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Custom boat cover tips and techniques

Boat covers are the bread and butter of the industry, and each cover is as unique as the fabricator who designs it.

Features | September 1, 2022 | By: Jeff Moravec

Tony Troxell of Fine Line Canvas and Upholstery in Fountain, Colo., enjoys seeing the boat covers he makes being used in the beautiful scenery of the Rocky Mountain state. It’s a good thing, too, since he makes about 100 covers a year. Photo: Fine Line Canvas and Upholstery

Remember the old adage that the only sure things in life are death and taxes? For marine fabricators, the list might include a third one—boat covers.

Tony Troxell, co-owner of Fine Line Canvas & Upholstery in Fountain, Colo., makes about 100 boat covers a year. The annual count for Ben Lange, proprietor of Wyoming Canvas in Wyoming, Minn., is “in the hundreds.” At Mister Sew-N-Sew Custom Boat Canvas in Waterford, N.Y., owner Charlie Kees is so busy with boat covers that he’s started taking reservations for next year.

For those fabricators who have spent a career making boat covers, it’s often more of a passion than a job. Kees is still in the business at age 70 and figures he still has a few more years left. “Twenty-five years sounds kind of nice,” says Kees. “But I’ll keep doing it as long as I still get a kick out of helping people, helping boaters have fun on the water and still like turning a roll of fabric,” he adds.

Charlie Kees’ shop, Mister Sew-N-Sew Custom Boat Canvas in Waterford, N.Y., can fit boats up to 30 feet inside but larger boats get worked on outside—and, unlike some fabricators today, Kees also will work on covers at a marina. Photo: Mister Sew-N-Sew Custom Boat Canvas

Troxell considers making a boat cover to be as much of an art as a science. Like other fabricators, he sometimes gets a customer in the door who expects the shop to have an array of covers sitting on the shelf, instead of the custom covers he makes. “If they want a generic cover, I tell them they can go to Amazon,” he says. 

“I really try to educate the customer on the difference between what I’m doing and what someone else might do. A lot of people will chain stitch their materials together and run all their panels starboard to port,” he says. “I run all my panels fore and aft with a center seam stitched and topstitched. I’m running my goods for a great product; I’m not running my goods to save a dime or increase my profit.”

One choice fabricators need to make is whether they will do covers only in the shop or on the water as well. Troxell is a little in between. “We’re near Lake Pueblo, and I’ve worked on some boats down there, but I’ve tried to frown on it,” he explains. “Almost all our boats come to us. Most of the marinas are going to ask for a cut, so I typically try to get the customer to find a trailer and plan on doing a winter job, bringing the job to us. In our facility, I can get a 50-foot trailer and boat in, so I can work on it year-round. I think the job turns out much better.”

Lake Shore Boat Top Co., St. Clair Shores, Mich., uses a digitizer to make its boat covers. Once a boat is in its digital library, the fabricator can “mass produce” the enclosure for that boat for years to come. Photo: Lake Shore Boat Top Co.

Custom covers only

All of Lange’s work is custom as well—even for previous customers. “People call all day long and say, ‘You made me a cover in 1988 and now I need a replacement,’” says Lange. “But we have no patterns. I keep no patterns for anything. Everything is custom made. I’m next to a pontoon place and even the covers they make with a pattern don’t always fit. Whoever installed the top may have moved it forward 3 or 4 inches, so now everything is off.”

Lange says he installs vents on every cover he does. “We vent everything, no matter what,” he says. “If a customer has purchased a cover that is not vented, I can actually mail them a vent, and they can put it in. It’s very easy.” He says he does like to put reinforcement under the cover where the vent is located, especially if the boat owner is traveling with the cover on.

Lange has noticed a change in what cover colors are in style in recent years. “I didn’t make a black cover for 25 years,” he says. “Now I make two or three black covers a week. But I think blue, navy blue, forest green—those colors take a beating; they absorb so much sun that you’ll get a couple of years less usage from them. Tan never fades; it seems to last a little longer.”

All of Ben Lange’s work at Wyoming Canvas in Wyoming, Minn., is made to order—even for previous customers. “We have no patterns,” he says. “Everything is custom-made.” Photo: Wyoming Canvas

Educating customers is key

For Rick Berkey of Rick’s Custom Marine Canvas and Sail Repair in Cornelius, N.C., all boaters are unique and that affects the kind of cover they want him to make. 

“They run the gamut from ‘I don’t want my boat to get wet when it’s sitting out on the lake waiting for me to come use it’ to ‘I want to take the cover off in the spring and go boating all summer long and never put a cover on,’” he says. “We determine that if you’re particular and you want that boat covered and kept clean, we will make sure the boat cover is built like that. But I do spend a fair amount of time educating the customer on what they are purchasing.”

Berkey says the weight of the cover can be a factor as well.

“I like to find out if the customer is going to put the cover on every day after they use it or let it sit for weeks on end,” he says. “I also ask them if they like putting the cover on, and some say they’d like to put it on, but it’s too heavy. I tell them we can make this cover into two pieces or three pieces. In three pieces, it’s also easier to store.”

The biggest issue Berkey runs into is making a cover for a boat that’s been customized. “Whatever boat we’re covering, I have to make sure things have not been added to it,” he explains. “I require the customer to take a picture of the boat and send it to me. I’ve had people say, ‘I need a cover for my pontoon boat.’ Then I see the boat and the owner has fishing rod holders mounted on it, it has a grill and a trolling motor—and now I have to work around all that stuff. The cost goes up because there’s just that much more labor. When inquiring about what the customer wants, we make sure to ask those questions.”

One challenge boat cover makers face is when owners customize their boats. “Whatever boat we’re covering, I have to make sure things have not been added to it,” says Rick Berkey of Rick’s Custom Marine Canvas and Sail Repair, Cornelius, N.C. Photo: Rick’s Custom Marine Canvas and Sail Repair

Digital tools speed the process

While many fabricators still make boat covers measuring by hand, some, like Rob Kotowski, owner of Lake Shore Boat Top Co. Inc., in St. Clair Shores, Mich., have gone digital. “We use a Prodim digitizer, and for some projects we do a lot of 2D and 3D CAD design as well,” he says. “Every job is its own animal.”

Once Kotowski’s shop patterns a cover, he says, “we have a process that turns almost every job into a production-style process. We’re not doing 20 or 30 of the same covers for the same model of boat. We are reaching a client base that is looking for something special to make it their own. But the digital process allows us a starting point.”

Once a boat is in the shop’s digital library, Kotowski can now “mass produce” the enclosure for that boat for years to come. “If a customer loses a panel or something damages it, as long as something hasn’t been changed or altered too terribly much, we have the ability to produce it again.”

No working in the rain

Kees runs a one-person shop just north of Albany, N.Y. He can get smaller craft (under 30 feet) inside his shop to work on and will do larger boats outside (“although I don’t work in the rain”). Kees will also go to a marina and work on covers.

Unlike some fabricators, Kees doesn’t work much with vents in larger enclosures. “While I put vents in smaller covers, I really don’t put them in large enclosures at all,” he says. “I would only put a vent in if it was a cover for the winter, and most people shrink-wrap them. I’ve only had one request for a marine canvas winter cover that I can recall.

“With a larger enclosure, I try not to seal it up tight,” says Kees. “There are always little air leaks, and there should be. One thing I point out to people is that they should have a window with a U-zipper in order to allow moisture to escape. If you don’t allow that, mold and bacteria will build up. If they don’t have that, the next thing I usually suggest is they buy an oscillating fan.”

Kees is reluctant to give his opinion on how long a boat cover should last. “I can’t answer that,” he says. “It all depends on the customer. I’ve seen covers last six to eight years, and I have repaired covers that have lasted 18 or 19 years. It’s all in how they treat it.” 

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

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