson family has a long history with boats. Tim’s forbearers were shipwrights for several generations in England. Tim’s grandfather settled in Canada in 1905 and also practiced the boatbuilding trade, eventually passing the bug onto his son Ron, who moved to Port Carling in 1960 to accept a job with Duke Boats, Ltd. Like his father, Tim Butson also took up the boatbuilding trade, working for the storied Greavette Boat Company from 1975 until its closure in 1981.
Seeing an opportunity, father and son joined forces to create Butson Boats Ltd in 1981. While the name of the business and its location has changed a couple times over the past 32 years, the Butson team continues to offer accomplished wooden boat design and build services as well as quality restoration, repair, marine surveying and welcoming customer service.
On arrival at Tim’s shop, I was immediately offered a homemade butter tart by Sharon Butson, which set in motion a colossal déjà vu moment followed by the recollection that back in the 1980s, a visit to Butson’s spring open-house was always accompanied by an offering of buttertarts. I love tradition, especially when it comes to something as special as a Butson Butter Tart!
After savoring my tart, I asked Sharon about the projects the Butson Crew is currently working on. Turns out that there are seven, two of them specifically because of hull damage inflicted by the significantly lower water levels experienced last summer (which unexpectedly has been completely reversed by record flooding this spring.)
“Nancy Ellen” is a 1926 Duke Boats Ltd. double cockpit painted lapstrake launch that is well known by cottagers on the Lake of Bays (located east of Huntsville). She is currently in for plank repair, topside strip and re-varnish, engine servicing and clean-up. The restoration has been slightly complicated by the use of epoxy as part of an older repair completed by another builder.
“Sandbox II” is a 1956 Duke Boats Ltd. lapstrake runabout that suffered a rock strike last summer, damaging its prop shaft, rudder gear and tearing a chunk out of the transom and bottom planking. As part of the repair work the bottom will be refinished.
“Sweet Caroline” is a Canadian built 1964 Grew Boat Co. (Penetanguishene, Ontario) inboard lapstrake with an unusually broad prow. Specifically designed (and originally used) to run in the swell of Georgian Bay, the boat (originally named Baisong) was “temporarily” retired to outside storage some time ago. Given a reprieve, it arrived at Tim’s Shop in poor condition. After a complete assessment, the Butson crew started in on a complete rebuild of the hull. So far, 64 new steam bent ribs have been set in (using Tim and Sharon’s new high production steam box) and considerable amounts of planking have been re-laid. The owner plans to return Sweet Caroline to Georgian Bay waters when restoration is complete.
“Vagabond II” is a 1949 Duke Boats Ltd. 23 foot smooth side mahogany runabout, which may be one of a kind. Oddly, part of her hull rotted from the outside in (which is the opposite of normal). Tim is currently re-planking the bottom and refinishing the entire hull.
“Boyce Henry” is a 1947 Chris Craft utility that also encountered a rock last summer, damaging the cutwater, the stem, the prop and strut assembly. Further investigation revealed that the bottom and lower framework was in need of replacement. Tim’s crew has rebuilt the frames and re-planked the bottom using the traditional Chris-Craft method. At present, the bottom is being readied for new bottom paint and boot stripe. Once compete new the damaged mechanicals will be replaced.
“Gabrielle”, a 32 foot Ditchburn-designed long deck displacement hull replica built by Butson Boats in 2008 and a 22 foot custom gentleman’s racer designed and built by Butson in 2007 (who share the same owner and boathouse) are also currently in the shop for a light sanding and top coating of the side planks.
After one more extraordinary butter tart, I headed north toward my next destination, Harwood Water Craft. Lamentably the directions for getting to there were somewhat confusing (or perhaps it was me that was confused), at any rate I ultimately ended up in downtown Port Sydney. Fortuitously, a knowledgeable person behind the counter at Zanetti’s General Store quickly got me sorted out and back on the right track to my destination.
Arriving at Harwood Watercraft, which even in spring is literally hidden in the Muskoka woods, I was warmly greeted by Mark Harwood. Mark is a designer builder and ardent sailor who specializes in constructing small watercraft using the glued plywood lapstrake approach. His skiffs and sailboats are composed of various designs: some, like the acorn skiff, come from the mind of the well-known British designer Iain Oughtred, while others, such as his drifter model were self-designed and can be configured for use as a rowboat, yacht tender or sail boat.
Mark occasionally refinishes older boats such as disappearing propeller boats (Dispros) and skiffs. He has also experimented with building small motorized boats, including a steamboat and a fully functional electrically powered Dispro complete with device. The later was built on a mold, constructed using lines taken from an original. The Dispro is currently for sale and would certainly make a unique addition to any lakeside property, particularly those that have power boat restrictions.
Seeing that it was already almost 1:00 PM, I hit the road again and made my way back to Bracebridge to get in one more shop visit before lunch, which would be served 20 miles away at the Port Carling Community Centre. Talking a different road this time I crossed the beautiful North Branch of the Muskoka River and noted that its swollen waters had risen to mere feet below the deck.
Back in Bracebridge, I made my way to Armstrong Street and Traditional Boat Finishes. Patricia Ross, is the owner of the business. She specializes solely in stripping and refinishing wooden boats including completion of bottom paintwork, although she will coordinate the work of other specialists, for example upholstery , if that is what the customer wants.
At present the shop has five boats in various stages of finish work (see today’s opening cover photo) including a 1954 Greavette Sunflash, a 1954 Greavette Dispro, and three Shepherd runabouts (two 1950s models and one from the early 1960s).
With my morning’s work behind me and my stomach rumbling, I gassed up the truck and headed north westerly toward Port Carling and the much anticipated buffet at the community centre.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Cobourg Kid’s great report from the amazing 2013 Toronto ACBS Spring Workshop Tour.