Man and Woman driving a restored wooden boat

For the Love of Restoration

1946 Garwood boat before restoration

Drive down the street in any city on trash day or visit the local landfill and we are confronted with conclusive evidence of a disposable society. We consume and consume, and when the item is used up or no longer works, we throw it away. Diminished usefulness eliminates even faint interest for most of the general public. Most, but not all. There are those people who hold a special fascination for societies’ discards, looking at it not for what it is now, but for what it could be.  

Jim Ruwaldt is one of those people. His first career was as a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Twenty some years ago he landed in Wisconsin and took over as the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Private Lands Coordinator. It was a perfect fit for him and for our state. He worked with USFWS staff and other partners to pair professionals with willing landowners to restore thousands of acres of critical habitat. Fields drained decades before that were still too wet to farm were restored back to wetlands with short and tall grass prairies planted on the adjacent uplands. Truthfully, a full story could and should be written about this land and leadership legacy. This is not that story.

Now retired from the USFWS, Jim’s love of restoration has not diminished but his attention has shifted from wetlands and prairies to classic wooden boats. A lifelong hunter and angler, Jim has always been interested in boats of all kinds, but particularly those from an era gone by. In high school, he found the “build your own boat” ad in Popular Mechanicsirresistible and was soon building his own duck skiff. Rumor has it that when Jim had his eye on the boat, a pretty girl had her eye on the young boat builder. It is unlikely that back then Janet would have ever guessed more than fifty years later Jim and wooden boats would still be a part of her life.   

As they are known to do, raising a family and fulltime careers kept Jim and Janet pretty busy. Then in 2003 after the kids had moved on to their own lives and careers, they found themselves with a bit more free time. Jim found a North American Marine fourteen-foot outboard runabout in need of restoration. It was just the kind of project he wanted. Months of work later, the boat emerged looking just like it had in the 1957 Sears and Roebuck catalog, complete with a maroon and white 1957 twenty-five horsepower Johnson outboard and a classy Badger bow flag. He was hooked. 

So, it was only natural that one day when he was travelling by Lake Winnebago, he pulled over to take a look at what was left of an old wooden boat sitting on a trailer with two flat tires. The boat had been left mostly to the elements and every little critter in the neighborhood had made it at least a temporary home. The hull was bad, the inboard engine missing and most of the decking needed to be replaced. Laying on the ground he found a handwritten for sale sign with a phone number. It should be noted that, at this juncture, most people would have never stopped to look at the boat in the first place, let alone call the number. But that is exactly what Jim did and for $150.00 the boat was his. His imagination was captured not by what the boat was but what it could be.      

Jim’s skill restoring wooden boats has become well-known. He has never advertised but his work speaks loudly. To help support his personal boat habit, he started working on boats for others, and it wasn’t long before there was a waiting list. Most people who restore wooden boats specialize in one kind of boat, not Jim. If you stop by his place, you might find him working on a sleek cedar strip canoe destined to be paddled on quiet waters or an eighteen-foot hotrod Higgins inboard. He does everything from repairs to full restorations.  

1946 Garwood boat during restoration

Once in Jim’s hands the transformation begins. “First the, mechanicals and interior come out and the deck hardware comes off,” Jim explained. “You never really know what you are going to find until you start taking things apart. When you’re doing this, you have to be careful. A wrong move and you can damage the structure, a valuable piece of the original boat could become useless. You can’t just order replacement parts online, especially wooden parts.” 

In most cases, Ruwaldt makes all of the wood replacement pieces from sawn lumber. With the hands of a true craftsman, he saws, sands, steams and bends an exact replica of the original part. It may be a small piece of cedar decking, or the rib for a canoe. Or a twenty-two-foot piece of white oak making one of the structural pieces of the boat. Each piece needs to be perfect in order for it to fit. 

Once he has repaired the structure the work begins on the hull and deck. Replacing the entire bottom of the boat is not unusual. Pieces of the decking are often missing or broken beyond use, new pieces are made and fitted in place.  

Now the boat is reassembled, and new parts join old. Wood surfaces have been completely stripped of all the finish. At this stage you can really see the structure of the boat, the sweeping lines where the deck joins the hull, interlocking pieces of wood perfectly fit.       

 Finally, the boat is ready for finishing, a difficult process. A restoration requires the boat look like it did when it was new.

According to Jim, “The boat may have been varnished natural wood, painted or a combination of both. I am always looking for original pictures of old wooden boats. I find them in old outdoor magazines, catalogs or brochures. The right finish is really important. When people see the finished boat most of them will not see all the work that went into restoring the structure, everyone will see the finish.”  

There is absolutely no comparison between a modern aluminum or fiberglass boat and a wooden boat. New production boats are a marvel in durability, designed to stand up to serious abuse. Wooden boats are something else—strong and seaworthy when taken care of, but subject to the ravages of weather and time. Jim with no small amount of help from Janet, brings these discards back to life. Restoring them for the next generation. In a time where “good enough” is often the standard, Ruwaldt wants no part of that. 

“When I am done with a boat it needs to be perfect.”

1946 Garwood boat after restoration


This article was originally published by the Wisconsin Outdoor News, August 2019.

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