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For The Love Of Antique Boats

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - September 16, 2013

A 22’ boat Phil Spencer is building for a customer in Alton. This shows the framework.

A 22’ boat Phil Spencer is building for a customer in Alton. This shows the framework.

“I’ve loved wooden boats since I was a kid,” said Phil Spencer, the owner of Lakes Region Restorations, located on Route 28/99 Center Street in Wolfeboro. “I grew up in Minnesota and our neighbors had a Chris Craft. I had an open invitation to go boating with my neighbors and I loved being on the water. When I went to summer camp, I learned to sail. My parents bought me a Sunfish for my 15th birthday. That was how I got interested in boating.”

When still in his 20s, Spencer bought his first antique boat, a 17-foot Chris Craft. “However, I really wanted a 28-foot boat,” he recalled.

It did not take Spencer long to graduate to the larger boat. By that time, he was living in Wolfeboro (his family had a house in the town).

Although he had a bachelor of fine arts degree in Drawing, Spencer said he was unhappy in college and felt he wanted to pursue a course that would include three-dimensional art. He liked to do drawings of boats and, when he saw an ad in a sailing magazine for the Landing Boat School in Kennebunkport ME, things clicked. He enrolled at the school where he learned his craft by working on small boats and, eventually, a 30-foot Sparkman and Stephens Gulfstream 30 sloop.

After boat-building school, Spencer found work in the Lakes Region, restoring boats used in the movie “On Golden Pond” which was filmed on Squam Lake. Word spread about Spencer’s skill with wooden boat restorations and he found himself working for a time in Lakeport, restoring antique boats.

Realizing he wanted to stay in the Lakes Region, where boat restoration needs were plentiful, Spencer bought a home and shop in Wolfeboro in 1982. He started Lakes Region Restorations at that time and, a few years ago, moved to his present location. The Route 28 spot has allowed Spencer to spread out, with room for boat storage and space to work on up to seven boats at a time.

“My original shop was attached to my house in Wolfeboro,” he recalled.

The larger space separates work and home but, once you have met Spencer, you understand that work is really not work at all but, rather, a craft at which he excels.

As a fine woodworker, Spencer builds wooden boats and repairs antique boats. An employee, Evan Rinschler, handles wiring and electrical work on the boats. Services offered are complete restorations for boats up to 30 feet in length, refinishing, painting and varnishing, interior painting, custom building, and designing boats with custom woodworking, custom design of gold leaf lettering, new engine installs, wiring, and more.

Along with all Spencer’s other projects, in the mid-1990s, he began to design and build his own mahogany speedboats. From that decision, he went on to create the luxurious and fast Gryphon R-19 and R-23.  The Gryphons are contemporary classics with all the beauty of impeccably restored vintage watercraft and the convenience of a dependable, modern boat with the finest of instruments and rich amenities.

“We are just caretakers of the old boats,” he explained. “Old boats are like old houses. You have to do upkeep and a project every few years to keep things in working order.”

It would seem that many antique boat owners agree because Lakes Region Restorations is busy and there are always projects underway. In the large workspace, Spencer has at least four boats in various stages of repair.

“Owners held onto wooden boats because they lasted. And they are beautiful. That is what started the trend of owning a wooden boat. But you could not find people to work on the boats and so owners had to do the work themselves. When I came on the scene in the early 1980s, there weren’t many people working on the old boats,” Spencer said.

The appeal to owners is the history and beauty of the old boats. The boats from the early 1900s are known as brass-era boats and they were solidly built and quite attractive.

Among the wooden beauties Spencer has restored, one stands out as historically special and significant. The Keen Kutter, built in 1912 for Castle in the Clouds owner Thomas Plant, was a long, narrow boat known for its speed. Historically, Plant commissioned Goodhue and Hawkins to build him a fast boat — and he probably stressed that he wanted the fastest boat — on the lake. To do so, the boat was made a few feet longer than other boats. The name Keen Kutter came from a leather-cutting machine Plant had invented for his shoe factory. That machine helped Plant become one of the richest men in the world.

Although Plant died years ago, Lakes Region Restorations was called in to restore his once-iconic boat. “The boat had various owners of the years, but it was kept up,” Phil said. He did some restoration work on the beautiful boat and, today, it still cuts through the waters of Lake Winnipesaukee.

Spencer’s words about being a caretaker of antique boats comes through loud and clear when one thinks of the very old Keen Kutter. The boat symbolizes the history of the Lakes Region and will forever be tied to the story of Castle in the Clouds. If not for fine boat restoration craftsmen such as Spencer, the old wooden boats would fall into disrepair and eventually we would lose much of our rich past.

After the busy summer months, one would assume things would calm down for Spencer and his staff. Wooden boats come out of the water and summer visitors and residents return to their winter homes.

Spencer laughs as he shakes his head. “Actually winter is our busiest time. We spend those months rebuilding boats.”

Visitors still stop by or call with questions on purchasing an antique or classic boat. For those who want an old boat, no one knows more about the subject than Spencer. He also accompanies prospective buyers when they go to check out a potential antique boat for purchase.

If one assumes the hobby of owning a wooden boat is for the select few, think again. ‘We see these brass-era boats all over the lake. A lot of them are on the smaller lakes, such as Wentworth and Squam. People like the old boats because they represent something different,” Spencer said.

When those old boats need repairs, Spencer is there. When a customer wants to purchase an antique boat, Spencer is there. When a boat owner has questions, Spencer is there.

He has made antique and classic boat restoration his life’s work. Just like that kid growing up near a lake in Minnesota, Spencer continues to love wooden boats.

For information on Lakes Region Restorations, visit or call 603-569-5038. 

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