Among boaters that enjoy using their vintage craft frequently, Lyman boats seem to hold a very unique position. Many wooden boats that were built during the same era as Lymans are rarely in regular use and often only appear when there's a special antique boat show. Lyman boats are the exception. They are often in daily use by owners who enjoy reminding everyone that their Lyman is very comfortable, very secure and a pleasure to operate. Lyman's status in the world of classic boating remains quite special. When Lymans were new, many other boaters regarded them as “work boats” best suited for fishing, hauling cargo, or livery service. Their standard painted, lapstrake hulls were practical, easier to maintain and offered the ability to handle rough seas better than most other fancy craft of similar length. These enduring qualities are among the reasons for Lyman's continued popularity.
Bernard Lyman, the founder of the business, earned his living as a skilled cabinetmaker in Cleveland, Ohio. He occasionally had time to build one or two small boats. It wasn't long before his lapstrake boats began to gain a noticeable degree of interest among local boaters. Building boats brought Lyman a great deal of pleasure and he even thought that boat building might even be more fulfilling financially and artistically than his cabinetmaking business. In 1875 he finally decided to open a new shop to build small watercraft. To his delight, the boat business prospered and grew steadily.
In 1928, when he was 78, Lyman retired. His eldest son William, who shared his father's woodworking skills, took over the management of the boat business. Within a few years, Bill Lyman decided that there were important advantages to be gained by moving the entire operation from Cleveland to Sandusky, Ohio. It was a thoughtful, well planned move that would ultimately provide excellent potential for expanding the business
William Lyman preferred traditional boat designs that featured round bottom hulls of the clinker lapstrake construction because they were well suited for the rough water conditions common to Lake Erie. Lyman boats appealed to practical boaters who favored fishing and hunting in a secure, rugged craft that included adequate space for tackle and equipment. In addition Lyman boats were relatively easy to maintain and modestly priced. These qualities became standards for Lyman's unique niche in the boating marketplace. Bill Lyman described his boats this way:
Lapstrake or clinker-built hulls date back eight centuries or more to the Scandinavian voyagers. This type of construction had very definite advantages then that still hold today. Fundamentally, lapstrake construction implies the assembly of individual planks or strakes over a rib cage framework with a stem-keel backbone and a transom terminating board. These strakes are overlapped on each other and fastened to each other as well as to the ribs or frames, stem-keel and transom.
Lyman developed critical guidelines that would define their boats. His foremost goal was to develop soft-riding, sea-kindly hulls using consistent design features among the different lengths and models to keep his construction costs as modest as possible. During the years of the Great Depression, Lyman developed a new 17-foot inboard model with its engine enclosed in a box rather than the usual large engine compartment. This idea resulted in greater cockpit space. Many boating historians consider his 17-foot Lyman to be the industry's first production utility model. The new arrangement proved to be very popular and soon became their standard inboard arrangement for every model. The design modification was a feature that evolved into an attractive, sensible boat and helped establish Lyman's well-recognizable appearance. These qualities were well suited for boaters in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River where fishing and commuting were important activities. Mercer's Shipyard in Clayton, NY became one of Lyman's early dealerships enjoying great success.
Bill Lyman's guidelines resulted in a formula for success that carried the company through the lean years of the Depression and beyond. Lyman also offered attractive cabin enclosures as a practical option for their larger inboard utility models. In addition they sometimes built a small or mid-size cabin cruiser on special order. (“Seagull”, a 1935 40-foot Lyman cruiser is in the Antique Boat Museum's collection.) The Lyman Boat Works was one of the first privately-owned boat building firms to be assigned defense contracts at the onset of World War II. During the years of the War, Lyman built five different types of military craft for the Navy, the Corps of Engineers and the Army Air Force. In recognition of their outstanding wartime production, the Lyman Boat Works received the prestigious Army-Navy Award for Excellence.
One of the important benefits of the rigid deadlines required to fulfill Government contract work helped Lyman to achieve even greater production efficiency than their regular peacetime mode of operation. To meet strict production deadlines, hulls had to be constructed on assembly lines that required assigning their most skilled labor only for the original set-up of the molds and jigs. This approach worked so well in fulfilling the military contracts that Lyman adopted this system as their standard production procedure during the early postwar boom years. The demanding wartime experience greatly enhanced Lyman's entire production system.
In addition, Lyman's wartime use of marine grade plywood served to open their eyes to plywood's greater strength and weight advantage over traditional solid planking. Prewar Lymans were constructed with white oak frames and planked with solid Philippine mahogany. After the War, Lyman continued to use white oak frames, but switched to high-grade marine fir plywood for planking. Plywood also had the advantage of being readily available when good mahogany was still in short supply. Bill Lyman said, “Marine grade plywood is always uniform, does not alternately swell and contract like solid wood. It lends itself to a perfect bond where plank meets plank.” Plywood was not used in sheets, but cut into planks and handled as if it were conventional lumber. Bill Lyman described how their hulls were constructed in this way:
A typical Lyman hull begins upside down with a white oak stem-keel over an exact mold form to which is fastened a mahogany plywood transom. Steam formed white oak ribs or frames are spread 6” to 7” apart and are then molded into place. These ribs are full length from gunwale to gunwale with the exception of a few in the bow area which are mortised to the stem-keel. Contoured marine plywood planks (or strakes) are then fastened in place.....with silicon bronze screws.
The abundant supply of marine plywood provided Lyman with a special advantage as well. Chris-Craft, Gar Wood, Century and Hackercraft and others depended on using well-seasoned , high grade mahogany and struggled to find adequate sources. Lyman's production, meanwhile, was turning out record numbers of boats to the delight of their rapidly expanding dealer network.
During the early postwar years, Lyman quickly determined that the market for outboard boats was certain to be very strong. This suited the company's goals perfectly. Outboard models would not be held up waiting for outsourced components and could be shipped as quickly as they were produced. The shortage of inboard marine engines was caused by the enormous demand for automobiles that required the same basic engine. Lyman also understood that it was much easier to establish new dealerships for outboard boats than it was for their more expensive inboard models. Service stations, used car dealers, sporting goods and hardware stores were all eager to become first-time outboard boat dealers. Lyman kept outboard boat production moving at peak levels while building inboard Islander models only when they were assured of engine deliveries.
Over the next six years, Lyman's production-line system was frequently streamlined to be more efficient. By 1951 they could turn out one completed outboard hull every 35 minutes and a finished inboard hull every 7 hours. Their production system was outstanding in both quantity and quality. Production volume in 1951 reached nearly 4,000 units. In 1952, just as Lyman was at their highest production and marketing success, Bill Lyman suddenly died at age 69. His death ended nearly eighty years of exclusive father-and-son management. With little disruption to the operation, Bill Lyman's son-in-law, Fred Weihn, serving as corporate vice president, became Lyman's new president.
By 1958 the factory staff increased to 185 employees and production reached five thousand boats annually. As the firm entered the 1960s, greater emphasis was placed on building inboard models in response to market changes and the desire of many outboard owners to move up to larger models. Chris-Craft had observed enough of Lyman's continued success and opened their new Sea Skiff Division. Chris-Craft's well-publicized line of “round bilge lapstrake models” quickly became a formidable competitor for Lyman's traditional customers. In 1962 Lyman responded by increasing the lengths of their standard inboard utility models. Lyman dropped the term “runabout” for their 24-footer and identified it as the new “Sleeper” model with standard V-berths beneath the forward deck.
As Lyman's inboard fleet gained wider recognition, it faced increased competition from Century, Chris-Craft and even Cruise-a-Long with their sea skiff models. Lyman responded with a series of styling improvements and several new models up to 30 feet including attractive sedans and express cruisers. Lyman's new hulls featured greater beam, additional flair forward and more attractive contours to compliment exceptional performance. Their lapstrake construction approached perfection in styling and integrity. Large open models were identified as “Sportsmen” and twin engine power was standard . In today's market, the larger Lyman models command very impressive prices and are sought by serious classic boaters. Lyman developed a very loyal following within the segment of the market that they dominated. They were so comfortable in their special niche, that they were caught by surprise when traditional runabout builders invaded their domain with nearly identical models. Lyman was also slow to accept the inevitable conversion to fiberglass construction and stubbornly resisted re-tooling even though the style of their hull was an ideal form for fiberglass construction.
Lyman boats are among the most popular wooden classics that remain in regular use. Wooden boat enthusiasts report that the same reasons that made Lymans so popular in their production years, are the reasons they remain popular today. They are attractive, comfortable classics that are fun to operate and relatively easy to maintain. During the postwar years Mercer's Shipyard in Clayton became Lyman's largest volume dealership. Lyman's are still very popular throughout the Thousand Islands and the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. Vintage Lymans are regularly observed on the River serving their owners and guides as they have for decades and continue to be popular mode in regional boat shows.
By Anthony Mollica
Anthony Mollica’s first wrote professionally in his teaching career in communications. Writing for pleasure evolved from his activities with the Antique and Classic Boat Society and the Antique Boat Museum as well as his life-long interest in the history of boat building in American. He has published articles in various marine periodicals including Classic Boating, ACBS Rudder, Gar Wood News, The Antique Boat Museum Gazette Annual, Motor Boating, Lakeland Boating and The Chris-Craft Brass Bell Quarterly. He is also the author of twelve published books, many of which are available in local book stores. In September 2010, TI Life reviewed Building Chris-Craft: Inside the Factories”. A book he wrote with Chris Smith, a member of the founding family. (See Anthony Mollica on our Publications page)