Two men and a boatyard

As far back as they can remember, Joe Bakketun and John Thomas have loved boatbuilding.

Both were born and raised in Seattle, where having fun on boats is a common family pastime.

As a boy, Joe, now 59, helped his father build several skiffs. Joe studied photography in college, but his boat-building skills were good enough that in 1975 he was hired at Fishing Vessel Owners Marine Ways (FVOMW) in Fishermen's Terminal. He was assigned to the machine shop, but it didn't take long for his employers to learn of his preference for marine carpentry and to transfer him to the carpentry shop.

John, 47, was an apprentice in a boatyard as a teenager. After high school he studied boatbuilding for two years at the Gompers Branch of Seattle Central Community College (now known as SCCC's Wood Construction Center). He worked at three large boatyards, including Marco, before joining the carpenters at FVOMW in the late 1970s.

Joe and John worked together for several years and became friends. By the mid-'80s they were both dissatisfied with their jobs and decided to open a boatyard of their own, focusing exclusively on marine carpentry.

Marine carpentry differs from house framing or cabinetry in several ways. For starters, there are more curves and angles to calculate. When a piece of wood needs to be more curved than it is in its natural state, Joe and John use a technique called steam bending.

First they cut a plywood template. Then, using that as a pattern, they cut the good piece of wood. They place that in a crude wooden box, which they connect to a steam-producing boiler with a hose. "Cooking" time depends on the thickness and type of wood; usually it's one hour per inch of thickness. When the wood has been sufficiently steamed, it's installed in place as soon as possible while it's still pliable.

Another difference from regular carpentry is that a greater variety of woods is used. The stem piece on a boat's bow, for example, is made of a hardwood like gumwood or purple heart. On the other extreme, a soft wood like Douglas fir or yellow cedar is used for planking. There is a large spectrum of woods in between. Of course, Joe and John always have to consider how the wood is affected by constant exposure to water.

BAKKETUN AND THOMAS Boat Company went into business in 1986. Joe and John owned a lot of hand tools between them, but no machinery. Their first job was to replace two worm-damaged planks on a dory.

Their shop was located on the Fremont side of the Ship Canal. After four years, the biotech and dot.com takeover of Fremont forced them to relocate.

They moved across the canal to the Queen Anne side (convenient for John, who lives with his wife and daughter on Queen Anne). They are now lo-cated in a cavernous warehouse almost under the southeast end of the Ballard Bridge.

Once you find your way off Nickerson, across the railroad tracks and around other warehouses, theirs is conspicuous. Possibly a perfect cube, it is covered in peeling aqua paint. Healthy tomato plants and marigolds burst from barrels and a single flowerbox, dwarfed by the fa├žade of the warehouse. There is a rustic but comfortable sitting and barbecue area by the entrance, covered by a trellis.

Inside, the floor is clean except around the work tables, which are ringed by sawdust. Large mechanized tools are arranged about the space: table saw, jointer, drill press, chop saw, several sanders and three band saws.

"We use our band saws more than any other large tool in the shop," says Joe. Their fine blades, which loop around two wheels, can cut curves. One band saw, smaller than the others, can cut sharper curves.

A monorail crane dan-gles from the ceiling far above, and a catwalk that services it juts out precariously from the wall.

There are countless hand tools, which hang neatly on the walls when not in use.

Two docks extend out over the water from the warehouse; here their customers moor their boats. At first most were work boats, fishing boats especially, like the classic wooden halibut schooners the Masonic and the Northern. Now, because of the way the fishing industry has gone, and the fact that most new boats are not built of wood, the majority of B&T's customers own pleasure boats.

A regular sight at the B&T dock is the Thea Foss, a 120-foot yacht built in 1929 for actor John Barrymore. Joe and John do annual refits and repairs, and they also have taken on larger projects such as rebuilding the deck and the crew quarters.

Recently they completed the restoration of the Cape Falcon, a 65-foot trawler yacht. Owner Frank Bohannon can't sing their praises enough: "My boat is exquisite," he says. "Joe and John's work is the best you can get.

"They have a team of really good guys," he continues, "plus they are nice guys themselves. Not one un-kind or heated word was said in 30 months."

Joe and John never wanted to run a big yard. Their yard is pretty much the size they envisioned when just the two of them started the business. Now, depending on the workload, they have four or five employees, plus itinerant caulkers. (Caulkers make a boat watertight by packing the seams with cotton and oakum.)

They look for the usual assets in employees: reliability and skill in their trade, which is increasingly rare. They also look for a willingness to keep learning. "Boatbuilding school teaches the basics," says John. "To become a well-rounded, journeyman shipwright takes years of work in a boatyard."

Over the years responsibilities have gradually been relegated rather than shared. Joe spends more time in their tiny office, atop a steep stairway in the corner of the warehouse. He runs the business side of things, making phone calls, doing paperwork and so forth. John works more directly with their employees.

As for individual fortes, John is reputed to be an awesome natural fitter, and Joe has an artistic eye (perhaps his training in photography exerting its influence).

OCCASIONALLY Joe and John do small or odd jobs. In the summer they may find themselves cutting a piece of plywood for a speedboat. Once they built and mounted a mast in the front yard of a sea captain so he could fly his signal flags. Another unusual job was to transform an old Greyhound bus into a "land yacht" (motor home), complete with sauna.

Usually, though, they stick to serious work. Now, among other jobs, they are helping restore the Ranger 9, a 49-foot boat built by the Forest Service in 1930.

Of course, Joe and John have lovingly restored boats of their own. John's is the Auklet, a 43-foot bridge deck cruiser. Joe has the Molle B., a 32-foot former salmon gillnetter that was named for his Norwegian great-aunt.

The feeling in their shop is relaxed but productive. When everyone is working, you hear tools, not voices. But sometimes they thoroughly relax.

Coffee break is promptly at 10 every morning. Topics of conversation include politics or, during baseball season, the Mariners. Once they held a pie contest during coffee break. Periodically the owner of the Ranger 9 cooks a "Norwegian stirfry" for lunch, often with salt cod as the main ingredient, always with wine.

Once a year they organize a silly boat parade. Participants include the Auklet, the Molle B. and sometimes customers' craft. Boats and people alike are adorned in Polynesiana.

But don't be fooled by Joe and John's penchant for fun. The consensus is that the quality of their work cannot be surpassed. Since word-of-mouth is their only form of advertising ... pass the word.

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