Forty years ago — that Old Testament number meant to connote a long time (raining 40 days and nights, wandering in the desert 40 years) — Walter Baron built his workshop on a side road in Wellfleet. He knew what he wanted to do, he did it, and he still does:
He had been working in a two-car garage around the corner that is now an auto repair shop but needed more room. He had the land but hadn’t built his and Jane’s home yet; the shop came first.
“It cost about 15 grand,” he remembers. “We did it in a week and a half. It had the biggest swinging doors in Wellfleet at the time, special hinges and all that.”
Now 74, he figures he has built 180 boats in that “Old Wharf Dory” shop. He’s done plenty of repairs and modifications too but never practiced conventional boatyard staples like storage and maintenance.
These days he works three, four, five hours a day, not eight. Before websites emerged customers came by word of mouth, still true a good bit, so when people show up here’s what Walter says:
“If you’re patient, I’ll build you a good boat. I’m only doing three or four a year now, that’s all I need.”
He’s not high-end like First Light in Chatham (Building boats, building lives) or Gannon & Benjamin on the Vineyard. Baron is known for unpretentious hulls that ply near shore, prams with flat bows and flat sterns, no bigger than 16 or 17 feet, “Lumber Yard Skiffs” so-named because all materials come straight out of any decent lumberyard, no special ordering. His prams might weigh 55 pounds “so an old man and lady can pick them up,” and without sharp bows they have more room.
“The first ones I built for 1000 bucks,” he says, using spruce framing, plywood, and marine adhesive. “It took me 35 hours to build a hull.”
Every spring he’d build six prams for the Goose Hummock Shop in Orleans; they’d all vanish. He also offers an unusual option: He’ll sell his 16-foot lumberyard skiff plans to anyone who wants to give him $50. He’s sent plans to New Zealand, England, Brazil, Barbados, up and down our coast. COVID inspired sales:
“Since March, 2020, I’ve sold 100 sets of plans,” more than 1500 over the years. His guess is well under half of them actually get built.
The 50 prams he’s finished were built to order. At the moment he has a Northeaster dory in the shop, bright red hull, a fixture on the water in the East End of Provincetown that he’s converting from rowboat to sailboat. Seeing as his shop is 40 feet long, the biggest hull he’s built was 35 feet. The smallest was six and a half.
“A 16-foot Nauset marsh skiff, that’s a fancy skiff. That’ll be the fifth one of those.”
He stopped making lumberyard skiffs because they are getting too heavy and awkward for him to manhandle solo. “The last one I did was in September, and I was swearing at it,” he laughs.
Independent boatbuilders working in wood are, as Walter puts it, “a niche within a niche. That said, if you go to a boatbuilding school, I guarantee you’ll have a job in a minute.”
That doesn’t change the fact that there aren’t many Walter Barons anymore — never were, but fewer than ever, on-Cape you can probably count them on your fingers with a few to spare.
“I’ve always worked solo,” he adds, meaning boatbuilding, not fishing and other carpentry he did before the shop. So no long-time apprentice to step up.
He looks around the creative space of his own invention. A woodstove in the corner gets plenty of scraps to help keep winter out. A pencil is at the ready, stuck under his cap over his ear. Time has slowed down, suspended. He and his shop harken back, connect to a deep tradition.
Then he shrugs and smiles:
“So that’s what I’ve been up to for 40 years, man.”
I love that story! Wonder if he's be up for a short film.