Reprinted from the March, 2000 issue of The Fishwrapper
Lyman: Keeping the Legend Alive
Down in Lexington, Ohio, a small burg just south of Mansfield, the sound of honest woodworking tools, and honest swearing, can still be heard emanating from a workshop out on Lindsey road. Lyman boats, you see, have made it into a new century and are going strong, due, in large part, to the gent making all the racket, Tom Koroknay, a.k.a. Doc Lyman.
The continued enthusiasm around the country for this most recognizable of all traditional wooden Lake Erie boats is pretty amazing, and is largely due to the tireless efforts of the good Doctor himself.
By the summer of 1973, Lyman wood boat production at the Sandusky plant had ceased, production having been switched over completely to fiberglass, although the wood boat building materials were retained by company management, who frequently made and shipped parts to wood boat owners. Also held in storage in the plant were factory archives, some dating back to the Lyman Bros./Boat Builders company founded by Bernard and Herman Lyman in Cleveland around 1875. The archives were a true treasure trove of drawings, half hull models, photographs, racing trophies and hull records dating back decades.
During the decade of the 1970's many factors conspired to make business difficult at the Sandusky, Ohio, plant. The fiberglass boats were not considered by wood Lyman owners as being "true" Lymans, which accordingly hurt sales. Quality, fit and finish on some 'glass boats were not up to snuff. Materials were expensive, as was labor. By 1980, Lyman had ceased new boat production entirely. They were, however, able to keep a skeleton crew employed through the repair and restoration of the wooden boats that had made the company famous in the first place.
Lyman went along from day to day through the early and mid eighties, suffering the humiliation of auctioneers, deal seekers and tire kickers. The period of stagnation came to an end in 1987, however, when the Lyman operation was finally sold to an individual from Cleveland, who planned to bring Lyman back as an upscale fiberglass line of runabouts. (An effort which eventually failed in the early 90's.) The wood boatbuilding patterns and jigs, and, amazingly, even the extensive archives, remained at the plant, but the new owner had absolutely no interest in building, servicing, or repairing the existing wooden boats. Enter Tom Koroknay.
Throughout the 1970's, Tom had worked as a homebuilder and cabinetmaker. In 1981, Tom started Koroknay's Marine Woodworking in order to fulfill the increasing demand for the service and repair of the many Lyman boats owned by his friends. In short order, home construction was a thing of the past, with Tom being fully occupied by the marine restoration business, in addition to the restoration and maintenance of the string of subsequent 26- and 30-foot Lymans he personally owned.
The call that was to change Tom Koroknay's life came in the fall of 1988 from the new owner of Lyman. He had heard of Tom, knew of his enthusiasm for Lyman boats, and was calling to offer him, for a price, the entire inventory of remaining wood boat patterns, jigs, tools, and hardware. He was also offering the plans and archives about which Tom had heard so much. In other words, the whole shebang was on the block. Time was of the essence, though. The new company management was on a tight schedule for a complete overhaul of the plant, so any old wood boat parts or patterns had to go. If they couldn't be sold, then they would be burned to make room. If Tom was going to act, he had to act fast.
On that fateful day, Tom mortgaged his own operation to buy what essentially constituted the entire Lyman wood boat building operation at the time. Not just the pattern for a particular part, mind you, but also the specialized power tool that was designed to fit into it and cut the proper bevel on the edge. By the truckload. Tom knew at the time that not only would such equipment be a tremendous time saver in his restoration shop, but that any parts produced from such tooling would be as original in configuration as if he had gone back in time and ordered them from Bill Lyman himself. Other restorers and builders might be able to come close in fit and finish, but only Tom could produce a part from the original Lyman factory tooling. Calling in every favor, borrowing every vehicle, and imposing on every friend he could think of, Tom spent the next weeks hauling truckloads of material from Sandusky to his shop in Lexington. Everything from tiny clinch nails to the entire factory 26-foot hull jig. Disorganized photographs. Piles of tired patterns and templates. All of it was carefully extracted from the wet, leaking, decrepit mess that the plant had become after years of neglect. After a two-hour drive south, it all got unloaded in Debbie Koroknay's backyard.
Frankly, some of his friends thought he was downright nuts. Wooden boats in the Reagan era? There were no wooden Lymans on "Miami Vice", that's for sure. "Poor old Tom, buying a bunch of useless junk," they said amongst themselves. "His poor wife", they whispered, "looks like that crazy Hunkie has finally gone off the deep end."
A funny thing happened, though. Just like the man who built a better mousetrap, Tom began building better Lyman parts, and doing better Lyman restorations as a result, and soon the Lyman world beat a path to his door. He was a wealth of information to boot. Pretty soon he was up to his ears in repair and restoration work, with customers willing to wait months, and sometimes a year or more in order to have Tom work on their boats. It continues to this day, which is the third decade for Koroknay's marine woodworking, and the third century for Lyman boats.
Tom's business operation is a true juxtaposition of boatbuilding eras. The wood shop is as old fashioned as the wood stove that heats the place during the blustery Richland county winters. True wood-chip and flannel shirt stuff, this. Not a crummy CAD-CAM machine or computer controlled five axis router in the joint. A place where a cold wood stove on a frosty morning makes the shop smoky, and your eyes a bit watery, for a while, and the pungent aroma of freshly planed Douglas fir seems to make the fresh black coffee actually taste a little better. Not a place, mind you, for liberal politicians, tree-huggers or anyone with the term "rights activist" in their job description. A place where you can smoke and spit and swear and nobody will holler at you, because they are all doing it, too. Not a place one would want to have the next Lillith Fair.
In contrast to Tom's shop, his office is a model of organization and efficiency. Chart tables full of original line drawings and blueprints of Lyman boats, next to a computer, scanner, fax machine and copier. Tom's Internet presence is as technically advanced as his boatbuilding shop is traditional. Because of Tom's work and planning, a Lyman enthusiast in Ohio, Maine, or even England for that matter, can log on to Tom's website, order an authentic part made from original factory patterns, pay by credit card on a secure link, and have everything shipped within 24 hours. All of which can only make life easier for those Lyman owners and enthusiasts out there, who are in search of a particular piece, part or finish necessary to keep their boats going for yet another season.
In addition to his boat shop and Internet site, Tom has established himself as the premier expert on the Lyman Boat Works, its history and the boats that they built for over a century. Tom's archival collection and knowledge have grown so considerable that he is in demand as a lecturer, his latest appearance having been at the world renowned Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia.
Tom has also provided exhibits and technical information for the Great Lakes Historical Society's Inland Seas Museum, Vermilion, Ohio, The Sandusky Maritime Museum, Sandusky, Ohio, and the Thousands Islands Antique Boat Museum, Clayton N.Y., in addition to providing historical displays for the Mid-America Boat Show's Lyman exhibit. One of Tom's latest historical labors of love has been the complete restoration to original condition of what is suspected to be the last 1930 model Lyman reverse lapstrake Class C outboard racing runabout in the world.
For those of us for whom the shape, sound and smell of a vintage wooden Lyman is irresistible, a visit to Tom Koroknay's shop is a pilgrimage that should be considered a must. Call first, though, and make an appointment. I'm sure you'll be welcome, as long as you're not planning to hold the next Lillith Fair.
Koroknay's Marine Woodworking/Lyman Boats
3718 Lindsey Road Lexington, OH 44904 - 419-884-0222