I can so easily gush about the cabinetry and carpentry coming out of Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding, but truthfully no amount of gush suffices. While some of the photographs here reveal the razor-tight joints, panel perfection, and carved and inlaid highlights that grace the company's projects, you have to tour a fleet of Lyman-Morse builds to realize the astonishing variety of styles and construction techniques the yard is capable of. And you have to spend some quality time on any one of its vessel to comprehend how stem-to-stern cohesive a given style is and how integrated it is with the yacht's systems and purpose. Still you might miss the melodious process behind the harmonious beauty, i.e. the creative collaboration between craftsmen and clients that's become a Lyman-Morse hallmark.
Mac Ferris and Bill Belyea check out a quarter-sawn mahogany door created by their woodworking department. The templates at left are among hundreds that make repetitive cabinet-making processes fast yet precise.
So, yes indeed, I'll gush about the world-class woodworking that's being created in little Thomaston, Maine; heck, I'll even evoke Aretha Franklin's stellar soul anthem to suggest what I figure is the key ingredient behind it. You see, for more than three decades now, I've been living two towns up the coast from the yard and have thus had a ringside view of its evolution. I remember the early 1970's when the scene within its then-dilapidated sheds did conform to the Downeast boatbuilding stereotype—you know, red oak hand-planer shavings on the floor and a potbellied stove in the corner. I remember, too, how Cabot Lyman brought in not just his name but large dollops of youthful vigor and technological inquisitiveness. By the early 1980's Lyman-Morse was turning out high-end custom and semicustom yachts hulled primarily in composites and sumptuous with wooden cabinetry and deck joinery. The die was cast, though I doubt that even Lyman foresaw what his company would become in this century.
Today Lyman-Morse has subsumed most of Thomaston's waterfront as well as a satellite service yard and a nearby metal-fabrication plant able to create custom fittings as well as hulls in aluminum or steel. Last spring it pulled up the gargantuan bifold doors of its new solar-assisted construction shop. Lyman himself presided over this literal grand opening, but day-to-day operations are now the purview of partner J.B. Turner, a master of lean management. When I learned that 184 employees now report for work each day (wasn't it just a hundred?), I couldn't resist asking, "But where's the sales and marketing department?" "That'd be me," grinned Turner, as he sat me down with the two men he credits with Lyman-Morse's wood mastery.
Bill Belyea is the overall foreman of the boat carpentry department, currently 50 craftsmen and -women strong, and Mac Ferris runs the "bench shop." It's quickly apparent that they work with each other, and Turner, as colleagues and friends, and they love what they do. Belyea started at the yard 26 years ago and recalls how—once accustomed to the "very fussy, very artistic" standard expected—his first specialty of fashioning complex sailing-yacht cabintops was "literally like coming to a playground: just too much fun!" Ferris arrived on the scene in the late '90's, after 25 years running his own fine woodworking and cabinetry operation. His passion for the subject is palatable, and he's the guy everyone refers to as The Artist.
Obviously Belyea and Ferris are very capable artisans themselves—and one of the compliments they dole out to their team members goes something like, "Wow, I wish I'd made that!"—but they're also managers, and they spend a lot of their time these days working with customers. In fact, they're more involved in design than even a client with prior custom experience might expect. That's a Lyman-Morse trait and worth a moment's explanation. The company always builds to plans from an outside naval architect, the cream of the crop, but typically uses grand plans, filling in the details in a process that includes its own draftsmen, experts like Belyea and Ferris, and the client. Actually, the total procedure even entails two contracts.
First a potential customer agrees to a design/cost workup and the building of elaborate mockups of key spaces like the main saloon, galley, flying bridge, and the like. And I mean elaborate; you'd find enough furniture, cushions, flowers, and other details that you could really imagine yourself yachting therein. The mockups, though, are built by a special crew composed mostly of former house framers. Belyea and Ferris got laughing when I asked if their teams did them; "They'd be mitering CDX plywood to business-card tolerance!" Ferris said. At any rate, if the client is ready for the plunge, another cost-plus contract is drawn up, and that's when Belyea and Ferris really go to work.
I cannot overstate how much detail goes into these boats. As I questioned the wood wizards about the process, even they were a little amazed at how casual they've gotten about, say, the typical paneling progression. Using photographs of past builds and their own lumber inventory—"which a furniture maker would kill for," says Ferris—they first help a client choose species (as well as trim and panel styling). Then, as for a current 54-foot project, one of the duo might visit a hardwood supplier and pick out two whole maple logs to be turned into plank stock and sequentially marked veneers, all of which is shipped to Thomaston.
Next they go through every veneer, deciding where it will appear in the finished yacht. Most then go to a Rhode Island subcontractor who bonds them into various flat panels using core recipes that might include stiff but lightweight honeycombs, sound-deadening cork, and even structural carbon fibers, depending on use and budget. In the case of the 54, the remaining maple veneers were stashed for special in-house projects like vacuum-bagged, curved-bulkhead corners and a super select grain sequence that will wrap around the back of the galley. When I asked, "You mean like a tree unrolled?" Belyea and Ferris nodded and grinned.
This finished Mac Ferris work began as an antique chart detail.
That's just the beginning. If a client, say, wants a special sink in a head, Ferris might design the vanity that will make it work. Particularly secure and accessible drawers for an onboard PC? Belyea makes sure that all the specialty work involved integrates. I could go on and on, but, lest you think I drank some sort of Lyman-Morse Kool-Aid, let me introduce Russ Irwin, a Californian I know independently via Panbo, my electronics blog. He's a year into that maple-lined 54-footer—usually visiting the yard every five weeks—and said that while it's "at least an order of magnitude more complex" than the three major home builds he's undergone, it's also a much more pleasant experience.
Irwin credited Belyea and Ferris with doing "a great job of hearing what we want when we're certain and suggesting alternatives when we're hesitant." He went on to say that "No wood is cut until everyone is comfortable and confident about the design and the finishes. They never seem to get frustrated or impatient, they just work through everything, and if we change our mind the next week, they move on with us. These guys are a joy to work with!"
Now, I've heard this sort of thing from enough other Lyman-Morse customers, and about enough other Lyman-Morse personnel, to conclude that it's more about the whole company's personality than any one individual's. And there are more aspects to its culture worth mentioning, like openness. Clients don't get led around unless they want to be and are free to chat up any worker. "These are smart people," said Turner, "they know how businesses work, and we have nothing to hide." And while wandering around, you won't hear yelling. "Doesn't happen here," Belyea claimed, though he does admit awarding an occasional bad joint "rat award." Ferris added, "The woodworkers are their own worst critics."
Are you getting the picture? What I see at Lyman-Morse is vast mutual respect amongst management, craftspeople, and clients, who together respect quality and beauty. It's a virtuous circle; challenging projects and an excellent working environment attracting top-notch talent, superb results attracting more challenging projects and financing further expansion, and so on. Today seven entirely different custom yachts—ranging from 38 to 94 feet, and each in her own way one of those woodworking "playgrounds" Belyea enthused about—are in build, and Turner says there's plenty of work for two years out and room for more. I'm convinced that the lubricant that has Lyman-Morse humming is spelled r-e-s-p-e-c-t. What's hard to tell is just who sports the proudest smiles at the launchings.
For more information on Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding, including contact information, click here.
This article originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.