Setting your canvas shop apart from the competition can be challenging, especially in the current economy. Providing your customers with new options for clear windows can differentiate you from the other guy, but the array of options and price points on the market can be overwhelming—for you and your customers. Being knowledgeable about what’s out there allows you to educate your customers and make the right decision for their needs, which helps seal the sale. This article explains the differences between several clear window options, how to work with them and how your customers can maintain them for years of visibility.
Window options explained
On the most basic level, clear windows are available in soft vinyl and rigid acrylic and polycarbonate. Soft vinyl costs less than the rigid options but also provides reduced clarity. Rigid provides better clarity but costs more.
“At the top end of the range, you have much better vision and clarity in the polycarbonate and acrylic options,” says Dave Elliot of David’s Custom Trimmers in Brisbane, Australia. “You’re not going to have wrinkles in those top-end products. In the bottom-end products, there’s more maintenance if you want to maintain them, which the average boater does not.” Rigid products generally last longer than soft vinyl, which can be a way to sell your customer on the rigid window option.
Mike Erickson of Canvas Designers in Riviera Beach, Fla., offers EZ2CY products. “Versus other polycarbonates, EZ2CY is inherently UV resistant,” he says. “There’s no coating on top of it, so if you get a scratch you can buff it out and it’ll look brand new again.”
Ocean Clear Windows currently offers two types of semi-rigid, polycarbonate windows. “We offer OC3, our newest product, which is available early summer 2012,” says Steve Sisco of Ocean Clear Windows and Fabrication Supplies in Alta Loma, Calif. “OC3 is less expensive and has a more flexible scratch coating for longer life and less crazing.” Ocean Clear also distributes Makrolon AR2.
There are different price points available in the semi-rigid category. “Ocean Clear semi-rigid windows cost less than coated vinyl windows but offer glass-like clarity, superior strength and a smoother finish due to its self-tensioning nature,” Sisco says. “Polycarbonate is highly UV resistant and scratch resistant. Polycarbonate can be sewn or bonded in-house for greater control and profits.” Sisco pointed out that Ocean Clear does not collect or require any licensing or franchise fees.
Manart-Hirsch stocks PVC and polycarbonate window products. “All of our products are available directly through us or through distributors that carry our products,” says Rick Hirsch of Manart-Hirsch in Lynbrook, N.Y.
Rainier Industries in Tuckwila, Wash., offers polycarbonate and impact-resistant acrylic. Rainier Windows are rigid but can bend. They retain their memory but return to the original flat shape, so that windows can be stored flat when not on the boat. Rainier Windows can also screen UV rays. Fabricators need to become a Qualified Fabricator through Rainier to be able to sell Rainier products.
Some customers may not want to spend the extra money for rigid windows, or they have smaller boats that don’t necessarily require a rigid window enclosure. “Most of what my shop is using is 40 mm clear extruded vinyl,” says Chris Ritsema of Canvas Innovations in Holland, Mich. “Clear extruded vinyl is the most popular option that we use.”
Strataglass is available in 60, 40, 30 and 20 mm options. “It’s highly scratch-resistant and easy to work with on the trimming table and during installation,” says Walter Johnson of Strataglass. “It’s highly forgiving for unintended table, installation or customer abuse. With proper maintenance, it lasts years.”
Whether you and your customer decide to go with soft or rigid windows, both options are readily available in all parts of the world.
“I offer them all, but if someone comes in for an old service job and just wants to get another season out of something, I might end up using the basic rolled goods,” says Elliot of his customer base. “If someone has an enclosure they don’t want to spend the money on, we’ll use extruded, and it goes uphill from there.” In the end, it’s all about listening to your customer’s needs and knowing product availability and pros and cons to serve those needs.
Soft vs. rigid
The main difference between vinyl and polycarbonate and acrylic lies in cost, quality and time savings. Whereas vinyl is more affordable, the quality is not as posh, and whereas rigid windows provide clarity, the cost can be prohibitive. Finding out what your customer’s goals are can help narrow down the choices.
“Soft vinyl is much quicker to fabricate,” Elliot says. “Rigid is definitely a slower process, depending on the methods used.”
Erickson agrees. “Rigid windows are roughly twice as expensive, but last three times as long,” he says. Rigid windows take more time to fabricate, but using technology can save your shop a lot of time. “You can shortcut an enclosure that saves you a bunch of time,” Erickson says. “EZ2CY product is done completely in CAD—the plastic parts are cut on a computer cutting table. We use 17 man hours per enclosure by using CAD technology.” Of course, the cost of new technology can be prohibitive up front, but for a growing shop with growing demand, it might be worth it in terms of cost savings.
Sisco agrees with the comments about cost and time savings between soft and rigid options. “Many fabricators have mastered working with polycarbonate and find it to be a time saver,” he says. “Semi- rigid windows hide minor fabricator mistakes better because of its self-tensioning nature.”
Ritsema’s rule of thumb is that rigid enclosures are typically double the cost and labor of soft vinyl. “There’s always more time with a rigid enclosure, which is why we get more money for them, and it’s a nicer product,” he says. “There’s just a ton of prep work.”
There is a difference in demand between soft vinyl and rigid products. “Rigid products have a limited but growing marketplace due to the wide spectrum of materials and their various capabilities,” Johnson says. “Most are application-specific and require highly developed skills and equipment, plus they are two to three times more expensive and have their own quirks.” But the market is a little different for soft vinyl.
“The use of soft vinyl is massive and can be used for literally endless amounts of applications to separate environments,” Johnson says. “Thousands of canvas shops with standard sewing or binding machines can do an unlimited amount of applications that are very user-friendly and do an excellent job for a reasonable price.”
Techniques and tools
With the variety of window products available on the market comes a variety of techniques for working with them. Every fabricator has different techniques and methods.
Elliot preheats and preshrinks every panel of soft vinyl. “We put it on a black trampoline in the sunlight for a day to preshrink it,” he says. “Shrinkage is just one difference between the rigid and soft vinyl.”
When Ritsema prepares his rigid windows, he uses clear plastic wrap to protect the product from scratches. “It’s handled so much between the sewing table that we leave the protective film on until we install it,” he says. “We don’t want to deliver a finished product with scratches in it.”
Ritsema uses a binding technique he calls “sandwiching” where a rigid window is inserted between layers of fabric. “We use one full sheet of fabric, and we insert the window into a full sheet and then trim the excess. Other shops may use strips for binding.” Ritsema notes that this is called a “deluxe model” in the Marine Fabricators Association Time Standards Manual.
To secure edging and binding before sewing, Ritsema uses a stapler. “We staple through the edging and remove the staples as we sew,” he says. “That holds everything securely.”
Elliot uses some different methods for preparing his edges and bindings. “On every one of my products, we use double-sided tape, spray contact cement, and glue together before we sew,” he says. “I use very little binding on all of my products. I prefold all my edges instead of binding. My theory is that one of the value points in products has always been the binding, and so every part is stuck together so we can concentrate on the neatness of sewing. We aim for perfection in sewing.”
Elliot has specific methods for cutting rigid window products. “I use a Japanese-made knife blade that is extremely hard, called KAI 7300 High Carbon Stainless,” he says.
If you decide to use Rainier windows, no cutting is necessary. Rainier will cut the windows for you according to your patterns. The fabricator can then finish the job with zippers and fasteners.
Erickson suggests gluing acrylic glass into pockets. “Acrylic is not polycarbonate,” he says. “It’s not sewable—the glass is not sewn into the pockets. The pockets are created first and the glass is glued into that pocket.”
Fabricators typically end up using the same tools for clear windows as they use for typical canvas jobs. “Every fabricator will have the basic tools,” Elliot says. “You need metal shears. Knife blades make it easier for straight areas. You’ll need rulers and straightedges to score the side of the windows.”
Elliot uses a standard long-arm sewing machine and other standard equipment, such as Teflon thread and zippers, for working with vinyl.
Fabricators don’t need many new tools to get started with soft vinyl. “Just a sewing machine, scissors, thread, zippers and fabric,” Erickson says. “With rigid windows, you need specific cutting tools for the glass, but rather than sewing the border, you glue the border.”
The clear window market continues to grow as fabricators become increasingly more comfortable working with the products. And as more customers become familiar with them, more boats will use them. “Clear windows are the majority of what I do,” Ritsema says. “Seventy percent of the canvas work we’re doing includes a window of some sort. We’d be in trouble without clear windows.”
“The market is fantastic,” Erickson says. “I have more demand than I can answer and I had the best year ever last year.”
Hirsch reports that from his perspective, the majority of the marine market is still interested in PVC, but customers want scratch resistance. “Polycarbonates are increasing in demand yearly,” he says.
Elliot is seeing a decrease in rigid flybridge enclosures. “People are letting their flybridge enclosures go until they can’t see through them at all, then they’ll replace one panel at time,” he says. But Elliot notes that is just part of his market. “As far as the yachting circuit is concerned, I tend to use more high-end products than the cheap ones,” he says. “However, there is always opportunity for more inexpensive options like soft vinyl.”
Warranties and life expectancies
If you’re looking for a straightforward warranty on a clear window product, it might be hard to come by. While EZ2CY offers a 5-year prorated warranty, many other clear window manufacturers handle their warranty issues as they come up.
“Due to the variety of applications and fabricator techniques, Ocean Clear handles warranty issues on a case-by-case basis,” Sisco says. That sentiment is echoed by fabricators, as well.
“I’ve never even looked into product warranties,” Ritsema says. “I look everything over before I cut it and if there’s a problem with the product, I go to my vendor. I’ve never had any customer call me to complain. I use good, name brand products and my end products typically last five to seven years.”
Johnson says there is no specific warranty on the products Strataglass produces, but Strataglass will replace any faulty product upon inspection or during fabrication, provided that all of the material requested to be replaced is returned, whether cut or not. Also, any products that fail within an unreasonably short period of time will be replaced after being inspected and agreeing that it was an undue failure.
“Cases must be considered on an individual basis, and it will be at the discretion of the manufacturer as to whether the situation is warrantable,” Johnson says. “Strataglass will last five-plus years with proper maintenance.”
Elliot agrees that a specific warranty can be hard to come by on clear window products.
“Makrolon or polycarbonate has a warranty for architectural uses, but you have to look very carefully,” he says. “The company states that it comes with a five to seven year warranty, but the details state that the warranty does not apply to marine or automotive uses.” Reading a product’s fine print may prove beneficial to fabricators before extending a warranty to customers.
Hirsch points out that it’s difficult to warranty a product when you don’t know how the end user will maintain it. “No PVC or polycarbonates have a true warranty, as customer care plays a major role in longevity of windows in a marine environment,” he says. “But with proper care, there is no reason our Aqua-View should not last at least five-plus years.”
Fabricators agree that the end product’s longevity depends mostly on how the customer cares for it. “Rolled goods can last six to seven months or they can last eight years,” Elliot says. “I’ve seen exactly the same thing with extruded—12 months at its worst and eight to 10 years at its best. As far as Strataglass and other sheet products are concerned, I’ve seen some enclosures that are 12 years old, but they have been looked after. Longevity entirely relates to keeping them clean.”
Care and maintenance
Educating your customers on how to clean and maintain their clear window products is crucial for the lifespan of the window and can help your reputation as a fabricator. Clear window products take more care and maintenance than standard canvas, but can do wonders for extending the life of an end product.
“I give customers the maintenance sheet that comes with the clear window products and some sample cleaning products,” Elliot says. “But very few customers come back and buy cleaning products. I recommend purely pH-neutral soaps to wash the materials. I tell my customers that if it’s good enough for your hands, it’s good enough for covers and clears.”
Johnson only recommends IMAR cleaning products for Strataglass and Crystal Clear 20/20. He indicates that using Rain-X on Strataglass might look like it works for a while but it will dull the surface of the products. Johsnon warns against using cleaners, polishes, scratch removers or any other product made for regular, uncoated vinyl. And don’t handle Strataglass—or any vinyl—with sunscreen on your hands because it will permanently cloud the vinyl.
Rainier does not advocate using Rain-X on its products, but it does recommend using RainMagic, a similar hydrophobic coating product, which has been approved for use on polycarbonate and acrylic.
Hirsch suggests washing saltwater off clear window products. “Use a non-detergent soap and clean with our M2107 Aqua-View polish monthly,” he advises. “The same is true for our polycarbonate.”
“Cleaning and maintenance of polycarbonate is simple,” Sisco says. “Wash with clean water, a clean sponge and a mild detergent such as Palmolive dish soap. Dry with a microfiber cloth and finish with a quality polish, such as Mermaid Plastic Polish.”
“You can buff scratches out of clear extruded vinyls using microfiber cloths,” Ritsema says. “Most customers don’t know that, so I tell them not to get discouraged if they see scratches because they can be buffed out.”
Elliot recommends soft cloths for cleaning and polishing clear windows. “I recommend chamois and a microfiber cloth to maintain clears,” he says. “Dedicate them purely for the clears. I recommend wiping clears with a chamois every time you get back from boating. I’ve seen the life of the product last 10 times longer.”
Storage plays a role in how long a clear window product can last. “I tell my customers to use covers over the outside of clears as much as possible,” Elliot says. “I sell a cover for the clear as an extra with my new products. Some of the flybridge customers use a cover too. I tell customers they’ll get 10-years plus out of them if they use covers.”
Hirsch agrees that storage affects the lifespan of clear window products. “They must always be clean and completely dry before being stored to avoid scratching and discoloration,” he says.
Being knowledgeable about the clear window products available on the market and providing the options to your customers can set your canvas shop apart from the competition. Educating your customers on what’s available will help you make the right decision for their needs.
“The truth will set you free,” Erickson says. “Don’t get caught by a desire to get the job. Make sure you’re honest with how the product will perform.”
Kelly Frush is a Minnesota-based writer and editor.