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Metal framework takes top billing

Features | July 1, 2019 | By:

It’s time for metalwork and framing to move from being bit players to getting top billing.

By Jeff Moravec

Fabric is typically the star of the show in any fabrication project. What often gets overlooked, however, is the role supporting metal frameworks play—often behind the scenes—in fabric structures. The metal framework may frequently be an unheralded bit player, but it’s critical to any project and can often be used as a selling point for fabricators who emphasize the frame and know-how to market its importance.

Part of the reason framework doesn’t get its due is a lack of education on the part of customers. Metal framework has traditionally been hidden away behind the fabric—intended, especially in residential settings, to “blend in with fabrics or wall paints,” says Edward Skrzynski, owner of Marco Canvas & Upholstery LLC, in Marco Island, Fla. 

The challenge for fabricators is to help their customers understand how metal framework contributes to the longevity and durability of the overall project.

Daymon Johnstone, who owns Lakeside Marine Canvas with his wife, Joni, builds boat party tops that are engineered for strength and durability. He worked with an engineer for eight months to design a structurally sound, stable system that he says, “will hold up more weight than almost anybody else.” Photo: Lakeside Marine Canvas.

Strength costs more

Daymon Johnstone owns Lakeside Marine Canvas, in Buford, Ga., with his wife, Joni. Along with other fabrication work, Lakeside designs and builds party tops for boats that are engineered for strength and durability.

“We got into this when I saw that the party tops on boats weren’t strong enough, in my opinion, for what they were being put out there to do,” says Johnstone. “A lot of people were using lighter weight and inferior structural systems. I worked with an engineer for eight months to design a structurally sound, stable system that will hold up more weight than almost anybody else.”

Lakeside fabricates the party tops, all in-house, in seven-foot sections and uses marine-grade aluminum staples in its extrusion tubes, according to Johnstone. The trusses are welded for added strength and the fabric is stapled in for durability. PVC finishing trim conceals the staples.

The only issue with his system, says Johnstone, is that quality and strength come at a cost that not every boat owner is willing to pay. “My system has so much welding and work involved in it, I have priced myself out of a lot of jobs,” he explains. “My party tops will hold up in 100-mile-per-hour winds, but it’s hard to compete with those who are putting up lightweight stuff.”

Daymon Johnstone of Lakeside Marine Canvas designed and built this custom pontoon top. The top was designed to hold up in 100-mile-per-hour winds. (The pup approves.) Photo: Lakeside Marine Canvas.

Technology drives capabilities

Technology is one of the drivers that has helped advance the design and capabilities of metal frameworks.

“There are still folks around who are doing hand sketches of their awnings,” says Steve Moyer, co-owner of Heartland Awning & Design in Omaha, Neb. “Since our beginning we’ve tried to cater to the design and building professionals using current technology to illustrate our designs. We started using CAD years ago to submit information to architects and designers, which allowed us to communicate in the language they are used to.”

That’s important, he says, because today all structures have more eyes on them. “Everyone from an architect to a building owner to a city inspector may be reviewing our plans,” he says. “Municipalities, as well as contractors, are not just interested in the aesthetic value of the frame design; they also need to have the structural integrity documented.” 

“Technology has helped,” adds Skrzynski. “We employ 3D laser scanning of as-built spaces and can take that model and overlay on an architect’s 2D PDF drawing to scale. Many times, we will see a change is needed based on actual layout versus what was designed. This helps greatly proving change orders are needed. We can also take that as-built scan and draw our metal structures into the scan, allowing us to build modular and ship-to-site for assembly versus building/welding on-site in less-than-ideal conditions.”

Also, he says, “This lets us work with end users, architects and builders to provide realistic renderings. Many times, we are hired prior to scan and design. We do this a lot for residential projects, as most people can’t visualize what something will look like and the rendering will sell the project.”

Lakeside Marine Canvas fabricates its party tops in-house. Daymon Johnstone says his shop uses marine-grade aluminum staples in its extrusion tubes and the trusses are welded for added strength. Photo: Lakeside Marine Canvas.

In-house vs. outsourcing

Not all fabricators have the capacity, skills or even desire to do any more than basic metal fabrication, but even those who specialize in it sometimes need to farm out work, according to Skrzynski.

“Some shops have to go to a metal fabrication house to do their frames, which tends to make them more expensive,” he says. “But it’s a good solution if you’re buried in work or simply don’t have the abilities or facilities.”

He says Marco is not geared toward doing very large steel work, so it sends out those jobs. “But when we do that, the price and/or delivery can be the difference between winning and losing a bid, and can have a negative effect on delivery, so we do as much of the work in-house as we can.”

Edward Skrzynski says outsourcing frames to metal fabricators can make them more expensive. “But it’s a good solution if you’re buried in work or simply don’t have the abilities or facilities.” Photo: Marco Canvas & Upholstery LLC.

However, adds Skrzynski, “There are some things outsourcing is always better for, such as powder coating. We just don’t want to build, buy or manage a paint shop. 

“Those decisions are on a case-by-case basis, but if [a subcontractor] is on your jobsite, you better have contracts and safety agreements, because you are the specialty contractor and they are your sub—you are accountable for them.”  

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.

Photos: Shellaback Canvas LLC.

While steel and aluminum still dominate metal fabrication, especially in the marine world, carbon fiber is becoming a viable alternative in some applications, due in part to the work being done by Nanette Hultgren, owner of Shellback Canvas LLC, in Palmetto, Fla. 

Hultgren is the developer of Blackstick® (, a carbon fiber tubular pole socket system that can be used in applications such as sailboat awning poles, rod holders and center console shade struts for powerboats. 

Hultgren didn’t necessarily intend to be a carbon fiber pioneer when a friend approached her to build an awning for his 38-foot sailboat. To lower the weight of the poles, they decided to look into using carbon fiber.

“The problem was the expense of carbon fiber poles was outrageous,” says Hultgren. “So I decided we would do our own.” That was the beginning of a seven-year odyssey that now includes four patents on her carbon fiber products.

“The compression molding process I developed is unique in that I use marine-fabricated products to aid in the compression and manufacturing of the tubes while holding the cost down,” says Hultgren.

“It’s expensive to make a carbon fiber shade strut with a proper fabric lay-up,” she explains. “To keep the cost down, I went with dry carbon instead of prepreg and developed a whole new process for making tubes with an elongated end using a two-part mold.” The result, she says, is a tube with a wall thickness of 0.099 mm and has the torsional and shear strength to withstand the environmental and physical constraints of being under constant proper load. 

As she began developing products, Hultgren says she discovered that most sailboaters were not interested in spending money on carbon fiber awnings, so she turned her focus more toward powerboats.

She says that as rod holder shade struts have become a popular replacement for the bimini frame, “I have found that customers, boat manufacturers and yacht brokers want an alternative to the stainless and aluminum struts, due to the weight and stowage problem. They like the carbon struts for the compactness for stowage, weight and design of the shade, and its ability to keep the shade taut because of its unique flexing capabilities. They are willing to spend extra for these benefits.”

Hultgren says she is continuing to work on new applications for carbon fiber. She plans to make larger diameter struts and in the future a carbon bimini frame. “My goal is to get carbon fiber products into the marine industry at a reasonable price.”

Edward Skrzynski, owner of Marco Canvas & Upholstery LLC, says different projects call for different metals—usually a choice between steel and aluminum. He says aluminum is easier to work with but requires more welding skills. Photo: Marco Canvas & Upholstery LLC.

Different fabrication projects call for different metals, usually a choice between steel and aluminum (and sometimes a combination). Sometimes the right metal is obvious, and sometimes not.

“As hurricanes and other disasters increase so do the building requirements,” says Edward Skrzynski, owner of Marco Canvas & Upholstery LLC, in Marco Island, Fla. “Whereas two years ago we were building with aluminum to 140 mph wind codes, we now must build to 190 mph codes. Many times, aluminum simply won’t have the cross structural integrity to meet such pressures and you must move to steel.”

The issue, he says, is that steel corrodes and is much heavier. “So that means lots of metal prep, epoxy coatings, etc. to mitigate corrosion and heavy equipment to move materials,” he says.

“Aluminum is much easier to work with,” adds Skrzynski, “but you have to be a bit more skilled on welds or you burn through, or don’t have enough heat and have a cold weld that looks pretty but doesn’t bond the pieces.”

Part of the need for more skill with aluminum is that most marine aluminum is anodized, says Skrzynski. “Anodize has a higher melt rate than the aluminum and creates a barrier for the electric arc to find ground,” he explains. “A few tricks of the trade and you can do it effectively. Most people use a bump weld process and then fill weld over all for a final stack-of-dimes look of weld beads.” There is stainless steel as well. Stainless is more malleable and tungsten inert gas (TIG) welds well, says Skrzynski, but he adds that while it may appear on yachts and other boats, the cost and limited sizes of stocked stainless steel limits its use on other shade systems.

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