WEYBRIDGE –– Michael Claudon managed to combine three of his passions –– antique clocks, economics and wooden boats –– into one successful business venture.
Claudon started Snake Mountain Boatworks in 2008, opening it for customers in 2011. Before that, he worked with antique clocks and taught economics at Middlebury College. He explained that the jump from restoring clocks to wooden boats is not as farfetched as it seems.
“Long ago I ran one of the largest antique clock businesses in northern Vermont. I’d restore them, fix them mechanically and buy and sell them,” he said. “Boats are just really big clocks. It’s that same urge to preserve.”
Snake Mountain Boatworks, which is located in Weybridge at Claudon’s expansive homestead, got its genesis when he purchased a wooden boat to restore. He knew he would be retiring from the college soon and wanted something to do afterward.
“I bought an old wooden boat with the intent of just restoring it as a hobby,” he said. “Then I realized I couldn’t restore the boat unless I had a shop, which meant I had to have a real shop with real woodworking tools. So we transformed half the barn into a state-of-the-art boat restoration facility. Then I retired at the end of 2010. Since then, we now have over 5,000 square feet of restoration space, 6,000 square feet of storage space.”
Having previously worked with antique clocks, Claudon knew a bit of what he was getting into with wooden boat restoration. He has learned a lot through hands-on experience, but also read a considerable amount about the field.
“A lot of it is just learning by doing,” he said. “I’ve been a carpenter all my life. We also use a book written by Don Danenberg, which is a complete wooden boat restoration guide. All of us have read all 700 pages. He’s been our teacher even though he’s in Michigan. Whenever I have a question I’ll just call him up and we’ll spend two hours on the phone.”
The actual process for restoring a boat is time consuming, but for Claudon it’s a labor of love.
“The first thing you do is take everything out of it,” he said. “The engine, all the electric wiring, fuel, everything comes out. You basically have a big wooden shell. Then you flip it over and you take the bottom off and you have nothing but ribs. Then you diagnose how much is rotted and just start replacing every single piece of wood that’s rotted. You finish the bottom first, flip it back over, and start working on the sides. In the end you finish the decks and the wood. Oftentimes we try to save as much old wood as we can to keep it as pure as we can.”
Wooden pleasure boats were only made in the first half of the 20th century, Claudon explained. By the 1960s production of wooden boats had almost completely stopped.
Because of this time frame Claudon works with fairly old boats, some of which are one-of-a-kind. With mass-produced boats, restoration takes less time because images of what they looked like are readily available. When an older, rarer boat turns up in Claudon’s shop, it takes much more time to determine its original appearance.
“We have a hydroplane that was made somewhere we think along the edge of Potash Bay that probably dates from 1923 or 1924,” Claudon said. “But I can’t find any photographs of what she looked like, so I don’t want to start until I can learn that. There was only one made. It was pretty clear they made this racing hydroplane in a barn probably during the winter. Because of its Vermont heritage I don’t want to start on it until I know completely.”
Despite the limited length of production for wooden boats there are still many in the Champlain Basin, creating just enough demand for his services to maintain business, though he has ventured into restoring a few classic fiberglass boats as well.
“But by and large I want to work with wood,” he said. “I’d like to try to sustain my business and get enough business just working with wooden boats.”
Claudon’s love for his work was evident as he described the benefits of having a wooden boat.
“Nothing rides on water like a wooden boat,” he said. “A wooden boat will move. It flexes as it moves through the water. The ride compared to a Plexiglas boat, which is really stiff, is entirely different. Then, of course, there’s nothing quite so beautiful as a wooden varnish. You look at it and you say, that shine is a mile deep.”