Classic Boat Restoration – “Never Tell Them What It Really Cost”

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I once had a boat restored by a guy who told me up front that he wouldn’t give me a quote on how much it would cost to restore my boat. Like a trusting fool, I agreed. Now of course I know better now, but at the time I was new to all this. In fact being so badly screwed is one of the motivators to starting this entire brand, and why we are all so passionate about being open and free with information. I will add that I do believe in Karma, and thanks to many of you and some wonderful partners in this passion, that the universe has corrected all the bad with great joy!

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So what’s todays story all about? Well, I was once told by another restorer, that if you tell them what it will really cost to restore there boat, they won’t do it. So the trick of the trade is to estimate low. Just the bottom and be as vague as you can be. Now, to be fair to restorers out there, it’s a two way street. The customer can sometimes be their own worst enimy. See they will shop around and fall for the low ball most of the time, thus forcing normally honest restorers to adjust how they approach a bid.

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No one is getting rich on your restoration. Have you ever met a wealthy boat restoration guy? No. Because it’s hard work, loaded with pit falls and on top of that you are using someones emotional money. As in money that isn’t paying a mortgage or collage education. Just a luxury. And chances are they are doing this with skeptical permission from a spouse. So, easing them into the process is a viable strategy. But.. It’s a mistake to make if you are about to get the boat restored. Get a fixed price. Period. Ask your restorer to be honest and transparent. Below are some issues to discuss.

  1. How much per foot on a bottom job?
  2. How much per Frame if they are rotten and need replacing?
  3. All new fasteners? YES BTW
  4. 5200 bottom? have you done many before?
  5. Guarantee your work?
  6. How much to flip the boat and prep it for a bottom replacement?
  7. Hourly rate? For the jobs that are not large. 
  8. Are you/they part of the our community? Have you checked out references?
  9. Can you give me several people that you have done work for?
  10. And the last one, because 10 seems like a good number. LOOK AT CUSTOMERS BOATS. Look hard and at as many as you can.

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The difference between Uncle Morty and a company that does this a lot, is a massive difference. Know what you are asking for. Want a non show user fixem’up? thats one thing. BTW, EVERYONE starts that way. And then once you seriously get into it, wonder why your boat is sloppy or still leaking. The “while your at it” stuff will cost you insane money. Aim high, go for the quality first. You may be shocked at how reasonable it may be when you think about it in the long run.

Many of us here have learned this the  hard way. Do it right the first time so it’s not the last time you restore your boat. This can be fun, rewarding, and a wonderful affordable passion. But only if your partner in your restoration and maintenance is just that. Your partner!

Happy header Day!

29 replies
  1. Darthtrader
    Darthtrader says:

    Great advice! It’s the old pay now or pay later scenario. The difference is that by paying now you get to enjoy the boat, as opposed to paying less up front and enduring a never-ending series of problems which rob you of your enjoyment. Choosely Wisely Grasshopper!

  2. Dan T
    Dan T says:

    The restoration done on your Sportsman is an excellent example of-a done right by professionals. You get what you pay for. And I’m sure you paid plenty. Enjoy!

    • Matt
      Matt says:

      Thanks Dan, I would have thought the same thing starting out. but the final cost was the same if not less than my other restorations because it was all transparent and managed. Like I said, you may be shocked at how the pricing works when its done right.

  3. mark edmonson
    mark edmonson says:

    I have endured forty years of restoring boats. Educating customers, keeping a low overhead to keep prices down, and doing show winning work. It has been fun, but laboring career. I’m booked out a year and a half but always find time to educate boat owners on doing it right the first time. I have lost money and have made a little. Mainly we enjoy seeing a customer take home an award or zoom away from the dock as a happy customer! Maintaining these beautiful boats is a passion, one that is a lost art form.

  4. Mark
    Mark says:

    Don’t forget the after restoration value equation.

    Find out how much the boat will be worth when it is done so you get dissapointed that you spent more than it is worth when finished.

    • Fred
      Fred says:

      I had the opportunity to help a neighbor get and decide on estimates to restore her small vintage electric boat. We chose 2 professional shops in the area. The first came, looked at the boat, inspected the boat, took lots of pictures, told me how everything that needed to be done would be done, and honestly said it will cost you more to restore this boat than it will be worth, but what is the emotional attachment, history of the boat? There is one like this in the Adirondack museum.. He was there on a chilly November day for close to 2 1/2 hours surveying the boat, after a 1 1/2 drive from his shop.
      The second estimate came from a local shop, about a half hour away. He looked at the boat, said how he would splice this, sister this, etc. there about a half hour. We received both estimates. Shop One was itemized, with everything he could possibly think of that would be needed to restore the boat. Shop 2 was not, just a few items estimated that he easily saw, with the caveat, when I open her up if I find more it will be more. For reference, shop one was twice the price as shop two dollar wise.
      My neighbor was hesitant about the cost from both estimates, but wisely chose the more expensive one. Lots had to do with reputation, an itemized estimate,and the fact she would have the boat back by spring, which he did. The boat turned out great, and is ready for the next 83 years. Just a story of a restoration that turned out fine.

    • Rob
      Rob says:

      The Iron Rule of wooden boat ownership: Every one of our boats is worth less to whomever may buy it from us, than what we put into it. And that is ok.

  5. Jaxon
    Jaxon says:

    1. Only deal with places that have dogs.
    2. Always bring the dog a treat.
    3. Feel honored if the dog pees on your tire.
    4. Dog hair in the varnish gives you extra points at a show.

    • Jaxon
      Jaxon says:

      I didn’t mention anything about working. Actually if I’m taking a nap just leave the treat. I’ll get to it when I wake up. Thanks in advance.

  6. Uncle Morty
    Uncle Morty says:

    Steel screws used in 1937 by Chris Craft for fastening the corners of the wood frame windshields. The one on the left is from the bottom, the two on the right from the top. CC used lots of steel fasteners for major pieces including all the lower frame/gussets connections as shown in the other picture and 5″ steel screws for attaching the keelsons to the frames. However, nothing plated for sure. I would bet the fastener in your picture is brass, if pre-war.

  7. Gordy
    Gordy says:

    Same way with an engine rebuild. My Model B took 2 years, but it was done right from the bottom up, everything was examined. Now, all I need to start up is water, fresh gas and a charged battery.

  8. Sean
    Sean says:

    I don’t think you can us a broad brush to cover all restorers. In Southern Ontario we have some very wealthy restorers, and some that are always on the financial brink of disaster. But, there’s always Muskoka money to keep their shops full and I haven’t seen a poor restorer yet (they all do quality work). What’s good to know is that there are great shops out there that do quality work, at reasonable prices if you spend some time doing your homework.

    If you’re not a 1%er you can join the great unwashed and learn DIY, if you’re willing… it ain’t rocket science. However, this will take longer and can cost almost as much (buying tools, consumables, learning curve) or more, in the long run. But, you will have also earned an education and have a greater understanding/appreciation of boats to go along with that proud smile of a job well done…. the down side is you will know about, and see every little minute flaw.

    Some say the best tool in their toolbox is their cheque book. It’s hard not to disagree.

  9. John Rothert
    John Rothert says:

    I am with Jaxon…..dogs are big in this equation. I drove my Fairchild Scout 30 into the straps of the travel lift yesterday….the lift operator had his dog running around…neat yellow lab….I stepped off to dry land and told the guy…that lab is your baby, this boat is mine…treat them the same…..he smiled, the dog wagged his tail….and my baby got rolled into the shop for new fuel tanks….will let you all know how this turns out.
    John in va.

  10. Wilson
    Wilson says:

    Back in the day when boat shows were limited to Clayton Tahoe and Winnipesaukee, I went
    to New Hampshire looking for restoration help and information and ended up talking to a guy who needed somebody to manage a boat club…. My agreement to manage the club for 6 months grew to 25 years and I thereafter never had time for the boat restoration, I sought to do. I found a reputable guy to restore the boat…The boat and the boat club both turned out to be fun…Just be careful what you go looking for.

  11. Dick Dow
    Dick Dow says:

    Y’all know “boat” is an acronym – Break Out Another Thousand… 🙂 But if the only thing you’re focused on is the dollars, you’ve missed the point of boat ownership!

  12. gesfour
    gesfour says:

    When my Dad and I took on the restoration of our U22 we had two VERY skeptical spouses. My mother and my wife. Conversations were interesting.

    Our work was done by Joel Terbrueggen and the guys at the Motor Boat Garage at their old place. It was completely transparent and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. Even when we were told that a prior “refastening” of the bottom – by somebody else – involved placing drywall screws in between each of the original fasteners. And that ALL of the frames were rotten, broken or completely disintegrated. The guys called it the worst case scenario – I suspect no one else has been able to surpass that dubious honor. Fortunately the skeptical spouses were swayed by many many emotional pleas. Now we have a wonderful and seaworthy boat. We quickly got used to not having to worry about a dead battery because the bilge pump was no longer required to keep it afloat!

    Having a lot of trust in the people doing the work was key to a successful project. Even though we were 400 miles away and never saw it in person until it was delivered a year later lots and lots of pictures weekly kept us up to day.

    • George Emmanuel
      George Emmanuel says:

      I could be wrong, but I’m willing to bet there is culpable negligence on both parties. I’ll bet the shop was faced with, “I don’t want to spend a lot of money,—I just want to get it god enough to sell”! And the shop, displaying poor ethics, did what the owner wished.

  13. Brian J Aiken
    Brian J Aiken says:

    I appreciate Sean’s DIY option and I would add that the stuff like re-sawing and planing which calls for major equipment can be jobbed out. I did mine in the local high school woodshop.
    Almost all of the rest just called for a bandsaw and the same common tools the original builders had.
    Yes, there is a learning curve. I had to scrap the first attempt to make a new stem, but even that wood was used for butt-blocks and so on.
    The bigger decision and issue is probably time. Mine took two years of nights and some weekends.
    On the plus side, I KNOW every frame, plank and underlayment is better than new.Mine floats nine months a year. It has required little more than maintenance since I restored it in 1989.

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