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Recreating masterpieces

Watts’ wooden boat restorations are works of art

By Diane Luekam | Staff writer

    RICE – Ask Dave Watts what his favorite aspect of restoring vintage wooden boats is and his answer is simple: He is recreating masterpieces. He and his crew of four which includes his son, Ben, at Little Rock Boat Works in Rice, take great pride in their workmanship while bringing one-of-a-kind treasures back to their original beauty – or better.
    On Dec. 7, Watts talked about the art of boat restoration and the business that has been his full-time work since 1986. Walking through the facility just outside of town, the sights, sounds and smells of work and wood filled the air.
    Each boat that comes into the shop can take up to three years to rebuild. They are completely disassembled and put back together in a process that creates a boat with longevity far outlasting the original. They were first built to last six to eight years; after Watts is done with them, they will be treasures that last generations. By the time they are finished, the owners will have at least $300,000 into each boat.
    “Originally, they were mass produced in a factory,” Watts said. “They were not perfect and there is no such thing as a perfect restoration, but we try.”
    In one area of the shop, Wayne Carriveau worked on a shiny, beautiful boat. He paused to explain what he was doing.
    “I am on my third stage of buffing, taking out all the fine scratches and everything,” Carriveau said. “We have about 20 coats of varnish on here.”
    Nearby, Dave Nelson worked on filing a window frame. It must be perfect before being chromed and placed on a boat.
    No two boats are exactly the same, but there are currently two that are as close as they get. Watts walked over to the Abby B. She has been in the shop for two-and-a-half years. She is sided with planking of African Mahogany, a tropical wood with natural oils that retard rot and bacteria, and built back with a tightness of the hull to ensure the vessel is waterproof. Caulking was added to fill any holes, followed by sanding and many layers of varnish.
    Like every boat, the Abby B has a story. She is a 1930 Dodge 21 1/2 ft. Hull No. 2, the oldest 21 1/2 foot known to exist.
    “These are amazing boats, extremely elaborate,” Watts said. “The Dodge brothers, Horace and John Dodge, became ill and both died within a month, probably from the Spanish Flu. They were extremely successful and were building parts for Ford and government contracts. Horace Junior, an heir, went through his money real quick. He liked boats.”
    The two boats were designed for Horace Junior by naval architect George Crouch. Each boat had a figurehead on the front; the Abby B’s is a sea nymph. The Emma S, Hull No. 83, is another 1930 Dodge and Abby’s twin; both are now owned by the same client who has named them after his twin granddaughters.
    Watts has had numerous clients, but basically, there are two that keep him booked with work for years in advance. Watts will find an unusual boat, something a little out of the ordinary. If they like the boat, they purchase it with plans of restoration. Over the course of the projects, they communicate often with Watts, and take great interest in the work.
    “I think they enjoy the restoration process as much if not more than the finished project,” Watts said.
    Many boats have gone through the shops (the original shop is located nearby and is still used as well) over the years. Most are pre-war, in other words, built before WWII, up until 1940. There are also many Chris Craft boats.
    “We just finished a 1961 31-foot Chris Craft Roamer with extensive restoration,” Watts said. “We thought it would take five or six weeks and it took us six months working seven days a week.”
    Watts lists off others they are currently working on, like a 1954 36-foot Chris Craft; 1940 25-foot Chris Craft; 1940 23-foot Chris Craft barrel-back, triple cockpit; and a 1936 28-foot Gar Wood sporting a Scripps V-12. One boat with a colorful history is the 1928-29 42-foot Belle Isle. Its entire life was spent on Lake St. Clair between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. It was built specifically for running illegal alcohol from Canada to the United States during the Prohibition.
    One might suspect that sourcing parts for one-of-a-kind boats can be challenging; in fact, it is the most difficult part of Watts’ work. For instance, just one part, an original glass globe on the Abby B, cost him $1,000. It has never been reproduced, but he was able to find one in Michigan. Sourcing quality wood has also become more difficult as the years have gone by.
    “When these (the Dodges) were made, there were huge stacks of wood the size of this building, with many stacks at each boat manufacturer and now, to get quality patterned grain wood of a particular species is about impossible,” Watts said.
    Watts keeps an extensive inventory of parts that he has found over the years on hand. There is a large collection of cruiser search lights and many other cabin cruiser parts, along with parts for other boats such as runabouts, the core of the business. All of his sourcing is done by phone, and through people he knows from all around the United States.
    “I know a lot of people around the country,” Watts said. “Unfortunately, I’m 68 and a lot of the men I’ve done business with are no longer alive, and certain items we need for these boats are no longer produced in this country.”
    He also keeps his business local whenever possible. Rapids Upholstery does all upholstery work, with much research going into appropriate grain patterns and coloring; other businesses include Rice Blacksmith Saw and Machine, Northside Welding, East Side Glass, EMF, Inc., and farther away, B & L Plating in Warren, Michigan.
    Watts is nearing retirement from the business that has kept him busy for so long. He thinks back to the beginning of his boat obsession. He grew up in Austin, and his parents kept a travel trailer in La Crosse, Wisconsin. He first boat was a 6-foot with a sheet metal bottom and pine sides.
    “I bought it for $15 and my dad hauled it home in the trunk of his car,” Watts said. “I worked on it a little bit, and I’d go up and down the Mississippi with it. I would see these cabin cruisers that were all wood on the Mississippi and I was just enamored with them; they were phenomenal works of art.”
    Being from a very blue-collar family, he never thought he would have anything like them.
    “I remember one time at the marina in La Crosse, it was called Pettibone Yacht Club,” he said. “I had my little 6-foot boat there, and I was walking the docks looking at these yachts. One man must have seen how I admired them and he called me over, took me on board and showed me all through his boat. I was maybe 15 or 16. I still remember all these years later, what that man did for me.”
    After being drafted and serving on a combat mission as a field radio operator in Vietnam, Watts went to college for criminal justice and worked at the reformatory in St. Cloud.
    “One day, I looked in the paper and saw a one-bedroom lake house for sale with a guest house on Little Rock Lake,” he said. “Payments were less than a one-bedroom apartment in St. Cloud, so I bought it and a short time later, started dragging home wooden boats and working on them.”
    He met his wife, Elaine, they married in 1988 and the two spent many years boating on Lake Superior in their own cabin cruiser. When Ben came along, they graduated to a larger cabin cruiser.
    After all these years, Watts’ love for wooden boats has not waned. He and Elaine would like to retire to Leech Lake, where he would set up a small shop and work four hours a day, four days a week.
    “I still like working on boats, it’s the business end; I’ve had enough of it,” he said.
    He can take pride in a lifetime of work, recreating masterpieces. His work has been noticed at shows around the country and even internationally. Typically, a Little Rock Boat will take best of show. While he is proud of the accolades, they are not what drives him. Ultimately, his clients’ satisfaction is the end goal.
    “Awards are yesterday’s news,” Watts said. “The clients appreciate the boat for what it is and not what it collects.”