Metal framework takes top billing

Published On: July 1, 2019Categories: Features

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.