In 1968, Dick and Colleen Wagner began renting Whitebear skiffs and other small wooden boats from the watery “back yard” of their floating home on Seattle’s Lake Union. They had been collecting boats for years, and while running a livery would help pay the bills, their motivation was to foster in others an appreciation for wooden boats. In 1976, with the help of like-minded friends, the Wagners established The Center for Wooden Boats (CWB) on the south end of Lake Union. It has been housed in two floating buildings: one with offices upstairs and a gift and book shop and meeting room on the main level, the other housing the shop where the fleet of boats for oar, sail, and paddle is maintained.
In 2012, CWB opened a second facility, an old warehouse on the north end of the lake, that would serve as a workshop and place to store its collection of old and historically significant boats. While it’s a useful extension of the facilities, the workshop is 2-1/2 miles from the Center and has no access to the water.
In January 2016, on a parcel of land on the lake shore right next to CWB, Dick and Colleen broke ground for the Wagner Education Center (WEC). The new building hasn’t yet had its formal opening, but the staff has moved into the new office space and the boatshop is up and running.
Josh Anderson, the lead boatwright (and an SBM contributor), gave me a tour. The building has over 9,000 sq ft on its two floors, tripling the space CWB has to work with. The walls are a bit of fir-plywood heaven. Over 700 sheets of it were prefinished by volunteers, edges gently rounded and faces given a clear finish. The floor upstairs is cork; on the main level it is concrete, except for the boatshop. There, two layers of 1-1/2″ plywood have been recessed and are flush with the concrete floor. The plywood is kinder to tools accidentally dropped and provides an easily renewed surface when the top layer is worn out. The combined 3″ thickness of plywood is a good base for boatbuilding forms that need to be screwed down. The boatshop occupies the south side of the building and floor-to-ceiling windows wrap around its three sides, providing not only plenty of natural light, but also a view in from the sidewalks outside. When the summer daylight gets too bright and too hot, exterior panels on vertical tracks can be lowered by winches inside to cover the windows.
When I visited, there were three boats in the shop: a Blanchard Knockabout in for repairs, a 15’ Catboat Class being built to plans drawn in 1920, and a peapod awaiting refinishing. There was still room left over for at least two more small boats. On the north side of the shop there are small rooms for tools, supplies, and Josh’s office. He built his desk from leftover bits of 2″-thick, tight-grained western red cedar.
The flight of stairs rising from the gift shop and bookstore at the main entrance has treads made from wood taken from the keel timbers of WAWONA, a three-masted schooner launched in 1897. At 166′, she was the largest of her type ever built. She served the first half of her life carrying lumber between ports in Puget Sound and California, the second half fishing the Aleutian Islands. In her retirement she rested alongside the Center for Wooden Boats until she was dismantled in 2009. Josh spent months plugging the old bolt holes, ebonizing the wood, and fitting the treads to stairway’s steel framework. The handrails were milled from lumber salvaged from a World-War-II minesweeper that came to rest at the Lake Union Dry Dock, a half-mile from CWB.
When the WEC has its formal opening early in 2019, it will already be well into the mission embarked upon by Dick and Colleen a half century ago: preserving maritime history and passing on traditional boatbuilding and boat-handling skills.