Pocket Change Refurb

The five-year rehab of a MasterFab

July 2014 Feature Gary Kramer

Ray Walker is brutally honest when he describes his five-year houseboat renovation project.

“I thought it would be fun to own a houseboat and I could afford this one,” he says. But he adds, “I bought it mostly because I was crazy. I shouldn't have started it and when I got it stripped down it was worse than I thought.”

But now that the boat is finished and in the water, Ray is singing a different tune.

“It was something to do and I actually enjoyed it,” says the owner. “It was work, but now I get to use it. I couldn't afford to buy what I have now.”

His story is truly a houseboat rags to riches saga about a guy with no houseboat history and limited houseboat re-building knowledge. But it is also about the guy's willingness to learn.

“I mainly had to be told what to do,” Ray says.

It is also about the help and support he got from two other guys, one of whom also supplied the majority of the new parts for the boat.

Rick Metcalf is Ray's friend, a mechanic and long-time houseboater who owns a 1977 Sumerset. He remembers when a fleet of British Columbia-built MasterFab steel pontoon houseboats showed up in the 1980s on Center Hill Lake in Tennessee as rental boats.

He also remembers when they were later sold to individuals and recalls watching a guy spend the summer doing an extremely poor remodeling job on one while drinking beer.

Sometime later, he remembers that boat, a 48- by  14-foot, which is the one Ray now owns, sitting along the road for a couple of years before Ray thought about buying it.

His best advice to Ray at that time was, “You probably don't need to fool with it.”

Undaunted, Ray bought it and then paid almost as much to have it hauled 50 miles to the backyard of his girlfriend's house.

The fact that it was uncovered and unprotected for the entire five-year process is a big part of the story. Ray worked through all kinds of weather and whenever he wanted to work on it, he had to take off the tarps, do his work, then re-cover it. It also made storage of equipment and material a constant challenge.

“I spent $1,000 on tarps,” he recalls.

Bare Bones

The first step was to strip off the exterior siding and interior skin to expose the framing.

“It wasn't real bad until I got the siding torn off and found a lot of rotten studs,” he remembers.

But forging ahead, Ray started to figure out what he needed and as part of that process he Googled “boat parts.” One of the sites that came up was www.houseboatparts.net, a company owned by Destination Yachts in Indiana. They were his first call and according to him, the best thing he did.

From that point on, Rick maintained the position as local support and mechanical adviser and John George, material manager at Destination Yachts, became his long distance go-to guy and supplier. John says this was one of the biggest projects he has been involved with. Usually he ends up filling smaller orders.

“If it wasn't for John I could not have done it,” states Ray with certainty.

Ray estimates that he bought about 90 percent of his supplies from John. He drove the six hours or so with a truck and trailer several times to pick up his orders. And every time he did, John would take him into the shop so Ray could watch, learn and ask questions.                                               

He eventually ordered siding, windows, doors, interior paneling, two roof-top AC units, refrigerator, water heater, toilet and Purasan onboard sewage treatment system, bathroom sink and wallpaper, two, 100-gallon water tanks, 12-volt LED lights, water pump, water slide as well as fenders.

“I spent somewhere between $3,000 and $4,000 on just my first trip,” Ray says.

He kept ordering from John because the prices were far better than what he could find closer to home.

“I've got about $30,000 into this boat and I bet John saved me at least $10,000,” says Ray.

D-I-Y’s Best Friend

The other big thing he picked up from Destination Yachts was a lot of information from their website about how they build their boats. Installing the fiberglass-coated luan siding panels that came in 8- by 15-foot sections is one example.

“The website helped me a lot because they showed a lot of the steps,” Rays says.

That includes how to cut and fit and then glue the panels in place by constructing a temporary 2 by 4 stud wall on the outside of the siding. By sliding shims between the siding and the 2 by 4s, the siding was drawn tight to the framing while the adhesive cured. Ray laughs that he probably used a barrel of shims.

Installing new windows also required a learning curve. The original window openings were traced onto Kraft paper and that was glued to luan panels to create a template. Those were taken to John who then custom ordered the exact size windows Ray needed. The windows have both an outside and inside frame so it was necessary to precisely determine the finished wall thickness before ordering.

John says that new windows are often the most expensive items in a re-build. Because of their cost and the fact they are ordered to exact specifications, it is essential the measurements are correct. Being off by even a half inch can create major construction and financial setbacks. John says the way Ray did it by tracing the original openings worked perfectly.

When The Dust Flies

Cutting out the openings for the windows and doors was a messy chore. The templates were traced on the walls then a circular saw was used to cut the straight lines. To radius the corners, Ray used a 4-inch grinding wheel.

All that cutting created a mess of fiberglass dust. Rather than try to contain it as he worked, Ray found it was easier to use a leaf blower to clean out the boat when he was done for the day.

Meanwhile, because it is a steel boat, metal work had to be done. The 'toons were sandblasted for inspection and the forward 8 feet or so of each one had to be replaced. The bottom of the bow splash shield had been patched with tin barn roofing so that was another job, as was re-habbing some of the rails and eventually ordering a new roof ladder and top rails.

Interestingly, there is a front boarding ladder that slides in and out between the pontoons and that was in decent shape.

Welding Woes

Ray says one of the hardest parts of the entire job was the welding.

“My skills are not too good,” he says and Rick jokingly adds that is why Ray only did welding above the water line.

All the plywood exterior decking was replaced then coated with resin including over the mounting screws.

The top deck was re-coated with a membrane called DeckRite. John arranged the purchase then Ray drove to the factory in Little Rock, Ark., to pick it up which saved him about $400 in shipping. He had the factory weld the seams together to create a single 12- by 50-foot piece. He and several friends rolled it into position, then  rolled half of it back up, sandbagged that part in place then glued down the other half about a foot at a time.

On the back deck he extended the roof another 7 feet to create more shade. He also  installed a new roof ladder and slide and enlarged the swim platform.

Product Testing

To cover it, he used Trex, a composite deck material, but not before he did some product testing. He put one sample on a roof, put another in a bucket of water, buried the last one then left them for a year. After that, the only damage he could see was a little sun fade so he decided to use it.

The inside layout of the boat is unusual due to its original purpose as a rental boat. On the theory that pulling into shore would be the primary usage, the mid-cabin galley on the starboard side opens to a lounge area in the back of the boat. That space now holds a bed, futon and a small dining table.  A large slider gives great access and views and with the extended roof, provides excellent sun protection.

Inside the front sliding door, the rebuilt helm with a new steering box, cables and wheel is on the port side, while a bed that sits over one of the water tanks lies along the starboard wall. Behind the bed is the bathroom with a walk-in shower  and along the port hallway is a custom-made oak storage unit positioned over the other water tank.

The galley behind the head has a new propane refrigerator, the original propane stove and new custom cabinets. The counter tops and back splashes are covered with an interesting and easy-to-care for Formica.

Long Haul

With the propane appliances and two, 20-pound LP tanks and two, 8-D house batteries, Ray estimates he can stay out a week without having to fire up the generator unless air conditioning is necessary.

Because Ray wanted to retain flexibility in the interior, both beds and the hallway storage unit can be quickly and easily removed. He figures he, or perhaps a buyer someday, might want to rearrange the interior.                                            

These boats came with a 4-cylinder Volvo engine and outdrive. By the time Ray bought it, the mono hull that holds the engine and generator had flooded so re-powering was necessary. He had worked part-time for a few years as a marine mechanic and that experience helped him during this phase.

He bought a used 307-cubic-inch Chevy engine, which were only built from 1968 to 1973.  It  just needed a minor overhaul. To install it, however, he had to make new motor mounts. Then using parts from three different boats, he reworked the steering components. That alone was a two-week job.

To mount the MerCruiser Alpha One drive, he first had to weld a quarter-inch plate over the existing opening. After tracing around a template of the new drive they cut that hole out.

The generator needed a complete re-build, although that was far less expensive than buying a new one. To complete the electrical work, the service was upgraded to 50 amps.


He finally launched the boat last April and was itching to take it for a shake-down cruise. So much so that he made that maiden voyage on a day with 20 mph winds. When he was about 30 minutes from the dock, the engine quit and he couldn't get it re-started.

Luckily his good buddy and mechanical consultant Rick answered his phone. He coached Ray through a procedure using a jump wire and it worked.

After all the time Ray spent going through every part of the boat, he says, “I blew an ignition fuse under the dash that I didn't even know was there.”

There were times during the process Ray had his doubts. Working outside and not always knowing what the next challenge was going to be sometimes took a toll on him.

“You are going to get discouraged,” he says.

But then he would work a little more, see change and progress and regain hope. The boat was scheduled to make a journey to a new home at the Defeated Creek Marina and Resort in Carthage, Tenn., in the fall. Then, finally, after all the effort fighting wind, rain, snow and tarps and learning a whole lot about the this and that of houseboat rebuilding, Ray can hopefully sit back on Pocket Change and fully appreciate what he accomplished after his five long years of labor.

But even then in the back of his mind, he thinks, “I'd do it again if I had a roof.”

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