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June 2013

Tumblehome Boatshop

Reuben Smith's Warrensburg rehab center

Gadfly photograph courtesy of Tumblehome Boatshop

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.

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