Craft Culture: Great Northern Boatworks turns unusable boats into show pieces

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Photo by Tj Turner

The day I visit, the shop is at capacity with six vessels. In addition to the Windsor Craft, four more wood boats and one made of fiberglass sit atop wood blocks, saw horses, and proper boat trailers. Ranging in size from 26–34 feet, and in various states of seaworthiness, some projects will require about 100 hours of work; others might need a thousand.

A 1985 wooden Skiff Craft called The Rockin’ Robyn is anchored in the middle of the shop for basic maintenance, including a fresh coat of midnight-blue paint and some varnish. “The sun’s UV rays break down the varnish, so every three years you should give it a new coat,” Weber says.

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Photo by Tj Turner

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Tim Weber // Photo by Tj Turner

“Some shops spray varnish because it’s easier,” Roque adds. “But we use the more traditional roll-and-tip method,” using a paint roller to apply the finish and following with a brush to ensure a smooth coat. Halvorson likes Epifanes Wood Finish Gloss, a product that’s been around since 1902. It requires 12 coats, with sanding after the fifth and tenth, and a watchful eye for dust.

“The finish you put on the wood is what makes it a feasible marine product,” Halvorson explains. “A lot of what we do is maintaining that finish.”

Three years back, Great Northern Boatworks completely gutted the Rockin’ Robyn down to her hull and teamed up with a naval architect to rebuild it according to the owner’s specifications. They built custom cabinets, drawers, and other components from plywood and mahogany, often working off designs Halvorson drew by hand. They also gave the boat an all new sole, or cabin floor, made of teak, a low-maintenance wood that’s exceedingly durable—perfect for boats.

“Absolutely everything on this boat we made by hand here, except for the upholstery,” Roque says. For that, they partnered with Vinylux Upholstery in Minneapolis.

“That was one of our toughest projects,” Weber says. “All the bells and whistles you could fit in a boat that size, we fit in it.” That list includes a water heater, a generator, three refrigerators, a microwave, a TV, and a stereo system. Other popular additions include USB ports, icemakers, freezers, and cup holders.

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Photo by Tj Turner

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Theo Halvorson // Photo by Tj Turner

A boat doesn’t necessarily need expensive custom touches and modern technology to turn heads, though. In fact, the shop has done some of its best work making faithful restorations of the Chris-Craft Runabouts that racing, skiing, and fishing enthusiasts made so famous between the 1920s and 1950s.

“It’s fun to restore a boat completely,” Weber says. “To start with a piece of junk and do whatever it needs to be perfect. That’s more fun than just fixing a few things here and there. That’s the difference between restoration and repair: taking something that’s unusable and making it a showpiece.”

During some restoration projects, they’ll find that parts of the boat’s frame have rotted and need to be replaced. But instead of seeing that as a negative, the trio sees it as a possibility.

“It’s a nice aspect of wooden boats, that you can replace parts without having to rebuild everything,” Halvorson says. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. When replacing pieces within the hull, for example, new ribs have to be steamed, shaped, and pounded into place, all the way to the keel—the centerline at the bottom of the boat.

Great Northern Boatworks prefers untreated raw wood, often white oak, for repairing frames. The wood still has some of its natural moisture at that stage, making it more malleable—a quality they enhance by placing the wood in the “STEAM-O-MATIC,” a 10-foot box Theo made from Styrofoam that’s attached by a hose to a propane tank, an old metal gas can that holds water, and a turkey deep-fryer.

The wood steams inside the box for roughly one hour per inch of thickness. When it’s fully malleable, it’s quickly transferred to the boat and fastened into place with clamps and machine screws so it can dry.

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Photo by Tj Turner

Great Northern Boatworks has been recognized around Minnesota and beyond for their work. For their restoration of a 1947 Chris-Craft Deluxe Runabout, the shop was named the Silver Winner at the Antique and Classic Boat Society’s (ACBS) 2015 International Boat Show. Perhaps even more impressive is that they’d worked on at least five other boats at the same show.

The more challenging the work, the more the Great Northern Boatworks team relishes it. And they want to share their enthusiasm—preferably with the younger generation. “This is an old man’s game for the most part,” Weber says. “Retirees, empty-nesters, guys with spare time.”

Getting younger people interested in using wood boats is one of the things the ACBS is trying to do, Weber says. One way Great Northern Boatworks aims to do that is by hosting informal workshops. But really, Roque says, the best way to keep the tradition going is to take people out for a ride around the lake.

“It’s cool to be out in a wooden boat,” he says. “People notice you, they’re waving. Do you want a jackass boat out there or do you want a cool-lookin’ boat?”

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Brendan Kennealy About Brendan Kennealy

Brendan Kennealy is a writing and PR professional who lives and works in St. Paul. Find him on Twitter here: @extrapalemale.

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