Clutter. Claustrophobia. Continual need for more storage.
Those are possible hazards of working out of a physically small marine fabrication shop. Yet it’s understandable that many fabricators choose to house their companies in conservatively sized spaces to better control overhead costs.
Keeping small shops organized can require planning and extra patience; often, staff have to carefully move tools, materials and work spaces around just to accommodate ongoing projects. But having the right strategies for the right workflows can be crucial to productivity, profitability and worker well-being.
To learn how fabricators are dealing with such challenges, we talked to three who are successfully operating out of modestly sized shops.
Like a little ballet
Two years ago, Shawn James sought to move his then two-year-old marine fabrication shop from his home to a commercial marina in Annapolis, Md. But he needed manageable overhead, and rent at the busy marina was pricey. So, he decided to be fiscally cautious.
The result? Back Creek Canvas now operates successfully in just 600 square feet of marina space—80 feet of which make up his office.
To kick off the process, he created a detailed schematic plan aimed at optimizing all available space for his three-person staff. The plan used paper cutouts to represent major fixtures, and it helped him predict in-house traffic patterns.
“If we had more than three workers, it would be too tight,” James says. “But one of the three of us is sewing, while the other two are patterning or cutting or assembling materials for the seamstress. We can get all those things done together; it almost becomes like a little ballet sometimes.”
One tactic has been outfitting his two pattern-cutting tables with industrial-grade wheels that allow them to be split or pushed together for the project at hand. They’re sized to be ergonomically comfortable for patterning tasks, and they incorporate storage space beneath to keep sheets of fabric and foam materials close at hand.
Other strategies have involved mounting bimini and dodger frames, binders and crowners on walls and installing stainless steel brackets close to the ceiling, where they can effectively hold materials of longer lengths. Binding rolls are placed atop stainless stock stored directly over the sewing machine, and scrap material is kept in clear plastic bags in an attic accessible via a flexible ladder. Pegboard hooks and bins mounted on the walls offer additional storage.
One steadfast rule: Staffers must return tools and materials to their designated storage spots immediately after use, not at the end of each day. In addition, everyone keeps an ongoing inventory of small items such as zippers by continually re-marking the numbers on their boxes.
James, a U.S. Navy veteran, acknowledges that his military training may help him adhere to those rules.
“Customers stop by every single day,” he says. “And when they walk in, their comment usually is ‘For as much as you’re doing and how busy you are, your shop is so clean.’”
Helping keep storage manageable is the fact that nearby suppliers are able to fill Back Creek’s orders relatively quickly.
“During COVID some things were short that never made rhyme or reason, and that was a challenge for us just like everyone else,” James notes. “But things have normalized.”
He’s now considering a physical expansion that would allow his shop to take on more work.
“Demand is such that we could easily expand if we had a larger space and could find more employees,” he says. “But that’s another challenge, and that could lead to managing people more than projects. I like the hands-on.”
Versatility is key
Keri Ames, owner of Yachtsman’s Canvas in North Wales, Pa., has dealt with similar challenges. She operates in a 1,200-square-foot shop supplemented by 200 square feet of storage space in her adjacent home.
“More space is always good, but I have found with my business plan and goals this size space is comfortable,” she says.
Building versatility into her shop features and equipment has been one of her key strategies.
For example, one table enables the cutting of all kinds of fabrics, and the surface can be removed and the table pushed against another to facilitate bigger projects. The same is true of a station designed for pattern development and fabric layout.
Similarly, Ames’ sewing station optimizes sewing machines attached at each end of an 8-by-12-foot table to maximize the work space between; the same table can support an 18-inch radius frame bender and a 10-inch radius wall-mounted bender she can easily access for design purposes.
Built-in mobility has also been crucial to her success; for instance, two of her four sewing machines and several of her worktables are on wheels so they can be moved on demand. Several are also equipped with fold-down extensions and/or leaves so surface space can be adjusted as needed. Those strategies give her access to a combined 14-by-16-foot table surface space if and when she needs it.
Maintaining ample storage has also been crucial, especially over the past couple of years.
“The days of ordering goods a few days before needed is no longer an option, with some materials taking weeks or more to be delivered,” Ames explains. “Having to order that far in advance creates challenges for small shops to store until needed. Fortunately, staying on track of a well-planned schedule prevents buildup and the need to store completed customer projects.”
Solutions have included a small wheeled tool cart that can be rolled between stations; shelving and file cabinets built above and beneath tables; a cutting station that can accommodate large rolls of fabric; the use of large cardboard shipping tubes (horizontally stacked) to store fabric rolls; and the use of pegboards and J-hooks to hang supplies from walls. A mini loft area a couple feet below the ceiling is installed with Costa Track so finished products can be hung and stored vertically.
Another way she saves space? She’s able to hold 95 percent of client meetings on their boats to preclude the need for an in-house reception area.
Storage is the main challenge
In its earlier incarnation, BayView Canvas was located in a 3,400-square-foot shop that provided more space. But the Little Egg Harbor, N.J., firm had expanded too quickly, says owner Jamie Marozzi, and its product quality was suffering.
“We decided to downsize and focus more on our brand and the quality of work we were putting out, as opposed to the quantity of jobs,” he says. “We plan to start hiring again within one to two years, but we really needed to step back and figure out who we wanted to be.”
For that process, BayView Canvas has moved into a former house that offers 2,500 square feet of space. To make that work, the company has created storage via shelving systems, cubbies and traditional-style coat hooks. Fabric and clear vinyl are stored under the sewing tables kept on both levels, and a 24-foot plotter-cutter on the main floor can double as a worktable.
The company’s greatest challenges in terms of physical space? The lack of a storefront and the lack of ample storage for the large upholstery projects it takes in each winter.
“We have a small display up front that we bring with us to local boat shows, but we no longer have all of our sample books and a showroom available in the front of our building,” Marozzi notes. “And the large cushions take up a ton of space and can’t get installed until spring at the earliest, so we end up having to work around those.”
The future for BayView, he says, may involve the construction of a new shop with bigger capacity and a customer-friendly reception area.
For fabricators, working in a modestly sized space can call for creativity and careful planning. But managed properly, it can be a smart choice that pays off in terms of lower overhead and greater profits.
Michelle Miron is a freelance writer based in Hugo, Minn.
SIDEBAR: Small space smarts
“Organization is worth your time and is key to your success. Use your creativity to attack your shop as a project that could teach you something. Take your floor plan, make scale cutouts and use them when deciding on layouts. Install wheels to move things around easily, and look for things that can serve more than one role. Also, networking can be huge. The MFA can help you not only meet other suppliers, but also get their ideas.”
Shawn James, Back Creek Canvas
“Multipurpose workstations with defined areas for specific tasks and mobile, adaptable work spaces are key to a small shop. Design your shop layout with purpose and intent, making the tools you need for a task readily available and within arm’s length reach. Maximize your space by being creative with storage solutions, looking both high and low. Keep a well-planned project schedule while staying fluid to allow projects to move in and out of the shop, reducing the need to store for long periods of time.” Keri Ames, Yachtsman’s Canvas
“The important factor is having the proper shelving/bin space and utilizing all empty space, especially under the working tables.”
Jamie Marozzi, BayView Canvas