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Lyford Stanley: the epitome of a Maine boatbuilder

He resisted building boats in fiberglass and carved his own half-models, when he wasn’t giving someone a haircut or making false teeth

He resisted building boats in fiberglass and carved his own half-models, when he wasn’t giving someone a haircut or making false teeth

By 1972, Lyford Stanley had built several 36-foot wooden lobster boats, and his latest — the completed hull of which his friend Jock Williams was draping in fiberglass wetted out with resin — was, he believed, just about as good as he could get it. But he wasn’t happy.

While he had agreed, at the urging of his wife, Norma, to collaborate with Williams in building his boats with fiberglass hulls, “he didn’t understand or want much part of that sticky stuff,” recalls Williams. “We just laid the hull over on its side. He watched us put this stuff on. He thought that boat was going to come out of [the mold] kindling.” Instead, says Williams, it popped out “beautifully,” and the resulting mold was used to form the first fiberglass Stanley 36 lobster boat.

At the time of Lyford Leverett Stanley’s death Nov. 30 at age 82, around 160 Stanley 36 lobster boats — both commercial and recreational — had been sold by the John Williams Boat Co., ofHall Quarry, Maine. The company also builds the Stanley 28, 38, 39 and 44 among its seven models ( ).

The lines for all of Stanley’s designs were taken from wooden half-models that he carved. When a lobster boat was produced from those lines, Williams laid up the fiberglass hulls and installed the engine in his shop. Then, at times, the boat was hauled to Stanley’s shop for the finish work.

“His finish work varied,” Williams says. “Lyford, it seemed to me, was able to distinguish what was required for the job” — be it a workboat or a yacht. “We used to call him One-Cut Stanley. He’d put his thumb out there [gauging what was needed] and take the saw and whack it off.

“He had a lot of intuition,” Williams recalls. “He wasn’t necessarily extremely well educated by school standards, but he was very aware and sensitive to the water.” He possessed an “innate sense of the ocean and how it worked, and weather and storms and safety,” he says.

Stanley’s half-models were an expression of his intuition. He could describe any portion of the model, and he would tell you why he was doing it that way, says Williams. There was a reason for the angle of the stem, the shape and location of the tumblehome, and the deadrise. “It was all his theory,” says Williams of the man who was both a friend and mentor. In describing the features of one of his half-models, Stanley “would tell you how it would ride in a following sea and how it would take a head sea and how it would round up into the wind. It was an eye and a feel issue,” says Williams. “I never saw a book about boatbuilding in his house.

“I must say he wasn’t always right,” adds Williams. “But he was right enough, and when he was really right, he was right on.”

Stanley was born on Swan’s Island, off Mount Desert Island, in 1926 and spent almost his entire life in Maine, on or around the water. The youngest of four children, Stanley was two months old when the family moved to GreatDuckIsland, also off MountDesert, so his father could become keeper of the island’s lighthouse.

In high school, encouraged by a teacher to work in boatbuilding, Stanley became an apprentice at the Sam Davis Boatyard in BassHarbor. After a fire swept Mount Desert Island in 1947, he spent a time clearing the burned trees. He went to sea as a clammer and worked in a sardine factory. In 1948, he married Norma Sprague, with whom he had three daughters.

Stanley returned to boatbuilding, working at the Frenchman Bay Boat Co. and the Henry R. Hinckley Co. before setting up his own shop and building, from his own design, a series of 36-foot lobster boats. But, Williams says, when he wasn’t on the water, Stanley pursued many other interests. “His knowledge just spanned so many things, and he had good, practical judgment of things,” Williams says.

An example would be fishing. “He didn’t make his living out of fishing, but he fished in every fishery,” Williams says. “He had scallop drags. He’d lobster. He had halibut trawls. He also did quite a lot of purse seining … and made quite a lot of money.”

Stanley’s fishing was “random,” Williams says. “Often, he’d go scalloping when the season opened,” he says. “He’d scallop for a week and put the gear away. He just loved being on the water, and he had the knowledge.”

At one point, Stanley saw an opportunity to work in the tourist trade, Williams recalls. He got the study material for a Coast Guard master’s license, studied it and passed the test. Now he was able to take a job as captain of a Bar Harbor excursion boat.

“We had a lot of fun together; we really did,” says Williams. There were deer hunting outings when the two men would take Stanley’s outboard skiff and Williams would steer, following Stanley’s directions, to a remote island. Stanley told his acolyte there would be two big bucks. In truth, Williams says, they were poaching because hunting on that island wasn’t allowed.

“I would put him ashore. I’d park the boat. He’d sit there. I used to freeze to death,” says Williams. “Sure enough, two big bucks came down.” Stanley was a “wicked shot,” Williams says. “He had [meat] carving equipment and a grinder in his cellar. He would carve the meat and grind it up, and he’d distribute it to shut-ins, people who used to hunt.”

The unofficial mayor of his coastal village, Stanley served as the barber for some neighbors and, at one point many years ago, made false teeth. “These people didn’t have any money. He bought a kit, did a wax imprint. Then he made this actual gum receiver and put teeth in it,” says Williams, who admits he did not witness the dentistry. “But I know it for a fact,” he says.

Stanley epitomized Maine boatbuilders, according to Williams, who in explanation tells the story of the time when the Maine Department of Marine Fisheries needed a new patrol boat but was having difficulty getting one built. Stanley and Williams joined two other Maine boatbuilders and, with a half-model of a 44-foot boat that Stanley had carved in 1977, went to visit the state officials. It was a mission of mercy, Williams says. They brought the half-model not to sell it to the state, Williams says, but to explain how the officials should go about buying a boat.

“We said, ‘This is how you do it,’ ” Williams recalls. “ ‘You sit down and figure out what you want, then go to the boatbuilder and tell him what you want.’ ” Then come back when the boatbuilder says the boat is finished, they told the officials. “You’re in Maine now. That’s the way it works.”

Perhaps the state officials weren’t listening. Williams remembers that they pointed to Stanley’s half-model and said, “That’s what we want.”

Stanley and Williams, joined by Norma, built two of the 44-footers for the state. They went on to build another 56 44-footers for the New England fishing fleet.