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Wood Boat Restorers of the Thousand Islands

In the 1960’s, when I was growing up on Manhattan Island on the St Lawrence River, fiberglass boats were beginning to make their appearance in the fleet of watercraft plying the Thousand Islands. My parents had several beautiful wooden boats, but it was getting harder to find the craftsmen to make the major repairs occasionally required to maintain the classic woodies. The thought of replacing a plank or a complete bottom in a wood craft caused anxiety in boat owners’ hearts, and the appeal of the “maintenance free” sales pitch of the newer fiberglass boats was causing many owners to replace their faithful woodies with new “plastic” boats.

As I was able to start spending more time back on the River in the 1990’s after a 20 year stint in Florida and New Jersey, I noticed there was a renaissance of wood boat repair and restoration shops appearing near to The River’s shores. The largest of these businesses, St Lawrence Restoration, run by Don Price, had gained a national reputation for being able to perform a complete hull and mechanical restoration on most wooden craft. But there were also several small, one and two man shops establishing excellent reputations on both sides of the River. To walk into these shops and get to know their proprietors was to take a step back in time to the years when many of our woodies were being built. It is not unusual to see Hutchinsons, GarWoods, Chris Crafts, and Lymans nestled in together in these shops in various states of restoration or disassembly. While many modern materials, such as glues and sealants, may be used in the restoration and repairs, many of the tools and techniques used by these artisans were handed down from the past generations of excellent boat builders located in the Thousand Islands.

Rich Jury

You enter Rich Jury’s street level shop through barn style doors and are immediately aware that this is a boat restorers dream. The one-time home to Hutchinson Brothers Boat Co and later Fitzgerald & Lee, it is now normal to see these same builders’ craft back in this historic building for repairs and restorations. To have a boat restored by Rich is to gain a wonderful friend, as you become intimately involved in the whole process – which can run for more than a year. Many of us actually get to work on our own boats with Rich, which is an opportunity for knowledge hungry novices to work with a true master restorer. I am sure Rich’s patience is often tried to the breaking point as he explains over and over again the same simple processes to his novices, but the satisfaction gained by all of us forms a firm bond and relationship for years to come.

Newcomers to the shop may wander downstairs from the street level floor and be amazed to find another water level floor filled with projects. The two story facility is part of Van’s marina, and you can quite often find proprietors Steve and Sue Keeler hauling a woodie to move inside the shop to receive Rich’s attention. All the in&out work is still done with extreme care using hand pulled chain falls, and boats are moved into the shop using the same steel ibeam trolley systems designed and installed generations ago. The center of this floor is taken up by a large planer, used to plane down large mahogany, oak, and cedar boards to the proper thickness to form new planks and ribs for the bottoms and sides of the restoration boats. Bags of shavings and sawdust find their way as mulch into many friend’s gardens and island walkways.

Strategically positioned throughout the shops are a table saw, band saw, drill press, and other small power equipment needed to cut out the many different shapes needed in boat repair. However, the tools that are most interesting to a wood boat lover only become apparent as you watch and listen to Rich perform his craftsmanship on a piece of wood as it starts to take shape on the boat. Quite often, he searches in his boat builder’s toolbox for a saw, plane, chisel, or special woodworking tool given to him by Willy Plimpton – one of the 1940s era Alexandria Bay boat builders. With the practiced eye of the master craftsman, Rich patiently shaves and planes planks until the fit is perfected.

Then the painstaking process of bending the board to the shape the hull begins. After steaming a plank or a rib in a handmade propane fired steamer (often a piece of galvanized eaves trough or water pipe, it can takes days to get a plank take the shape of the form of the boat. This process starts by screwing one end of the plank to a rib, and often using antique clamps, drawing the board in closer and closer to the hull. I remember it taking four days to bend a particularly challenging plank to our Que’Sara, a 1932 18’ Gar Wood that my daughter Sara and I had the pleasure of working on with Rich. This particular plank required us to use wood posts to supplement the clamps to put even enough pressure on the board to slowly make it conform to the hull.

During the winter, Rich and his helpers build plastic enclosures around each boat project to facilitate the heating required to be able to work through the frigid North Country winters. Late fall is generally a very busy time at Rich’s shop, as owners always want to run their beloved boats until late in the season before turning them over to the restorer for the winter. If major work is required on a bottom, the engine has to be removed and a team assembled to slowly roll the boat over so that the work can be done standing up. This is a process that can be nerve wracking, as a steel rack has to be erected around the hull and four sets of hand chain falls attached to straps running underneath the boat. This is never a good time for the owner to be present, as an old boat being turned makes many creaking and popping noises as it rolls and moves in the straps as four people work the chain falls in unison. Tension is always high among Rich and his helpers as a miscue could result in a serious gouge or crack in the hull. Having participated in several of these rollings, I can say Rich always guides the team through the process with no incidents – but it always calls for a celebratory pizza afterwards.

Rich is well known for his award winning varnish work, lovingly applied by brush. You can often see the lights on in the shop late in the evening as Rich takes advantage of the still evening air and lack of advice seeking friends to work his artistry with varnish. Quite often, he wets down the floors to settle down any dust in the air and obtains a mirror like finish on his beautifully sanded and stained surfaces. One of the most fun parts of a restoration project with Rich is when he starts to work hand lettering the transom. Many of our local boats have a Jury designed and painted name. I leave those sessions up to my wife, whose critical eye matches up with Rich’s artistic hand.

Pat Snyder

Capt. Pat Snyder, a third generation Alexandria Bay boat restorer, mixes his passion for wood boats in with his love of hunting and fishing in the 1000 Islands. Most days during the fishing and hunting seasons, Pat can be found out on the River running his ABayFishing business. Evenings and inclemate days find him hard at work in one of his two shops next to his house on Swan Hollow Road. Pat’s grandfather, Lisle, and father Jack, were both employees of Hutchinson’s during WWII. They worked as carpenters and refinishers on Hutchinson’s military boats, as well as many of the acclaimed builder’s classic boats and launches.

Like many young people from the North Country, Pat started down a career path that would take him off the River. He was educated at JCC and Paul Smith’s, majoring in Forestry and Land Surveying. However, after working two years after graduation as a survey crew chief, the $4 per hour pay was not up to Pat’s expectations. He found a job working at Uncle Sam Boat Lines building a motel, and the next year was moved up to captain of the fleet’s Uncle Sam 1 making the daily Alex Bay to Gananoque run. The pay was good, and he was using the Captain’s license his father had urged him to get in the winter of 1978.

Pat credits much of his knowledge and skill to working on the Uncle Sam fleet during the winters with Ken Hartmann and Chuck Scott. Crew chief Tim Wagner would lay out the work inside the iced over Peacock Boathouse on Wellesley Island or the old wood boat houses on the site that is now the Otter Creek Inn. The wood tour boats would be lifted up on screw jack powered beams by several strong men working in unison. A Coast Guard inspector would go through each of the several vessels in the fleet, marking with chalk areas that needed attention. Between making the structural repairs to planks, ribs, keels stems and transoms, and refinishing the paint and varnish work on the beautiful old tour boats, Pat quickly added to his knowledge of wooden boat repair and restoration. Hours spent standing on the ice, with quick breaks into a warming shack, made him knowledgeable in all facets of the trade.

Today, Pat performs his restoration work in one of his two shops. A 40’x 60’heated shop is complemented by 60’x 32’ unheated cold storage facility. A few boats stored for the winter and only needing normal maintenance are parked in a converted horse barn, giving Pat the capacity to store seven or eight vessels. Pat has restored quite a few Lymans and Hutchinsons and has increased his knowledge of newer restoration techniques while maintaining his 24’ lapstrake Chris Craft SeaSkiff. Rough Islander, named for his family’s Island, can be seen plying the 1000 Islands from May through November, and requires constant love and attention to keep her in prime operating condition.

Several St. Lawrence skiffs still seen rowing through the islands owe their new leases on life to Pat’s hard work. Often joined in the winters and evening by his wife Kathy, Pat is proud of their restoration of Juanita, a skiff brought to him by local wood boat lover Bob Tague. “She was half a skiff, completely gone from the seats on down when Bob brought her in” says Pat. Bob was delighted with the results when he picked her up next spring, and Juanita can still be seen being used by the next generation of Tagues.

Rock & Roll, a 22’ Shepherd, was stripped to bare wood during restoration. Her golden luster shines through ten coats of varnish over a beautifully rubbed stain. She glistens as she rides gracefully through the Islands, a real head turner. In a recent conversation with Pat, he informed me that his son Aziel hopes to join him in the restoration business this fall after completing an internship at Clayton’s Antique Boat Museum. It would seem to be very fitting to have a fourth generation Snyder working on and restoring the beautiful wood boats of the 1000 Islands. 

[Pat Snyder can be reached at 315-482-3750 or online at ABayFishing@gmail.com]

Terry Senecal

Terry Senecal is a member of one of the Rockport area’s oldest families. Quitting high school before graduation, Terry had the good fortune to apprentice under Floyd and Gordy Hunt at Andress Boat Works. His original tasks, other than cleaning the shop, were centered on learning the basics of the refinishing part of the business. Sanding, cleaning, and priming the wood. Knowledge of those rudimentary skills was needed before he was allowed to move on to applying hull paints and stain and varnish. An enthusiastic student of the trade, he was soon being schooled in the structural parts of boat repair - replacing ribs, removing and installing new planks, and eventually forming and shaping the planks and deck covering boards himself.

Terry was fortunate to be at Andress’ while Ed Andress, one of the founders, was still building skiffs. Watching the old boat builder lovingly choose and shape the skiff planks, and seeing the boat grow from a skeleton to a finished product in front of his eyes instilled a lifelong love of skiff restoration that is evident today when you view one of Terry’s restorations.

Terry’s shop, located on Fitzsimmons Road just north of the Thousand Islands Parkway, is a modern, heated 24’ x 32’ building. He can accommodate one large in progress project inside the shop, and has two additional enclosed storage buildings of 28’ x 60’ and 30’ x 72’ for storage of projects and winter storage boats. He normally completes several boat restorations a year, depending on the complexity and size of the challenge. All of Terry’s varnish and paint work is hand brushed, but the mirror like finish he obtains rival the best sprayed on applications I have ever seen.

I became aware of Terry’s restorations several years ago when I watched him restore Taps, a 1927 Fitzgerald & Lee. Taps has spent her entire life in only two boathouses, and her current owners decided it was time to bring her back into excellent condition. Both stringers, the beams running the length of the boat and supporting the engine, had to be replaced do to rot. After removing the engine and sending it off for overhaul, Terry gently rolled Taps on her back. Removing only the bottom planks directly below the stringers, Terry removed the rotten timbers piece by piece – being careful to save all the remnants to make patterns for the new stringers. Once a perfect 23’ beam of western red cedar was located in Kingston, Terry spent many hours sawing and hewing the beams to the perfect shape to go back in the boat. It was an amazing feat of wooden boat restoration that he was able to refit the stringers, new mahogany planks, and roll Taps back to her correct position without marring or splintering any of her beautiful mahogany decks. A complete refinishing of her painted hull and varnished decks make TAPS look like she was just launched from the Fitzgerald & Lee boat works in Alexandria Bay.

DISPATCH, the last remaining example of Gar Wood’s exquisite Landau Commuters, was suffering from major caulking problems last year. She was no longer able to stay afloat, and the owner’s attempts to repair the caulking were leading to more and more frustration. Terry was called in to the Grenadier Island boathouse early this summer to survey the situation and see if he could come up with a solution. After going over DISPATCH’s bottom, Terry and the owner agreed to do a temporary caulking on the seams to allow them to move her to Rockport and then trailering her to Terry’s shop. In a very short time span of only a couple of weeks, Terry raked the caulking out of all the bottom seams and performed a thorough recaulking. He sanded the bottom down to bare wood, and recoated it along with two coats of varnish on the hull and topsides.

I had the pleasure of riding to Clayton and back a few weeks ago in DISPATCH, and she again rides like one of the grand ladies of our 1000 Islands fleet due to Terry’s masterful repair and restoration work.

When asked about what types of boats he thinks he is best known for restoring, Terry quickly replies “Lymans and St. Lawrence Skiffs.” I have had the pleasure of seeing a couple of Terry’s skiff restorations. He is capable of taking a skiff with a tree growing up through it and turning it into an award winning restoration. He estimates that he has worked on and restored about fifty skiffs in his career.

Most of his Lyman projects have been on boats 26’ or smaller, although he did work on one 30’ Lyman in someone else’s barn. Terry has also worked on several reproduction Hacker’s which are becoming more popular on the River. With 32 years in the business, Terry is currently working on the bottom of a 26’ Lyman, owned by Rockport wood boater Morris Huck. 

[Terry Senecal can be reached at his shop in Rockport by calling 613-659-3783]

By John Peach

John Peach and his wife, Pat, live on Huckleberry Island near Ivy Lea from May through October. The rest of the year they reside in Princeton, NJ, although John continues to make frequent return visits to the Islands throughout the winter. John retired several years ago from his career in international business. His family has owned a place in the Thousand Islands for over 50 years. John is a past president of Save The River, and is still active on the Save The River board.

Click here to see John’s other articles for TI Life.

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Anonymous User
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Tad Clark
Comment by: Tad Clark
Left at: 12:16 PM Tuesday, October 8, 2013
One of many interesting articles you have presented in TI Life, Senator Peach.

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