Hullings Hulls Passes the Oar in Penn Yan
At first sight, the large warehouse-like structure appears unassuming, but, once inside, it’s evident that this 3,000-square-foot workshop is truly a craftsman’s studio. The distinctive smells of the tools of the trade—from paints and varnishes to sanded wood—permeate the space that is filled with impressive vessels in various stages of restoration and rebirth. Owner, Adam Hullings, and his father, Ralph Hullings, keep their namesake, Hullings Hulls, clean and bright, perfect for doing the detailed work required on these nautical treasures.
Ralph has over thirty years of experience at various shops around the area, most in the Branchport, New York, area. Starting out as a mechanic, he progressively gained experience in working with fiberglass, gel coating, spray painting, and perhaps most important, woodworking.
“It’s time to start transferring this knowledge to the next generation,” Ralph says, referring to his son. Adam chimes in, relating that, starting at age ten, he would “plug boats for candy” on the days he went to work with his dad. That was the spark that lit his passion for boat restoration and ultimately led toward this successful business, literally living up to the family name, so they made the decision four years ago to strike out on their own. First leasing, then purchasing, the massive building at 1685 Spur Road in Penn Yan, they have never looked back. The two like to joke between themselves regarding the current role reversal—that of Adam being the boss of his dad—but with some seriousness they expand upon the pride they feel in being their own boss, interacting with customers directly, choosing suppliers that meet their standards of quality, and experiencing the thrill that comes from seeing their finished products after hours of backbreaking labor. Ralph sums it up when he states, “I enjoy my work again.”
Although the company restores all types of boats, Adam concedes that wood is their passion. He uncovers a pink and black wooden Jersey Speed Skiff from Georgia, christened Pink Lady and holder of two world records, including one straight-away (a kind of aquatic drag race) record from the 1920s. Ralph explains that these types of contests were held at Toms River and Sandy Hook, both in New Jersey. The boat looks almost new now, but it came in with “hogs” in the hull, areas where the boards became indented at the contact points of the trailer it sat upon. To fix this, a humidifier was placed under the warped areas, followed by the installation of a brace until the boards were dry and maintained the original form of the hull. Seeing this boat returned to its original finish conjures up images from nearly a century ago of finely clad spectators, breathlessly watching the races from the Jersey shore.
Another tarp gets peeled back, unveiling a beautiful forest green Penn Yan King fisher canoe that was recanvased, and fitted with a new transom, outer keel, and stem. The process for fixing this boat is as amazing as the boat looks, especially when comparing it to the pictures of what it looked like when it first came into the shop. The warped white oak boards were taken off and boiled until they were “like spaghetti.” The tools used for this process included two turkey-fryer burners and a twelve-foot by fourteen-inch steel tank—this is heavy work.
Ralph is then keen to point out a historically important boat they are working on. She is a 1942 Century Sea Maid Barrelback, one of only six known to be left in the country. These boats were commissioned by the military during World War II. In his spare time, Ralph is researching the provenance of this boat based on its hull number. Century boats were single hull boats, with a particular configuration that doesn’t allow water to drain completely, making them prone to rot. With the skills and knowledge between them, the Hullings are improving Century boats by using a design feature of Chris-Craft boats—a double hull—thus protecting them from the rot.
Each piece of equipment in the shop is specialized to a particular job, including the jointer, utilized to make flat surfaces on the wood edges. Theirs was originally used in the Penn Yan Boat Company, a business founded in 1921 and which stopped production in 2001. Various band saws, belt sanders, and planers are strategically placed within the shop. Good old-fashioned elbow grease is needed much of the time, keeping these guys in good physical condition. All the glamour and romantic notions of boat restoration is blown out of the water, however, when Adam describes the hazards of sanding an anti-fouling finish off the bottom of a boat and being covered with blue dust, a process Ralph characterizes as “turning yourself into a Smurf.” The boats are beautiful when they’re finished, however, and customers show their gratitude by making referrals, bringing in business from as far as North Carolina and Georgia. Late in 2017, the Hullings hired Ken Johnson, who brings over thirty years of experience to the operation, making over seventy-five years of combined experience between the three men.
Adam supposes his six-year-old daughter, who doesn’t like getting dirty, may not join in the boat restoration business; his one-year-old son is a better bet. With a start like this, the chances are good that Adam will pass on his knowledge to the next generation just as his dad, Ralph, is doing now.
You can find them at hullingshulls.co, on Facebook, or call them at (315) 521-1322.