Let’s Get Personal

Published On: March 1, 2014Categories: News

Expand your market by adding customized graphics.

Imagine your customers at the marina. They put the name board cover on, and the neighbor asks, “How’d you get the name of your boat on there?” Or, at the lake, “How’d you get that image of martini glasses on your bimini cover?” Soon, you’re the Personalization Pro, the one who makes the magic happen.

Customized graphics broadcast personality. “For many boat owners, boats become their babies,” says Rich Thompson, president of AdGraphics in Pompano Beach, Fla., who also made a presentation at the annual Marine Fabricators Association national convention in Charleston, S.C., in January. “They have an emotional attachment to their crafts. With the addition of graphics, boat owners can show off that pride.

“If the boat is tied to their business, they can tout whatever pays for the boat, so owners add the company logo,” Thompson says. “Graphics are an inexpensive method to gain name recognition and may even be a tax write-off.”

Whether the graphics are added for personalizing or advertizing, customers’ needs are similar, says Thad Bowes, marine division manager at Rainier Industries in Tukwila, Wash. “They want something that is going to look great, hold up in the marine environment, and be reasonably priced.”

Graphics Technology Meets Creativity

Advancements in textiles, processes and inks have made creativity in the realm of graphics easier than ever. “Up until a few years ago,” says Bill McDaniel, marine market manager, Glen Raven Custom Fabrics in Glen Raven, N.C., “owners were maybe adding some accents or placing a name on the boat’s hull. People relied on silk screen or embroidery—both expensive. Now, companies and individuals are personalizing boots, cockpit and sail covers, adding logos and the boat’s name to fabrics, applying images of martini glasses or a photo of the dog—whatever suits.”

Multiple markets are served by the addition of images. “Our retail business deals mostly with replacements,” says Jim Wilson, president of Great Lakes Boat Top Co. and Westland Industries in Vonore, Tenn. “We work primarily in the OEM market, putting logos and other branding material on biminis and campers, boots and bow, mooring and cockpit covers.”

Wilson has applied graphics using silk-screen techniques for 25 years and has been embroidering for more than 15 years. Those applications are tapering, he says. “With today’s graphics technology, the sky is the limit and affordable, as well. We use a thermal substrate application. Customers can name any color imaginable, any image. We can print logos, artwork, a picture of your boat. Your only limitation is budget,” he says.

Making Graphics Work

Whether you carry out graphics projects in-house or work with a print shop, knowing your options leads to success.

“In the past, we had to cut the letters out of fabric and zigzag stitch them on,” Katie Bradford, MFC, IFM, owner of Custom Marine Canvas, Noank, Conn., says of her in-house projects. “Not only was this time consuming, but limiting in the style and fonts that we could use. Sailmakers regularly used self-adhesive Dacron for this, which faded and got messy quickly.

“Now we use FabTac adhesive stencils,” Bradford says. “Our local sign vendor cuts the stencil on the same machine that he uses to cut self-adhesive vinyl letters. With his graphics capability, we can use any font that the customer wants. We can do multiple colors and outlines. The FabTac stencil is squeegeed to the acrylic fabric—before sewing—so that the fabric lies flat. The first coat of paint is the same as the background color, to prevent bleeding of the final color. Thin coats, dried quickly with a fan, work best. We do one coat of primer, then two top coats. Regular latex paint works. We bring a fabric swatch to the local hardware store for color matching. When it is dry, pull the stencil, and it looks great,” Bradford says. “The paint is colorfast and can be folded and creased without damage.

“We concentrate mainly on adding the boat name to sail covers and name board covers,” Bradford says. “A boat name board is varnished gold leaf, so they can’t tolerate the sun, but covering it would obscure the name. We stencil the boat name in the same font as the gold leaf.”

One option for printing graphics is Glen Raven’s Sunbrella Graphic System (SGS). McDaniel says the initial phase of SGS utilized 3M films to apply images, lettering and graphics, primarily to fixed awnings and banners.

“Then we developed a thermally activated, digitally printable film that is aggressive enough to be used in the tough conditions of the boating world,” McDaniel says.

The SGS film is a white substrate. Graphics, color and images can be applied with inkjet printers. “The key to the SGS process is heat and suction—heat that doesn’t damage the fabric and creates a strong hold between fabric, adhesive and film,” says McDaniel.

In all print applications, ink is a major piece of the puzzle. “With continuous exposure, most inks fade outside in about a year here in Florida,” says AdGraphics’ Thompson. “But you can extend the life of your project to many years with the right ink and protection. There are a select few ink sets that can weather the elements.”

Don’t Fear the Unknown

McDaniel says adding graphics is trending because it is affordable and provides a lasting product. “Fabricators will have to decide whether to own the equipment or forge a relationship with a graphics firm. Either way, offering the addition of graphics is a good way for marine fabricators to expand their business.”

As with every new business step, fabricators can expect a learning curve. But, Bowes suggests, “So long as printing quality is predetermined, there’s really no reason to not accept these jobs. It’s about doing your homework and asking the right questions.”

“Some fabricators may be hesitant to offer graphics because it is outside their comfort zone,” Thompson says. “Fear of the unknown is valid: File formats are numerous; resolution can’t be too low; necessary fonts need to be included, etc. It is a new set of challenges and potential headaches right out of the chute. But don’t fear, just as you specialize in what makes you good, there are others of us who specialize in what makes us good. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Capitalize on this growing market.”

And Thompson attests to market growth: “We’re getting calls from around the globe.”

Bradford might expand her customization options. “Byron Yonce of TCT&A Industries [Urbana, Ill.] sent me some very nice samples of digital printing on acrylic,” she says. “I have them hanging in the showroom to get the idea process going. We are the only shop in our area offering the graphics, so when we make something special for a customer, the word spreads.”

San Francisco fabricator Liz Diaz, MFC, takes calculated risks. “We as fabricators want to know how to do something before we offer it,” she says. “Over the years, I can count our graphics projects on one hand. So I’m gaining experience and looking forward to offering more options for graphics in the very near future,” says the owner of North Beach Marine Canvas. “Graphics are just another way to respond to customers’ desire to customize.

“Adding graphics hybridizes interior and graphic design—and good business sense,” she says. “You have to have a really good eye. Graphics created with embroidery can look like brocade. I can match the quality of the graphics to the quality of the fabric. If I work with a printer, I will work into the cost the calculated risks involved, ensuring profitability of the job. In the end, we convert expenses into marketing. Satisfied customers are the best advertising.”

Dara Syrkin is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.