I was up in Milwaukee last night to celebrate St.Pat’s day in a properly Irish fashion by going to a concert at the Irish Cultural Heritage Center and staying out late with friends drinking beer in a brew pub.
As long as I was up in Milwaukee, I stopped in to visit with Michael who owns Chelsea Boat Works. Wow, what a place. There’s no photos on the web site to give you a true feel of the place, and I think that’s probably a good idea. It’s a working shop, which means piles of parts all over the place. Michael does a mix of wood boats, engine work, fiberglass work, and just about anything else that seems like a good idea. We spent about 2 hours walking around, talking boats and the business of restoring them.
Here in the Midwest, the wooden boat market is primarily power boats. And Michael knows power boats. Holy cats, he’s got a bunch of really special boats that you won’t find anywhere else, because they just don’t exist anywhere else: the last of this particular model, the prototype of another model, boats that have been in museums.
To be a boat restorer, you have to have access to space, and it helps to be a fanatic about a type of boat. I don’t really fit either category. I’m a fanatic about beautiful boats, and mostly about sail. I think I need more time with boats to become a proper fanatic. As far as space goes… not yet.
There are other things that I learned from the time at Chelsea. It helps to have as many income streams as possible. Michael sells parts, paint, finishing supplies, does restorations & new builds, does fiberglass as well as wood, does engines, electrical and cooling systems… He’s selling boat parts that he scavenges from old hulks on Ebay. He networks like crazy and knows every builder and boat restorer around the state. He talks boats all the time and has been instrumental in promoting the restoration of wooden boats in the area. He goes to shows with his boats and keeps in touch with past customers. He’s honest and values the relationship with his customers above all. And with all that, it’s taken some time for him to make any real money at this business. And, he’s been having a blast for the past 7 years.
It’s a fair trade.