Another Man's Treasure
By Scott Henze
Nine thoughts on the search and the research for parts that can't be found.
Whether you just bought an old fixer-upper or still meticulously maintain the boat you bought brand new in 1995, you're going to need replacement parts. Some are going to be easy to find, some are not. As your boat gracefully matures, finding parts for her will continue to become more challenging. Unfortunately there is not a giant place where all of the obsolete, hard-to-find parts congregate, waiting for you to come and pick through them. For some people, finding replacement parts for a vintage boat can be like the quest for the Holy Grail, while others are happy with whatever will get them back on the water. Whatever your approach, here are some things to consider as you begin your search.
Define Your Goal
Are you maintaining a museum piece or a functional recreational vehicle? Regardless of how old or rare your boat is, original replacement parts can almost always be found if you are willing to invest enough time and money. I know plenty of people who are willing to spend countless hours hunting down a period-correct flag pole socket and pay $200 for parts, shipping, and re-chroming, while others are content with a perfectly acceptable $10 replacement that is available off the shelf.
If you are restoring an old classic boat, it may be worth the cost and effort to track down original replacement parts. Most boats are not investment projects. If you accept the fact that you stand virtually no chance of turning a profit on it when you go to sell it, it becomes easier to make legitimate parts substitutions. I'm not questioning the validity of paying $200 for a flag pole socket; in some cases, it may be the right move. Just understand that you will never recoup that investment.
Tracking down the parts does not guarantee the condition it will be in. Unless your part is lost or damaged beyond repair, reconditioning your old parts can often be an easier solution. Replacing a broken cleat may be as easy as sifting through a bucket of these which is commonly found in boatyards.
Don't Take No For An Answer
If you have committed yourself to the project of tracking down a hard-to-find part, be tenacious. When you're talking with a parts supplier, understand that he may not share your passion for the quest and the easiest thing for him to do is to tell you that the part is no longer available. That usually means he just doesn't know. Ask specific questions: Who manufactured the part? Where were they made? When exactly did they stop making them? If a supplier can't answer these types of questions, move on to the next guy.
Take No For An Answer
Sometimes a part is legitimately no longer available. Again, with enough time, money, and patience, you can probably find one by relentlessly scouring salvage yards, and it still may need to be reconditioned. Boat years are like dog years and trying to find a cleat for a 10-year-old boat can be like trying to find a new liver for a 70-year-old man. Boatbuilders are notorious for changing parts suppliers, often in the middle of a production run, and parts manufacturers come and go. If your supplier can satisfactorily answer your questions — "That cleat was made by Company X from Newport, Rhode Island, in the mid-1980s" … "In 1989, the company was bought by Company Y who went out of business in 1996" — then you can accept that the part is truly no longer available.
Contact The Boatbuilder
It may seem obvious, but this is often the last place people look when trying to find parts. In my experience, it is rare to obtain an actual part from a builder, but what they can provide you with is valuable information about it. The parts department for a typical boatbuilder will usually only have parts for current or very recent models, and they rarely keep records for boats older than 10 years. What you're looking for when you call the manufacturer is the person who has been with the company the longest. Employees come and go, and their product knowledge typically is limited to boats built during their tenure. The old-timers may not be able to give you specific, detailed information, but they can usually rattle off a list of suppliers that they used during the time period when your boat was made. If nothing else, this will at least get you looking in the right direction. Also, many of the more established companies will sell their entire obsolete parts inventory to one or two third-party parts retailers who will then specialize in providing parts for that particular manufacturer. I am aware of several of these satellite parts dealers and many of them were started by former employees of the parent company. While they are not technically affiliated with the boatbuilder, the builder's official parts department is aware of them and they are usually more than happy to help you get in touch with them.
Beware Custom Parts
While most builders will design their boats around commercially available parts, occasionally the design will require something custom. If the builder set up his own tool and die shop to cast custom rail fittings for a model they built in 1979, you stand almost no chance of finding an exact replacement. Accept this. Also beware modified parts. I ran across a raw-water strainer once that was clearly made by Perko. It had their name and logo all over it but was two inches shorter than any of their standard sizes. When I called Perko, they denied having ever made a custom size. After considerable research, I discovered that the boatbuilder had purchased a supply of a standard size, cut the sight glass down by two inches, shortened the connecting rods, and cut the basket down and welded a new bottom to it. The only way to get a replacement basket for that strainer is to buy a longer one and make your own. Seriously, this stuff happens.
Do Not Fear The Drill
The most common reason people give for wanting to find exact replacement parts is that they don't want to drill new screw holes. While the very thought of poking a hole in a boat seems counter-intuitive, sometimes it has to be done. The biggest mistake people make in this situation is trying to find a replacement with the closest screw pattern possible. This usually means wallowing out some of the existing holes to where they are now too big to hold a screw. Whenever possible, find a replacement that will cover the old parts footprint and screw holes but whose new hole pattern allows for a structurally sound installation.
Use Quality Parts
Chrome-plated zamak and stainless steel both look great sitting on the shelf at the boat store and it's hard to justify the price difference between them until they've both been on the water for a couple of seasons. Your boat probably has zamak, zinc, or pot-metal fittings on it somewhere. When the time comes to replace them (and it will), consider upgrading them even if it's not a direct, period-correct replacement. I've never known anyone to regret buying quality.
Here are two websites Scott Henze has used when specific parts are needed:
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