Joel Butler, owner of Leatherback Canvas, founded his one-person business in 2004 after discovering that his interests in art and making things added up to transferable skills for the marine fabrication business. Butler’s 18 years of fabrication experience is well utilized in his San Diego, Calif.-based shop.
What drew you into the marine fabrication industry?
I was an art student and working at a local casino on the night shift. After oversleeping several times, I was worried about being able to keep the job. Finally, I decided to look in the paper for a different job and saw an ad for a “canvas fitter.” Assuming it had something to do with artist canvases, I thought I could learn to make my own painting canvases. When I went to the interview, I was introduced to something I did not know existed. I was hired on as a helper and quickly started picking up the trade. I think I excelled at the work primarily because I love making things, and that was a big reward. Envisioning the end product is what encouraged me to learn the skills to complete a project.
What are your areas of expertise?
Over the years I have become accomplished in all of the major facets of exterior canvas making. Traditionally, the main tasks of fabricating canvas goods are frame making, fitting, layout, sewing and installation. More recently, I have developed an interest and good understanding of pattern making and design, using both hand and CAD layout tools.
How do you keep up with innovations in textiles, equipment and other materials?
I think doing your own research is critical in determining if the material you are selecting is suitable. It can be hard to find good, unbiased information on any products for sale today. Sometimes I will get samples to experiment with them prior to buying larger quantities of them. I am often surprised that some of the people working at the distribution companies and shop owners do not know much beyond the name of the products they are selling. All of the IFAI magazines are a great source for the latest fabrics. Some years, IFAI or some of the distributors publish a comparative data sheet including many of the materials.
Sometimes I will also reach out to the manufacturer or another IFAI member to get opinions as well as specifications on special materials or applications.
How do you recruit and develop employees?
I have tried friends, friends of friends, relatives of friends and posted want ads on Craigslist and other sites. I quickly found that friends and relatives don’t usually work out. Aside from the usual work habits, they have to have a certain kind of interest and aptitude for the job. Someone who works in a canvas shop has to be versatile, creative and born with an above-average spatial sense. Above all, they have to love making things. I am constantly training and monitoring the progress and strengths of employees I hire. It can be hard to determine if the “light bulb” will turn on with them as it did with me and other successful fabricators I know.
What are your biggest challenges?
By far the biggest challenge for me has always been finding workers who have the desire and aptitude to excel. They also have to be satisfied to live off what I can afford to pay them; the cost of living and doing business in San Diego is expensive. Most people who are available come with little to no experience and will likely be fairly unproductive at first, and sometimes they never are. I have found that it takes two to three years to train a new employee. In return, I get no guarantee that person will stay after my time investment.
Why are you an MFA member?
I was encouraged to join from Lia Gianola at Gianola Canvas Products Inc. in Sausalito, Calif. I have continued being a member because it has been an excellent source for information on new products, making contacts and keeping up with fabrication and business practices.