Messing About in Boats

Grand Rapids’ Bob Shapton has that special touch to make old, antique Wage- maker boats like new again. // Photography by Michael Buck
Robert Shapton

In the window of a 1920s gas station in Grand Rapids’ East Hills neighborhood, a fully restored, wood motorboat sits surrounded by a colorful collection of vintage outboard engines. Visible from the street, the varnished deck of the 1952 Penn Yan Swift draws double-takes from passing drivers and lures in curious visitors at all hours.

The old gas station is the home of Michigan Boat and Engine, where 49-year-old Robert Shapton restores antique and classic boats to their original glory. Shapton also restores outboard engines from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, even hand-machining parts when necessary to return them to carefully detailed, running condition.

Half museum and half workshop, Shapton’s business was born from his dedication to classic wooden watercraft. His restoration projects easily could be called art since the end results are worthy of display. “It’s all about the leather, the wood and the glass — the way they come together,” Shapton said. In his workshop, they come together beautifully.

Visitors are often unexpected, but a recent customer knocked on the locked station door after recognizing a 1930s Mercury engine in the window. After purchasing it, the man’s wife stopped him from mounting it on their garage wall. The antique engine is on display in their living room instead.

Shapton inherited his love of wooden boats from his father, a boat builder in Charlevoix. While attending college in Detroit, he used his first tax return to purchase a William Garden 6-meter sailboat that sat landlocked in the middle of the old Detroit Boat Works. He often sat in the sailboat doing his homework at the run-down marina and boat storage facility, also known as the Goat Yard, where the compound’s namesake, Nemo the goat, wandered the grounds between the decrepit hulls and rusted vehicles.

“There’s a lot of pleasure in using the boats, but half the fun is just digging, researching, resourcing.”
— Robert Shapton

Shapton left the sailboat behind when graduation pushed him east. “Half the fun is finding them,” he said. “There’s a lot of pleasure in using the boats, but half the fun is just digging, researching, resourcing.”

When his wife Mary’s marketing and design business took off, Shapton offered to stay home with their children. He began restoring wood boats and outboards as a hobby, attending antique boat shows and swap meets on weekends. Demand for his unique talents grew by word of mouth, and at the age of 25, his passion became a full-time job.

When asked what drives him, Shapton replied, “I’m a purist. Most people don’t want to dive in that deep.” Deep is a fitting term for his projects. Once asked to sell the 1945 Baycraft hydroplane that also occupies his showroom, Shapton rejected the generous offer. Instead, he completely disassembled the boat, copied it down to the last detail and built the buyer an exact replica.

Although Michigan is the birthplace of many boat builders, Shapton focuses on little-known, once-local gems, such as Wagemaker and Gar Wood boats. Wagemakers were manufactured in Grand Rapids until a fire shuttered the plant in 1960.

Johnson Sea-horse 25 boat engine

Gar Wood hulls, built in Marysville by Detroit boat racer Garfield Wood, can demand six-figure prices when fully restored. Wood, who created the first hydraulic cylinder, partnered with Chris Smith to build Gar Wood pleasure boats from 1916-23 when Smith left to launch his own company, Chris-Craft.

Walk through his shop and Shapton’s passion for wooden vessels is clearly visible. “For a short time, I’m a caretaker,” he said. “Ultimately, the boat will go to someone else, but for a while, I get to love it.”

There is a waiting list full of people who want him to love their boat.

Shapton’s own 1942 Chris-Craft currently occupies his workshop while he restores its 26-foot wooden hull. Originally a Detroit Coast Guard patrol boat, the vessel’s government registration numbers were exposed once he stripped away several layers of paint. Obsessed with details, Shapton had been searching for those numbers since taking ownership of the boat.

Shapton once considered purchasing a fiberglass runabout for use at the family’s Lake Leelanau cottage. His 10-year-old daughter made him reconsider when she proclaimed, “Dad, we are a wood boat family.”

He didn’t buy the boat.

Chuck Warren is a Grandville-based boating writer and licensed captain. He has worked around boats for 50 years.

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