Philbrick Boat Works
you step through the door at Philbrick Boat Works, you smell the sawdust
wood glue. Outside, the air is salty, and the train whistle evokes
The building began life as a produce warehouse. It has changed a bit,
but you can still see the large sliding doors that open onto docks where
fruit and vegetables were loaded off ships from South America.
Founded in 1934 by Oakland native Don Philbrick, Philbrick Boat Works
has gained national fame for its sleek wooden power boats. Don, it is
said, lived on Pepsi and cigarettes with a reputation for working late
into the night. One wall in Don's shop was covered with pinup calendars.
This was an all male shop where wives and girlfriends were only visible
when models were needed for sales pictures for the boat catalogues.
In contrast, Russ Donovan, who began as Don's apprentice, tends to work
early mornings in the shop. Historic photographs have replaced the
pinups, and women are welcome. There are no longer signs forbidding
the workshop. A diverse group of people actually work on their boats
here, learning more each day about the craft of boat building. One
customer has been working on his own boats in the shop for the past 18
years. His current project is restoration of a 1933 Mullen-a rare
specimen, perhaps because of its poor design, but beautiful to behold.
Nearby in the shop is a 1961 ChrisCraft, a gift from father to son,
symbolizing the tradition in boat building that has been handed down
through the family.
As many as twenty wooden boat builders once practiced their trade along
the Estuary, but the rising cost of exotic hardwood combined with the
low cost of plastic and fiberglass, has put all but this one out of
business. But Russ wants to preserve the knowledge and skill of the
craft of wooden boat building. Not only does he help owners work on
their own boats, but he trains youth in summer job programs. hoping to
find special people with patience and a love of hard work and history to
learn the trade and prevent these special skills from being lost. "Out
of all the things I care about doing, I feel it is everything to keep
this craft alive."
Lake Merritt Boating Center
"Walk Along the Water"
© Oakland Museum of California, used with permission.
back to history map