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Building a Better Boat

By: admin  |  August 29, 2018

Boulder Boat Works Relocates to Carbondale

This article was originally published in Aspen Daily News

Dory boats have had their place in the history of Colorado and the rivers of the West since John Wesley Powell took them down his first descent of the Grand Canyon 150 years ago. But they are now being seen more and more right here on the Roaring Fork River as fisherman return to drift boats to explore their home waters. In Carbondale, one company is on the forefront of the drift boat industry by combining old-world aesthetic and craftsmanship with new-age materials. Using a high-density polyethylene, Boulder Boat Works is creating watercraft that pay homage to the elegance that dories are traditionally known for while being among the most durable on the market.

Seventeen years ago a man named Andy Toohey saw that aluminum and fiberglass boats were insufficient for what he wanted to do. Toohey, based in Boulder, wanted to improve how he fished the rivers of Colorado and began to tinker with new designs and materials.

“He set out to build himself a better drift boat, with material that gave specific performance advantages, in regard to how he fished specific rivers,” said Shaun Hargrave, director of sales at Boulder Boat Works. “He stumbled across different polymers and he started to tinker with them to the point where he thought he could build a boat out of them.”

The first mold he made still hangs from the ceiling in the company’s Carbondale warehouse, but it was not perfect from the start. Over the subsequent years it took evolving prototypes, with lots of input from guides and fisherman, to become the boats they are today. The immediate advantages to the material were obvious though — it was lighter and more durable.

“At the same time it added a little bit of history back into the industry,” said Hargrave. “The wood accents are a homage to the art and elegance that made early boats so aesthetically appealing.”

The boats are Mackenzie-style dory boats, originating on the Mackenzie River in Oregon. They are characterized by a wide, flat bottom, flared sides, narrower in the bow and big rocker with a chine, which refers to a sharp change in the angle in the cross section of the hull.

“It rides the water very similar to how todays skis are riding on snow. Allows you to get up on edge,” Hargrave said.

“Rocky Mountain fisheries have more grade, faster moving water and they get bony,” Hargrave said, so you need a boat that’s agile and can maneuver around rocks while still tracking easily. Boulder Boat Works makes only two models, both of which have a shallow water line but also displace less water.

Piecing the Puzzle Together

Starting out in Boulder, the company then moved to Longmont, before last fall moving all operations to Carbondale. The Roaring Fork River is now its testing ground.

“The material is inherently lighter than water,” said production manager Trevor Hanson, pointing to the sheets of high-density polyethylene that are stacked up one wall of the build-out area.

“We are the only polymer drift boat manufacturer,” Hanson said, though the material is found in other marine products such as boxes and dashes. “It’s similar to cutting board material and with a breaking strength that is far and above fiberglass.”

The walls of the space are covered with wooden templates — all the components to make the individual shapes of the boat. In the center, a plug, or mold for the hull, is hoisted above a work bench where welder Ben Crooks cuts pieces of the material to become the fly deck on the front of a boat.

“We start by cutting out the hull pieces,” said Crooks; all the other component pieces are cut from the same sheet, not wasting any of the scraps. Using one of the wooden jigs from the wall, Crooks routs the sides of the skeleton of a boat. He then uses an extrusion welder that heats up to 600 degrees and thermal bonds the polymer together.

The welding gun is again used to bond the hull to the ribs, bringing all the pieces together. From there the framed-up hull moves to a build-out area that has room for just two boats to be constructed at once. Simultaneously, in a separate woodshop room stacked with rough stock, every piece is hand selected, cut down to final dimensions, sanded and then hand varnished or epoxied. All of the wooden accents on the drift boats are white ash or African mahogany.

“The gunnels are the most critical piece of the build,” said production manager Matt Clemente, as he takes the long wooden pieces and uses dozens of c-clamps to attach them to the rim of the boat.

“There are 20 hours in this one piece,” Clemente said, “from gluing it up, to making it 20 feet long, to finishing it with four coats of finish and now we only have one shot to nail this angled bevel — it’s make or break.”

From raw material to ready to fish, it takes 100 to 120 hours average per boat. That includes the hand cutting of 130 pieces of the polymer and another 30 to 40 wood pieces. All the time and hand finishing comes at a premium price, with boats starting at $12,000, including oars, anchor and trailer, and ranging up from there. The hull comes with a lifetime warranty, which the company sees as part of the investment in ownership and commitment to its craft.

“Instead of having replace a fiberglass bottom, $2,000 to $3,000 every three to four years,” Hargrave said he hopes people see it as investment upfront, “and have a boat to fish for a lifetime.”

The Ferrari of the River

Though they continue to grow, Boulder Boat Works is producing 50 to 65 boats per year. The company hopes to scale in a reasonable way while maintaining the quality of the craft. And while they originated from Colorado headwaters, the boats are now in 37 states. “Primarily in the Mountain West — Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. But some as far as Washington and Oregon and Tennessee and Pennsylvania,” Hanson said, adding that the custom job shop allows them to tailor a vessel to specific needs of water you are on.

Boulder Boat Works put boats in the hands of local guides and asked them to weigh in on new designs and customizations. They were able to shave down and customize the chine to what the guides felt was a better shape for these rivers, while keeping it as it was for users on flatter, bigger rivers.

“We pride ourselves on building a boat that is based at its core for Colorado rivers, but can build a craft that’s specific to any river you are trying to fish,” said Hargrave.

Brandon Soucie, a local fly-fishing guide for 14 years, is one of the many who added his input to the design. Soucie said that taking off just 1/8th of an inch of chine on his boat made it more maneuverable for the sections of the Roaring Fork River he floats every day with clients.

“It’s the Ferrari of the river,” said Soucie, pointing out not just the aesthetics, but the shallow draft of the boat. According to Soucie, the lighter-weight boat means less wear and tear on his body, rowing every day. The polymer boat is much quieter and smoother than fiberglass or aluminum boats.

“It is so much lighter and higher in the water, especially in low water. It’s a lot easier time to go down the river and get to spots other drift boats can’t,” said Soucie,

In Boulder Boat Works’ former location in Longmont, they were on the second floor of the building and every boat had to be hoisted in. Not to mention the location was a good distance from the nearest river to fish.

“From a business aspect it was a horrible move — everything is more expensive, labor, rent, etc.,” Clemente said on the relocation to Carbondale. “However, this is a lifestyle company, and it was a great move.”