The Boats of Chris-Craft
Back in 1894, thrill-seeking vacationers on Michigan’s St. Clair River paid a nickel or so to skip across the water at 5mph in a powered rowboat. At the helm was Christopher Columbus Smith, a boatbuilder as well as an outdoors guide and market hunter.
He and his older brother Hank had joined up to build boats in Algonac, Michigan, some 10 years earlier. What they began there eventually became a company name synonymous with powerboating worldwide—Chris-Craft.
Speeding into the 20th century
The engine the brothers had adapted to their rowboat was like a small steam engine. But instead of water heated in its boiler, it heated naptha. It wasn’t many years later, though, that the gasoline engine came along. And Chris Smith jumped on it.
As then sole proprietor of the “Chris Smith & Co., Boat Builders and Boat Livery,” he began powering his wooden boats with the gasoline engines. The “runabouts” he created added the thrill of speed to boating. By 1910 one of his mahogany-planked boats with its 100-hp engine was clocked at 33 mph. Two years later, the Chris Smithbuilt Baby Reliance II set a record of 53.7 mph over a measured mile—the first time that any boat had passed the 50-mph mark.
Into the 1920s, Chris Smith’s boats, driven by racer Gar Wood, set speed records everywhere they went. One race even defined the materials that were to become a Chris-Craft trademark.
To qualify for the 1920 international Harmsworth Trophy speedboat race, held in England, all boat and engine materials must have originated in the country of the entrant. Smith’s boats had always been planked with Honduras mahogany, but Honduras was a protectorate of Great Britain. So the boat that Gar Wood was to pilot to victory was constructed of Philippine mahogany (actually not a mahogany at all), which met the rules because the Philippine Islands were a United States’ protectorate. From that time on, practically all wooden boats from Algonac advertised as “solid mahogany” were made from Philippine mahogany, with structural members of native woods such as white oak.
Following more than a decade of racing achievements and technical innovations, Smith and Gar Wood ended their association in 1922. From then on, Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company used its racing expertise and reputation to make and sell wooden runabouts, now brand-named Chriscraft, to the general public. With a workforce of 30 men, the company built and shippeda boat about every week from spring through fall that year. That number, though, was soon to change dramatically.
Runabouts come of fashion
The Roaring Twenties produced more than a rage for the Charleston. Buyers were becoming more and more interested in powerboating for fun and sociability. It was a boon to boatbuilders, and none more so than Chris Smith & Sons.
The Algonac boatbuilders took advantage of the nation’s new appetite for powerboating, and by 1929 could produce over 900 units annually. But Chris Smith & Sons did something no other boatbuilders had tried: It standardized construction.
All boatbuilders, including the Smiths, had always built boats one by one. But realizing that they could sell more Chris-Crafts (as their runabouts were then officially called) than they could build, the Smiths began experimenting with standardizing models in 1924. They began to cut parts from templates and divide the work into specialized crews that performed only one operation on a hull instead of building the entire boat. The changeover resulted in the company producing some models at the rate of a boat-and-a-half a day.
In 1926, the Smiths once again tried something new—selling through franchised dealers, just as cars were sold. Previously, all boats had been sold direct from factory to customer. That year, you could buy a 22’ inboard Chris-Craft runabout for less than $2,000. And that included electric start and reverse as standard equipment items. (Today, that same boat, in excellent original or restored condition, would cost you about $20,000.)
With increased production and a growing dealer network, the “World’s Largest Builder of All Mahogany Runabouts” was using a lot of wood. In 1927, for instance, Chris Smith & Sons Boat Company contracted for 1 million board feet of Philippine mahogany—at a cost of about 15 cents per board foot.
The building of a Chris-Craft
The boats built by the Smiths had a reputation for quality construction (see the cutaway illustration below), even though they were more or less mass-produced. Chris- Crafts of the 1920s and 1930s and for years to come featured doubleplanked bottoms of solid Philippine mahogany. In between was a water-repellent layer of oil soaked canvas. The keels were either Philippine mahogany or white oak. The oak, steambent, was used for the ribs. Bolts and screws were bronze (later, silicon bronze), and the screw holes were plugged with Philippine mahogany “bungs,” a name picked up from beer barrels.
Inside, hulls were coated with linseed oil below the water line, then covered with two coats of Valspar marine varnish, followed by paint. Outside, the hull bottoms received a heavy coat of green or gray paint.
All visible natural wood—the Philippine mahogany—on the hull, decks, cowls, etc., was rubbed with grain filler, sanded, and covered with four coats of marine varnish. When the boat was completed, upholstery and all, mechanics fitted it with an inboard engine. All boats then were tested for speed and handling along a measured course on the St. Clair River.
Only for a few years following World War II, when wood shortages were widespread, did Chris-Craft depart from its quality construction. The boat company substituted white cedar—or any other suitable wood it could find—for the then-scarce Philippine mahogany it had so long relied on. But when substitutions were made, management insisted that the hulls be painted rather than stained and varnished as was traditional.
The end of an era
Chris-Craft survived the Great Depression of the 1930s—barely—by introducing utility craft, which cost less. By the early 1940s, the company was up and running full speed again, featuring nearly 100 models. During World War II, Chris-Craft devoted much of its production to the war effort. (As with all boat manufacturers, the company was prohibited from making pleasure craft from 1943-45.) It built landing craft, target boats, aircraft rescue boats, and command boats (resembling PT boats). These required a switch to plywood, a foreign material to the company, but one to which it easily adapted.
The 1950s and 1960s saw Chris-Craft embark in new directions—kit boats (even kit furniture), outboard motors, mahogany-and-fir plywood boats, steel boats, fiberglassed plywood boats, and molded fiberglass boats. It was a period of experimentation and great expansion. Eventually, Chris-Craft Industries—a publicly held company emerged when the Smith family decided to yield ownership. The 1960s also marked the end of an era as Chris-Craft Industries completed the transition from mahogany to completely fiberglass construction of its boats.
By the 1980s, not only had the wooden boat long left the scene, but so did Chris-Craft as an independent boat manufacturer. The company and the name were acquired by Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC) in 1989.
Editor’s note: The complete company archives of the Chris-Craft boat division were donated by Chris-Craft Industries, Inc. to the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, in 1987. Also donated were two early Chris-Craft boats, a 26’ runabout and a 38’ commuter, both of which have been restored to original condition.
For more information about Chris-Craft, see The Legend of Chris-Craft by Jeffrey L. Rodengen.