Behind a dilapidated house on the outskirts of Missoula, MT
underneath a 1000 square foot gothic greenhouse heirloom
driftboats are built one at a time. In an industry dominated
by mass produced boats made of fiberglass and aluminum there
are still a few people out there proving that the beauty of
wood is more than skin deep, Stu Williams is one of them.
Stu builds boats, and since he lives right down the street
I sometimes drop by for a beer and watch him work wood into
all types of watercraft, mostly drift-boats. Stu started
building musical instruments at 15 with a $30.00 jig saw
and a "terminal case of determination." The son of a custom
gun-maker he says he's got the smell of walnut in his blood.
He built about a hundred mandolins, fiddles and guitars over
the years. Eventually landing in Missoula Montana, which Stu
refers to as the "center of the universe," he worked some
different jobs, some building and other woodworking.
In 1989 Stu built his first boat because he wanted one.
Before completing it he had orders for two more. He's
been building them ever since, refining his designs
with customer input and is approaching his 100th boat.
I watch Stu drill a drain hole and insert a brass fitting
and offer him a beer. A lot more beers go into the building
of a driftboat than you might think; "A dump truck full
delivered by my support crew" says Stu. It generally takes
about eight weeks for him to finish a boat, building solo.
I look at some of the pieces used to build this particular
boat; there's some black walnut, and a lot of oak with the
most beautiful figuring on it. There's a lot more that goes
into these things: coastal marine plywood, four gallons of
epoxy, red oak, vermillion, local Douglas fir, walnut and
some nice brass.
Stu loves to talk design. He builds a wide boat that
doesn't need to be overpowered. He prefers to outfit
them with nine foot ash oars from New Zeland. I used
to think that was too short for a Stu boat until I
rowed one and the response was great. The boats track
and row is unbelievably easy. His boats have a wide
transom, and as a guide I appreciate a feature like
that because sometimes the guy in the back of the boat
is pretty wide. More surface area means more buoyancy
and a higher ride despite additional weight in the back.
Over the years he's tweaked some things like oarlock
placement and seat height. He's added creature comforts
like drink holders, a very open cockpit, and just the
right amount of storage space. A lot of care goes into
bottoming a Stu boat and the result is a very slick
buoyant bottom that will stand up to abuse.
As I sit around and shoot the breeze with Stu, he shows
me a steelhead he just caught on the Clearwater and I
tell him how my hunting season is going. Stu always says
he's on "geologic time" though he moves along at a good
pace pausing only for a drink of Bayern Troutslayer. Each
boat is built with Stu's blood sweat and tears and to row
one is to appreciate that.
You can check out Stu on the web at: montanaboat.com ~ Benjo