Reuben Smith's Warrensburg rehab center
by Elizabeth Folwell
TALKING WITH REUBEN SMITH about his thoughtful approach to wooden-boat restoration and visiting his Tumblehome Boatshop just north of Warrensburg, I can’t help thinking of the Mayo Clinic. Whether it’s heart, lungs, bones or skin, the patients receive amazing care using modern diagnostics as well as generations of accumulated wisdom. When Reuben, age 47, invites the public to a monthly shop talk, it’s like grand rounds at a teaching hospital, in which ailments and treatments are presented in respectful detail.
So on a Saturday morning we gather inside the 6,000-square-foot concrete-block building to see and hear about the transplants, surgeries and other procedures the boats are undergoing. Beyond a table carpeted with mufﬁns and fruit platters, an array of watercraft spreads before us. As the group of visitors—about two dozen men and a handful of women from Raquette Lake, Indian Lake, Lake George, North Creek and farther aﬁeld—heads for the ﬁrst subject, Reuben says, “This is a working shop, and this is the safety lecture. Watch out for stands, cables and buckets of epoxy.”
Dwarfed by two elegant sailboats is a tiny yacht tender, its engine compartment waiting for a restored 20-horsepower Austin Bantam motor about the size of a sewing machine. The details—brass gearshift, two steering wheels and manila rope trim—plus its 15-foot length make this as appealing as a family pet.
All eyes turn to the 29-foot Sound Interclub sailboats, which look fast just perched on metal stanchions. Described in Yachting magazine as a “small, wholesome day-sailing racing class,” these were developed for Long Island Sound in the 1920s. Lake George sailors adopted the Marconi-rig sloops, with 42-foot-tall masts, for friendly competitions before World War II. Most of the local Interclubs were abandoned as more popular family boats came along. Caprice and Ghost are wintering here, after restoration and triumphal returns to the winds and waters of Lake George last year.
In a corner is a massive catboat, as beamy and bulky as the Interclubs are sleek. The shallow-water sailer carries 500 square feet of canvas and steers with a giant “barn door” rudder, big rectangular pieces of wood. There’s plenty of rehab needed to make this vessel lakeworthy again.
Every specimen here has a story: An early electric boat turned turtle in the middle of the shop was once piloted by Jackie Gleason on Lake George. When it was rescued recently, a tree was growing through the keel.
A majestic 1959 HiLiner Coastal Cruiser lingered for 26 years in a North Creek airplane hangar. “It’s a classic barn ﬁnd,” says Reuben; the plywood-clad inboard is remarkably healthy considering its long dormancy. It will head to Schroon Lake this summer when reﬁnished.
Pointing to Gadﬂy, a 33-foot Hutchinson sedan commuter, Reuben recalls, “You could throw a cat through the spaces between its planks” when the boat arrived. Its restoration will take many hours of work (at $70 per hour plus materials), but “there is a very similar one for sale right now for $280,000,” he says. Gadﬂy once carted groceries and guests to a Thousand Islands getaway and will be a tour vessel for the Antique Boat Museum, in Clayton, New York, when the extensive repairs are complete.
Another Hutchinson, a 22-foot utility boat built in 1939, has put Reuben into deep thinking. It came in for what seemed like a superﬁcial ﬁx to its transom. But beyond the blemished skin, he wondered why the engine, transmission and propeller shaft weren’t quite right. It goes back, he says, to an early repair that distorted the original frame. Over time, ﬂooring and seats were removed and put back, ribs were scabbed in and the hull got pushed in here, pulled out there, torqued and tweaked so that the various parts were out of harmony.
“Our calling card as boat restorers,” he says, “is to bring back the shape and structure so they retain their original form and the boat can be used with absolute conﬁdence.” Getting the skeleton right requires studying old photographs, line drawings and laser scans that are accurate to within .1 millimeter. The crew considers this forensic sleuthing critical to any job, and the ﬁne ﬁnish work begins only after the structure is true. The staff includes Reuben’s wife and managing partner, Cynde, 45, plus boatbuilders Sean O’Neill, 41, and Alex Fee, 35.
If ink runs through the veins of a newspaper family then it’s spar varnish for the Smiths: Reuben learned from his uncle, Everett, who has Everett Boat Works, in Canton, New York, and from his father, Mason, a writer who also restores watercraft and builds Adirondack Goodboats in Long Lake. Cousin Emmett is a curator at the Antique Boat Museum. Brother Alex works at Tumblehome when he’s not studying at St. Lawrence University. Reuben’s boat career took him from family workbenches to Massachusetts, Lake George and to Warrensburg, where in February 2012 he opened Tumblehome, which comes from the word for an inward-curving—not ﬂared—hull.
As the session winds down, a few guys in Filson vests begin comparing notes on their own restoration projects—a Chase guideboat, a Century runabout. Others head for the mezzanine overlooking the entire workspace, admiring the natural light washing over all the brass, wood and canvas. Upstairs the conference room and library are not quite ﬁnished, but the atmosphere is gracious. As Reuben puts it, “We don’t want this to be a boys’ club. We want families to come here to watch the progress of their boats.”
Visit www.tumblehomeboats.com or call (518) 623-5050 to learn more.