Billy Berkenheger.....Boat Painting Rembrandt

You can sometimes spend months, and even years, restoring a great old flatbottom or hydro. Countless hours of garage time can go into meticulously fabricating and machining every custom part and piece of hardware. And the repair of every nick, ding, scratch and crack in the fiberglass has to be perfect. Then comes the moment of truth.....who's going to paint it?


For hundreds of hot boat enthusiasts over the past forty plus years, the answer has been pretty simple.....go see Billy B at Krazy Kolors in Upland, California (since relocated to Needles, California). Although nobody keeps track of such things, it's reasonable to assume that Billy-B's shop has probably designed the graphics and painted more custom flattys and hydros than anybody in the country.

Your style of graphic and painting is very West Coast, where did you grow up?

I grew and went to school right here in the Covina area, just a few miles from where my shop is now.

Where did your interest in hot boats come from?

It was really my dad. He was a high school football coach and had the summers off when school was not in session. As far back as I can remember, we always had a little boat that we took to the lakes and the river. My mom was from the Sanger area in northern California so as we were growing up, we used to go up there quite often to visit relatives. That's where Sanger Boats were built and it was always my dad's dream to own a wood deck Sanger, but we never did, it was just too expensive on a teacher's salary. But we still had a lot of fun going to Havasu Springs Resort. We spent about three weeks there every summer in the late 1960s.

Were you always a V-Drive guy?

Actually, dad had an Eliminator outboard and then we got a Kona jet boat. He sold the Eliminator because he didn't want the risk of the prop with the kids. Later on when we got older, we bought a Sanger sprint jet and put a cool Boss 429 Ford Hemi in it. It was pretty tricked out. We loved the boat.
Dad really liked working on the boat. He was very mechanical. He was also very into custom cars and hot rods too.

How did you get interested in boat racing?

My dad always took us down to Long Beach Marine Stadium in the 60s and 70s to watch the boat races. It was really a fun time. After I got started in the painting business I started making friends with guys who were involved in racing. Finally in 1979, a buddy of mine, Don Christie, Jr. had a Pro Comp circle boat and I went racing with him for a few years. We even set a record in 1980 with the boat. After that, I started helping other guys with their boats in the K class.

How did you learn to do these wild custom paint jobs?

I'm really self-taught. I started messing around painting some stuff in my dad's garage back in high school and it just kind of went from there. I started painting for other people back in 1974. Then I opened a small paint shop in Covina in 1977. The first complete custom boat paint job I did was actually on Don's Pro Comp race boat which was called "Mr. Big Stuff." My dad really wasn't thrilled about my decision to go into the painting business. I had gone to college to become a graphic artist, but I found out that just wasn't me. I really liked painting a lot better. A little later I got a chance to move up to northern California and go to work for Sanger Boats as a painter which was pretty cool. The only problem was that the gas crunch of '79 came along and I was down to about two days a week of work and that just didn't cut it. I came back to Southern California but my dad kicked me out of the garage and I went ahead and opened a little shop in the Azusa area.

Any idea how many boats you've painted over the years?

No, not really. I know it's in the hundreds, maybe a thousand. I'm sorry we got away from this cool little deal we used to do where we put like a little patent number of every boat we painted, but we haven't done that in a long time. I kind of wish we had kept it up. It's also important to know that I don't do this by myself. My brother Bobby has been with me since the start. I do the painting and he is the guy who does the color sanding and buffing. I just put the paint on and he's the guy who really makes the job look good.

As well known as you are throughout the industry as a custom paint shop, you actually do a lot more than that. What is the scope of your services for someone looking to do a hot boat restoration?

We've pretty much morphed into a complete restoration service over the past decade. As the V-drive regattas have become more popular, our business has expanded from doing just custom painting to a one-stop restoration service. And the increase in Internet activity and boating forums have also helped a lot since people from all parts of the country can find us now. We don't offer everything done in-house, but I act as the general contractor and hire outside services from people and businesses I know can do the job. They are people who stand behind their work and have been doing it for years. I think I've surrounded myself with some of the top guys in the business and I feel comfortable turning over various portions of the total job to them whether it be a new engine package, custom rigging, fiberglass repair, upholstery and the like. I don't hide the fact that other people are doing certain phases of the restoration. A customer is welcome to go by any of the other shops at any time and take a look at how the progress on their boat is doing. If it's not convenient for them to stop by, maybe because they are from out of state, we'll take pictures and email them to the customer so they can see what's going on. The is truly a custom business, however. Just like with street rods, every boat, every installation and every paint job are a little different and that's what guys like about it. The amount of money that people are willing to spend on this varies greatly. Some are willing to drop as much as six-figures into a complete custom restoration. Others just want to make it look kind of cool but are working on a budget. It all depends on what the customer wants and can afford.

What should people know when they are thinking about buying an older boat to restore?

Don't always look for the lowest price or the cheapest deal. Too many times saving two or three thousand off the initial purchase price and buying the wrong boat is a big mistake. Most of the time you'll save much more in the long run if you go ahead and spend a little more up front and buy something that doesn't need as much work to restore. When you get into ripping out floorboards and building new decks the price of the project goes up quickly.

What are your favorite projects?

I really enjoy replicating some of the old race boats whether they be circle boats or drag boats. I think that bringing one of these famous old boats back to life is really a compliment to the people who originally owned them. The goal is to make them look like they did thirty or forty years ago, but maybe add a little bit of the new technology to make them even better than they were before. That's what we did for Wayne Herbert when he decided he wanted to replicate "Cold Fire". That was a really fun project.

What do you use for inspiration for new paint ideas?

Most customers come in with a concept but not a detailed drawing or lay-out. I usually ask them to bring in pictures out of magazines of cars, trucks, offroad vehicles, boats or motorcycles that they really like. It gives me a place to start from to kind of get to know what their tastes in color and graphics are like. And trust me, no two people have the same taste or likes in colors and design. Sometimes the most difficult customers to deal with are those who bring me something they want me to copy. That's just not what I do. I hope that they came to me because they want to use my talent and experience. The best way to describe it is a collaborative effort on both of our parts.

Have you ever had to tell a customer, no?

Yes. When I do that, they look at me with that deer in the headlights stare. It isn't that I'm trying to be difficult, but I know what they think is good, just isn't and they won't be happy with it. Sometimes the most difficult situations involve trying to please more than one person. Occasionally I'll get a husband and wife that come in and seldom are they on the same page as to what they want in the way of colors and design. That can get ugly. Trying to match the color scheme in their master bathroom just isn't happening

What makes a great paint job?

Besides picking the right combination of colors, it's really the flow of the design and complementing the styling of the hull. A lot of these great old boats have a very distinct and unique personality and look about them. It's important that the paint job enhance those basic contours and not detract from them. Obviously, it's personal preference, but when you see a boat that has flames, checkers, tribal and murals all at the same time, you know that somebody just threw everything they could at it. Like a lot of things in life, more isn't always better. What I strive for is a timeless paint job that will be appreciated now, and in thirty or forty years from now.

What's hot right now in the boat restoration market?

The Biesemeyers and the Biesemeyer copies like the Revenge and Spitfires continue to be the hottest models on the market for circle boats. Probably next would be the Sangers for their looks and then the T-Decks like the Hondos and the Coles are popular too.

You were instrumental in organizing the Needles River K-Boat Association. How did that come about?

This kind of got started a while ago. There was a V-Drive boat regatta at Red Rock and I showed up at the event with a Super Stock motor in my K-Boat. Then the next year I put the K-Boat motor back in. From there, other guys who owned flatbottoms in the Needles area put blown motors in their boats too. Pretty soon we had a bunch to K-Boats all clustered in this one small area of the river and everybody knew each other and it went from there. We must have a little over 20 K-Boats in the group. They are all legitimate K-Boats just minus the cockpit capsules.
BillyB K Boat-Trailer mage.jpg

How did you get involved in the annual Legends Big Block Rally in Needles?

We were kind of doing this on an informal basis and it just got too big to be a non-organized event. It was starting to cause problems. So instead of giving up on it, myself, along with some of the other Needles boaters decided to see if we could get the town of Needles interested in being a part of this. It seemed like a good opportunity to bring some tourism into Needles and maybe raise some money for local charities. The city council liked the idea and we did this at Jack Smith Park in January 2009. It was a big success so the city got behind it again this year and we had another great event. It gives guys the chance to show-off their boats, run them on the river if they want and benefit the community in the process. I'm hoping that it continues to grow each year and gets to be a really big event like a Hot August Nights kind of thing for the river. That would be great.

(Editor’s Note: This event is still being held annually, but relocated to the new Needles Marina in April under the title, “River Madness”. Check the Needles Marina website for more information and date confirmation.)

What boats do you own right now?

My personal boats run the gamut. My K-Boat is a Biesemeyer with a 474 c.i. blown/injected Chevy by Rick King Engineering. I've also got a 210 Hallett that's an outboard, powered by a Merc 275 Verado which is a great family boat. And, I've got one other project going. That's a 1960 SuperCat which was built in Azusa, a 16-footer, with a pair of old 650 Mercurys that are going to be completely rebuilt. I'm really excited about the SuperCat. When it's done, the interior is going to look just like a custom street rod.

Want more info about Krazy Kolors and/or Billy B’s Arrive ‘N Drive Storage? contact: 1200 East Broadway, Needles, CA 92363, 951-207-6517