Woods Hole Historical Museum’s Boat Restoration Program gives old vessels a new lease on life.By Dan Mathers // Photography by Betty Wiley
IN THE SMALL CAMPUS OF THE WOODS HOLE HISTORICAL MUSEUM, A NARROW DIRT PATH WINDS BEHIND A SHINGLED BUILDING HOUSING A COLLECTION OF TRADITIONAL CAPE COD SMALL BOATS. A WOODEN SIGN POINTS THE WAY TO A MAKESHIFT SHOP, LOCATED OUT BACK, WHERE VOICES MIX WITH THE BUSY SOUNDS OF SANDING, HAMMERING AND THE OCCASIONAL HUM OF A POWER TOOL.
Steps inside the shop’s makeshift wood frame door with plastic sheeting, the smell of fresh cut wood and paint greets you. Rows of hammers, handsaws and levels hang on the wall. Benches and countertops are covered by a thin layer of sawdust. And rows of Wooden Boat Magazine—some issues 25 years old—are stacked along the wall. Toward the back of the shop, a handful of gentlemen are gathered around a 16-foot wooden boat, sanding and painting. It’s a scene that has been repeated in this region for centuries: people coming together to work on well-crafted wooden boats. But, if you think this boat shop is the exclusive domain of hardened, salty boatbuilders, think again.
“I don’t know one end of the boat from the other,” says Paul Schenck, a builder. “I’m here for the woodworking and the company.”
Schenck and the other workers are volunteers with the Woods Hole Historical Museum’s Boat Restoration Program, where seasoned boatbuilders team up with woodworking hobbyists, adults with zero building experience and kids interested in learning about tools, all in the name of rebuilding old wooden boats and, in some cases, building new ones from scratch.
The museum is located near the center of Woods Hole and overlooks Little Harbor. Its mission is to establish and preserve a collection of objects and materials of cultural and historical value. That includes the preservation of historic wooden vessels. A building on the campus now houses a small boat museum displaying a Woods Hole Chamberlain dory, a Cape Cod Knockabout, a Mirror dinghy and other boats once common in the surrounding waters.
Roughly 15 years ago, the museum started its Boat Restoration Program to celebrate the area’s boatbuilding heritage and as a way to pass on knowledge of and interest in wooden boats to locals. It’s a loose operation. Volunteers come to the boat shop weekly on Saturday mornings from around 9 until noon to work on boats. They’re out there year-round and work by space heaters when temperatures get frosty during the winter. They joke that how much work gets done on a given day often depends on how much coffee they drink and how interesting the conversations are. Together, they restore and rebuild old wooden boats, and they’ve even started a family boatbuilding program where families can spend a week building their very own boat with the help of the volunteers.
Schenck, a computer tech, saw volunteering with the Boat Restoration Program as an outlet for his interest in woodworking. He stumbled across the boat shop when he visited Woods Hole for a model boat event, but quickly realized he’d found something more.
“Within five minutes they put me to work, and I’ve been here ever since,” Schenck says. “It’s a good group of people.”
Bob Leary is one member who helps lead the program, although in keeping with its loose nature, there are no titles. “Different guys will take on different roles depending on the boat and what their expertise is and what the experience is,” he explains. “It’s very loose and very unstructured. People kind of jump in where they want to jump in.”
Leary is a retired schoolteacher who taught at Falmouth High School for three decades, the last of which he spent as a full-time wood shop teacher. He’s been building boats all his life, having rebuilt his first boat—an old 12-footer he found washed up on the beach—when he was just 11. As a shop teacher, he had his students build a variety of water watercrafts, from canoes to a 15-foot center console. It was 12 years ago that a former colleague mentioned the Boat Restoration Program to Leary. He was hooked from the start.
Most of the boats that are worked on are donated to the museum. The program accepts a boat if it’s something that can be resold to benefit the program and museum, or if it’s something they can use as a teaching tool.
“Beetle cats are great teaching tools,” says Leary. “They include a lot of traditional boat building methods and materials.” Beetle cats are carvel-planked boats, meaning the planks butt together as opposed to overlap. They also have steam bent frames, which gives the restorers an opportunity to teach people how to steam bend wood.
Once the boat is completed (often taking at least a couple of years), it’s sold to buy more material for the next boat restoration. “We buy a few tools here and there if we need tools. It’s just to keep the lights on essentially,” Leary notes.
Two years ago the museum created a family boatbuilding program as part of the Boat Restoration Program. The idea was to extend the experience of boatbuilding to kids and use it as a way for families to work together on a project. Leary says working on a boat is a different experience from what most kids get nowadays. This is no video game. He says it’s very hands-on, with the kids cutting wood, putting in screws, pounding nails and more. Of course, there’s a lot of drudgery, he says. There’s time spent sanding and painting. But while traditional boatbuilding and boat restoration take a long time, Leary says, the family boatbuilding program uses boat kits that make it easier to finish a project, so kids are able to see the fruits of their labor sooner.
“It seems to be a pretty big hit,” says Leary.
Last July, Suzanne Waters of Cohasset participated in the Family Boat Building Program with her husband, Patrick and son Hank, 15 at the time. She thought it would be a great activity for her teenage son, something they could do together as a family and something he might find an interest in.
They bought a kit for building a 10-foot rowboat and spent a week building it in the Woods Hole museum’s boat shop with the help of the volunteers. Waters says she and her family spent their days that week at the boat shop from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. clamping, nailing, caulking, planing, fiberglassing and making sure the shape of the boat was just right. Despite the family’s lack of experience, the volunteers made the job easy to understand. “We have the most basic understanding of it all,” says Waters. “They definitely get you up to speed.” At the end of the week, the Waters family had a boat ready to be taken home and launched into the water.
Since finishing her boat, Waters says she’s been raving about the family boatbuilding program to friends. In fact, she and her family might be back again soon working on a bigger boat.
“We’ve been talking about it already,” she says. “I think it’s amazing.”
579 Woods Hole Road, Woods Hole