Jeff Funk thought 2018 could be his last year in business, but all signs point to open waters ahead.
After awaking to the news that his Huntertown boat restoration shop had gone up in flames, whether or not he would keep working was all but certain.
“The fire was on late Friday night, early Saturday morning, and that weekend we seriously talked about retiring,” the 62-year-old business owner said.
Looking back, keeping the Antique Boat Shop alive was the right decision.
“When I had a meeting with the crew, I said we can call it a day or we can keep going and maybe even get a little bit bigger, and they all said keep going and get bigger,” Funk said. “We all love what we’re doing and we don’t want to stop. Without exception, everybody said full speed ahead, and that’s what we decided to do and we’re on our way.”
After the Jan. 13 fire, the Antique Boat Shop was deemed a total loss. Despite losing eight boats, all of their equipment and the entire building, the shop’s crew moved into a new space — twice the size of its old home — and got things up and running within three weeks.
“We just really hustled — we wanted to get back to work,” Funk said. “We had a lot of boats that were in our storage waiting to be restored and we moved those in right away. They didn’t miss a beat.”
By the end of the year, Funk expects the business to be right back where it was before the fire.
Since 2005, the Antique Boat Shop has made a business out of restoration — an extension of Funk’s personal hobby. He previously owned an insurance business, but sold it to pursue a more enjoyable career.
“Word got around that I was doing it, so people would bring one boat and then another boat, and next thing you know, we’ve done nearly 250 of them altogether,” he said.
The shop usually contains about eight boats at a time. Currently, it’s up to five.
The crew works in an assembly-line fashion, starting with the bare boat at the south end of the building and moving it north as they progress with the bottom, sides and top. Each boat then spends some time in a separate varnish room away from any dust. Depending on the lumber, the crew will apply anywhere from 12 to 15 coats of varnish, sanding in between each coat. That process alone can take about a month, Funk said.
Once the boat leaves the varnish room, the crew can then reassemble the remainder of the parts, adding the engine, hardware and interior.
The entire process can occasionally take as many as 18 months, depending on what the customer wants done and the rarity of the model. Some just need the bottom wood replaced — a four- to six-week job — while, oftentimes, customers will ask Funk’s crew to sand, re-stain and re-varnish the entire boat while it’s disassembled, which can take up to a year.
For rarer, older boats, finding parts adds to the timeline.
“Some of these boats are 70 to 80 years old and finding the parts is difficult. If you can’t find them, you’ve got to have them refabricated and that takes both time and money to do that,” Funk said.
The shop’s new location, just a couple buildings down from where the fire occurred, doesn’t yet contain a varnish room, but Funk said they plan to build one over the next four to six months.
Believe it or not, about 80 percent of the shop’s customers send their boats to Huntertown from out of state, Funk said, adding that they received business from owners in Washington, Texas, Florida, New York, New Hampshire, Michigan, Tennessee and Georgia, in addition to other states. One of the boats in the shop last week came from California.
“We have one boat in here now that’s from Indiana, but we have a national exposure and a national reputation, and people bring us boats from all over the country,” Funk said. “We’ve actually even had several boats from Canada.”
Customers sometimes drive their boats in personally, or the shop can make shipping arrangements. Some customers will fly out to Indiana to check on the progress.
The shop buys mahogany in bulk from Michigan and then fabricates the wood into the pieces it needs for each area of the boat. Getting it just right is an art to those in the business.
“You need to have good woodworking skills, because there are no straight lines in the boats. To the eye, it may look straight, but all the boats have compound curves and bends,” Funk said.
With thousands of models, shapes, sizes and configurations in circulation, nearly all of the Antique Boat Shop’s 250 completed projects have been unique in one way or another.
“There’s a lot of similarities, but the difference is what makes them so special,” Funk said. “It’s not like a modern car where there’s 5,000 of the exact same car coming out.”
Golden era of boating
As a personal enthusiast, Funk owns eight to 10 wood boats of his own — some seaworthy and some currently undergoing restoration — and each of his kids owns one as well. His primary boat is a Century Coronado, which he keeps on Lake James.
“It gets into your blood, and once it gets in, you just can’t get it out,” he said. “These are very special boats.”
The majority of the boats Funk’s shop restores were built between the 1940s and the late ‘60s — part of what many refer to as the “golden era” of power boating, spanning the ‘30s through ‘60s.
“They kept getting bigger and bigger motors, and back in the ‘30s through the ‘60s when these mahogany power boats were really at their height, if you had a Chris-Craft or a Century or a Hacker or a Gar Wood moored at your dock, everybody knew that you had arrived and you were successful,” Funk said. “This is like having the most expensive Cadillac in your driveway. If they see you have a mahogany power boat, you have really made it, and a lot of people like that attention.”
The Antique Boat Shop has restored vessels dating back to the late ‘20s, not long after mahogany power boats hit the market.
“They started making these in the late teens when the internal-combustion engine really started making its way into these boats,” Funk said. “It started with World War I when the Liberty engine and some of these other engines were developed for the war effort. Once the war was over, the government had thousands of these engines that were not going to be used anymore, so a lot of these boat manufacturers — Gar Wood, Chris-Craft and Hacker in particular — would buy these engines for 10 cents on the dollar, if not less, and they would marinize them for marine use and put them in their boats. And, just as technology and metallurgy evolved, the engines got lighter, more powerful, more fuel efficient and more economical for the average guy to buy a boat with an engine in it.”
In the late ’60s, manufacturers began replacing wood with fiberglass, and companies like Gar Wood and Hacker-Craft went out of business after opting not to make the transition, Funk explained. Companies like Century and Chris-Craft built their last wood boats around 1968. While the mahogany was traded out for fiberglass, Chris-Craft still incorporates wood in the aesthetics of many of its models.
“People like the look of wood. It’s a little warmer and it breaks up the all-white or all-solid-colored boats. People love wood, and with today’s adhesives and today’s prep marine products, the boats require a lot less maintenance than they did 30 to 40 years ago. The paints are better, the varnishes are better, the sealers are better, and with the bottoms we put on with the new adhesives, you don’t have to swell the boat,” Funk explained, adding that the bottoms the Antique Boat Shop constructs allow owners to keep their vessels on a boat lift or a trailer — just like a fiberglass model — without having to wait two or three days for the wood to tighten up between uses.
Many of the Antique Boat Shop’s customers are collectors or enthusiasts for whom Funk’s crew has restored anywhere from two to five boats each. Funk said the biggest collector among his repeat customers owns about 200 boats personally. As far as collecting and trading goes, classic boats are a good investment because they never depreciate in value, Funk said.
Most of the boats the Huntertown shop restores are second or third ones in a customer’s collection.
“They may have their Ski Nautique that they pull their kids tubing or water skiing with, or they have a pontoon that they can take grandma or grandpa out in or a party boat. But when they want a boat to go out in for them — a cocktail cruiser or they just want to be noticed, or perhaps they want to go to a classic boat show, of which there are over 100 each year in the country — this is their baby,” Funk said. “Most of the time, they don’t let anyone else drive it. I have a lot of customers who make people take their shoes off before they get in it and they won’t allow any food on the boat.”
Over the years, Funk said he has seen the hobby gain more and more attraction among first-time owners — especially in the Midwest.
“You have to remember Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois have the highest concentration of wood boats in the world, and the primary reason is because Michigan really started the wood boat manufacturing with Chris-Craft, Hacker and Gar Wood,” he explained. “This was kind of the mecca for all of these wood boats — not all of them, but most of them — and a lot of them stayed here.”
Funk believes the hobby hit its biggest public stride in 1981, when Henry Fonda appeared in the film, “On the Golden Pond,” his final performance as an actor. The Mark Rydell classic featured a 1950 Chris-Craft U22 — the exact same model as one the Huntertown crew is currently restoring.
“People realized, that is really special boating — it’s classic boating — so the hobby and the Antique and Classic Boating Society was formed, because people wanted to become more involved and reignite this interest in classic boating,” Funk said.
With a continual increase in interest, the Antique Boat Shop’s business has been better than ever.
“Even during the recession in ’08 and ’09, those were some of our best years ever,” Funk said. “People are putting big money into these boats, because they see it as a good value for the experience they have using them. Now with the economy doing much better, we’re even doing better. Last year was the best year we ever had. This year will be a little bit of a hiccup with the fire, but I think we’re still going to have a strong year.”
Although the number of wood boats worldwide has remained stagnant for half a century, the amount of people looking to restore them has not dwindled. Every time Funk thinks there are no more boats for his business to work on, the Antique Boat Shop sees another good year, he said.
“There are thousands of these boats around the country stored away in garages or marinas, and as people discover them, they bring them out and want to get them restored. Most of these people really enjoy the restoration process — they like the feeling of ‘I’m taking something that was forgotten and bringing it back to life and using it.’ These boats almost have a soul in a sense that they want to be used and they want to live again on the water,” Funk said.
Many of the customers that come through the Antique Boat Shop’s doors for the first time are looking to restore a boat from their childhood, or one owned by their father or grandpa — many of them Chris-Crafts or Centuries, as the two manufacturers became popular for making affordable wood boats that families could own.
“They’re trying to relive their childhood and youth and the times in those boats with dad and grandpa,” Funk said. “That might be the boat they learned to water ski behind or the boat that they dated their future spouse in, so there’s a lot of sentimental reasons for these boats. And when you finish one for somebody that maybe has been in the family since it was new — it could be either ‘40s or ‘50s — I’ve had customers here cry when they see their boat, they’re so happy. It makes us feel really good when that happens.”
Funk said Chris-Crafts are most commonly associated with wood boats by those not involved in the hobby, much like the way people associate copy machines with Xerox. The ‘50s and ‘60s Chris-Crafts and Centuries still remain the most popular.
“There are still a lot of them around, people recognize them and they seem to have survived, and they just want to bring them back to life,” Funk said.
Asked about the “cream of the crop” in the antique boating world, he said Riva, an Italian manufacturer, has claim to the “ultimate wood boat.”
“They’re very expensive,” he said. “You can spend a million dollars on a Riva. We’ve done two, and we have another one coming in next fall.”
Beyond that, Gar Woods and Hackers are still very desirable as their production numbers are low.
Whatever the model, the Huntertown shop looks to continue stoking the nostalgia of many for years to come.
“I love what I do, these guys love what they do and we’re passionate about it.” Funk said. “It’s therapeutic to work in here with the wood, to work with your hands. When the boat’s all done, you can stand back and know you’ve preserved a piece of history.”