No Surprises – It Is Possible Folks

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On Friday morning I received a call from fellow Woody Boater Don Ayers. It was 7:00 AM and Don was driving east on I-80 from Sacramento towards Auburn, California to spend the day with Rudy at Northwest Classic Boats. Don said “I have been looking forward to this day since September last year… I had trouble sleeping last night!”

Last September Don’s classic 1959 Riva Ariston was delivered to Northwest Classic Boats for a major restoration and on Friday they reached a significant milestone on the project. All the woodwork was now successfully completed and Don was planning to spend the day with Rudy to assist him with the staining procedure.

Rudy finished taping off the remaining areas to be stained and they went to work with the stain.

By the end of the day, the process was successfully completed and the beautiful Riva once again had the same color and texture she had when she left the factory in Italy 52 years ago.

“Magnifico” is the best word to describe the work. And for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know Don Ayers, regardless if it’s him doing the work or a professional restorer doing the work, he has very high standards when it comes to workmanship, originality and attention to detail.

But the reason Don called me from California on Friday was to say that he had been carefully following the stories (last week) on Woody Boater regarding the subject of wooden boat restoration and thought it was time to chime in with his thoughts on the subject. After all, this was a perfect time to comment now that the woodwork had just recently been completed on his restoration project. So we thought it would be fun to share Don’s experience and comments in a story with some very cool images. Don wanted to call the story No Surprises for a good reason, and here’s what he had to say…

“No Surprises”

When I first started investigating professional services to restore my boat, a 1959 Riva Ariston, the first word out of my mouth was that I did not want to get any. The recent topics on Woody Boater compelled me to contact Texx and ask to write about my experience. After being in the hobby for twenty years, I’ve heard my share of war stories and that has lead me to be very cautious when dealing with a professional shop. Truth is, I have very little experience directly as a paying customer but quite a lot through others having restoration work done.

What struck me about the latest postings (on Woody Boater) are the comments and concerns regarding new bottoms and the incredible range of pricing and quality. One person commented, “Shouldn’t a professional restorer have a pretty good idea about what a bottom should cost so they can give an accurate estimate”. I could not agree more with that statement.

I think first we have to start with a philosophy, and that is do you think an original boat bottom that is 40-70 years old is safe? And when I say “bottom” I’m talking about the structure it’s attached to as well. With very few exceptions boats that retain their original bottom structure and bottom planks are worn out, oil soaked, brittle and at the very least not real functional and at the worst unsafe.

If you agree with this philosophy and I’d bet most do then why get caught in the trap of “frame replacement”? It seems that most who use a “professional” service become dismayed when prices escalate due to the shell game that is “frame replacement”. It’s the oldest trick in the book, lure someone in by quoting a price for the skin of the bottom and then acting all surprised when they get the bottom off! If you buy into the philosophy then why even play that game?

OK, we know that these boats are old and that the bottoms were never meant to last 60 years, so why not take the approach of “full bottom” replacement? What I’m talking about is replacement of all bottom frames, knees, chines, keel, transom bow and forefoot i.e. everything from the waterline down.

Knowing my boat had the original bottom and based on the experiences of countless others, I know that the only way to do it was to plan for “full bottom” replacement. That way there are “No Surprises” and I know exactly what I will have when done. Even the ACBS these days understands this and considers full bottom replacement something necessary for most all of our boats. That is why it does not count against you when putting your boat in the restored category.

Rudy at Northwest Classic Boats sold me on this philosophy even though I’d heard it a hundred times and had to advise many to do the same. He just said it best this way, “Of the 100 or so full replacement bottoms of original boats I never found one that did not need it.” Case in point is a 33’ Gar Wood with a bottom that was done 11 years ago. All the previous shop did was replace the outer skin and left all the old framing, chines, keel etc. Now after that short time it needs total frame replacement because everything is rotten. Northwest and some other very reputable shops make it simple, that’s the way they do business, on budget on time with quality. Professionals do know how much time and materials it will take. Northwest charges $1,000/foot (up to 25ft, all materials included) and what that gets you is 100% new below the waterline with modern construction, no games, no worries. Sounds expensive at first until you consider everything that goes into your hull construction, keel, all bottom frames, chines, knees, transom bow and forefoot and the like. (Note the sample of the oil soaked keel below – Texx)

Another interesting by product of last week’s discussion were comments revolving around the “check writers”. In my humble opinion there are very few of those in this hobby. I believe if you polled various restorers you would find that they don’t just exist off the uber wealthy but rather by the more bread and butter work that 98% of us provide to them. It is a ridiculous notion to classify anyone among us that use professional services as “check writers”. After twenty years in the hobby this is the first boat I have had professional work on. As many have we have done the best amateur work possible and if lucky sold the past boats for a modest profit to move up to a better situation. Sort of like buying a house, renovating the bath and kitchen and then moving up. And for the other 2%, God Bless them because I sure enjoy seeing their boats at shows as well. They have clearly worked their butt off being good at something and I admire that.

Certainly this is just one man’s opinion – Comments Welcome – Don Ayers

Thanks Don for your insight and candid comments on this subject. We have been following this unique restoration project from the beginning, and if you would like to see the enitire project to date, including some rare historical information on the Riva marque, Don has documented it as a journal at the Chris-Craft Antique Boat Club “Boat Buzz” Forum. Click here to go directly to Don’s living journal.

For me, one of the most impressive aspects of the Riva’s restoration project is the limited amount of time it has taken Rudy and Northwest Classic Boats to complete the work to date. The 1959 Riva Ariston arrived at Northwest Classic Boats in mid-September 2010. The fiberglass covering the original bottom was removed and all the structural work, including all wood and materials processing at the mill, was completed by early December. Topside structure, hull, bottom and decks are applied, prepped and ready to stain by mid-May. An impressive amount of work in a short period of time considering what type of classic boat they were working on. The image above is how the boat looked then at what it looks like today after being stained. Rudy plans to have 20 coats of varnish applied by July 1st then it’s ready to return home Don’s to Edmond, Oklahoma where it will be finished.

Thanks to Dave & Rudy at Northwest Classic Boats for providing some of the images of the restoration process. To learn more about Northwest Classic Boats you can go to their web site by clicking here. We look forward to seeing the classic 1959 Riva Ariston when it’s completed in 2012.


17 replies
  1. RiverRat
    RiverRat says:

    Unless your boat has recently gotten out of the shop there is probably something that needs attention. As the years click by the list just grows and can easily sneak up on you with bigger problems. If you go looking for a wood boat and they all are used boats, it is only the rare boat that needs only a little attention. Beware of boats that have not be in the water in awhile or have had some time in outdoor storage. I once had a guy in Maine defy me to find any rot on his boat. So off we went on a six hour ride. Upon arrival I did not make it to the doorbell before my brother had stuck his finger through the transome. My point being that old boats have problems especially if you are trying to find one for a reasonable price. So do you due diligence and know that over time all wood boats are sinking. My hat is off to Don for seeking the truth and taking it like a man.

  2. Al Benton
    Al Benton says:

    I’m glad that Don Ayers chimed in on the discussion of restoration from last week and especially regarding his advice on complete bottom replacement, including frames, knees, chimes, keel, transom, etc.

    My own experience with this is on restoring a ’48 17′ Deluxe Runabout which received all new wood from (and including) the chines and knees. Mine has new topside planks but we kept some of those frames (maybe shouldn’t have but did). The cost was no surprise to me, the restorer was up front with cost for the work that he and his partner have done so far and I’m pleased. His work ethic is a bit strange (4 and 5 hour work days) but we didn’t talk about completion schedule, just cost.

    Fortunate for me, mine obviously needed all new wood down there so I didn’t bother asking if his price would be different should some frames would be usible. His quote included new frames and I got them.

  3. mfine
    mfine says:

    Don’s approach makes a ton of sense for a Riva, but one size does not fit all. Many of the 50’s and 60’s boats will not be worth $1000 a foot even after the 100% new bottom is installed. For some it may make more sense to wear a life jacket and buy a new boat when the old one sinks.

    The reality is that there are still boats from the 30’s and 40’s with original bottoms after 70+ years. While there is always a risk, it is possible that a boat from the 50’s and 60’s could get another decade or maybe two out of the current bottom. It is too risky to give someone the advice not to replace their bottom, and even more so for a professional to do so, but if the “lifestyle” ignores the option, I think a lot of good boats will become firewood because they are not currently worth the money.

    On the other hand, if you keep one floating for a decade or two, the value may increase to make it worthwhile.

    As I look at my own prodject and financial situation, I need to make choices about priority and timing. My boat will get a full new bottom, the questions are when, and will I do it myself or write the big check. I know there is a risk it will sink, but I am willing to take that risk for a few more years based on the current visible condition and they type of usage.

  4. mfine
    mfine says:

    I should add, I agree with Don 100% on a couple of major points. First, the shops should know what the job will cost and should be able to quote it properly. Second, if you are going to tear off the old bottom and put in a new 5200 or West system or whatever, replace the frames. It will cost a lot less when the bottom is off than it will to replace them later! When my boat gets flipped over for it’s new bottom, I will do the work with the expectation that it will not get flipped again for another 40-60 years.

  5. ducraft
    ducraft says:

    Many technical thoughts go into the replacement bottom.
    1 new growth wood often is not as good as old growth in strength or decay resistance
    2 modern products are far superior to vintage, sealers, adhesives, finishes
    3 a cold molded bottom or a plywood inner liner offers much more strength and relieves the frames of some stresses
    4 northern cold water boats often have very little decay, warm water boats often have issues
    It is good to look at what you have and make decisions based on knowledge. Ultimately the person paying will dictate the type of work performed.

  6. Matt
    Matt says:


    Congrats the boat looks great. Now on to the fun part of the restoration. I was in a similar situation I would love nothing more than to do all the work myself but I finalyy resized I just do not have the time and I’d like to see my boat done in my life time. It was hard to do but I turned over to the boys at the wooden runabout company to plank the boat for me. This will give me the boost I need to get the boat back in the water.

    Bty my I’ve replaced bottoms on 3 boats and they all got 100% new frames. It’s nice to know what you got when yor finished. I don’t think people realize how weak and brittle the old wood becomes. It’s very easy to take an old batten and break it over your knee, but it’s a little different story if you try the same with freshly milled piece of white oak.

    The big question is are we going to see the riva at any boat shows later this summer?

  7. Don Ayers
    Don Ayers says:

    Great comments and some very valid points for sure. No doubt I have ruffled some feathers but it seems that the philosophy still is true. As mfine points out situations vary from boat to boat and owner to owner but the facts remain with original bottoms with very few exceptions.

    One thing I think is worth mentioning is the idea that a lessor valued boat may not get the same restoration as a more collectable model. While the cost is the same in concept would not that lessor valued boat benefit monetarily from a proper full bottom replacement especially if it were documented. Does that make sense to anyone else? For example, take a U-22. It has a perceived ceiling for value of say 50k on the top side(just picking a number as I don’t really know). What if there were two of them that looked equal from a cosmetic standpoint but one had a well documented full bottom replacement. Would not the better constructed boat be worth more? Going back to my house example, even a small house can be improved in value by remodel of the bath and kitchen. I think the quality of the boats restoration and detail should drive the market more than just how collectable the model is.

    I hope some of the shops chime in on the discussion.

  8. Don Ayers
    Don Ayers says:


    The Wooden RunAbout Co are stand up guys. Congrats on taking your boat there to help you move the project forward. I wish I had the time and skill to do my own work. In fact I would not care about the time factor but I just don’t have the skill or place to do any major woodworking. Honestly, if I went and bought property, built a building, bought tools etc etc etc my boat would cost me a lot more that Rudy is charging. Ha! And in the end I might not be too happy with the result. Someday I hope to have a bigger place to tinker on something like a Gar Speedster.

  9. Don Ayers
    Don Ayers says:

    Forgot to answer your question. Certainly not this year. I hope for the ACBS 2012 International but if I don’t make that I really don’t care. I get a ton of fun out of just going to the garage and working on it. Why rush it.

  10. mfine
    mfine says:


    A boat with a well documented bottom will certainly fetch more, but just like a home remodel, how much more is a question. Even with a new bottom, I don’t see a Chris Craft 17 foot sportsman selling for more than $20 grand unless it is absolutely exceptional throughout. I could be off base here but based on listings I hav seen over the years, I think a $17,000 bottom job might make a $10,000 boat into a $15,000 boat. That would only make sense if you plan to keep it and use it for decades and even then it is an expense not an investment. Oh and that is with a Chris Craft, a desirable brand. The financial reality for a similar but lesser named craft is going to be worse.

    If a full new bottom was $100 per foot, I would definitely be on board recommending every new owner get one ASAP, but at $1000 a foot I don’t think that can be such an absolute.

  11. Jerri
    Jerri says:

    I have truly enjoyed reading all three discussions regarding the costs involved with boat restoration and the wooden boat hobby. We are in the midst of bottom restoration on our GarWood and as we near the completion I’ve come to the conclusion that when the Sea Skiff is due for a new bottom I am going to have the price based on replacement of everything below the water line, including transom-cheeks etc. That way, as Don say’s no surprises. My thought’s on a $20K bottom replacement are, Sure-I won’t get 100% return on the investment but I will get a boat that will give me countless hours-days-years of enjoyment with the best group of people I’ve ever met. And for us-that’s worth it.

  12. Brian K
    Brian K says:

    Everyone here has a valid point. I would like to draw parallel with the classic car industry. There are also varied levels of restoration that go into classic cars. Just as most wouldn’t use a 70 year old bottom and assume to do a full bottom replacement there are those who will buy a car and opt into the full restoration of the drive systems, tires etc… On the other hand there are those who can afford to buy the classic original car but are content to drive that car “as is” and only put into it what it needs. Some cars (just like boats) deem full restorations and major investment and some are “users”. Then again cars don’t sink
    People will do what they are comfortable with in terms of safety and financial investment. Doing a bottom on an old wooden boat is a bit of a Pandora’s box of possible problems if you don’t go with a “full” bottom replacement as Don suggests. The best pricing that can be given for going the other route of replacing some frames, chines and keel as needed can only be done by giving up front pricing of the possibility of needing some or all of these things.

  13. Mark Campbell
    Mark Campbell says:

    I find all of the comments valid opinions regarding the preservation of a wooden boat. It is this desire to further the woody’s life, one at a time, even if it is complete or less complete. May I suggest generalization is the only means to explain a plan and course of action…boat by boat. Generally , most boats are recreational at most and show at least. To restore the bottom is better than not. Double planked even old , is pretty darned tuff.

    Thinking about my fathers approach to everything reminds me about fixing things. His approach was ‘professional’…period

    I would offer and re-offer to do his brakes. Nope… “gonna take it to a shop and get it done right’. I would kindly inform him that brakes are dirty and a shop might just have a teenager working there on his first brake. He insisted that payed work is better work and anything counter to that is…”neither here nor there” …(this comment always made me want to pull out some hair) , it was precisely “here” and “there”.

    Know the person doing the work. Are they anal? Are they a perfectionist? Are they never really pleased? This kind of person will exceed regardless of amount.

    I say the extent of the bottom restore is better than doing nothing. Live within your budget to enjoy the boat. My personal view is to leave the bottom close too original if you do not plan to replace everything. Leave it restorable…leave the fiberglass far far away. My boats that are un-restored have not been in use for more than half their life. The original bottoms are very very good. I would not give there useful condition a second thought. I could not imagine buying a boat without an original bottom unless I saw the process. That way , as Don’s course has taken him, Future projects to the Hull can be done with a seamless progression.

    I have a Classic car and agree that many variables apply. Safety should be the first consideration. A boat is a bit less mechanical or linear in use. Safety comes in different forms. No brakes/ but gas fumes. No staying between the lines and no seat belts.

    Use it, enjoy it.

    Don , I conclude with admiration. Your boat is gorgeous and completely worry free. I love seeing this kind of documentation and am glad my projects will mostly be with digital cameras now.

    Happy Boating. Mark Campbell

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