Listen up! Canvas fabricators really want boat owners to know these 7 things.
Consider that a flybridge enclosure on a 50-foot sportfisher can run anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000. With that kind of expense, it would be advantageous to have a friend in the business to guide one through the process before, during and after a new enclosure is created. Canvas fabricators know things boaters don’t, and they’re willing to share their trade secrets — seven of them, at least — so enclosure projects run smoothly and one’s money is well spent. All boat owners have to do is listen. Or read, in this case.
Listen to Tech Talk
If talk of keder welts in tracks and radius curves on polycarbonate windows makes your eyes glaze over, then tech talk on canvas design and fabrication may not be your thing. But that’s what experience sounds like. Listen, because while some of your initial choices seem great on paper, they may not work in practice.
This is when the uninitiated should take the advice of a fabricator, because they know of what they speak.
“When it comes to design, the big issue is finding the balance between what a boater wants and what makes sense,” said Juan Castro of Castro Canvas Designs in Oxnard, Calif. “Education is really the biggest challenge.”
The cleaner and less obtrusive the design, the more thought and experience went into it. Fabricators are the experts, so let them guide the project. For example, zippers in corners are a bad idea not only because they obstruct visibility but also because these are highstress areas where zippers can fail. Panel connections should be discreet and windows should wrap around corners in a nice radius, to prevent blind spots. The structure should avoid pooling and must shed water easily. It should be able to tolerate boat speeds or winds of 25 knots or more, and it should never sag, pull or even squeak when the boat moves, because a noisy cover will drive everyone crazy.
Sometimes extra panels have to be added. The height of top-to-bottom tall panels on trawlers, for example, can cause flapping and noise and can even rip out fasteners in high winds or underway. Breaking panels in half and creating additional attachment points may deliver a different aesthetic, but it will be more functional in the long run.
The more “clear” or window material there is in the design, the hotter the enclosure will get due to the greenhouse effect, so plan to install plenty of openings. Good design also means the lines of the enclosure will compliment the lines of the boat.
“The addition should not be too tall or boxy, and the top should have a crown so water channels away,” said Dan Loggans of Harbor Custom Canvas in Long Beach, Calif.
A good design should allow boat owners to close or cover the structure without having to reach around awkwardly or hang outside the boat to zip, cover or open anything. Enclosures are built top-to-bottom and front-to-back and should be completely functional from the inside.
“It’s backwards from a house, where the walls go up before the roof goes on,” Castro said. “Sometimes customers want to save money by just replacing the sides — curtains and windows — and keep the top. But maybe two years later, when they want to replace the top, it’ll be a problem matching the new sides. Replace the whole structure at the same time, so you’re not working backwards.”
Beware of being wed to the original or current design. Replacing an enclosure is the best time to ask if there’s a better way to do things.
“I have a professional responsibility to share better design with my customers, but they can be stuck on what they’re used to,” Castro said. “That’s when I ask them about their pet peeves and soon we’re talking about improving on what came before.”
Zippers Are a Tradeoff
To zip or not to zip? That is the question. Fewer zippers mean a cleaner look and better visibility. Each zipper can block up to four inches of sightlines, so they must be used discreetly. Zippers add expense in terms of materials and labor, and they need frequent rinsing and lubrication to keep them working. Zippers should be opened and closed at least once a month, even those that aren’t used often.
“It may seem like a pain to work the zippers on every trip, but if you don’t you’ll end up paying me $60 to $80 to come out and replace one that’s frozen due to lack of use,” Castro said.
That said, zippers do the grunt work of enclosures and they’re the little parts that make a big difference. Not using zippers to add ventilation or communication cutouts or break up tall panels will lead to general unhappiness.
“Sometimes twisties are a better option to attach a Bimini top to a side curtain, because zippers don’t always meet, especially if the cover was taken off for washing,” Castro said. “But in general, zippers can add to a clean aesthetic in a multipanel design.”
The Devil Loves Details
It’s the little things that make projects big. For example, a flybridge enclosure attached to a hard Bimini top may seem quick and easy, but consider the details. Rocket launchers and rod holders eat up time and labor, because each must be fitted, trimmed, sewed and fastened somehow. The same goes for smaller cutouts around the helm, electronics or stairs. Ventilation is key and cannot be sacrificed to whimsical design. A U-shaped zipper cutout in a big expanse of semi-rigid polycarbonate window might not be the most aesthetically pleasing option, but it allows air inside and everyone will appreciate that. A hermetically sealed environment will not work for human comfort or the well-being of the boat. Good air circulation will minimize mold and mildew growth when the boat isn’t in use, especially in areas such as the Pacific Northwest.
New Is Easier (& Faster/Cheaper)
This may seem self-evident but new boats are easier for fabricators to work on than older ones. Today, boat manufacturers take into account that people will probably add a dodger or a flybridge enclosure, and often they’ll add a molded-in track or a raised bit of deck to help with attachment points.
“Builders now know that owners will be personalizing their boats according to climate and their preferences, so they take that into consideration,” Castro said. “On older boats, we sometimes have to add teak or starboard lips for tracks or fasteners, and the winches tend to be in random places that get in the way of a clean design. All these modifications take time and money, so owners of older boats need to build that into their expectations.”
Don’t Phone in Maintenance
I’ve already alluded to what an expensive proposition ignoring an enclosure’s zippers can be. But there are other maintenance must-dos that fabricators wish their customers would carry out. For example, equalizing UV exposure will add years to an enclosure — fabric, snaps, zippers, windows and all — so turn the boat around in the slip periodically. Covering windows can double their lifespan but handling soft or rigid windows on cold mornings can damage them, since the materials are more brittle at lower temperatures.
Always ask for recommendations on how to clean and polish your materials. Most manufacturers, including Stamoid and Sunbrella for fabric and Strataglass and Makrolon for windows, recommend approved cleaners to keep the material warranty in effect. Never use Windex, Rain-X, Simple Green, Fantastic or citrusbased cleaners, because these chemicals break down the plasticizers that keep windows from cracking, peeling and yellowing. Most material care will involve washing with water and a mild soap and drying and polishing with a soft cloth or mitt. Don’t use paper towels, because they are abrasive and leave scratches.
Some tips include:
• Brush off any loose dirt on the fabric portions and wash it with mild soap and water.
• Rinse thoroughly and don’t let the soap dry on the material.
• Don’t put canvas in a dryer and don’t dry clean it, which will disrupt some of its added properties, such as UV inhibitors and waterproofing.
• Avoid using a pressure washer.
Be Wary of Design Trends
Enclosures today go well beyond just white and blue as boaters lean toward lighter colors in fabric: beiges, grays and medium blues. Despite the fact that a dark-colored top will get hotter in the sun due to the opacity of the dye, darker colors stand up better to UV rays while lighter colors break down faster. Per Loggans, lighter colors stay cooler and blend better with the boat by not drawing the eye to a lot of unexpected color, but they tend to mildew more, so owners need to choose the tradeoff they can live with and not follow the fashion trends.
Do Some Homework
All canvas shops are not created equal, but most boaters will spend more time deciding which color to use than which fabricator to hire. Word-of-mouth recommendations are best, so ask dock neighbors for referrals. Get plenty of current pictures of a shop’s work and make sure the people who created the projects in the photographs are still working there. Call recent references and ask about the quality of their experience. Get a detailed and itemized estimate and discuss any potential cost overruns before they happen.
Most fabricators will take a deposit, which could be up to 50 percent, up front, and that’s the time to ask about their satisfaction warranty. How long after delivery do they allow customers to ask for adjustments as they learn to live with a new enclosure? Ninety days should be long enough to know if the design will work.
Good canvas shops have a wait time, some up to four to six months. Initially, a fabricator may come out, take measurements and provide an estimate, but that doesn’t mean he will be able to start right away. When he’s ready, take the time to refresh everyone’s memory about what will be the desired outcome. That’s also the time to make any changes, because once the material is ordered and cut, there are no more adjustments — well, there are, but they will be very expensive.
“Find a good canvas shop with an updated website, lots of pictures and lots of referrals,” Castro said. “Pick the guy who is prompt about calling you back, which sounds strange, but many don’t.”
Finally, get a clear definition of the delivery date of the final product, so the project doesn’t drag on. “We want happy customers,” Castro said, “so we guarantee a finish time. We even offer a 5 percent discount for every week that the delivery date is missed.”
Good work doesn’t come cheap, but owners willing to plunk down the kind of cash enclosures demand should get what they want and have it provide shelter for many years to come.