A Tour of East Tennessee's MasterCraft

An inside look at how those cool boats actually get made

Located on the banks of Lake Tellico in Vonore, the MasterCraft factory could be any gated industrial complex of big-box buildings punctuated by a flagpole. Only a single dock on the lake itself hints at the presence of the single largest producer of luxury performance powerboats in the world. The lobby of the main building—where all of MasterCraft's executive and administrative staff do their work—is small and modest when you consider that this company sells boats in over 30 countries across the globe. The several buildings on this industrial campus are the workplace of every one of MasterCraft's over 500 employees—it's the company's only manufacturing facility.

How do these boats come together? Marketing Manager Josh Shave showed us around the facility to share the story of these handcrafted vehicles made by a company that was born 45 years ago in a horse barn in Maryville.

When you see one of MasterCraft's brilliantly colored vessels glide across the lake this summer it might be difficult to believe that its assembly started with what you see first; those brilliant and glossy colors are the first step in a process that takes seven to eight days to complete. Boats are built from the outside in, so it can be hard to imagine the level of care and craftsmanship required to construct something that gets its very last coat of paint at the very beginning of its manufacture.

In reality, the MasterCraft method takes much longer than the seven days it takes to build a single boat. And it's a method that is punctuated at both beginning and ending—and many points along the way—by people. MasterCraft consults end-users who are also experts—professional water athletes—who help them design and build prototypes for specific applications like slalom skiing, surfing, or wakeboarding. Once the prototype is built and approved by these very practical experts, molds are made of the component parts and reinforced by steel to prevent even the slightest warping.

Three separate molds (hull, deck, and a specialized floor liner called the stringer grid) enter MasterCraft's lamination building, where they'll follow one another through each step of creation before the casts can be joined, rigged, and take a trip to the lake.

In the beginning, a brightly colored gelcoat is applied by hand to the inside of the mold. This coat is actually a spray-on polyester resin that is the primary color that you see once this baby hits the water. During this phase, accent lines and any differently colored areas are also applied. Gelcoat is a durable and protective coating, but these boats are built for some pretty intense water action, so now the boat gets a layer of barrier coat—a 100 percent waterproof resin that also eliminates any worry about blistering from the serious sun exposure that the boat will endure. This step also ensures that the integrity of the hull and its gel coat remain in perfect condition during the next steps in the boat's construction.

Once the final layers of gel and barrier coats are applied and dried, the boat gets serious hands-on attention as it enters the skin stage. Six people descend on the mold for the first application of fiberglass—some spray resin to hold the pieces of fiberglass that others apply, while still more people hand roll the boat's every nook and cranny to annihilate air pockets. For the next several steps along the line, the boat will get up to 22 layers of woven fiberglass. This stuff is amazingly light for the Herculean strength that it brings. Although the fiberglass is machine cut to very detailed specifications, these layers are applied by hand—there are less expensive and perhaps quicker mechanical ways to accomplish application, but they're not nearly as strong, consistent, and durable as the result of the work of human hands.

At this point (just before the molds are removed) backing plates for external hardware or anything that will be bolted to the boat are bonded to the fiberglass, wiring preparations are made, and the birth of the boat is nigh.

When the molds are separated the stringer grid or floor piece is secured and bonded to the hull: a couple of hours under a one-ton press make sure that the bond is certain. The team then drills holes into the stringer grid and uses them to inject expanding foam to fill empty pockets between the floor piece and the hull and help maintain level flotation. Quality control experts take another look at the gelcoat—their mission is a meticulous scan to identify any scratches or imperfections, which will be repaired on the spot.

The boat is like a box with its lid. With the hull and stringer grid now one piece, the deck sits snuggly on top for what MasterCraft proudly calls its shoe-box fit. But the components don't get sealed together just yet—there's a whole other team waiting to finish up.

The deck leads the hull as they leave the lamination building and enter the assembly building where they travel through a long line of people and gadgets. This is where the boat's small parts, etc. come on board—fun stuff like touch screens for the dash, radios, horns and diving platforms as well as important components like the ballast tank, ballast pump and engine.

Creature comforts get careful attention in these final stages: durable 40-ounce carpeting is hand-laid, and while seat bases are a part of the deck mold itself, the upholstery is custom made within yards of the assembly line. Durable vinyl, nine grades of foam, polyethylene frames, and stainless steel staples are essential to the promise that these hand sewn and assembled seat backs and cushions will last for decades.

At last, the deck and the hull are married, and the durability of their bond is guaranteed with brackets and a tongue-and-groove fitting that promises the most solid union on the water. Speaking of water, now that the boat is complete, it meets its own custom-built trailer and takes a trip to the water for an hour-long lake test before returning to the plant for a final clean-up and shipment to a dealer.