By Bruce Claflin, Scuttlebutt Magazine
Boaters love a good boat show, especially a show that features antique and wooden boats. There’s a feeling of nostalgia there, a nod to a romantic era gone by. I remember the days on the lake watching neighbors and friends parade the bay in the boats they had spent the day buffing and waxing.
There were Century boats, Chris Crafts, and Correct Crafts, reflecting the sunlight and the pride on their owner’s faces. My family regularly loaded up one of those old beauties and headed up the lake for island picnics. It was an idyllic time and those memories are golden for many of us. Some of us are more in love with the nostalgia than the boats themselves, but few of us love these boats more than Tom Sweeney, the owner of Boat Art in Lakeland, Minnesota. Sweeney has been restoring old boats for a half century or more, many from nothing more than a skeleton. Sweeney’s education and training make him an engineer, one with a Masters in fact. He has applied his engineering talent at the Fraser Shipyard in Superior (where he worked on, and dined aboard, the Edmund Fitzgerald) and also in teaching engineering classes at the University level here in the Twin Cities.
Through it all, he has always worked on boats in whatever spare time he could find. As an engineer he had a sincere appreciation for boat construction, respecting some for their complexity and others for their simplicity.
Tom Sweeney did not grow up with boats. He grew up on the Mississippi River in St. Paul. One of eleven children, Sweeney and his siblings grew up descending the bluff that was their backyard and heading down to the River. He came by his love for boats naturally. As a young adult in 1965, Tom joined the Coast Guard. One of his first jobs there was to help repair the hull of a 1939 36’ Motor Lifeboat (MLB) which the Coast Guard regularly used for rescue missions. He was assigned to work with a civilian who trained him on the correct procedures for hull repair on these boats. Tom learned well, and fell in love with the process along the way. Even though he has been doing this work for 50 years or so, Tom says he still looks forward to Monday on every Sunday. At the Boat Art shop on St. Croix Trail in Lakeland, Sweeney has several projects at various stages in process. Among the current projects are a 1947 Ventnor, a 1959 Chris Craft Capri, and a Caulkins Bartender, all complete restorations. Ideally, Tom and his team will enter the winter months with 8-10 boats to restore.
While he calls himself a “recycler”, one look at his work will tell you he is more of an artist and a restoration expert. He still does much of the work himself, but Tom is also passing his knowledge and skill to others on his team there. He feels a responsibility to transfer his experiences in much the same way they were transferred to him, hands on. If you have an old boat that you’d like restored then one thing is certain–you’d want to take it to someone who’ll love it as much as you do. Talk to Tom Sweeney, he very well could be that guy.