Recollections of Henry Donald Canazzi,
Owner and Designer of Custom Craft Boats.
By his son, Craig, and daughter, Kim.
Our father was a vital, competitive and inventive man born in 1917 in Buffalo, New York. He went to Lafayette High School and played basketball for the school team. He loved horses and rode on the trails that once wound around Buffalo starting at the Saddle and Bridal Club built in 1922. He came from modest means but with his enterprising nature, built a unique business in the boating industry eventually becoming the 3rd largest small boat manufacturer in America.
His father, Anthony ‘Pop’ Canazzi, was a tugboat engineer and worked on the construction of the Peace Bridge between Buffalo N.Y. and Fort Erie, Canada in 1925-1927. So our father grew up around boats and developed his ‘water-sense’ on the tricky unpredictable Niagara River.
Before the war, he started a business partnership selling motor yachts and marine accessories to a wealthy cliental in the Buffalo area.
This first venture into the boating business was interrupted with the advent of WW2. He was in the US Navy within a month, stationed in Key West running 73‘ sub-chasers. Here his engineering and design skills were found useful to the Navy for which he created a new motor for use in PT boats, a new surface torpedo, and a new efficient design for a boat bottom.
After contacting malaria in Cuba which necessitated his recall from active duty, he was summoned to Washington where he became well known for his work in the engineering and patent offices.
After the war, Dad returned to Buffalo dissolving his partnership, establishing his own marine retail business. The location on Niagara Street had a gas station, docking and boat storage areas. On the second story of the main building Dad had his offices and oddly enough, a space for selling unfinished furniture! It was from this that he got the idea to start selling plans for boats that people could build themselves. His successful business, in selling the plans and patterns of boats he designed and those of other designers to which he gave royalties, grew into selling packaged boat kits. This part of the business was a success in large part because of the invention of plywood and new innovations in adhesives. Dad always had the vision to incorporate new technology into his projects and designs. He was a pioneer in the mail–order business in plans and patterns, frame kits, hull kits, and boat kit manufacture.
A new factory was needed for all this assembly of precut parts. You could buy anything from a houseboat to a sailboat and receive everything you needed to construct it right down to the nails and even a ships hammer!
Dad always loved to design boats with high performance and speed. He was always reengineering them for the fun and creativity of it. We had a family boat named “The Boo”. It was an old ChrisCraft that he elongated and then installed some formidable inboard motors under what appeared to be seats. We would have family outings on the Niagara River going under the Peace Bridge to Point Abino on the Canadian side. I say family outings but what I really mean is, white knuckle drag races. We would be motoring along and some young guy would come up close to us, rev his motors and take off. Dad would let him get ahead then give “The Boo” full throttle. The motors would roar to life like giant lions leaping after prey and we would leave the poor bewildered challenger behind in our wake.
When fiberglass as a structural material appeared on the market, he began to experiment with it, first in the design of his own cars [see the photo of his Studillac] where he incorporated a massive Cadillac engine within a modified Studebaker body. When he understood all the possibilities of this material, in terms of what it could mean for boating and hull design, this was the real beginning of Custom Craft boats.
Dad took the core of his most talented craftsmen and began another business. Those men named Willi, Henry, Halle, Freddie and Philly, (their last names are lost to us now) we are pleased to mention because without their talented hands in woodworking, and fiberglass molding, he would have been hard put to create the prototypes that he did.
Many patents and innovations came out of those years of work in the late 50’s and throughout the 60’s. The process of creating a fiberglass boat has many stages, the first of which is the design stage. Dad had the vision for a totally modern small craft pleasure boat. He wanted the boat to be smooth riding, fast, maneuverable, and importantly, affordable. He had been designing hulls for some time and had developed innovative ideas to meet those criteria. Heretofore, small pleasure craft were pretty rough riding, poorly appointed, spray in your face, knock-about experiences for the “small boat enthusiast.
By reducing the surface area of the hull, there would be less drag in the water hence more speed. To keep the stability of the boat, he engineered what he called a “tri-step configuration” modeled after the three-point hydroplane. His hulls had a series of molded pontoon-like shapes that ensured stability at higher speeds. He developed multiple deep V hull forms that answered the challenge of creating an amazingly soft ride.
As was stated, the first stage in making a fiberglass boat is the design. For the prototypes, he used wood mockups taking advantage of Willi, Halli and the others. These first test models had to be tried in the water. Many a cold day, Dad and his team were out on the Niagara River with ice chunks floating by and a rescue boat running alongside in case something went wrong.
Next came making the mold from that prototype, and improvements were made at each stage. The hulls had shapes that couldn’t be released out of a simple mold, so Dad invented the split-mold process so that the mold could easily be opened, releasing the fiberglass hull.
Finally came all the other processes that went into making a finished product. He wanted to keep a standard of excellence and innovation every step of the way. For instance, he was the first to introduce aerodynamic wrap-around windshields, replacing the straight stand-up types. He put headlights into the front-end design; he introduced gold flecks into the high gloss custom paint finishes, and his upholstering rivaled anything you could find in boats or cars of the day.
Pleasure boating no longer was just for the elite. Everyone could enjoy boating in these state of the art beautiful boats. At his height, Dad shipped boats all over the world. What he promised in his advertising was true! He provided “the softest, driest ride in boating”…. And “The purchase of a CUSTOM CRAFT boat is and INVESTMENT in LUXURY as well as VALUE.”
CUSTOM CRAFT MARINE CO. INC. OF BUFFALO
A brief history by Norm and Sharon Dickinson
Like many companies, Custom Craft began as a hobby. In 1932, Buffalo native, H. Donald Canazzi, with his father, Anthony, expanded his hobby of boat building into a business that was later called Marine Mart. (EDIT: According to family, this was never a hobby for Hank or his dad).
Canazzi joined the Navy in 1941 and spent much of his free time drawing plans for various types of small boats. After being discharged in 1945, he resumed his boat building business, Marine Mart, at 1700 Niagara Street, the location of the former Commodore Perry Harbor. Marine Mart produced packaged or kit boats for sale and shipment to the do-it-yourself boat builder and was home to a 250 slip marina. Marine Mart kit boats were shipped all over the United States and to several foreign countries.
In the mid 1950’s, Canazzi began experimenting with fiberglass, molds and designs that the flexibility of fiberglass would allow. In 1956, Custom Craft Marine Co. Inc. of Buffalo was formed. Canazzi built his first fiberglass boat in 1958 and he experimented with split molds that would permit him to design more radical and efficient hull designs. In 1959 Canazzi concentrated on boats 15’ – 16’ long and developed the modified catamaran. At this time, Custom Craft has over 40 different models of fiberglass boats and 70 different wood boat kits.
Custom Craft became a publicly traded company in 1960 and had over 400 dealers worldwide and licensed Canadian and Spokane, Washington companies to produce Canazzi designed boats.
In 1961 outboard manufacturers (Mercury, OMC, Westbend and Eaton) introduced the inboard/outboard propulsion system and Canazzi incorporated these motors and drives in certain boat models.
In 1962 Custom Craft had three area leased plants at 1700 Niagara Street, foot of Sheridan Drive and 135 Watts, off of Tonawanda Street, with anticipated production of 1,400 boats a year and were shopping for a fourth plant.
In 1963, Nova Equity Corp. purchased majority control of custom Craft and moved all production to the former Owens-Illinois Glass Co. building at Northumberland and Kensington Avenues, which was owned by Nova Equity. By April 1964, Custom Craft reported booming sales with boats being exported to England, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, South Africa and Morocco. In August 1964 Custom Craft suddenly reports financial losses, closes its manufacturing plant and in September auctions its inventory. Custom Craft filed for bankruptcy in October.
MFG acquired the assets of the Custom Craft Marine fiberglass division in January 1965. It was MFG’s intention to build Custom Craft boats under their brand name but market conditions at that time did not favor expansion. It is believed that Canazzi’s brother-in-law took control of the wood kit boat division under the Clark Craft name that is still in business today and is located on aqua Lane, Tonawanda, New York.
(Composed from articles found in the courier express and Buffalo Evening News.)
Check out the photo albums page for brochures, news articles, and patent information as well as members boats still in use.