• Shown on Lake Hartwell is a boat Al Olsen will soon be working on - a 1948 Garwood. (Photo courtesy of Al Olsen)
  • Al Olsen is shown in his shop with a Chris Craft restoration in progress. (Photo/Gary Jones)
  • Shown is a boat completely restored by Al Olsen in Hartwell - a 23-foot 1950 Chris Craft holiday ( Photo courtesy of Al Olsen)
  • Al Olsen is shown in his Hartwell workshop. (File photo)

Lake Living 2018 - Easy Rider

Restoring Chris Craft Boats is a labor of love

On a cool, rainy November afternoon when it seems winter is just around the corner, Al Olsen has opened the shop behind his Lake Hartwell home. He and his golf partners had attempted, that morning, to get their usual 18 holes of golf in, but the rain wiped out his groupís round.

He has returned to his shop to talk about his passion, Chris Craft boats, and in particular a Chris Craft boat that he is currently rescuing from neglect.

It is a project he estimates he'll spend roughly 200 hours on, but he doesn't consider the project "work." 

"I'll come out here and spend three or four hours in the shop working on this boat," he said, pointing at a classic 1952 Chris Craft Continental that sits, upside down, exposed so that Olsen can remove portions of the boat that were rotting in the water on Lake Chatuge. As he talks about the details of repairing this classic boat, you can tell that he takes great joy in the restoration process.

"The bottom of the boat was rotten; (the owner) had done nothing to the bottom," he said.

In his workshop, the bottom, now on top, has been stripped completely to take the rotten and decaying portions of the boat that Olsen will re-work. That leads to an extended explanation of the marine plywood and "3M 5200 product" that give this boat its protective skin to keep it afloat.

As the project progresses, Olsen maintains a search for parts that need replacing on the boat, including the engine. He gets breaks from his project waiting on parts that he orders from special suppliers. 

One of the difficult things to acquire on those boats is African mahogany. The original mahogany on Chris Craft boats came from the Philippines, but that mahogany is no longer available.

He started working on this Chris Craft in August, and he estimates he will have the project completed in February 2019. He already has the next restoration project lined up.

"He (customer) will have about $20,000 in this boat when I'm finished," said Olsen. "These boats usually sell for about $1,100 per foot. To buy a usable boat you have to spend about $32,000."

Olsen grew up in El Segundo, California, and it was there that a family in the neighborhood built a wood boat in their garage.

"I was a kid, and I can tell you that building that boat in that garage and watching them do it impressed me," he said.

Later, in college during the 1970s, Olsen and a friend went in together and bought a boat that they used to ski in the Colorado River.

"We were young and we had great fun, but I'll tell you that going together with a friend on a boat is not a good idea," he explains. "I wouldn't recommend that to anybody, but boy, what great memories."

Olsen got married and moved to Atlanta in 1993, moved again to Hartwell in 1997, and built homes in and around Hartwell and Lake Hartwell for a dozen years. He never lost his enthusiasm for boating, and he decided to take on the restoration of a 1951 Chris Craft Riviera.

Since that first restoration job, he has restored about a dozen Chris Craft boats. And heís not alone. Olsen corresponds with Chris Craft enthusiasts, and he runs into boating enthusiasts, when he goes to shows all over the country.

He has met the grandson of Christopher Columbus Smith, the originator of Chris Craft boats, in one of his visits to a boat show.

"There are a lot of Chris Craft boats on Lake Rabun and Lake Burton, and those lakes have a lot of boathouses on them where you can store the boats in the winter," Olsen said. "They have a lot of nice boats up there."

But the Chris Craft boats, among other antique boats, are plentiful on Lake Hartwell in April, when it hosts an annual boat show. This year the show will be held on the weekend of April 27-28 at the Hartwell Marina.

"We get a lot of people in here for that show," said Olsen. "We get people who show up from Michigan, Alabama, North Carolina. They'll come here and spend a whole week here."

Olsen said his wife, Bonne, wasnít all that enthused about the Chris Craft boats until Al bought and restored a 1950 Holiday.

"I bought it, and one reason I bought it was because it was made on my birth year," Olsen said. "But when Bonne rode in that boat the first time she said, 'Now this is what I want.' I still have the boat (restored in 2010) and I'm going to leave it to my daughter and my grandson."

One of the reasons Chris Craft boats are so popular is because of the ride the wooden boats provide. The boats were first built for lakes in Michigan, which are natural lakes. Lakes in the south were an unknown commodity until the government started building dams (and bringing electricity to the region), and Chris Craft boats started coming south when those dams started providing recreational lakes.

Al Olsen said the wooden Chris Craft boat's "absorption" of the water makes for a smoother ride on the lake. Although Chris Craft eventually went to fiberglass, the old Chris Craft wooden boats still ride smoother in the water.

"It is hard to explain but the difference is the same as the difference between a hammer and a mallet," Olsen said. "It just sounds different going through the water."
Spoken by a true aficionado.

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