Anyone who believes building wooden boats is a dead commercial trade hasn't visited the Egeberg Brothers shop on Kent Island recently.
The Egebergs are churning out wooden skiffs as fast as people will buy them, which is pretty fast. They've updated techniques for building wooden boats and taken the artsy-craftsy out. If that breaks a few romantics' hearts, at least it keeps the Egebergs in beer.
The phone rang recently while Tom Egeberg was showing a visitor around the cluttered workshop where his crew puts together plywood fishing skiffs. He grabbed a pencil and negotiated for a few minutes, then announced to the three workmen on hand:
"That guy wants a dozen 14-footers in a week and he's willing to pay for them. We've got work to do. Who's buying the keg?"
A dozen in a week is not unreasonable, said Egeberg, whipping out a newspaper clipping to prove it. It told how he and brother Joe slapped together a plywood skiff in just under 45 minutes at a boat show, then immediately tested the vessel's seaworthiness on Sinepuxent Bay -- in February.
It didn't leak -- "Not a drop," said Tom.
The Egebergs started building skiffs six years ago, after the retirement of Johnny Beall, a neighbor in Severna Park, their home town, who had built about 10,000 work skiffs over a 30-year career. His departure left a void. "I grew up in a Beall skiff," said Egeberg. "Didn't everyone?"
Beall showed the basics to Tom Egeberg, who was in a slow time in the house-building business. Tom quickly set up shop. In the years since, the brothers have done well enough to buy up what Egeberg calls "the last piece of commercial waterfront real estate in America" -- four acres on Kent Island -- and move the shop there.
Egeberg guesses his company has churned out a thousand to 1,500 boats. Demand is high enough that the current workshop, not much bigger than the average suburban garage, will soon be doubled in size. Out back, Egeberg has assembled some wood-cutting equipment and this spring will begin cutting his own timbers.
The basic Egeberg skiff is not fancy. If you've ever fished out of Fletcher's Boathouse on the Potomac in Washington or paddled around the lake in Columbia, you've probably rented one, or one of Beall's. They are flat-bottomed with no frills. Ray Fletcher says the Egeberg model "doesn't row quite as well as the Beall boat," but is just as sturdy.
Egeberg maintains the plywood skiffs are cheaper to build and just as easy to maintain as fiberglass equivalents.
"They tout fiberglass as maintenance free," he said. "Have you been down to the marine store lately to see how many products you can buy to maintain your maintenance-free fiberglass boat?"
Indeed, wood as a boat-building material has been staging a comeback, particularly with the ultralight, ultrastrong "West System" process in which epoxy-impregnated wood strips are pieced together in modern, unframed hull shapes. The result is like fiberglass, but lighter.
The Egebergs' operation is lower-technology and more attuned to volume than the "West System." Plywood comes pre-cut from a Baltimore supplier. Transoms are prefabricated; stems are shaped and hull sides tacked on, then bent to meet the transom. Bottom and sides are nailed in. Presto! A rowboat.
Perhaps finding that a little too repetitive, Egeberg lately has taken to re-creating some classic designs and creating some high-speed hulls in wood as diversions from the bread- and-butter skiff. He is half done with a re-creation of a William Atkin-designed knockabout sloop and is working on a lake cruiser along the lines of the classic mahogany Chris-Craft.
Two things concern him: A continuing decline in the quality of marine plywood, which he says sometimes comes to the shop riddled with core gaps and voids, and the hard time he has finding workmen who know oak from pine.
"Years ago you had skilled workers who could handle wood," said Egeberg. "The manufacturers said, 'We can switch over to plastic and do all this with unskilled labor."
In the 30 years since, said Egeberg, wood regained a competitive place as plastic prices soared and safety-in-the-workplace rules made working with fiberglass harder. But in the meantime, "woodworking skills died out for lack of demand," said Egeberg. "That's the only thing holding wood back right now."