The Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle — Our Favorite Place in this Great City

January 20, 2016

The Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle has long set a standard for bringing people to the waterfront and getting them started as sailors and boat builders. Launched among the houseboat community on Lake Union 40 years ago, the Center still has the power to remind Seattleites of their city’s maritime heritage.

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DONATIONS:  We love this place so much, and they do such valuable work, we are not bashful about listing a link for charitable donations to CWB, first thing. This week the CWB broke ground on the new Dick and Colleen Wagner Education Center.  Here's a drawing of this wonderful new building. You can CLICK HERE to make a tax-deductible donation to The Center for Wooden Boats.


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Center for wooden boats 40th anniversary logo

1010 Valley Street
Seattle, WA 98109
p. (206) 382-2628
f. (206) 382-2699


The Fleet

The Boatshop

Preservation & Documentation Work

Building 3D Models with Digital Photographs - Study on maritime preservation with 3D models by CWB


Dick Wagner's OCH Guide Posts


Blanchard Jr. Knockabout



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– We’re in downtown Seattle at the Center for Wooden Boats. We got in at about two o clock this morning, it’s about seven o clock, and we just couldn’t wait to get up and walk these docks with you, show you the boat house, introduce you to our offcenter harbor guide Dick Wagner, who is the founder of this incredible facility.

– [Narrator] In the late 1950s, Dick and Colleen Wagner were living in a houseboat on Lake Union in Seattle. On their neighborhood walkabouts, they became friends of those that worked on and around the lake. It’s no wonder they started collecting and fixing wooden boats. By 1967 the waterfront had seen many of those people in shops disappear.

– One morning at breakfast, Colleen said we have to do something about the lake. All of those boat shops that were making highly crafted wooden boats had closed down. The only few that were left were just doing repairs, not building. We’ve seen the end of an era. The Center for Wooden Boats, you know, grew out of just watching the people come down to not only just look at traditional boats but to use them. The old boathouse was bigger than I thought it would be. We had first our neighbors and friends. They would try some boats and then they would come back and say how can we help? And I would never turn that down, a potential volunteer. And as the lake day went on, it’d be lunchtime so we invited them in, and then it was dinnertime and they were still working so I invited them, and so it ended up that many times on the floor there were one or two people sleeping in the living room. And they’d get up and have breakfast with us, and then get back to work. It was a sense of family. There was something that really attracted them to the environment and they kept calling it a living museum. And I believed it. It was not long before Colleen and I started talking about. We seemed to be growing, so, so much that we felt that we shouldn’t just close it up to the 20 boats that we eventually had behind our houseboat. We talked about the pluses and minuses of starting a non profit organization. So finally we decided to ask 20 of the people that were the most commonly hanging out and volunteering. The 20 people we asked came, but then 20 more people also came. I just said, I’ve asked you to help us decide whether we should create a non profit organization. And they all shouted yes, and I said, you’re the board. That’s how it started.

– So we just rolled down the dock here, and I gotta tell you my first impression is one of. This is a real working waterfront. You know, there is an incredible collection of little boats but, none of them are spit polished and like 12 coats of varnish. There’s a real sense that these boats are here to be used, they’re for the public, and they’re for the public to learn how to sail on. The boats the Center for Wooden Boats uses as their bread and butter, get kids out on the water, were boats that were built right here on Lake Union by the Blanchard Boat Company, late 1930s and early 1950, and they’re a Blanchard Jr. Knockabout. And they’re about a 20 foot keelboat, and there’s five or six of em lined up here. There were only 25 built originally, and the center has five that they take care of, and use to get people out on the water in groups in like boats so that they can go out and train kids and adults who are new to sailing. Kind of an impressive little fleet of a historic boat that was built right here on this lake. And a fascinating part of the history behind Lake Union and the Center for Wooden Boats.

– It is something that should start with kids. And because kids are, especially young kids. Like seven, eight, nine year old. To them, the world is a wonder of experiences. They are tuned in to trying something that they’ve never tried before. You could teach your seven year old faster than you could teach a 70 year old, who will want to know all the definition of all the different parts and stuff. I mean, you can teach a kid to sail and he can wait another 10 years before he hears the word aerodynamics or hydrodynamics, but he knows how to sail that boat. Once we started our outreach programs, it was only to those people that normally would never go to a museum. Our first outreach programs were sailing instruction for physically disabled people. Our first trial was with some veterans from a veterans hospital. And sailing instruction and boat building for teenagers, well the only teenagers we get were the ones that had been kicked out of school or homeless, or both, and in both cases when they came down there it was so foreign to them, and we learned a lot. Physically disabled people and the at risk teenagers, they learned to do something they never dreamed of. They learned how to sail boats and with the teenagers, also build boats and they learned that there were opportunities for them that they never imagined. And not just in recreation, but in understanding the practical uses of math and science. And the idea of working together as a group for the kids. And for those people that had such limited opportunities for doing anything physically, they could learn so fast. Couple years ago one of the youth program teachers came up with the idea that the end of the 10 day session they were going to build a boat, they would design it and build it. And it would start with waste materials, like plywood and old tarps and stuff like that. That really worked, these kids they came up with ideas and then came through with it, and then the boats went on a race. They didn’t race very fast, and they didn’t race without water coming in, but it was the pride of saying look at this, I built it.

– [Eric] What I couldn’t get over about the Center for Wooden Boats, is that you’re in the middle of a vibrant bustling city. But when you get out there in a rowboat or a sailboat, you feel a million miles away.

– I really wanted to learn how to sail you know, and this seemed like a really ideal place to do it.

– Public setting, open to the public, you come down and find an instructor.

– Exactly, well you sign up for a sail course. Then you just really get like six two hour lessons and a shore school. Excellent instructors, all volunteers.

– Right.

– Yup.

– So you’re getting ready to take out this Blanchard Jr.

– Yeah that’s correct, yeah.

– Is this the boat you’ve sailed a couple times?

– A couple of times. All in all about 4 hours, so, you know.

– Four hours of experience and you’re just getting ready pack out and head out again.

– Yeah, for a couple hours, yeah. It looks like a little good day for it. I feel it’s just really good, just being able to, as a general human being with a general income, being able to grasp sailing. Sometimes it can be really viewed as an elitist sport, but I think the people here and Mr. Wagner in particular, really make it accessible to the average person. And in such a beautiful setting as well. It’s nothing really you can say bad about it.

– I was out in Seattle for about two years where my wife was getting her master’s degree. And I stumbled across the Center for Wooden Boats. And I walked in and I quickly was astonished at how quickly I got checked out and in a BeetleCat. You know, I was commuting across the country, I was working in Newark so I’d commute across the country. My wife would pick me up at the airport, and we still have two hours left while the Center for Wooden Boats is open, and I’d still be in my work clothes sailing this BeetleCat around Union Lake trying to just get the stress out of me from that commute. And I just fell in love hard with sailing all over again.

– It seems like a wonderful combination of livery, working waterfront, but also it seems as though a lot of the people who come down and take out these boats, kids, adults are very much involved in the maintenance programs of the fleet.

– Yes, that’s right. Some adults are, have adopted some of the boats. They just come down and roll up their sleeves and do what they’re supposed to do.

– That’s amazing. I am just thrilled to be standing in front of this R boat Pirate. R boats, our universal rule, the same rule that the J class yachts were designed to, and these are just a smaller version of them, but Pirate was a boat that just cleaned up on the west coast, she went to the east coast to the Largemont Yacht Club, and cleaned house there. Came back here and sailed for years and fell into disrepair. The Center for Wooden Boats documented her, and put her on the historic places of the United States through the Department of the Interior, one of the few boats in the United States to have that distinction. And did a thorough restoration of her. I can’t tell you what it means to be standing here on the dock looking at her. A boat that I’ve spent a lot of time looking at photos and reading about. A stark contrast to the R boat Pirate, are these old working life barges, New Haven Sharpie. Bigger vessels, sailing vessels, but much from more from a workboat vantage point. Just another great couple of boats. The collection is really broad, and that’s the brilliant part about this place is you get to see boats that were built as racing yachts and also boats that were built as real working craft.

– The Center for Wooden Boats had no model. It was the model itself, it was a textbook for other communities around, and it started happening very quickly. People would phone me, knock on the door, well this is before the era of computers, and say, what did you do and how did you do it? And so we just started understanding and happening to see other communities wanting to have something like the Center for Wooden Boats. It just grew and grew and grew. And when we had people come and stay as interns, one came from Russia. And St. Petersburg, and it just has been happening all over the world, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the US, Callousville, Montana, Cousbay Oregon, Provo, Utah, and they all use the Center for Wooden Boats as their textbook.

– So it’s interesting here that the next handful of boats in the lineup are all from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. And what livery wouldn’t be complete without three little BeetleCats. There’s a black one, a red one, and a little green one. Great boats to get out and get kids out in, safe boats to get out on the water for first timers. In front of us here and the next boat back are two Woods Hole Sprit Boats, kind of a working fish boat from in and around Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The idea with these Woods Hole Sprit Boats is they were built to fish out of. They were work boats, fishing and lobstering but these combings come all the way up to the four deck, like a cat boat but that rig was meant to be able to come out and lay down so that they could get underneath of a stone bridge that formed the little harbor that these boats fished out of. So down here on the docks we found 11 El Toros. They’re little eight foot prams that were designed in the 1930s down in San Francisco Bay. And these are real kid trainers, get kids out on the water. I love the flame paint jobs that a lot of these have received.

– The Center for Wooden Boats has so much to give people, and they give it back to us also. It’s just wonderful to teach them how to sail and then see them doing things that they couldn’t imagine. Those are the things that makes the Center for Wooden Boats what it is.

– [Eric] For 40 years now, the Center for Wooden Boats has been the favorite place in Seattle for so many people. We’re in awe of what Dick and Colleen Wagner have achieved. It’s hard to imagine all the maritime history on Lake Union that would have been lost without the work of the Wagners and thousands of volunteers for over 40 years.

22 Responses So Far to “The Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle — Our Favorite Place in this Great City”:

  1. Avatar Nigel Jaques says:

    WOW what an interesting story and very well presented , Inspirational thank you

  2. Avatar Gregory Dudley says:

    The Buffalo Maritime Center, (Buffalo NY) is a similar facility in the eastern US. We operate a wooden boat shop, library, small boat livery, and several education programs. It’s open to the public and free to visit.

  3. Avatar Richard Whiting says:

    The next time you are in the San Francisco Bay area, you might want to check out the Spaulding Marine Boat Yard and Wooden Boat Center in Sausalito, CA.
    The yard was started by Myron Spaulding, naval architect and local boat builder in the 40’s and still continues to build and restore wooden boats. It’s a treasure.

  4. Avatar mark bratton says:

    so glad you produced this video, it is such a priceless record of Dicks thoughts and ideas that led to the creation of the Center for Wooden Boats. A project of his love and passion for wooden boats that has touched so many people. A seattle institution that I hope will continue for many more generations. Though I did not know him personally what a loss, felt I am sure by so many.

  5. Avatar Andy Reynolds says:

    This is a terrific tribute to a terrific organization, that deserves the recognition and accolades that are pouring in response to this video. I try to make a stop at CWB a part of every trip through Seattle!

    I particularly love seeing the historic photos included in this video, and at about 2:45 minutes in the video, there is a shot from above, of a herd of small boats on and around the float that was allegedly the Wagner’s “backyard” at the time…a dream backyard for any boat lover! And in the left center of that photo is a boat with a gaff rig, and dark sails. That boat is a DEAD RINGER of a boat which my wife and I recently found and purchased this year, a very long way from her home.

    Our boat, named Chimera, was built, and launched in 1980, in Port Townsend, by a builder named Samuel Connor, and I think the photo in the video is a lot older than that, so she cannot be the same boat…but she appears to be the same design, in every detail observable from the photo. We are very interested in learning more about our “new” boat, so if Dick Wagner, or anyone else reading this has any information that you can share with us about the photo, and that boat, we will be most grateful.

    We are currently cleaning her up and doing some overdue maintenance in anticipation of a re-launching later this summer here in the interior of Alaska.

    Thanks to OCH, and CWB!

  6. David Tew David Tew says:

    The first issue of Shavings (1978), from the CWB’s archive of newsletters.

    I became aware of Paul Schweiss because of the photo of a boat he built shown in that issue. A year later I was lucky enough to build a boat with him. How time flies.

    • David Tew David Tew says:

      And the CWB offered lifetime memberships for $100 then, too. What a deal, if you had the faith!

      • Avatar Dick Wagner says:

        Sorry you didn’t get in on the ground floor back then. Nowadays we only offer lifetime memberships to volunteers as a reward for exemplary, long-standing service. Nonetheless, we appreciate your regard for CWB – where we happily will celebrate our 40th Annual Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival July 2-4.
        Fair winds,
        Dick Wagner, Founding Director

  7. Avatar David Wagenblast says:

    Wow, is there any place like the Center FWB’s in the northeast? I’ been a lover of wooden sailboats for years and would love to be able to sail a small classic without having to sell my house to own one. Wonderful video.

  8. Avatar Brian Hollars says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this story!


  9. Avatar JIM REUSCHER says:

    Wonderful video ( as always) Great job again. Thank you.
    Whenever I get to Seattle I have to go to the CWB to regain the peace and serenity that we all seek. This place rocks.

  10. Avatar Michael Jones says:

    While we were in the development stage of building a boat shop as part of Heritage Village in Pinellas County Florida, we were pleasantly surprised to receive a letter of support from Dick Wagner. It was a very touching and generous gesture for him to take the time to reach out to a small organization thousands of miles away to offer encouragement. We have completed the construction phase and now have the McKay Creek Boat Shop open, showcasing Clark Mills and the development of the Optimist Pram. Our thanks to Dick and the Center for Wooden Boats for their inspiration.
    And to the crew at Off Center Harbor.

  11. Avatar Dick Wagner says:

    Ahoy Steve and Eric,

    We are so moved and delighted by OCH’s video about The Center for Wooden Boats. You tell the story of how we got here and where we are going in a way that we know will inspire and attract more and more people to CWB. You have shown how so many people came unknowing to CWB and how we changed their lives. They leave here proud of their achievements, having had more fun than they ever could imagine while learning new skills that will last them a lifetime. We are grateful for your enthusiasm and diligence in putting together our story.

    Off Center Harbor and The Center for Wooden Boats are a great team. We look forward to your next visit to the Pacific Northwest. We’ll always be able to find a berth for you.

    Fair winds,

    Dick and Colleen Wagner, Founders
    The Center for Wooden Boats

  12. Avatar George Johnson says:

    I have a Navy Friend that lives just outside of Seattle and I was wondering HOW can I send him this video.
    Geo. Johnson

    • Steve Stone Steve Stone says:

      Hi George. You can forward home the email you received from OCH. Or you can always copy the page’s URL and paste it in and email to your friend.

  13. Avatar Lou Kimball says:

    Seems like every video I watch, I say to myself “Best yet!”, but you know what? They just keep coming.
    Great job guys!

  14. Avatar Larry Cheek says:

    A huge thanks to Eric and Steve for meeting an arduous schedule—arrival in Seattle at 2 a.m., on the CWB docks at 7!—and producing such a detailed and warm-hearted video on this Seattle treasure. And more thanks to Dick and Colleen Wagner for creating it.

    My wife Patty and I took our beginning sailing lessons in the CWB’s Blanchards ten years ago. I had already started building my first sailboat, a 13.5′ Devlin melonseed, and it had belatedly occurred to us that it might be good to know a little about sailing by the time we were ready to launch. Those early lessons led to U.S. Sailing certification courses, the building of two more sailboats, and many articles I’ve written for Woodenboat magazine—and an all-absorbing passion for wooden boats that will certainly last the rest of our lives. This is a great organization, and it continues to make a substantial difference in peoples’ lives.

    The CWB is about to start on new classroom building and boat shop adjacent to its current (picturesque but cramped) Lake Union quarters, and is in the midst of an ambitious capital campaign to fund it. If you’re impressed by its work, consider making a contribution. You can read about the new facility, designed by one of Seattle’s best architectural firms, on the CWB website: . And you’ll find a “Donate” button therein.

  15. Avatar Chris Cournoyer says:

    Excellent job Eric and Steve. I echo Judie Romeo’s praises above. T’was a pleasure to meet you both again in Pt. Townsend a day or so later than you filmed this. Based upon your two a.m. arrival and filming at 7:00, I see why your earlier series was titled Sleepless in Seattle.
    Of course time and tide wait for no man…. and we can sleep when we are dead! Thanks for rising early and capturing these images. It was wonderful to see.

  16. Avatar Martin Gregory says:

    Went out to Seattle to paint a house for a friend and while walking around just seeing the city ran into Dick early on a Sunday morning while looking down into the boat basin at CWB. 10 minutes later was sailing one of the beetles with him. Was a volunteer/employee there for 8 years.

    Dick is one of Seattle’s natural resources, a great person.

    Marty Gregory
    Two Rivers, WI

  17. Avatar Judie Romeo says: in Brooklin, Maine – our favorite place on the web!
    Thank you Steve and Eric for showcasing to the world what we do here on Lake Union. Your video is a wonderful tribute to what Dick and Colleen Wagner created and what thousands of volunteers and staff have grown into a place where traditional wooden boats are the foundation for a diverse variety of hands-on learning and heritage preservation. You have captured the spirit and the essence of CWB. We all are deeply grateful to have our efforts recognized in such a beautiful way.
    Judie Romeo
    CWB Volunteer since 1986

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