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Tools of the Trade: Marine fabricators share their favorites

May 1st, 2021 / By: / Feature

We asked marine fabricators to tell us about the “must-have” tools in their shop. The variety and creativity of submissions we received told us what we already knew—fabricators are a resourceful and innovative lot!

By Cathy Broberg

Hercules 1575 foam cutter with Bosch blade

“A good quality foam cutter makes shop life so much easier,” says Whitney Carman, stressing that the key word is quality. “Bosch is the best,” she says. “I’ve heard about them, used them, my dad has an old one, but they are very pricey—and worth it because they last forever. This is a Hercules 1575 and uses a Bosch blade. It locks on, it’s lightweight and I bought it gently used for $279 on Amazon. I’ve had it for a year, and I’m very happy with it (though I still have my eye out for a used Bosch someday). It cuts like butter. Keep cans of silicone on hand and keep the blades clean.” 

Even Keel Canvas LLC Whitney Carman, owner
El Segundo, Calif.

Pattern-X2 Patterning Fabric (woven polyethylene, translucent)

Krisha Plauche’ says the “can’t do without” item in her shop is actually a patterning material she purchases from Bainbridge. “It was originally called Pattern X and it was clear, which was perfect, and now it is called Pattern X version 2 material; it is a bit cloudy now so you can’t see through it as well but it still works for our projects.” Onboard Interiors makes patterns for all of its projects, says Plauche’, which explains why the patterning fabric is so important. “We bring it with us in our work van everywhere, even though it is so hard to travel with because it’s heavy and long. The roll we purchase is 72-inch lengths, which works well for large areas and the bedding that we do.”  

Onboard Interiors LLC | Krisha Plauche’, owner and principal designer
Marblehead, Mass.

U-zipper template tool

Made out of a scrap piece of polycarbonate, this tool allows employees to “draw four lines at once for a perfect radius every time,” explains Mike Johnson. The shop has two different templates, one 12-inch radius for chain zippers, and one 10-inch radius for coil zippers. “We remove 3/8 of the poly from the center of the U-zipper for easy sliding of the pulls and add a rain flap to the outside of the panel.”

Tabletop and under-the-table material roll racks

This easy-to-use tabletop rack is constructed by putting a pipe in the center of the roll of material and setting that into racks to support the roll. “The underneath mount keeps the roll out of the way to allow easy access to all four corners of the table while working,” says Mike Johnson. The shop uses metal J hooks for the underneath mount. The tabletop racks are made from 2-by-8-inch scraps with a notch cut in the center of the top for the pipe to lie in. “Add your accessories like scissor holders, and clamp these racks to the edge of the table,” says Johnson.

Mike’s Marine Canvas | Mike Johnson, owner
Virginia Beach, Va.

DeWALT metal shears attachment 

Using this DeWALT® metal shears attachment to cut polycarbonate “saves me an unbelievable amount of time,” says Mike Charlton. “It is a must-have tool in my shop. It cuts fast, easy and clean. It cuts tight curves very well.”

Charlton’s Marine Canvas, Mike Charlton, owner
Yorktown, Va.

Zipper starting tool

Custom Marine Canvas uses this tool to start coil or tooth zipper chains. It was custom made for her shop by a machinist friend, says Katie Bradford. The fabricators in her shop call it “super useful.”

Hoffman Steam Generator, model ELG 4 steam boiler 

This high-pressure steamer allows Custom Marine Canvas to steam foam and vinyl. It’s a “huge upgrade for vinyl upholstery,” says Katie Bradford. “Get the long (10-foot) hose option,” she advises.

Custom Marine Canvas | Katie Bradford, owner, MFC, IFM
Noank, Conn.

Custom foam cutter

“A must-have in the marine/upholstery industry are foam cutters, which can be quite costly,” says Kathryn Maisto. “Many standard cutters have a maximum blade of 12 inches; often band saws are used, but again have a limiting depth of cut. We so often end up with leftover foams from jobs and I hate to waste but quite often the foam is not the proper thickness for the application. Most seat widths start at 20 inches and I don’t like to glue pieces together. We needed a large foam slicer/saw, which can cost thousands of dollars; I made one.” Maisto took a band saw blade, which can be as long as 5 feet, and fabricated a holder for it out of wood. “The saw works similar to a two-man saw, slicing through foam to a desired thickness,” she says.

Fairwinds Canvas LLC | Kathryn Maisto, owner
Racine, Wis.

Stayput die for the Hoover Pres-N-Snap tool 

“Traditionally, Stayput fasteners are removed with a hammer and a punch,” explains Allan Pfromm. “Removing the panel from the boat is time consuming and cumbersome.” The solution for Bayport Marine Canvas was found by prototyping a die to fit the Pres-N-Snap tool, allowing fabricators to quickly and easily remove old or broken Stayput fasteners while the panel is still attached to the boat.

Snap-On Cordless Screwdriver

A favorite tool of Bayport Marine Canvas is its Snap-on® cordless screwdriver, p/n CTS761A, with a one-handed paddle trigger that allows for easy transition from forward to reverse. “With the attachments, we can use this tool to easily tap for threads,” says Allan Pfromm. “Setting the torque clutch setting to one or two and using the index finger for forward and the middle finger for reverse allows for a quick direction change while tapping threads into stainless steel. We also use PTEF® lubricant to keep things from seizing up.”

Sailrite Edge Cordless Hotknife

“A hotknife is a must when working with Sunbrella® or to seal the ends of binding or zippers to prevent unsightly fraying,” says Allan Pfromm. “The newest addition to our tool arsenal is a cordless hotknife package. With the supplied quick charger and two lithium batteries, our productivity never suffers while waiting for a battery to charge. We are not restricted by a power cord and we have even taken the cordless hot knife down to the dock to do a quick ‘hot-cut’ or two.”

Bayport Marina Canvas & Upholstery Shop | Allan Pfromm, canvas fabricator
Bayport, Minn.

Quick bobbin seam allowance maker 

“Our quick ½-inch seam allowance bobbin maker is a must here,” says Steven Wayne, explaining that being able to turn and burn that stage of marking up saves the company a lot of time. Wayne makes this tool in-house with just a full bobbin that is super glued tightly closed up. Any tool that saves the company time adds more to the bottom line, says Wayne. “And that is one reason we are in business—to make a living.” 

Cuddy box 

Southern Stitch stations a “cuddy box” at every machine, from the sewing machines to the grommet machine. “Having all your parts and feet easily accessible to change out during a build is very nice,” says Steven Wayne. “Not only that, it shows clients our attention to details! These are also made in-house in our woodshop.”

Southern Stitch Canvas & Upholstery LLC, Steven Wayne, owner and production engineer
Gulfport, Miss.

Radius guide for rounded corners

Bill Marriott reports that this radius guide is a must-have in his shop. “I made these for when I’m making round corners on cushions or canvas projects. I was selling these at one time,” he says. The radius guides allow Marriott to be consistent when multiple parts need rounded corners. “I’ve seen people use paint/glue cans or rolls of tape, even soda cans, to use as a guide to draw rounded corners. When I’m prototyping seats for boats, I use these on the patterns and they are marked with the radius size. This way I can tell the engineers the size and nobody has to take time to measure each rounded corner.”

Extreme Upholstery Design LLC | William (Bill) Marriott, owner
Summerville, S.C. 

Cathy Broberg is a writer and editor who lives near Minneapolis, Minn.