Four Generations of Wheel Building, Wooden Boat Restoration
Bob Fuller, his daughter Christina and their team of highly trained craftspeople are the custodians of a century-old tradition of precision woodworking that produces hand-crafted wooden boat steering wheels for vessels of all sizes.
Located in Hanson, Massachusetts, South Shore Boatworks’ services include custom boat design, wooden boat restoration, designing and installing custom interiors in both wooden and fiberglass boats and, of course, the creation of our world-renowned wooden steering wheels.
Among our marine carpentry services, we also provide planning, management & consultation services on larger projects, custom teak accessories and hand-made children’s rocking boats.
South Shore Boatworks is a large, open workspace in Hanson, Mass. It’s filled with machinery that is modern, but has weight and stability that conjure a history of heavy work, taken seriously. Sawdust, shavings and tools abound, and in the middle of it all, calmly hand sanding, you might find owner Bob Fuller and his apprentice Derek Sprague.
This is also where Fuller carries on the traditions he learned from his father and grandfather, and where he passes along that accumulated wisdom to his apprentice and his own daughter, Christina, a fourth generation of Fuller wheel craftspeople.
South Shore’s methods preserve the techniques and materials that have been part of our maritime traditions for hundreds of years.
“I can go to almost any harbor anywhere and see something my family has done. I can tell by the turnings whether my grandfather made it, or if I did it.”
Fuller proudly continues the traditions of his family. He’d always been a part of it, and will occasionally see a wheel out in a harbor that he built 40 or more years ago. A fine wooden wheel is passed down from generation to generation, just like a finely crafted boat.
Fuller worked with his father and grandfather, starting at age 14. “A teenager working around that machinery — you couldn’t do that today. There’s no place else I could have learned that except working with my family.” He learned the art of patternmaking, of selecting just the right woods for a given project, and of working with wood for wheels and other marine applications. Restorations, refits and the construction of small wooden craft are all in his wheelhouse.
In keeping with the family traditions, Fuller has established a world-wide reputation for precision and attention to detail. But while building on these traditions, he has also cultivated his craft as an art, unafraid to introduce new and exciting elements to established processes.
Fuller estimates he has constructed over 900 wheels – and refurbished hundreds more. He is a master instructor at The Wooden Boat School and has given numerous presentations on the craft and history of woodworking and wheelbuilding for the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the National Park Service and the Australian Wooden Boat Festival. Bob also loves sailing – he is an avid boater known for his love of the ocean.
Recently, Fuller acquired a new apprentice. Derek Sprague started with South Shore in 2019, before the 2020 quarantine began. In that time, he’s had a lot of time to focus on mastering technical skills and applying his deep knowledge of the fishing industry to the practical aspects of marine woodworking. He’s grown especially interested in matching the grains and colors of the wood selected for a given project.
Sprague started as a guest for a day, recruited for his combination of carpentry background and his years of experience sailing as a swordfish fisherman. The team wanted his opinion on a fishing Dory they were building. He ended up staying a lot longer than anyone expected.
“When I was learning how to turn spokes, I was on the lathe for three days straight, all day, before I got one that was considered acceptable. I must have turned at least 60 spokes. Bob is very meticulous, but also very patient. I call him my sensei,” Sprague says of his apprecticeship.
At 23, Bob’s daughter Christina represents a fourth generation of woodworker. She grew up helping her dad in the shop, assisting with painting, gluing and other shop duties. She would also accompany her father on trips, hunting for fittings, mountings and other treasures of the trade. She worked her way up to woodcarving, and gained experience with power tools.
Today, she pursues veterinary studies and her passion for animals by working as an animal care technologist at Tufts University. But she keeps her hand in both sailing and woodworking as well, with a particular focus on South Shore’s Plymouth Rock’rs. These Dory-shaped rocking boat, involve a smaller but similar process to boat building. “He makes the cradle boats the same way he builds a Dory. I’ve made three. It’s a great way to learn the process and get ready for bigger stuff,” she explains. She’s looking forward to taking on bigger projects as her skills grow, and loves supporting the family business. She also enjoys father-daughter time that results in creating something that involves skill and craft.
The extra work is worth it in the end when you get a really precise fit. That’s the old Yankee philosophy and work ethic that drives the work at South Shore. Precision is valued, and short cuts are not taken.
That’s also why we do it all by hand. Equipment can enhance accuracy and reduce time, but when you do the work by hand, you know exactly what is going into each element. It’s the way Fuller was taught.
You become a steward of a vessel, when you’re doing a restoration or a refit. There may be 100s of years of sailing tradition and craftsmanship that you’re responsible for preserving. And you’re being entrusted with something that will last for generations into the future.
The same care goes into crafting a wheel. “There is no one way of building a wheel, but this is how I do it,” he says. “But I’ve refined my technique to never have a failure. There are a lot of stressors on a wooden boat steering wheel. You have wood in the sun, in the ocean spray. Gaps open, and a poorly constructed wheel starts coming apart.” South shore deploys generations of experience to make sure wheels stand the tests of time and nature.
Keywords related to this page: Wooden boat, wooden sailboat, sailing, boat steering wheels