By Bruce Niederer
I hear it said increasingly often in the last couple years as I meet people during my travels “Who will be the next generation of tradesmen? Who is going to work on our cars, boats and homes?” This is a serious lament posed by today’s tradesmen, potential employers who have a very hard time finding apprentices and workers to learn their trade. The U.S. is in dire need of men and women willing to work with their hands and develop the skills necessary to build and repair all our…stuff.
We read and hear daily news reports highlighting the shortage of people who can weld, fix a car, build and repair homes, plumbers, electricians and boat builders. Part of the reason is that, much like my father told me “You need to go to college if you want to get ahead in life. Work smart—don’t work hard” He didn’t mean don’t work hard at whatever I decide to do, he meant use your brain—not your back—to earn a living. This was commonly accepted wisdom as I was growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s. So now we have too many young people with expensive educations competing for jobs with thousands of others, or stuck with useless degrees.
My point is, the trades in today’s world do not get the respect they deserve and as a result thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of good paying trade related jobs go unfilled across this country year after year.
I’m telling you this, dear readers, as a way to introduce you to a true American craftsman. Dave Wrzesinski and his son Scott work together at a classic boat restoration shop Dave started many decades ago on the north shore of Houghton Lake nearly smack dab in the middle of Michigan’s lower peninsula.
Marine Services Unlimited is an unassuming shop made up of a gamish (Yiddish for mishmash) of additions and garages surrounding their homes. But don’t be fooled by appearances: This father and son team turn out some of the most beautiful classic boats you’ll see—Chris Craft, Hacker, Century and Riviera—and their reputation for quality craftsmanship is well known all across this great land of ours. Probably parts of Canada as well.
Dave and Scott are proud of the work they do and rightly so. Dave’s story is not only interesting but it’s one that begins right here in Bay City, Michigan. Dave grew up on the shores of Saginaw Bay with Jon Staudacher, another great American craftsman. As boys, they would wander along Marquette Street and hang out in the many boat shops that lined the river in those days, including Ben Huskins’ shop. This is the same shop that Jan and Meade Gougeon bought from Ben in the late ’60s and is the site of Gougeon Brothers, Inc. world headquarters. These boat builders took these two young boys under their wings and taught how to use tools and build boats. Dave says they each worked 40–45 hours a week before long. It’s an interesting aside that while minimum wage is so controversial today their pay for a full week as teenagers was exactly $0. Yet Dave remembers those days fondly and makes no bones about it when he says “I learned the skills I needed to do this work for, as it turns out, the rest of my life.”
When he got older he married to a German girl whose father was a cabinet builder. Dave worked for his father-in-law for many years improving his fine woodworking skills along the way. When that business began to fade as his father-in-law neared retirement age, around 1984, Dave began splitting his time between Bay City working for Jon Staudacher four 10-hour days a week and the other worked three days a week trying to get his own boat restoration business going in Houghton Lake. Eventually by 1985 he was able to devote all his time to his own business and put an end to the long distance commute.
In sixth or seventh grade, Scott began working with his dad learning the business and developing the skills necessary to rebuild classic boats, both wood and fiberglass. He worked with his Dad through high school and then joined the Navy becoming an engineer on a nuclear sub. Following his five-year stint in the Navy he returned to Houghton Lake to work with his Dad.
When I arrived at the shop on a sunny Thursday afternoon I found Scott inside a 1957 Chris Craft 21’ Continental with Dave outside discussing how they would fix rotten stringers and motor mounts. The engine is a big block Hercules 175hp dual carb engine that is huge for the modest horsepower it sports. This boat is one of only six ever produced.
Dave and Scott then took me on a tour of their projects, some completed and some still needing work. Let me take you on a virtual tour; the boat upside down on the left edge of the above photo is a rebuild of a 1952 Chris Craft Sportsman. There are no fasteners in this boat anymore–Marine Services Unlimited is a WEST SYSTEM shop. The bottom is two layers of plywood are glued to the frames and the fasteners backed out and filled after the epoxy dried. The owner was going to finish it himself then decided he’d never get it done so it’s back to be finished. The sides are 6mm plywood and the removed planks will be reinstalled after planing them so that the overall thickness of the sides matches the original thickness of the planks alone.
In his travel trailer ready to go to a show was this rare beauty, a 1962 Buehler Turbocraft. This is one of the first production jet boats ever built. This fiberglass boat sports a beautiful powder blue gelcoat deck that genuinely captures the era it was built.
This transom piece that doubles as a jet drive cover and swim platform was missing when they got the boat. Dave first built a mold then laminated the part and installed it. To look at it I would have never guessed it wasn’t original equipment.
This photo shows the swim platform hand rails and ski tow post, all custom made, coming up onto the stern deck. To really appreciate this boat you need to see it in person. These photos only hint at the beauty of this rarest of boats.
Across the street from the shop in a pair of garages sat a couple more classic gems.
The first one I was shown was a 1965 Century Resorter that sports a custom windshield with Riviera wing brackets, all new wood, new custom interior upholstery, new instruments, and a new Ford V-8 260 engine. Many years ago, just as the restoration nearing completion, the customer died. Dave’s son-in-law bought it from the family. It’s now for sale. I asked what something like this might cost and was surprised when Dave said about $35 grand! This boat is simply a work of historical art—nothing less. Here’s a look at the custom dashboard and instrument Dave and Scott built and installed.
The last boat I was shown was a 19’ flat bottom Bubble Boat in the first stages of restoration. The name is a result of the bubble shape on the back of the deck in front of the windshield. It’s a fiberglass boat that will be finished out with a wood deck. You can see the preliminary layout lines.
Back in the shop, in a room behind the ’57 Continental. The walls of Dave’s woodshop are a treasure trove of historical photos from over the years. There were so many it’s not possible to cover them all in this space. But there was one set of photos that I must talk about.
These photos over the door leading back into the front shop area are of Les Staudacher’s Stars & Stripes. Les, Jon’s father, wanted to set a new speed record on water and built a jet boat—not a jet drive boat like the Buehler. This boat had an actual jet engine from an airplane. For more details, see A Rendezvous with History.
So to come full circle, this is a story of how a true American Craftsman comes by that title. Not in a straight line by any means, but by perseverance, pride in one’s workmanship, and a love for the work you do.
The bottom line is, to get where Dave and Scott are there is only one path: you have to earn it.Marine Services Unlimited
12114 E. Houghton Lake Dr.
Houghton Lake, MI 48629