For the love of Chris Crafts

Joe Norton, aka “Mr. Wooden Boat,” demonstrates his love for wooden boats of all shapes — and sizes. The lifelong Green Lake resident, now 72, continues to restore Chris Crafts from the business he created but no longer owns, Norton Boat Works, 535 Commercial Ave. Tim Lyke photo

by Joe Schulz

When Joe Norton quit his job in 1970 to dedicate himself to restoring Chris Crafts, he thought “What the heck, when I run out of boats to restore, I’ll go find a job.”

It’s been almost half a century and Norton still hasn’t had to look for a job.

For Norton, Chris Crafts have been a lifelong passion. The way he describes it, he practically grew up in the water.

When he was about 5 years old, Norton began hanging out at the marina in Green Lake, where he learned all aspects of boats and boating.

“By the time I was 10 years old, I was driving the boats in and out of the boat houses, because back then there weren’t any boat lifts,” Norton said. “All of the Chris Crafts were kept at the marina.”

The marina was a formative place for Norton. It’s where he made his fondest memories and where he began to learn the craft of boat building.

Norton gives a ride a few years ago on his favorite lake in his favorite type of watercraft to son Tyler and granddaughter Sophie. Submitted photo

He recalled being about 6 years old and walking along a narrow walkway to help untie boats docked at the marina.

“You’d fall in once in a while and that was a good thing,” Norton said, it was half the fun of helping at the marina.

When he was about 10 years old, Norton began giving Chris Craft thrill rides.

“I’d pile 10 people into a boat and you’d get a ride around the lake and I think it was $0.50 a person or something back then,” he said of the thrill rides.

From an early age, he was helping to repair boats at the marina and learning skills that would assist him the rest of his life.

“There were workmen that were working on the boats and they didn’t really want to be crawling around in the build of the boat, whereas for a little kid that was the greatest thing in the world,” Norton said. “When they were taking hardware off, or needed a wire poked up, one of us kids would go in there. That was fun.”

Norton was hooked on Chris Crafts after spending most of his formative years at the marina. But, he faced a problem: he couldn’t simply go to college and study to become a professional boat builder.

Norton recalled going to college for archeology and geology to avoid getting drafted into the Vietnam War. He also tried to get into the Coast Guard to avoid the draft, but there were too many applicants at the time.

“The guy at the Coast Guard knew my dad, and he said, ‘Get over to Ripon right now, they have one opening at the National Guard,’” Norton said. “So, I got into the National Guard to avoid going to [Viet]nam.”

Despite his efforts, Norton ended up getting drafted anyway.

“In the process of joining the National Guard and everything else, I never got done with school. I was within, I would say, a few credits [of graduating]; who knows and who cares,” he said. “All the way through, I wanted to be a boat builder.”

Norton worked part time as a woodworker for a sign company in the late 1960s, until a fateful day in 1970 when he finally said, “What the heck” and started his own business.

“I already knew how to work on boats, I just didn’t have a company,” Norton said of the decision.

Norton Boat Works specializes in restoring and building wooden Chris Crafts, using traditional methods and vintage hand tools for the bulk of the restoration.

Joe Norton tapes a sheet around the nose of a Chris Craft to prevent different tones of varnish from bleeding together. Joe Schulz photo

Norton recalled the first time he built a boat from scratch; it was for a man from Milwaukee and he described using a book with step-by-step instructions to build the craft.

“It was kind of like a cookbook, we went along and followed all of the directions,” Norton said.

He noted it’s more time consuming to build a boat from scratch.

“To build a boat like that, starting in early fall and delivering it by Memorial Day was a full time, seven days a week thing,” Norton said.

These days, Norton has a new challenge: restoring a 17-foot Century Sea Maid. The boat’s owner began to restore it about 15 years ago, but never finished.

When the boat came to Norton, he described the vessel as a “skeleton of a Chris Craft that was beginning to lose its shape.”

“In this particular case, not only did we have to put the boat back together, but we had to get it back in shape. If a board has a twist in the bottom, the boats don’t perform right,” Norton said. “In fact, sometimes they’re even dangerous; they can tip over and you don’t get a lot of real good publicity if somebody sinks in one of your boats.”

Norton stressed once a vessel is fully restored, it doesn’t need much maintenance.

“We’ve got boats — and it’s been 25 years since we’ve restored them — that are only coming back for a coat of varnish,” he said. “If you had a classic car or something, you would be taking care of it different than your modern BMW.”

Norton believes if you’re passionate about Chris Crafts, then the challenge of restoring and preserving them is worth it.

“If you love these boats, you want to see them come back,” he said.

At 72, not only is he still restoring vessels, but Norton’s also helping to teach a new generation the art of restoring wooden boats.

About five years ago, Norton was ready to retire when Jeff Simon was renting a space in the Norton Boat Works showroom.

“[Simon] was looking for something to do and his brothers always yelled at him because he had never done anything with his hands… He bought the business and I went to work for him the next day,” Norton said. “And we’ve been continuing on. I think it’s a delightful thing to not have to own the business.”

Norton’s involvement with the boating world has transformed his life. Because of boating Norton has traveled the world, met interesting people and earned an honest living.

“I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world to happen to have grown up in this,” he said.