Small jobs, big profits

Published On: July 1, 2010Categories: Features, In the Shop

More than just patches and stitches, fixes and repairs can build your business.

Most canvas shops offer repairs but sometimes underestimate the value of them. Unfortunately, due to the tight economy, many fabrication shops are looking to shore up their business. By offering an alternative to new canvas, repair work can not only bring in new customers but help to better suit the needs of existing customers who are also facing shrinking pocketbooks.

Repairs are a great opportunity to market your company, build your customer database and show off your skills to current and potential customers. They provide a perfect opportunity for customers to become familiar with your company, performance and quality. This sets the stage for customers to return with new projects. At Allerton Harbor Canvas, we put a high priority on quick turnaround of repairs, which can provide a consistent workflow, cash flow and the profitable capture of chargeable hours. Repairs are also effective in training new employees.

As a note of warning, even though it’s often difficult to predict, it’s a good practice to share your evaluation of a potential customer’s current canvas in regard to life expectancy, but note that it’s not always possible to predict accurate results.

Getting started

When building your repair business, it is important to get word out that your company is willing to take on repairs. At our shop, we’ve reached out in several ways. For starters, simply having a sign outside your shop is an easy way to promote your business. Next, creating a website listing your services and products is a great opportunity to highlight everything your company offers, repairs included. Many search engines offer free listings. Also, consider being a sponsor of local events, such as rowing, sailing regattas and charitable events. You can even donate merchandise with your logo on it and gift certificates for canvas work as prizes.

Another handy and simple tip is to create laminated business cards that you can snap onto a boat in need of repairs. A stone-weighted Ziplock bag with your business card and a list of the products and services you offer can be a great way to market your business. (Just be careful not the throw the stone though any windows.)

Ask to have your cards displayed at marine stores, yacht clubs, docks, boat storage yards and boat dealers. We ask for e-mail addresses so we can send out an e-mail blast or a postcard prior to a potential slow period.

Figure out your own pricing plan. You have to be careful not to back yourself into a corner. Most customers can relate to hourly charges, so, if you can, give an approximate number of hours, the hourly rate and the cost of materials. This approach is similar to that of auto mechanics. If you have to give a firm price, consider including a caveat that you will call if you run into any additional time or expenses. Being fair to the customer is as important as being fair to yourself.

You can come up with your own pricing standard for each type of repair. For example, when repairing windows, you can either charge by the square foot of glass used or by the percentage of a sheet used, plus border repairs, zipper replacements and patches. Don’t forget to include charges for all other supplies and materials, such as seam tape, thread and fasteners, as well as any related labor hours, such as picking up the canvas, removal, installation and adjustments.

Keeping track of how repairs effect your business is essential. For this we use QuickBooks accounting software to collect the chargeable hours and materials from time sheets and work orders. By using the Graphs and Reports feature, we can track changes and see just how repairs impact the scope of our business.

Types of repairs

Aesthetics and functionality are the keys to successful repairs. If you don’t see the canvas on the boat, ask the customer about the fit and ease of use. Even then, don’t necessarily rely completely on the customer’s answers. In some cases, your own judgment will be required to evaluate the effectiveness of a restitch. We all know that sometimes canvas doesn’t need a restitch, it needs a miracle. It is up to you to be up front with customers and come up with a creative solution that works best. Perhaps the old, “get ya through this season and have us build a new one later” may work.

Canvas. Canvas has a way of telling a story as to the fit and wear. Make sure to look for signs of snaps that are pulling the fabric. Sometimes the fasteners can be adjusted a little to improve the fit. If the boat is difficult to get to (on a mooring, shrink-wrapped or just far away), I have had good luck with giving customers instructions and having them mark the problem areas with a removable white pencil.

Restiching and patching. We try, at the very least, to restitch the structural seams and zippers and check all the fasteners and the fabric that supports them. Always try to match the color and fabric or come as close to the original as possible. We also make sure to explain the thread life expectancy and the value of PTFE thread to customers.

For patches, we save the materials from other jobs and store them in bins, sorted by color and material type. This helps us locate everything easily and quickly. Make your patches look and function like they belong. Tucking them into a binding or seam helps with aesthetics and strength.

At our shop, we do double patches inside and out if the tear is unsightly or is chaffing from the inside. Be careful not to let the patch edges catch or interfere with any function or hardware, such as sheets or fishing lines.

Remember to quality-check your work. Customers will not be happy if they have to return later to have the same problem fixed.

Zippers. For zipper replacements, it is essential to identify that you have the proper zipper types and sizes. We try to match it tooth to tooth so the new zipper will be in the same position as the one being replaced. The fit of the canvas will depend on it. You might want to consider working on a separate pricing plan for u-zippers, as this type of work generally requires more time and skill.

Windows. Communication is key when working with window-glass replacements. First, we explain to customers how we go about capturing the fit from the current window and let them know that we may have to alter fasteners, which could mean additional costs. We show the different types of replacement glass, but always recommend upgrading to a premium product. Your ability to sell the customer on the upgrade not only increases your profitability, but it makes the end product more appealing.

Heating the glass with a hair dryer, then stretching and pinning out the frame helps keep it flat. Laying the glass out in the sun also helps.

Be sure to tape up all tears before heating and pinning. Facing and binding borders may be needed if replacing poorly designed and built canvas and should be sewn in with one outer stitch before pinning. Be careful not to rack the frame. The use of 20g glass hides a lot of sins that may show up when replacing 30g and 40g glass.

Lay out the replacement glass on top and use a cordless cutter to make a straight, even cut. Then run a stitch around the widow about 1/2-inch out from the frame. This makes it easy to cut out the old glass with a seam ripper. Finally, sew a second row of stitches close to the frame. If the glass is completely blown out, we go to the boat, snap and zip the frame on, and then pattern the window by taping on pattern paper and marking the orientation of the window.

Make sure to take any temperature variations into account. Here in Boston, where temperature swings several degrees, we may add as much as 1/16-inch for every foot of glass to cover the expansion and contraction of the vinyl window. Roll glass right off the roll should be cut a little oversized and laid flat, allowing it to contract to its normal size.

Cushions. When working with cushion repairs, remember to include removal and replacement of cushions and bolsters. You may want to put a note on the estimate that covers extra time for unseen situations. Also, remind customers with cushions that are still covered that the estimate cost may change once the cushions have been taken apart and inspected.

Take measurements of the cushions’ dimensions before taking anything apart. This will give you guidelines to work with once the cushions have been stripped. You can also use the old cushion covers as a pattern, which saves time and provides a more accurate dimension.

When going about the repairs, you can cut out bad sections of foam and glue and sand new sections for a seamless look, or add batting as an alternative to replacing old foam.

Painting with a vinyl spray paint is another low-cost alternative to restoring some cushions. As an additional service, before we re-cover the cushions, we steam out the old foam. Not only do customers appreciate the extra effort, but the steaming plumps up the foam and helps to eliminate some of the creases, making for a better fitting and better looking cushion.

On cushions with hard backing in which the wood is unusable, we recommend new starboard or marine plywood with a couple coats of marine polyurethane varnish. We also suggest options like using reticulating foam, and adding drain holes and screen bottoms that allow drainage to cushions that have direct exposure to wet conditions.

Whatever you do, explain the types of foam, the options available and make sellable suggestions.

Final thoughts

Repairs are an important part of your overall business. By providing quality repairs, you can build a positive reputation for your company. Repairs provide an opportunity for customers to get to know you, your products and your services. In the future, when your satisfied customers need more extensive work, they will likely return and spread a good word to others.

Jay Hanks is owner of Allerton Harbor Canvas, in Hull, Mass.,