Boulder Boat Works: An Inside Look at the Ultimate Drift Boat

Boulder Boat Works intro

Just over 10 years ago, a master carpenter named Andy Toohey wanted a drift boat that would last… forever. He started building wooden boats as a way to familiarize himself with the process of boat building, but ultimately he wanted a much better boat. He went about crafting prototypes, and his projects ultimately morphed into his current company, Boulder Boat Works. In 2001, BBW was the first company - and still one of the only - to use a bombproof plastic called VHMW-PE. Ten years later, they've finally come into their own and have doubled their sales of boats every year for the last three years. They've hit the sweet spot in terms of cost, fishing performance, stunning good looks, and unmatched durability. Read on to understand how they manufacture these specialty drift boats and why guides, serious anglers, and weekend warriors alike use them to gain the utmost advantage for catching fish and rowing the skinniest of sloughs to serious whitewater.

Boulder Boat Works crew

The crew at BBW consists of Andy Toohey (founder), Steve Ehredt (general manager), five other employees, a handful of shop dogs and a family of local subcontractors who manufacture almost 90 percent of the boat pieces in or around the Boulder, Colo. area. Even the plastic for the hulls is made from domestic natural gas. When I asked Toohey what they actually do at BBW he replied, "We take big parts to make small parts to make big parts."

How Boulder Boat Works Started

According to the guys at BBW, fiberglass, wood, and aluminum each have their place in the drift boat world. However, one complaint expressed by a number of guides, outfitters, and private clients was that these fairly expensive boats made of those materials simply weren't lasting that long. They then looked to the kayak industry and said, "Look at the material they're using, why they're using it and how adaptable it is to different hull designs." The problem was the majority of drift boats were being used in shallow rivers and took a beating. Viola! The world's first polyethylene drift boat was born. Don't be fooled though, just because the BBW crew builds boats out of plastic doesn't mean they look like kayaks. BBW combines the look of old world craftsmanship with new world materials to make an amazingly good looking boat that has a sense of elegance yet, is hardy, durable, and requires almost no maintenance.

Boulder Boat Works hull

Not only are polyethylene hulls durable and virtually upkeep free, they also are light and nimble. And unlike aluminum boats, they regulate temperature very well, never getting too hot or cold. There's no fiberglass splinters to worry about and they are far quieter than any "hard-boat" on the river when you accidentally bounce off a rock or drop your fly-box on the floor. Oh, and they draft just five inches. All this adds up to the angler being more comfortable and catching more fish over time.

Boulder Boat Works Pro Guide

Back in 2000, Toohey built four different boats that were all conceptually designed and engineered differently. He fished and rowed them hard, and simply couldn't break them. Then he took the best features of all four boats and built the first BBW boat, the Pro Guide.

Boulder Boat Works Models

There are now three models in the BBW line-up that will fit any angler's desired type of fishing set up or finishes. The Convertible River Taxi or CRT features the VHMW-PE hull, but with a fully adjustable aluminum interior frame and basically limitless seat and angler configurations. The CRT can quickly convert from a three "in-line" trout set-up to a steelhead configuration to a multi-day overnight set-up. The Pro Guide, which comes standard with the same hull, is fitted with gorgeous white ash bow stem, gunnels, ribs, seat frames, rear knee braces, and transom. These works of art come in low-side or high-side varieties and can be customized anyway you like.

Boulder Boat Works weight

With a hull weight of between 160 to 177 pounds, depending on the model, BBW boats are light - really, really light - but don't feel like it on the water. "I own a Boulder Boat Works dory due to a number of factors: It is lightweight, easy to launch, easy to row, and handles well in the wind. My BBW dory might enable me to guide until I die! Maybe that is an exaggeration, but the boat launches so easily, rows so well, and makes rowing in the wind a minor chore - not a major one - that I can easily envision guiding until I am 75," said Bob Krumm, 68, a guide on the Bighorn River in Montana.

Boulder Boat Works noise

Another attraction of the BBW plastic hull is the noise factor. It significantly reduces both noise from bouncing over rocks as well as from anglers inside the boat. "The upper North Platte river is a freestone river that presents many challenges for the oarsman. After runoff subsides it becomes necessary to slide the boat over rocks while still at the oars. My Boulder Boat Works is light, flexible, durable and quiet. Unlike fiber glass boats, my dory does not make loud cracking noises, that scare both fish and fisherman. I have taken my BBW through lower water than any other boat I have ever rowed," said Phil McGrath, who guides the North Platte River with a BBW boat near Saratoga, Wyo.

Boulder Boat Works Boats are Tough

These boats are tough, can take a pounding, and draft very little water, allowing you to fish water typically suited for much a smaller craft. "I row a Boulder Boat Works Dory because it is simply the boat most qualified for where I fish (it helps that she is one hell of a pretty boat). Our BBW dory is super tough and can handle the low water and rocky conditions we often have here. This boat has survived river accesses designed for canoes; we have one that requires a long rope, a pulley and a winch to get off the river, super low water and first year guides. The past few summers were some of the driest of record. With this boat's toughness, I was able to fish in water conditions that the other guides could not. The guys at Boulder Boat Works have really created an outstanding product that I love to fish and guide from," said Jacob Ott, a guide in West Virginia.

Boulder Boat Works Boats are Versatile

The versatility of these boats is almost unmatched in the market too, taking them from huge, pushy snowmelt swollen rivers to damn controlled fisheries where flows can change drastically day to day. "The Gunnison has a dramatic fluctuation in flows, from under 300 cfs to over 6,000 cfs. So being able to run a dory at 300 cfs has never been feasible before BBW. I can actually run the dory in lower flow than my cataraft. I like to say it "slithers" down the river in low flows and powers thru big waves and holes during high water. My clients are most impressed by the comfort and beauty, and I am impressed by the functionality. The rod storage has made me a better guide by having quick access to different rigs. The boat is light, quiet, and moves quickly from point A to point B," said Jason White, who primarily guides the Gunnison River in Colorado.

Boulder Boat Works guide feedback

The durability factor with the polyethylene is one of the major achievements that's come out all the research and development with these boats and many guides have attested to this. "Rafts have always been the preferred craft for floating our shallow and rocky rivers. Until I saw a Boulder Boat I never even considered owning a drift boat for these waters. Now that I own a Boulder Boat I couldn't imagine myself in any other river dory. This thing is not only extremely comfortable, but can take the abuse. It eats rocks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner," said Andrew Tashie from Asheville, N.C.

Boulder Boat Works Boats as Art

Strangely enough, these plastic boats elicit mostly the same "nice looking boat…" response from people who see them on the river. "There's a certain thing about fly fishing and beauty… Where you're fishing, the fish you're catching, the equipment you're using, with the boat you're traveling in. We all want something that has a sense of style or elegance or beauty, along with functionality," said Toohey. Many guides share similar sentiments. "I wanted a boat as beautiful as a perfect cast, and the Boulder Boat Works Pro Guide model is as lovely as it is technically advanced. The hull is as nimble and quick as your finest dry fly rod, and the wood trim is as beautiful as a fly perfectly presented," said Kelly Palmer, who guides out of Troy, Mont.

Building BBW Boat

It takes a ton of man-hours, quite a bit of plastic and woodworking love, and a few fish stories to get a BBW boat from start to finish. Almost everything is done by hand in their 3,000 sq. ft. shop. This labor intensive process takes roughly 10 steps. They are as follows: A. Fishermen and oarsman will cut, weld and scrape a VHMW-Pe hull by hand with scraping tools to produce one of the toughest and lightest drift boat hulls on the market.
B. Interior components are also made by hand in the shop. This includes polymer parts as well as fine finished wooden parts.
C. Small part fabrication of things like the oarsman foot brace and polymer welding tabs on Yeti coolers that ultimately become affixed to the bottom of the boat.
E. BBW does all the wood finishing for their boats in their shop, and I gotta say it shows. They look like pieces of fine furniture floating down the river. These boats need very little maintenance compared to an all wooden boat. And they will rarely damage on the chimes like fiberglass drift boats might.
F. Then the small parts are made, and are assembled to make whole interior components and have things like latches and hinges applied.

Finishing BBW Boat

The next five steps in the assembly of a BBW boat are: G. Build-Out. This is when all the parts are installed into the hull.
H. Finishing details. Things like logo plates and cup-holders are added.
I. Load onto trailer (BBW began manufacturing their own drift boat trailers in 2012).
J. Wash and shine.
K. Present to customers who are pretty excited to have the boat of their dreams. BBW has customers in 35 states and 3 continents.
So if you're in the market for a new world drift boat on the cutting edge of technology - one made with old world style craftsmanship and attention to detail, and fabricated here in the U.S. with almost all American parts - I do encourage you to give the gents at Boulder Boat Works a call. I assure you will not be disappointed. Here's a countdown of the "Top 10 Drift Boat Necessities," according to the guys at Boulder Boat Works: 10: Someone who will stand up front and not stop fishing
9: Someone who will stay on the sticks till the guy up front gets it done
8: A boat that doesn't sound like you are ruining it when it slides over rocks
7: Nice oars matter!
6: Great coolers. Cold drinks matter.
5: A strong yet lightweight boat. Anytime a human powered craft is stronger and lighter, it is superior.
4: Friends. You have to have friends to run a driftboat. It takes two (or maybe three). Friends matter.
3: Cold drinks matter alot.
2: Knowing your driftboat will last your whole life.
1: Love the river.