In a small workshop at the north end of Canandaigua Lake, a canoe rests upside down on sawhorses. Its narrow western red cedar planks are rough to the touch and studded with bright copper-colored nails.
The eighty-some year old boat arrived here just a few weeks earlier, unable to float. Years-old layers of varnish and epoxy sloughed off. Rotten boards crumbled, the result of past water infiltration. A hole or two marred otherwise smooth lines.
The man restoring this canoe is John Haluch II, founder of Lakeshore Wooden Boats in Canandaigua. “When a boat comes in, I see it as a boat,” John says. “But I’m not onto its story until I start working on it.”
During this Canadian Peterborough sailing canoe’s months-long stay at the workshop, John pours hours into returning the boat to its original condition. He strips the wood of past clumsily slathered coatings, and as he peels back the layers, he finds that it was once painted red, and blue. A dark wood accent strip emerges after removing black buildup under the outwale. A shadow on the interior suggests that wet leaves once piled up inside. The patterns of wear and decay on the underside hinted at a season—or many—left on a beach. John restores broken pieces where possible, replaces some with the same wood type when necessary, and chooses just the right fasteners. And when this boat leaves the shop, natural golden-colored wood will shine through a smooth clear finish. And, it will float.
John opened this workshop just a couple years ago, but his love of boats originated as a ten-year-old. When he was twelve, he started working at a marina.
“I always knew I wanted to have my own business,” he says. As a young man, he studied business at St. John Fisher College near Rochester, and then worked at Chase Manhattan Bank. When layoffs after a merger halted that career trajectory, John opened an ice cream shop in Bloomfield, New York, where he served his own homemade ice cream and eventually employed sixteen people. But the hours took a toll on him. To relieve stress, he restored boats in the basement. And eventually, with the support of friends and family, he planned a major shift: he made the tough decision to shutter the shop, and chose instead to work on boats full-time.
Today, John is one of about 125 wooden boat restorers in the entire United States. He learned the trade from working with others and reading and researching various methods. He’s offered advice on a 1913 Rochester-built Edwin Long launch and he’s restored a rare 1967 Century Resorter, just one of eight or nine from that year existing today—and those are only two examples of the many boats he’s encountered. The market for this work, although specialized, is strong. He expected the bulk of his business would come directly from the Finger Lakes, a hotspot for wooden boats. Word, however, had gotten out. Potential customers are now calling John from as far away as Ohio and New Hampshire.
Lots of people have old boats sitting in storage, John says, and they just don’t know where to take them. The owners might recall fishing with their grandfather on vacations, or cruising with cousins in a runabout on lazy summer days. They’d like to recapture those memories in a usable relic, not just abandon a boat because of its condition. They might even be willing to spend more on restoration than the market value of the boat, simply because the sentimental value of the boat is so great.
Other people, says John, might have bought a boat that needs work, but they find that they need help finishing the job. In that case, repair adds value to the craft, but it doesn’t make sense to spend more than its market value. He’s worked on boats that are worth a few thousand, and others that exceed $100,000.
Either way, John works with customers to find out what they want: a boat to display or a boat to use? He considers the project, creates a plan, and discusses options with the owner. He only works on wood, so he refers customers to other experts for upholstery or electrical jobs.
John won’t offer quick fixes, and the work is painstakingly detailed. For one 1941 runabout, he removed eighty-four wooden pieces, numbered each one, and began restoring the parts individually before reinstalling them. Using the hull number, John researched original boat records to find that the underside was originally red, not inky green as it was when the boat arrived, and the color had crept too high on the hull as it was repainted over the years. He repainted it according to the original specs. “If this was easy to do, the customer would do it,” he says.
Each decision, like each word John offers in conversation, is carefully considered. Use an original material for authenticity? Or choose a modern lookalike for strength? He knows the difference between copper, brass, stainless steel, and silicon bronze nails. He tracks down original retailers of the materials if possible, within the United States or abroad. “We can’t always find these things at big box stores,” he says.
Sitting on shelves above his workbench are paint cans from Ohio, varnish from Holland, a tub of shiny chips for making homemade shellac. Badger-hair brushes hang, ordered by size, from rubber bands on hooks. Drill bits, thick and thin, rise from handmade storage blocks.
John created the workbench itself, after he rebuilt the entire building to suit his needs. When he took over the property, birds’ nests infested the space. The floor undulated unevenly. The roof was caving in. But John saw all that as an opportunity to create the space he wanted. Today, the floor is level and smooth—a 400-pound table saw rolls across it with little effort. Heat radiates through the floor, not blown through ducts, to minimize dust debris. Space between the utility closet and ceiling serves as tidy storage for long pieces of wood and other materials. Chains hanging from beams in the ceiling serve as lift points for the precarious job of overturning large boats. Three vessels, up to about eighteen feet in length, fit in the shop, with room to squeeze between them.
“It’s a small space, but it’s a busy space,” says John, who appreciates old things that work well. Things that were built with care and pride. “When a boat comes into my shop, I tell the owners that I will take care of it as if it was my own. We’re all just temporary caretakers of these things, you know.”
When summer comes, just over the road from the shop, decades-old wooden boats glide across Canandaigua Lake, graceful silhouettes, fast or slow, but always unlike newer vessels. Up close, finer elements emerge. The grain of the wood becomes apparent. A hand-lettered name appears on a windshield. This is what John loves: both the elegant lines from afar and the subtly captivating details.
“We keep these boats going, whatever it takes,” says John, who sometimes spots a boat he’s restored heading out for a cruise. “And if others hadn’t done the same, we wouldn’t have them to enjoy today.”
– – –
Alison Fromme is a freelancer who has been featured in Mountain Home since 2011. She recently contributed to The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need To Know To Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age (Da Capo Press 2013). She won a third place Keystone State Press Award for her lead story in Mountain Home’s June issue, Picking Up the Pieces.