When Eric Walton and Devlin McKee opened Custom Canvas Alaska LLC in Fairbanks 14 years ago, the partners knew they had to offer custom canvas work beyond the boat tops they started out providing. After all, a marine fabrication shop in Alaska faces some extreme seasonal ups and downs, making project diversification a survival necessity. Now, in addition to the boat tops, the company designs, fabricates and installs portable fabric structures, awnings, vehicle grill covers, insulated equipment covers and other products involving fabric and/or framework, says Walton.
“Our customer base ranges from walk-ins (perhaps in need of a zipper repair), to boat owners (in need of a canvas top), to purchasing agents (insulated grill covers),” says Walton. “From residential to commercial, we do our best to understand our customers’ needs and come up with creative, satisfying, within-budget solutions.”
Custom Canvas does sell some small retail items that it purchases from its partners, such as DOT® fasteners, cleaning and care products, stainless steel ratchets and other boat top hardware—basically items not found in big box stores, says McKee. Over the years the company has expanded the variety of hardware, fittings and fabrics it carries, which has allowed the partners to offer their custom clients more design flexibility and options. Sometimes a project will inspire an addition to the inventory.
For example, recently Custom Canvas fielded a request for a travel/storage bag for heat trunks and vent fittings. The bag—constructed with Cooley’s L1023 DEP urethane yellow fabric, “very expensive,” says Walton, which resists many chemicals and has a cold-crack of minus 65 F—needed to be roomy enough to make loading and unloading the items easy. At the same time, the customer wanted a tighter bundle since the filled bag was going to be flown to fairly remote locations, says Walton, adding they decided compression straps were the solution. But buckles were a concern.
“SR2 (side release) buckles would work, except the bag was going to be used in minus 40 F or colder and in a very rough environment,” he recalls. “There was a fear of these buckles breaking. We now inventory metal airline seat buckles. They’re extremely durable and can be easily operated while wearing heavy mittens.”
Walton says the customer was so pleased with the outcome that he ordered 12 more bags, turning a break-even project into a profitable one for the company.
There are plenty of benefits that come with doing custom work, the primary one being building a stronger business less prone to financial mood swings. At the same time, careful assessment before agreeing to a custom project is required or what began as an opportunity could become a huge headache, siphoning money from the bottom line in the process.
Consider Marine Tech LLC. Located in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, the company only does custom work, says Sandy Sturner, managing director. During the bustling Caribbean on-season, Marine Tech keeps busy serving primarily the mega-yacht market, but will work on any boat. Projects include all boat canvas, upholstery and interior/exterior, with the exception of sails. The company keeps things going during the off-season by serving the residential, commercial and resort markets, providing custom awnings, tensile structures and upholstery.
“When thinking through the structure of the business and the products we’d offer before opening Marine Tech, a lot of time was spent figuring out how to stay busy [year-round],” says Sturner. “All the canvas shops on the island only do custom work; without that none of us would exist.”
There are several factors Sturner says her company considers before agreeing to a project, such as if it can physically handle the job and if the client’s schedule and the company’s will mesh. Materials on hand is another consideration, which can be more complicated when located on an island.
“If this is an emergency—for example, a cushion blew overboard and the boss is showing up at noon the following day—we either need to have the correct fabric on hand or be able to source it from one of our on-island competitors,” Sturner explains. “We’re in a unique situation in the fact that most of us are happy to furnish our competitors with whatever they need to complete a rush project like this, because when we are in a similar situation, we know they will return the help.”
As experienced as the fabricators at Marine Tech are, there are still projects that teach them lessons, such as the importance of checking accessibility. The project was a large top for a 183-foot boat with a 38-foot beam. The top covered the upper deck from port to starboard. When they arrived to do the patterning, they discovered there was just a very narrow ledge on each side of the vessel, narrowing from a mere 3 inches wide at the stern to nothing about 4 feet aft of the front bar, recalls Sturner.
“The front was better, with access only impeded by their lower Plexiglas® windshield, really more like a splashguard,” she continues. “The client also had some nonnegotiable requests related to the top. In the end, the top came out quite nicely, but we went way over our quoted time due to our not considering the difficulty in accessing the outside of the frame.”
Katie Bradford, owner of Custom Marine Canvas, recalls a job that in hindsight she might have not taken. Located in Noank, Conn., the company designs and builds canvas products for boats. It also does some residential work, such as outdoor kitchen covers (one very involved cover ran $10,000) and covers for pool equipment, fountains, sculptures, spas, planters and outdoor furniture. Everything the company does is custom.
“It’s difficult for me to say no—I want to please everyone,” Bradford says. “But one I should have turned down was making propeller covers for nuclear submarines for the Navy. They were too large for our shop; we rented an off-site facility. The drawings we were given were terrible, full of errors. It was just two covers and it took my top producers five weeks. I’m lucky my employees didn’t quit over it.”
Custom Marine ended up making money on the project because she was able to accurately estimate the cost of the materials. And since she had no idea how long the job would take, she estimated the labor “really high,” which drove the profit, says Bradford, mentioning also that the company didn’t bid against any other shops.
Risks and rewards
Pricing can be one of the trickiest areas when it comes to custom work, says Liz Diaz, owner of North Beach Marine Canvas. Located in San Francisco, the company serves the yachting community with custom interiors, as well as work on some residential projects.
“The pricing needs to be high enough to allow for all the aspects that go into making something that doesn’t exist. It must be charged at an exclusive level,” says Diaz.
It also helps if there’s a “spark” between the company and the customer, and that the customer likes the employees’ ideas and working with them, says Diaz. However, this isn’t a guarantee of smooth sailing. Clients can suddenly change their minds about a project, representing another area of risk.
“This can alter the original chemistry,” she explains. “Hours are spent before the job is commenced to dial in a very specific effect and if this is greatly altered in some way, then the objective is altered and it becomes less special and more or less routine just to finish the work.”
Still, doing beautiful work is very satisfying, says Diaz, recalling one residential project where North Beach Marine created sliding leather doors and stairs that were “quite glamorous.” The custom-colored stair leather was sourced from Italy; the leather for the doors and hand railings was Keleen (from Keleen Leathers Inc.). “It was very labor-intensive but very nice to work with such beautiful leather,” she says.
Steven Wayne, owner/operator of Southern Stitch Canvas & Upholstery LLC in Gulfport, Miss., says profitability comes down to making sure all of the employees’ time and skills are compensated for. The company’s market is 50 percent automotive, 40 percent marine, with commercial and residential making up the rest. It handles custom projects mainly for auto interiors, marine interiors and exteriors, and outdoor canvas. Southern Stitch also services auto dealerships for aftermarket leather installs, 90 percent of which are basic factory matches—tan, gray and black. Clients range from yacht owners, to car enthusiasts, to resorts and restaurants, to the U.S. Coast Guard and oil tankers.
“Time is money,” Wayne says. “If the client from the get-go is trying to get something for nothing, walk away. They need to realize this is a one-of-a-kind, non-mass-produced product. We truly don’t know how much time is going to go into creating a quality custom project.”
To avoid misunderstandings and upsets, Southern Stitch makes sure everyone is on the same page with the design, colors, timing, price and what the finished product will look like, says Wayne. This touches on what Bradford describes as one of the biggest challenges—listening carefully to customers so you know you’re giving them what they want.
“Each boat and owner combination is unique. They have visions for their boats, in shade, weather protection, comfort and beauty. So, listen and ask questions—lots and lots of questions. And be flexible and creative,” she advises.
“We always take a 50 percent deposit for any work, so if we don’t satisfy the customer, we have the cost of the materials covered,” Bradford continues. “We will make any changes we can to satisfy them but, very rarely, there’s the odd one we can’t help.”
It’s also important to communicate any misgivings—both verbally and on the quote—you may have around what the clients wants, says Sturner, explaining this clears you in case the request doesn’t work out. Also remember that the client’s taste doesn’t have to reflect your own sensibilities—as long as you provide a great outcome, the customer will be happy with the project.
“Remember your name will be associated with any custom project, so always give clients the highest quality you’re capable of,” Sturner says. “Do what you need to do to achieve a successful outcome, even if money is lost on a particular job. This is much preferred over having an unhappy client. People talk and you want them saying good things.”
Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.