The gleaming, high-polished mahogany hull denotes a different time in American boating. A time when skilled craftsmen made things by hand to quality standards.
Only a handful of American wooden-boat builders remain today. Hackercraft in New York, Van Dam Boats in Michigan, Couer Custom and Stancraft in Idaho.
Grand Craft Boats has a storied past, having built mahogany boats for much of its 40-year history in Holland, Mich., though it was unclear after successive owners how long the brand would survive.
Its 2021 acquisition by Patrick and Rose Gallagher gave the Grand Craft name a new lease on life—and a fresh way of building boats. The Gallaghers moved the brand to Genoa, Wisconsin, and set up a purpose-built, 25,000-sq.-ft. facility, where cabinet makers, woodworkers, finish carpenters and marine technicians build each boat by hand. But the company also combines technology to augment the old-school techniques.
“Framing, decking and key components are fully designed by a nautical engineer in 3-D CAD, then CNC-cut to shave time from the build process without taking away the integrity of it being handcrafted,” says Patrick Gallagher during a recent tour of the new facility.
Despite the technical assistance, the mahogany boats will take many months to complete. That’s unlike similar-sized fiberglass motorboats that are typically pushed down an assembly line and finished in days. By contrast, Grand Craft’s flagship 26.5-foot Burnham model takes seven months to build. It moves through five work stations with eight craftsmen applying their respective skills.
“The technology allows for improved efficiency and accuracy, so it’s a better-engineered boat,” says Gallagher. “It also helps ensure we’re building it optimally, so we can spend more time on the fit and finish.”
Seeing the mirror-finish of a completed mahogany hull gives no idea how much time and effort goes into the construction. It takes about a month to assemble the hull framing and apply the first levels of planking using African mahogany—three on the bottom, two on the sides. These long planks are staved in opposite directions for increased structural integrity.
All of the planking is bent and fitted by hand—the wood is not steamed or wetted for pliability. That may seem like a small point, but is important for the boat’s structural integrity. Epoxy is then added to seal and strengthen the hull.
The next step is joining the hull and deck, at which point the final hull layer is planked. Burmese teak wood flooring and accents are added. All this detail work takes an additional two months. “It’s kind of like siding a house, but you’re not dealing with straight sides. You have to shape and curve these boards,” says Jeff Podhajaky, vice president of operations.
To achieve the seamless look, the 1,000 screw holes that hold the boat together are fitted with wooden pegs. In Fairing & Fitting, the hull is sculpted into its final shape. This hand-sanding process requires industrial masks and upwards of 160 hours. The motor and brightwork—the chrome trim and accent pieces—are positioned and then removed, so that electrical, hydraulic and mechanical pre-rigged lines can be added.
The magic that creates the eye-candy effect of a gleaming mahogany boat happens during the two-month finishing process, which requires between 500 and 700 hours of dry and wet sanding between a coat of stain, 9 coats of varnish and 3 to 5 layers of clearcoat to reach a specific wet-film thickness for UV protection. The boat is then moved to a clean room where the 430 hp Ilmor V8 engine, brightwork, windshield and all remaining rigging are installed.
While the process is laborious, the end result is a mahogany boat that is considered a queen on many Midwestern lakes, such as nearby Lake Geneva, as well as wooden-boat capitals like Lake George, and the Thousand Islands, NY, Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Mount Dora in Florida. “These boats convey a love for the finer things, an appreciation for things that are hand-crafted,” says Gallagher. “They’re not overly flashy. The owners would like to be seen as having a keen eye and good taste.”
There are thousands of vintage wooden boats in the US and Europe, but Grand Craft, Hacker, Van Dam and the other new-boat builders have the advantage of designing around modern planing hulls and outfitting them with the latest engines and electronics. (Hacker recently introduced a new electric version of its 27 Special Sport, while Stancraft did a custom boat for hockey star Wayne Gretzky.)
Gallagher equates Grand Craft ownership to a car enthusiast who can afford any vehicle he wants, and opts for a Mercedes or BMW over a Lamborghini or Ferrari. “My customer isn’t looking at the Lamborghini. He doesn’t want the electric green [paint scheme], he wants a sleeker, more subtle silver BMW 7 series,” he says.
While the company’s Burnham 26 won’t be mistaken for a Beamer, it certainly has unique dock appeal. Grand Craft also plans to introduce a longer flagship Burnham 32 later this summer. It will have the same layout with forward twin seats that connect the rear seating via a narrow walkthrough. That area’s U-shaped lounge shows the craftmanship in the white upholstered seating. The sunpad over the engine box is also upholstered, while moving aft, a sloping transom makes it easier to get to the rear platform.
The company is also marketing a longer 36-foot Winchester, with a fiberglass hull and limousine-style interior that can carry up to 26 people. “It’s popular with resorts but also has been used by high-net-worth folks who want a chauffeur-like experience,” says Gallagher.
The builder also makes other retro-looking models including the Roosevelt, Dearborn and Wrightwood as well as custom wooden models. Grand Craft had a good run in 2022, its first year in the new facility, building and selling eight boats across the country. Depending on the model and options, the boats are priced from $450,000 to $1.5 million.