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Vintage Chris-Craft, assembly required

James Shotwell’s plywood kit boats are direct descendants of those produced by the legendary builder

Like the boats they loved, the members of the Antique and Classic Boat Society were getting older, and there were few children to replace them when James Shotwell, a member and professional boat restorer, decided to get involved.

That was three years ago. He didn’t think having children build kayaks was sufficiently exciting, but he thought having kids build powerboats from precut wooden kits would help. Now he is using that concept in his business.

James Craft Marine Services Inc. has launched a line of replica plywood kit boats, taken directly from those produced in the 1950s by Chris-Craft. The models range from an 8-foot pram to an upcoming 16-foot “custom runabout.” Existing kits are priced from $750 for the pram to $2,650 for a 14-foot runabout with solid mahogany decks.

Is there a market for wooden kit boats four decades after fiberglass made boating so maintenance-free? Shotwell points to the 8,000 ACBS members, all aging baby boomers. “Like we did with cars, we’re now doing with boats,” he says. He says members have come to believe that there’s more to life than the computer screen. “I see so many grandfathers and grandmothers and fathers and wives going crazy over this concept. It’s a time, I think, that’s ready [for kit boats]” he says.

This summer Shotwell, whose company is located along the Susquehanna River in Nescopeck, Pa., joined forces with MAS Epoxy partner J.B. Currell, traveling to wooden-boat shows and demonstrating over three-day weekends the building of a James Craft kit boat. “In three days, we can frame it, and have it planked and come off the molds,” says Shotwell. So far, he says the response at shows has been enthusiastic.

“When they buy a kit, they get all the parts,” he says. “They’re all milled and all the assemblies — stem, frames and transom — are assembled. The keel is beveled; the chines are beveled. All the parts are cut to shape, most long so you can trim and fit. Plywood panels are cut. You get MAS epoxy, fiberglass to tape seams, the screws and bolts. You have everything you need up to the paint and varnish stage.”

Shotwell’s plan initially was to buy old Chris-Craft kit boats, disassemble them, and make patterns. Last year, however, a New Jersey yacht broker called Shotwell and said he had two boat kits still in the boxes. “He said, ‘If you’ll help me put one together, I’ll give you the other one,’ ” says Shotwell. “I said, ‘I’m going to come down to talk with you.’ I convinced him of the historical significance of these kits not being

assembled. I bought both kits and promised him the first kit in production.”

Now Shotwell had the kits, every part unassembled, for patterns. “One was a 12-foot Vagabond and the other a 14-foot Dolphin,” he says. “The Chris-Craft engineers were frugal. What they would do is engineer a hull and build it and test it, and then develop a couple of different deck layouts so the same hull would build two or three different boats. The 12-foot Vagabond is the same as the 12-foot Meteor, and then the Dolphin was the same hull, kind of an open boat. They also made a Zephyr. It steered from an aft cockpit. That’s the one we introduced first.”

From the two unassembled kits Shotwell says he was able to create six different boats. “And we added to that an 8-foot pram, not a true Chris-Craft [because we] haven’t been able to find information to duplicate theirs. We have recently found a 10-foot racing utility pram, a cute little boat. With a 10-hp motor, it was a 30-mph boat. We found one of them on the West Coast.”

Shotwell says he is arranging to make drawings from a 17-foot Chris-Craft inboard kit boat in New York, and has plans to offer kits for boats up to 19 feet.

“We sat down with Chris Smith, the last surviving member of the Chris-Craft family,” says Shotwell. “He explained how they did the tooling, set up the frame jigs, cut out the patterns.” Shotwell says the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va., has supplied him with Chris-Craft kit plans from its archives.

“We’ve set a factory up,” he says. “The technology is the ’50s; the product is the ’50s. We’ve added MAS epoxy to the formula for longevity and strength.”

Smith, who is the grandson and namesake of the Chris-Craft founder, recalls that in 1950 the company was seeking a way to use up leftover scrap mahogany from building large powerboats. “They decided to build toy boxes and gun cases and a little 8-foot pram,” says Smith, who was an engineer in the family business. “The kit boats lasted about 8 years. It got so popular we had to build a factory in Missouri. We sold about 93,000 kits.”

It was after World War II, and soldiers were coming back and having kids. “It was something they could do without investing too much money,” Smith says. “When the kits started dropping off, they [Chris-Craft] started assembling them, and that was the start of the Cavalier boats.”

Shotwell says the instructions included with his kits are designed to be used by boatbuilding schools that conduct 5-1/2-day courses. “If you go to wooden-boat school to build one of these, they need to crowd that into a one-week vacation,” he says. “We also have a school at the shop where we will guide you. That costs about $1,000 a week. A Zephyr is $2,450, and for another $1,000 you stay there and build it under our guidance. Or we’ll ship it, and you can build it in your garage.”

For more information contact James Craft Marine Services at (570) 759-1290 or visit