Taking a few moments away from working on his latest project at his Wiley’s Corner workshop, boatbuilder Jim Parker reflects on what compels him about wooden boats. “A wooden boat is alive,” he says with no-frills conviction. “It’s about the grain, the feel of the surfaces—there’s even a certain smell to them.” Even though he has worked with fiberglass, and acknowledges its benefits, Parker calls it a “horrible medium” involving noxious chemicals and fumes. “Think of the difference between a plastic chair and a wooden one—which do you prefer to sit on?”
Parker has worked professionally as a boat builder since 1978, starting out at R. L. Wallace and Son in Thomaston. He also worked for Spruce Head Marine before going out on his own in 1982. “I’ve worked mainly on smaller boats and repairs, along with contract work,” he says. In 2012 and 2013 he was part of the crew that renovated the Monhegan Boat Line’s freight boat, the Laura B.
Parker’s interest in boats began in childhood. “I was five years old when my grandfather set me to painting his two plywood skiffs—he paid me $2.50 for each. And my grandmother had a 38-foot cabin cruiser down in Kittery, so I spent a lot of time on the water with her during the summer.”
Learning to work with his hands also started early. “When I was six my father built me a workbench and gave me my first set of tools—a real drill, a real hammer, a real saw.” Parker adds with a laugh, “ I kept losing his tools, so he gave me my own.”
In terms of boat building, Parker says his father was an important mentor. “My father was a musician—he was the music director for SAD 50 for many years—but he also built four boats for the fun of it.”
The rest of his training has come from work experience and, importantly, from observation. “You can often look at a boat and guess who the builder was—the sheer lines and stem lines are like a fingerprint. Looking underneath boats you can see the subtle differences.” Parker pauses and then shrugs. “I just like looking at boats.”
Parker’s current project is the rebuilding of an old lobster boat for a client who got it for a bargain price. To an inexperienced eye it looks like a lost cause, but Parker is expert at understanding what makes such a project worth pursuing. “It makes all the difference if the basic hull is in decent shape,” he says, noting that this client lucked out because the boat came with an engine that was also useable. Getting the boat Coast Guard certified, as this client wants, poses some additional challenges, but despite that—and the fact that the cost of bronze and copper fittings is on the increase—the client will be getting the boat he wants for a fraction of the cost of a new one.
Parker also designs small boats. The Dorothy, a 12-foot double ender (sometimes known as a peapod) named for his grandmother, is what he calls “a good, stiff little boat that moves easy and likes to be right side up.” Parker recalls, with a note of pride, the reaction of a seasoned boat builder from Deer Isle who looked the boat over shortly after Parker finished it. “He said, ‘I like it, boy—I like it a lot!’”
Although Parker knows there might be a good market for replicas of the Dorothy, he prefers to customize his designs to a client’s needs. “My boats are all different,” he says. “I don’t just do the same boat.”
Parker says he finds that people show a lot of interest in wooden boats, but they fear buying one, thinking that the upkeep will be too expensive. “But if they perform simple annual maintenance,” he notes, “a wooden boat will last for 25 or 30 years without needing major work.”
Sadly, some who do purchase a wooden boat sometimes forget they have purchased something that is, as he says, “alive” and needs to be active. With a touch of understandable intensity, he states bluntly, “I get mad if someone doesn’t use my boats.”—JW
Jim Parker will be one of the participating artisans featured in the “Handrafted in St. George” event sponsored by the St. George Business Alliance on Saturday, October 11. Look for more details in the September 25 issue of The Dragon.
PHOTOS: Julie Wortman