In the 20th century, Michigan boat-builders like Chris-Craft, Gar Wood, and others gleaned from a legacy of woodworking craftsmen took custom boat-building to such levels that the watercraft built here became legendary.
That tradition continues today in the country’s third-largest marine market, which has enjoyed a decade of growth in new-boat sales — far outpacing the national average, according to the Michigan Boating Industries Association. Today, nearly 50 percent of Michigan residents enjoy time on the water, and for those seeking custom-built boats, there are a handful of Michigan-based craft works known across the world that will do your bidding.
If your eye and budget are set on the best, take a look at these Michigan makers and restorers:
Wooden Art at Van Dam Custom Boats
The mantra at Boyne City’s Van Dam Custom Boats is: “The World’s Finest Wooden Boats.” Van Dam creates one-off, custom works of wooden boating art, right down to those heated or cooled cupholders you’ve been lusting to build a boat around.
“What we do and strive to do is to build the world’s finest. It’s our mission and purpose,” says Jeremy Pearson, one of just 15 Van Dam team members. “These are privately commissioned boats and owners have the say in every step of the design,” he says.
Van Dam Custom Boats uses cold molded lamination. “Our process involves thin, multi-laminated layers and, as it’s laid up over the frame, it’s epoxied and hermetically sealed from the elements,” Pearson explains.
The custom boats can take up to two years and 5,000 to 30,000 hours to complete. Projects have ranged from a 16-foot electric fishing boat to a 17-foot tender for a 200-foot Monte Carlo yacht, a 55-foot sailboat kept on Cape Cod, and 1,000-hp, 100-mph retro beauties.
Manufactured in Holland, Tiara Yachts and Tiara Sports are known across the continent for the ultimate fiberglass cruising experience. Up to 200 boats are produced annually at their facility, located about seven miles from Lake Michigan.
At age 92, founder Leon Slikkers still participates in their design direction and contributes to some production details, according to Tom Slikkers, Leon’s son and Tiara’s CEO. Tom Slikkers’ two brothers also are involved in the business. Tiara has produced power boats exclusively since 1987. “We’re an aspirational brand, and a very individual purchase,” Tom Slikkers says. “Our boats have a reputation for high integrity in ugly weather, because you can’t always choose the weather.”
Models across both Tiara Yachts and Tiara Sport range from 34 to 53 feet, and are priced between $350,000 and $2.1 million. Tiara Sport products feature Mercury, Yamaha, or Seven Marine outboards, with outboard propulsion becoming more popular each year because of service ease, or traditional inboard power. Options across both brands include Seakeeper, gyrostabilizers, Garmin electronics, joystick steering, custom colors, wine coolers, and full galleys. Many more choices are available.
Need your wooden boat restored? Looking for a restored beauty? Contact Maritime Classics of Traverse City, which has been run for 27 years by Mike Green, great-great grandson of legendary mahogany boat-builder Christopher Columbus Smith. Smith was the founder of Chris-Craft, once the world’s largest boatmaker. (The company is still headquartered in a building beside the St. Clair River in Algonac.)
Green’s team restores about 25 boats annually, including Chris-Craft and other Michigan-built makes like Gar Wood, Hacker-Craft, and Century. The shop covers all aspects of wooden boat restoration, from refreshing varnish to full engine/electrical rebuilds. Some customers spend up to $200,000 on full restorations. Green hopes new generations will see the boats’ beauty as much as others who appreciate these works of art and those created by modern-day Michigan builders like Van Dam Custom Boats, Tiara Yachts, and others.