By Mike Gridley
Back in the day, building boats was big business in Ontario’s Muskoka region. Boat companies of all sizes sprang up across the area. Port Carling was home to Duke’s, Matheson, Johnston’s, the Disappearing Propeller Boats and SeaBird. Ditchburn and Greavette had large operations in Gravenhurst while Minett, later Minett-Shields set up shop in Bracebridge. These are just the more well-known boat companies.
Despite the building material, many of the wooden boats built by these shops are still around today. Some say the popularity of boathouses protected the boats and the families that owned them cherished and preserved them with the help of current day craftsmen.
Every year the antique and classic boat shops of Muskoka open their doors for the Annual Spring Tour organized by the Toronto chapter of the Antique and Classic Boat Society. The same organization hosts the Antique and Classic Boat Show every July at the Muskoka Wharf in Gravenhurst. This wonderful behind the scenes look reveals the talent, time and, yes, money that goes into preserving the historical boats of the region as well as designing and building excellent reproductions for discerning owners.
Last April was my first encounter with the tour. I was able to visit nine of the thirteen boat shops opening their doors to display their current projects for the day. This led to the idea of documenting a few for PowerBoat Television.
Starting that day, with the video camera in hand, I began an interesting few months of documenting the progress of two restorations at Clark Wooden Boats and a new build at Tim Butson Wooden Boat Builder.
At Clark’s the two main projects were comprehensive and challenging. The first was a 1931 Ditchburn that had been modified for more power with the creation of a flat stern. Its new owner wanted to return to the original pointed stern.
The boat was named the L’Aiglon I, which translates to “The Eagle” and watching the phases of restoration was impressive. The Spanish cedar planks of the hull literally glowed under the coats of varnish. The research, attention to detail and skill involved in replicating the original hull design using traditional materials was impressive.
After completing the hull work and refinishing and installing all of the chrome, the crew spent several weeks installing the engine, electrical and other systems. By late last summer she had been in the water for trial runs a few times to ensure everything was just right. Then it was our turn to check her out.
With the press of the starter button the calm of the fall morning was broken. Giving the engine time to warm up in the nine degree Celsius heat wave, the owner of Clark Wooden Boats, Gary, idled out and around Gravenhurst Bay as we chatted about the Ditchburn. With plenty of power, we were up and running in no time. Before, with its original six-cylinder Scripps, top speed was in the high thirties, but with a modern MerCruiser V-8 L’Aiglon now tops 50 miles per hour. In smooth waters the ride is soft, slightly bow high and an exhilarating experience.
The other project was a hydroplane from the 1930s. The exact year is unknown. From May through October, work on the Minett-Shields built Ventnor hydroplane progressed steadily. Witnessing the progress one begins to appreciate the time, knowledge and talent required to restore these classics. Each frame and plank takes hours to fabricate, shape and install.
In order to get the boat into the water sooner, a bullet proof MerCruiser 5.7 litre V-8 was installed while the original Gray Marine racing engine was sent off to Tennessee for a complete rebuild. After countless hours of fabrication, many more went into sanding and finishing.
The owner elected to finish the boat in natural wood with minimal chrome, unlike most race boats. But this hydroplane still turns heads.
We went out in the Ventnor on a crisp November day, but despite the cold, the modern MerCruiser gave the boat plenty of power and accelerated it smartly. Being only the second outing on the lake and the fact that it was a customer’s boat, Gary was not out to push the limits. It may not have been an ideal day, being winter and all, but it sure was an honour to be on the water in a classic hydroplane with an unknown past.
Each Trip to Muskoka also saw us dropping in at Tim Butson’s in Bracebridge to follow the progress on the gentleman’s racer custom build. Tim and his team are truly traditional builders and the time it takes to handcraft a boat like this is thousands of hours.
While many shops employ power planers and sanders, at Butson’s the hulls are hand planed – a slow and painstaking process. Over several months they would drive in thousands of screws and make and glue in the equivalent numbers of plugs.
Each phase of the boat’s construction was inspected and approved by the owner including seat design and positioning, windshield height and more, making this a truly custom boat, but also causing some delays in the progress of the build.
Unfortunately the boat was just being stained and varnished as the snow came to Muskoka so we were unable to get out on the water for a test drive.
The Boat Shop Tour
Clark Wooden Boats and Tim Butson Wooden Boat Builder are just two of the shops in Muskoka restoring and creating boats from the past. If you have an opportunity to visit the region, you may want to stop and check out a few others. Here’s a roundup of some of the shops we toured this spring and the projects they are currently working on.
Tom Adams Boat Builder, Port Carling
Tom Adams specializes in the restoration, refinishing and customization of Muskoka built antique and classic boats. Boats of all sizes can be accommodated in his new shop. Work continues on a 1914 50-foot Minett day cruiser called Rita. One of Tom and crew’s most well-known major restorations was the Miss Canada IV, a 1950 racer that held the world speed record of 200 mph.
Peter Breen Antique and Classic Boat Company, Rockwood
While not based in Muskoka, the work of Peter and his crew is known to wooden boat lovers everywhere. His shop has restored Heldina II, a 1917 racer still powered by her World War I Liberty motor, Tolka, a 1928 Limousine built at Bell Laboratories in Baddeck, Nova Scotia and Dixie Baby, a 1921 Ventnor Hydroplane that raced through 1928 and won four cups. She is just back in Peter’s shop from her first showing in Texas where she won best in show.
Breen also builds innovative reproduction crafts. This year his son Jeffery is finishing up a Rainbow III Hacker reproduction with high performance power.
Tim Butson Wooden Boat Builder, Bracebridge
Tim can trace his wooden boat heritage back generations before his shipwright grandfather brought his family over from England in 1905. His father joined Duke’s and then moved to Greavette with Tim. In 1981 they set out employing their talents to not only restore, but to design and build custom boats using traditional methods.
Currently Tim and crew are wrapping up the new launch build, replacing the planking and ribs on a 1939 SeaBird and refurbishing a one of a kind 1954 Shepherd S100 prototype ski boat.
Brackley Boats, Gravenhurst
For over 20 years Brackley Boats has been repairing, restoring and building new custom boats of all vintages and sizes. From Minett-Shields and others from the 20s and 30s to the Dukes and Greavettes of the 50s and 60s, many award-winning boats have spent time in the care of Brackley.
A major restoration project for this team was a 70 foot 1903 Rambler Seam Launch built in Toronto. Over the winter they did a bottom for a 1953 SeaBird and a full restoration on a 1929 Chris Craft 27 foot custom runabout called “Water Wagon.”
Clark Wooden Boats, Gravenhurst
After learning the trade in local shops such as Duke Boats, Gary Clark established his own business in 1987 and quickly emerged as one of Muskoka’s best. The years have seen a parade of award winning restorations on boats like Wa Chee We, a 1923 Ditchburn racer raised from the depths of Lake Muskoka.
Gary and crew also undertake new builds and reproductions such as Rainbow I, an exemplary copy of the original Ditchburn. Currently, work is progressing on BIV, a 28 foot Ditchburn getting a new bottom and a pair of Rivas undergoing extensive restorations.
Duke Boats Ltd., Port Carling
Kathy McCarthy and Jeremy Fowler
Founded in 1924, Duke Boats has had its good times and bad with several ownership changes and lapses in operation. This shop, adjacent to the Port Carling Locks, is the only original Muskoka boat shop building still standing thanks to the restoration work done by the Fowlers.
Current projects include chine and transom replacement on a 1947 Shepherd and a complete new bottom on a 1928 Ditchburn 26 foot Deck Launch.
Curtis Hillman Boat Builder, Milford Bay
An accomplished craftsman who learned the trade working for Stan Hunter before setting up his own boat shop, Curt has been building and restoring wooden boats for over 20 years. When I stopped by on this year’s spring tour, Curt had two major projects going on – a 1939 Shepherd and a 1935 Minett-Shields Gentleman’s Racer in his shop.
Stan Hunter Boat Builder, Milford Bay
Stan Hunter’s family history is as linked to Muskoka as the boats he restores. His grandparents arrived on Lake Muskoka in the 1880s. Wooden boats were part of the Hunter family life and the family’s 1933 Ditchburn “Evangeline” is still on the water today. Stan apprenticed with Ron and Tim Butson before going off on his own. Some 30 years later he is busy building custom boats and restoring Muskoka’s classics. He operates the only classic boat rental service, featuring a fleet of Duke Playmates from the 1940s and 50s. Ready to be splashed this summer are a 1936 Duke Playmate and a 1966 Greavette beautifully redone.
James Osler Classic Boat Restorations, Port Carling
Another apprentice of Stan Hunter, James launch his own wooden boat restoration business in 2013. When we dropped in this spring I was impressed with the projects underway. The workmanship on a 1930 Clive Brown built in Bracebridge and a 1958 Century Resorter being brought back to their former glory was extraordinary. What caught my attention was Jim’s personal boat, a 1953 Delcraft Utility, built at Delaney Boats in Barrie, Ontario that he has repowered and converted to a launch.
Windsor Boat Works, Gravenhurst
Windsor boat works was founded in 1973 as a restoration shop focusing on antiques and classics with origins in Muskoka. Since then custom design and fabrication of new boats has become part of the business.
On display for this year’s visitors were Norwood III, a 34 foot 1925 Minett-Shields and a 38 foot 1920 Ditchburn.