WOLFEBORO — The sounds of power and hand tools echo through the 4,500-square-foot main shop of Lakes Region Wooden Boats near downtown Wolfeboro.
Amid a sparkling union of polished chrome, varnished mahogany and gilded lettering, its four craftsmen can work on six to seven boats at a time. In this somewhat obscure shop at 990 Center St., the month of May means it’s time to get a small fleet of wooden vintage watercraft ready to ply the waters before high summer.
Rob Lawrence, who signed a lease purchase agreement to acquire the business last April, is as passionate about wooden boats as his customers who flock from throughout New England to the shop where legends of the lake are restored to their original grandeur.
Lawrence’s interest in wooden boats was piqued when his father bought a boat trailer. After negotiating the $75 purchase, the elder Lawrence asked the seller if he wanted some help unloading the boat that was already on the trailer.
“He told him, ‘No, if you want to buy the trailer, you have to take the boat,’” Rob said.
The 1950 Century had seen better days. Lawrence still has a picture his dad snapped of him and his sister sitting behind the wheel while it was still atop the trailer.
Lawrence was just 6 years old when his dad brought the “free” boat home in 1976, and has fond memories of working alongside him to make the needed repairs to get it back on the water.
Rob still owns the boat and has since completely restored it. He has a photo of his own daughter behind the wheel, but its once weathered wood now glistens with countless coats of varnish.
“I don’t remember how many coats. I have to write it down,” Lawrence says as he bends to his work and sands the side of a 1956 Century Resorter.
“There is nothing that is straight or square. Everything has a curve to it,” Lawrence explained as he positioned a spotlight to illuminate the lean line of the boat’s mahogany flanks.
“It came here with no bottom on it, upside down. Now it has a new bottom, new sides, deck and upholstery. We’ve all done that together,” Lawrence said.
As a member of a club made up of wooden boat enthusiasts, Lawrence explained, he learned of the shop when the group paid a visit. After meeting Phil Spencer, the founder of the business, Lawrence told a fellow club member that owning a wooden boat shop would be his dream job.
When that information made its way back to Spencer, he and Lawrence talked. Spencer said he loved the work but not the management end of the business. The pair negotiated a lease-to-buy agreement, and Lawrence walked away from an 18-year career as a test and project engineer at Westinghouse.
In a neighboring bay, Spencer runs the brush of a shop vacuum over the flare of the bow of another mahogany beauty. It is a seemingly never-ending process of sanding, then vacuuming up the dust. Once the surface is deemed ready for the first coat of varnish, the process is repeated again and again, producing a glass-like finish.
Spencer’s lifelong passion for wooden boats was sparked early. The daily ride to his preschool in Minnesota took him along the shores of Lake Minnetonka, one of the classic-boat epicenters of the Midwest.
“This was in the early ’60s and I got to look into all the boathouses and see the beautiful Chris-Crafts, Gar Woods and Hackers,” he said.
As a teen, he gave his father a brochure for a wooden boat arguing that the elegant craft with the lines of a bird in flight was just what the family needed. Spencer recounted that his father likened putting such an investment in the water to taking his own beloved Steinway grand piano to the boat ramp and launching it.
“It’s too beautiful,” the elder Spencer reasoned, before completely deflating his son with the announcement that he’d settled on a pontoon boat.
To Spencer, who went on to graduate from the Landing School of Wooden Boat Building and Yacht Design, the allure of owning a wooden boat is tranquility and grace of being on the water in a sublimely elegant watercraft.
For the love of wooden boats
Today, in the era of fiberglass, aluminum and steel hulls, Lawrence agrees his customers are searching for links to their past. And one of those connections is through wood.
Just like classic cars or antique furniture, classic wooden boats have a special place in the hearts of those who love all things with a sense of history. But many of the boats being worked on in Lawrence’s shop are there for one reason: to preserve the memories that are indelibly linked to endless summers on the lake.
“There are lots and lots of hours, an endless amount of work. It’s not uncommon for people to spend more than a boat is worth, but they want to keep it going,” he said.
“Wooden boats survive because to many people their boat was like family,” said Spencer. The “Penguin” a pre-war Chris-Craft has been owned by the Webster family on Squam Lake since the late 1930s, he said. More than 70 years may have passed, but the boat still skims across “Golden Pond” and the family that owns it treasures the memories that link multiple generations.
“Marion,” the boat Lawrence was working on, was named for the woman who originally bought it for her husband in 1956. After their deaths, one of the couple’s best friends and his son acquired the 16-foot boat and are having it restored.
It’s not an easy task, and it’s not cheap for the people who want these types of marine preservations. So why do they do it?
“You’ve got to have a level of love and enthusiasm, because it doesn’t always make (financial) sense,” said Lawrence. Some of the shop’s customers have spent up to six figures.
Both Lawrence and Spencer share the same obsession for the work. Each boat speaks to them of history and of master craftsmanship.
“The motto is repair what you can and keep it as original as possible,” said Spencer.
A visit to their shop offers a lesson not just about the boat business, but boat history. Every boat has a story and as you walk among them, it becomes a sort of working museum where these artifacts of the lakes are given new life so they can be returned to the waves of summer where they belong.
“When we finish a boat and deliver it to the ramp and the whole family is there and their faces just light up. That’s the best part for me,” Lawrence said.