Boat Canvas

By Harold Duffield - Florissant, Missouri - USA

Making a living messing around on boats is a dream that many of us aspire to. This article should give you some insight that I have observed over 40 years of dong so. If you have such a dream, there are a number of considerations you should know about.

First, if you want to provide mechanical services like engine work, fiberglass work, or painting services, keep these realities in mind. The Marinas where the boats are stored generally offer all of these services. Marinas are not fond of outside workmen coming on premises to compete with services of the Marina.

I once offered to repaint a 30-foot sailboat for one of my Marina Customers for $2200 which was a very good price. A few days later the Customer informed me he was going to have the job done by a local Boat Dealer because the price would be only $1800. “Saving money is always a good idea”, I responded. “I’m happy to do the job for you, but if it’s cheaper somewhere else, what can I say. Why don’t you have Don B (My competitor) call me to see about loading the boat on his trailer to move it down to his shop for the painting to be done.” I added. Needless to say I got the job for the original price that was quoted.

I think you will have the same problem with the other services listed that you may want to perform. You can sometimes make a deal with some Marinas giving a percentage of your billings, but it reduces your profits a ton. If you have a place of business where you can do the work, the cost of that facility must be met before realizing any net profits, and boats must be moved to your shop for work. Add to this the ugliness of doing fiberglass repair or bottom painting, and you will see it’s a hard way to make a living over a number of years. These services are pretty much a young man’s craft. Strong and dumb comes to mind.

There is an exception however. That exception is Boat Canvas. You may suspect that I am somehow invested in boat canvas and you would be correct. Since selling my sailboat Marina in 1989, I have owned and operated a Boat Canvas Business for over 20 years. Over those years we have done simple boat covers to complex full canvas and stainless steel pipe work that ranged from a few hundred dollars to over twenty thousand dollars. I can inform you that the small cover and bimini jobs are the most profitable!

It’s these simple to do profitable canvas jobs I want to discuss with you. First you will need two things before you start. One - a strong Sewing machine and a place to do the sewing. Two - the Knowledge of how the heck to make boat canvas! The first is simple. A used sewing machine with a walking foot and reverse will cost around $1000. You can go portable with a machine from Sailrite for a little less. You can go new for around $1,500. If you go used, be sure the machine you choose has a local repairman that can get parts for any repairs. You may want to discuss the machine with your Trainer that I will introduce you to later in the article. In fact, your Trainer may let you use his machine until you learn the business.

When I started I went with a used ConSew 226 for $800. I then cut the table down, put on some wheels for loading, and went portable with an $800 mini-Van. Add a workstation on the tail of the Mini-Van and you are in business. You’ll also need specialized tools like snap pliers etc. If you get in touch I can give you a list of tools and a sketch of the table and machine wheels shown. If you can be mobile as shown, you will save a ton of time, and time is money in the Canvas Business.

The second requirement - How the heck do you learn to make boat canvas can also be a no brainer. Once you decide to buy your machine, be sure to get an extensive lesson from the seller on how to run the beast, but also, a great deal of practice time sewing samples before you close the deal and hand over the cash. Now you are ready to learn the Canvas Business.

To learn the business you can buy books and tapes to demonstrate the needed techniques, or you can go to Canvas Schools offered for sale and require time at those facilities. All these can work well in developing your needed skills. However, there may be another way to go that does not cost you cash or require going to a “Pay for” school.

Go to the local Boat Cover Guy who has the best reputation and make him this offer. Tell him you are new in the Boat Canvas Business, and because you understand he is the best Canvas Man in the area, you want to watch him make boat covers acting as his apprentice for a few covers while you learn the trade.

As payment for his service, tell him you will give him the cover jobs you receive until you learn how to do them. Also offer to give him the jobs you run across in the future that are bigger and beyond your skill level.

As part of your deal, he can send you the little jobs he gets that are to small for him to make a profit. Also agree that if you give him any job that is beyond your skill level, you will again be his apprentice watching as the job is being done by him. In this way you can learn the trade from a Master at no out of pocket cost, and also assure your continuing education over an extended period.
Be sure to tell him truthfully that you appreciate any help he can give you. If he says he won’t teach you how to make covers, thank him anyway, and ask him the name of another Competitor who might take your offer. Bingo! You know what the response will be. If not, go the second best tradesman with the same offer.
90% of canvas work, and 90% of the most profitable work will be done on 3 basic covers. One - Mooring or Travel Covers on boats under 22 feet. Second - Pontoon Boat covers, and Three - Bimini Top canvas replacement. You can plan on earning from $35 to $55 per hour spent making these three covers. However, if you get an order you can’t make for lack of skill, give the job to your Trainer and watch while he performs.
If you go into any Marinas to make boat covers, be sure to give the Workmen in the Marina a box with two-dozen steaks to share once or twice a year as appreciation for their help. You will find when dealing with any Marina if you take care of the little people, the big guys will not object to your presence. The steaks will cost $50-75 for 24 8oz strip steaks and a great pay back for the Marina folks. Show your appreciation to the owners by asking the Owner if he has any canvas help you can give for his friendship.
The Canvas Business also works very well with a Husband and Wife team, and well for a Women’s Business. It’s clean; you work with manageable load lifting, and can be done at a number of time and skill levels. In fact, my own daughter does canvas bags from her apartment in down town Chicago. I will be happy to give you sketches of how to make the bag shown.

Once you learn the craft parts of the Trade, and if you are good at it, you will have more canvas work than you can imagine. You won’t get rich, but you’ll earn a good living and be messing around on boats for a living. If you don’t do that you’ll have to get a real job!

One day while picking up some fabric at our local Canvas Supply Company, I notice an elderly Gentleman putting a huge roll of brown boat canvas duck into his station wagon. I said,” Damn, you must have a huge canvas job needing that much canvas”. He replied that he made all his boat covers out of the brown canvas, and had been doing so for 40 years. When I asked him, “What happens if your Customer wants a different color? “Go somewhere else”, he said. “Go somewhere else.”

If you want to discuss in more detail information about the Boat Canvas Business as a way to making a living, I will be glad to help if you email me.




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