Ask just about any Maine boatbuilder where they get their wood and they’ll tell you about Richard Simon and his business, America’s Wood Company.
“It’s a great place,” says Sam Temple, owner of Rockport Marine in Rockport. “Rich accommodates nearly all of our needs from planking stock to interior joinery.”
Simon’s millworks sits inland in a small town called Washington, a 25-minute drive from the coast, on a wooded lot off state Route 17. If you blink, you’ll pass it, but inside 15,000 square feet of sheds, over a hundred thousand board feet of lumber are stored. Some boards are more than 20 feet in length, over 3 feet in width and over 6 inches thick. Organized by species, they rise to the rafters. It’s a boatbuilder’s and woodworker’s dream.
Simon was introduced to woodworking in the 1970s in Rockaway, New Jersey, where he took occupational classes in his local high school’s vocational program. In 1976, after graduating, a friend who was headed to Maine invited Simon along. He landed in Washington, earning $8 an hour as a carpenter, but found work opportunities to be sparse. “It was tough,” Simon says. “We had a barrel stove in the living room, and we had no money.” He headed for California where he joined a carpenter’s union as an apprentice and earned $16 an hour with benefits.
Eventually he found his way back east, to Brooklyn Heights, New York, where he set up a woodshop and built cabinets. That’s where he met a woman who owned property in Maine and by pure chance it was in Washington, where he’d lived years before. They moved there in 1992, built a house together and got married while Simon started importing doors from Brazil and building doors of his own. He called the business America’s Door Company, but when he decided to sell locally grown lumber, he created America’s Wood Company.
He cold-called boatbuilders to sell them wood, but quickly learned that they needed a much greater variety than Maine’s oak, pine and maple forests could provide. He sold wood out of two trailers at his home and built the business. One of the first big projects was for Hodgdon Yachts in East Boothbay. He also supplied wood for a 65-footer at Brooklin Boat Yard. That helped him get traction with other boatbuilders. Business picked up, and in 1996 Simon moved his operation out of his house and to the state Route 17 location, where he placed the trailers and built a shop.
Today, about 80 percent of America's Wood Company's clients are boatbuilders. The remainder are fine home builders and cabinet and furniture makers.
The company’s name is a bit of a misnomer because Simon sells species from all over the world. His inventory includes all the usual boatbuilding woods and more: white oak for ribs, cedars for planking, teak for decks, spruce for spars and cherry and mahoganies for building out interiors. But the sheds are also filled with ash, basswood, butternut, cypress, fir, ipe, iroko, lacewood, pine, sapelli, sipo, tigerwood, walnut, wenge and five kinds of maple. Lesser-known species, many with great rot resistance—like afrormosia, jatoba and makore—fill out the list.
Because plywood takes up a lot of space, Simon was reluctant to sell it, but he knew he needed to go where the market is, and it now makes up about 10 percent of his sales. He carries okoume and meranti in varying thicknesses and as thin as 1/8 inch, so it can be bent, an important quality in boatbuilding where virtually nothing is straight. The
meranti is denser and stiffer and holds fasteners better, but sailboat builders in particular like okoume because of its lighter weight. The okoume comes from suppliers in Greece and France and still is a sustainable species.
That’s not always the case. Sometimes a traditional boatbuilding species becomes rare or extinct. That’s when Simon supplies alternatives that don’t just match the appearance, but also have the right properties. Holly is one example. Traditionally used with teak as a highlight in the soles of boats, it is now almost non-existent. Hard maple looks similar but wears at a different rate and can yellow over time. So, Simon supplies big-tooth aspen or “popple,” which doesn’t have strong structural qualities, but looks and wears almost like holly.
In the woodshop, Simon works with his employees to saw and mill the lumber to the dimensions and shapes his clients ordered. The challenge is to get the customer the size and quality they want, minimize waste, keep costs down and give them the right cut. How the wood is sawn will affect both its look and its strength, which requires planning.
Always armed with a tape measure and an office phone so he can answer clients' calls himself, Simon and employee Ned Perkins sort through dozens of 20-foot-long Alaskan yellow cedar boards to find the right ones. They need them for the deck of a 45-foot Bill Tripp sailboat being built at Rockport Marine. It's an unusual choice for decking, but the owner wants something more ecologically sound than teak and to save weight.
Woodworkers know to measure twice and cut once, but Simon and Perkins seem to measure more than twice as they figure out how to maximize the yield.
Ordinarily they might use the straight-line rip saw to make their cuts, but because that machine’s blade would eat up 3/16th of an inch on each cut, they decide to use the horizontal bandsaw, which only consumes 1/16th of an inch. It allows them to get more usable wood out of each board. “We’re trying to avoid waste,” Simon says. “We want to get as much out of a hunk of wood as we can.”
Settled on the first cut, Perkins feeds boards into the machine as Justice Yanik makes sure the boards stay tight against the fence. On the other side of the machine, Dave Radoulovitch works the outfeed while Simon checks the cuts with his tape measure. Before the pieces go back for a second cut, Perkins marks one face on each. He doesn't accidentally want to rotate the pieces because the vertical grain needs to be revealed in the final product.
Soon, the whole crew gets into a rhythm. Perkins feeds the bandsaw while Yanik mans the outfeed and Radoulovitch moves the cedar to the moulder. There, Simon runs a test piece and uses dial calipers to make sure it is exactly as thick as it needs to be. As they feed the machines, it’s almost like a ballet, as they repeat movements and the finished boards come out of the moulder.
For a Chesapeake Light Craft (CLC) order Simon runs Peruvian walnut planks through the moulder. The walnut will be trucked to Annapolis, Maryland, where CLC will mill the wood into cove and bead strips that will become part of their boatbuilding kits.
Simon’s moulder is capable of creating a variety of architectural molding patterns, but in this instance, CLC will do it themselves.
The Peruvian walnut is a really dark tropical hardwood that’s used to create contrast with the lighter cedars CLC puts into its boatbuilding kits, but because the chocolate-colored cedar they formerly used is now hard to find, Simon ships them the walnut.
America’s Wood Company is a primary supplier for CLC. “We’ve worked closely with Richard for years,” says the company’s CEO, John Staub. “Whether it’s long-term supply planning, custom millwork, or standing behind his product, he’s always there for us.”
Simon doesn’t build boats, but he keeps a 13-foot Boston Whaler on the Sheepscot River, which he uses to catch stripers. He started fishing as a kid on White Meadow Lake in New Jersey, and he enjoys it. “It’s perfect,” Simon says about the Whaler.
He may not build boats, but he knows what the boatbuilders are looking for, understands how they will use the wood, and knows what qualities they’re seeking.
“The design drives the species I’m buying,” Simon says. “In boatbuilding, it’s the wood’s properties that drive the selection. For boat interiors, wood is more an aesthetic thing.” He explains how cherry is almost a signature for Hinckley Yachts, but that getting good quality wood is always a challenge. “If it doesn’t meet the cut, we have to reject it.”
Today, the trailers sit empty on the America’s Wood Company property. Simon no longer needs them. His business is established, and his client list reads like a who’s who of Maine’s boatbuilders.
Every week, America’s Wood Company makes deliveries to the Midcoast and Downeast. Besides Brooklin Boatyard and Rockport Marine, Simon supplies wood to volume builders like Hinckley and Back Cove. Lyman-Morse, French & Webb, Artisan Boatworks and Front Street Shipyard also buy from Simon. Smaller builders like Peter Kass at John’s Bay Boat Company, Eric Dow, and Hylan & Brown in Brooklin might not build huge numbers of boats, but their standards are meticulous, and they too buy their wood from America’s Wood Company. Simon also supplies all the Maine boatbuilding schools, including the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, The Landing School in Arundel, The Carpenter’s Boat Shop in Bristol and the Apprenticeshop in Rockland.
He sells outside of Maine, too. Besides CLC in Maryland, E.M. Crosby Boatworks and Arey's Pond Boat Yard on Cape Cod, boatyards in the Great Lakes area, Scarano Boat Building in Albany, New York, and many other yards buy wood from America’s Wood Company.
But Maine is the heart of the business. “This is where the market is for wooden boats,” Simon says about the Pine Tree State and why he hasn’t had to market much for the past 15 years.
“I’m fortunate enough that I have a clientele that trusts me and that I don’t have to chase business too much,” he says. “It’s a competitive business, but I’ve learned that service and quality is important.”
It’s been more than 25 years since Simon approached Maine’s boatbuilders. “I realized the market was in boatbuilding,” he says. “They embraced me, and I’m appreciative of the confidence they’ve shown in me.”
Rockport Marine’s Temple puts that confidence into words. “Rich knows what we’re looking for in terms of quality, grain, lengths and widths,” the boatbuilder says. “Having him up the road is an enormous asset.”
This article was originally published in the December 2020 issue.