wooden boat at a dock

The joy of wooden boats

Classic antique boats are one of the delights of summer in Muskoka

Some of the finest wooden boats ever built can be spotted on the lakes of Muskoka. Aficionados know many of these classic boats by name. But even if you can’t tell a Ditchburn from a Dispro, this handy guide will help you appreciate the artistry of these gorgeous boats as you cruise around Muskoka or enjoy the view from the cottage this summer.

Wooden boats have been part of Muskoka as long as humans have been here. With 1,600 lakes and many rivers, boats have always been the most practical way to get around. The Ojibwe people, and those who were here before them, used birchbark canoes to get around. Settlers followed suit, recognizing the canoe as an absolutely perfect form of boat. 

But they also brought some European boatbuilding traditions with them. They began building wooden rowboats. By the 20th century they started putting motors in their rowboats, and then things really took off.

Not all of the wooden boats you see here were built here. Muskoka is home to plenty of gorgeous Chris Crafts, Hacker Boats (both built in Michigan) and Shepherd Boats (Niagara-on-the-Lake and St. Catharine’s). But collectors in this region take a particular pride in the homegrown builders who lived and worked on the lakes of Muskoka.

The wooden boat era

Ditchburn was the first big builder in Muskoka. They started out building rowboats in Rosseau, but by the first decade of the century they had a plant at Muskoka Wharf in Gravenhurst, where they produced everything from world-class raceboats to yachts more than 70 feet long.

Other notable names in Muskoka include Greavette and Minett (later Minett-Shields). But there were also a dozen or more smaller builders, some of them just one- or two-man shops that turned out a boat a year from workshops, barns, and even homes in Bracebridge, Bala, Gravenhurst, Huntsville, Port Carling and every point in between.

Because these builders took inspiration from each other, telling one maker from another can be tricky: when it comes to restored boats, particularly those that have been rebuilt from little more than scraps of wood left lying in a barn or found in the woods, even the experts can be puzzled.

The heyday of wooden boat building was from the 1920 to the 1950s. The last of the big builders, Greavette, lasted until the 1980s. 

These days there are still quite a few shops around Muskoka that mainly restore and repair boats, but they will build you a new boat if you want to commission one. And there are a handful of American and European builders who still produce wooden boats on a regular basis.

Here are some of the boat types you’ll spot on the water this summer. Bear in mind that these terms can be a bit vague in definition, though, and one person’s runabout is another person’s utility launch.

Long deck launches

As the name implies, these are long, thin and elegant. White painted hulls were common on the earliest ones, built before WW1, before stained and varnished mahogany became more fashionable. 

Some have one or two rows of seats behind the driver; others have a separate seating area at the bow of the boat, in front of the engine. Most date from the 1920s and are 28 to 38 feet long.

If you can picture the boat being driven by a liveried chauffeur, taking the family to a picnic, you’re probably looking at a long deck launch.

Sport runabouts

These were designed to be driven by the owner, with an emphasis on fun and speed. The cockpit is more likely to be seen at the front of the boat, with passengers riding behind the driver. Some just have a single cockpit with seating for two. (These smaller ones are sometimes called Gentleman’s Racers.)

In the 1930s and 40s, there was quite an active racing scene in Muskoka. Amateur owners would gather to see whose boat was fastest, and whose nerves were strongest, as they raced their runabouts across the lakes.

Utility launches

The name implies a lack of grace, something the cook would use to run into town for supplies. That’s what they were originally built for, but there are some absolutely lovely utility boats on the lakes.

Typically, these boats have a large open area amidships, with a wooden cabinet in the middle that contains the engine. The cockpit may be separate or may be connected by a wooden “pass-through” passageway. This arrangement meant the utility boat could be used to haul goods to water-access cottages or carry a load of passengers.

Dippies

There’s no mistaking a Dippie for anything else. If you see a slow-moving boat that looks like a rowboat with two people seated side-by-side in the middle, you’re looking at a Dippie.

Also known as Dispros, they were invented in Muskoka and built by the Disappearing Propeller Boat Company. The engines are often finicky and the boats are slow, but their fans love them. 

Dispros got their name from a unique system that lets the propeller vanish inside the hull of the boat while the engine is running, allowing them to travel over rocks or submerged logs without damage.

Streamliners

Another unique boat, these were built in Gravenhurst by Greavette. Incredibly curvaceous, they required amazing skill on the part of the woodworkers who had to steam and shape each plank by hand.

Lovely to look at, they also tend to offer a somewhat wet ride as waves can just roll up the side and onto the passengers!

In a typical year, all of these boats and more would be on display at one of Muskoka’s many boat shows, including the summer show of the Antique and Classic Boat Society, which is one of the largest shows in North America. In 2021 that show is being held online — you can see more details here. 


To learn more about what’s happening in Muskoka, check out these blog posts:

Posted in Around Muskoka.

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