Thinking outside the box

Published On: September 1, 2022Categories: Exterior and Cover, Projects
Designs don’t need to be radical to set you apart; just slightly different than all the others.

Thinking outside the box

by Russ Griffin

Our company, Northcoast Marine Specialties LLC, has had two decades of great success due to our unfamiliarity with the outdated and unimaginative techniques many canvas shops fall into the habit of re-creating endlessly.

Many people entering this trade have a vision of creativity. Often, however, the day-to-day operations of running a business can get in the way of it.

After receiving our training, my brother and I opened our canvas shop not knowing the day-to-day obstacles that steal one’s natural gift of creativity. Quickly, we became known for our out-of-the-box solutions, which I will share with you. Everything we saw appeared old-fashioned in design and we were determined to change that.

When clients came to us wanting canvas, I asked them what they liked about their canvas. The list was always short. Then, I asked what they disliked about their canvas and the list was typically quite long. So, I went to their boats and just spent time sitting. I looked for the leaks the customers talked about and the impossible zippers they were dealing with and tried them out myself. I thought about the level of difficulty the customers dealt with when using their current canvas. Then, I designed their enclosures to solve those issues. In those days, canvas-life was simple. Creativity gave us the joy! Happy customers were our only earning source and profit center. 

Business can kill the joy

Within two years of opening our canvas shop, we bought the training school we had attended along with its canvas shop. We folded them into our operation and suddenly went from two brothers doing canvas to a business with five divisions: canvas, training, distribution of canvas supplies, boat storage and providing lodging rentals. Along with that came many employees and a really big number to reach in sales. Our dream job became the corporate world we thought we had left behind. 

This is where most shops fall into the ditch of repetition. The creativity that initially gave you an edge in the market is replaced by a production number mentality. I remember saying one afternoon, “If we have to do another Toast-Tweed Sea Ray, I think I’m going to be sick.” We became a shop well known for fixing leaky factory-designed canvases, and many of our jobs became repetitive in design. Our focus was on tomorrow’s job, not today’s project. 

Improvement always

While business was fabulous, there was a huge element missing in my inner being. I had to make a decision. Was our company going to focus on production, creativity or a blend of both? We chose the latter; it was to be both at the same time!

We adopted some basic principles: 

  • Each job we estimate must contain an element of improvement over the current design. This may require something as simple as reversing the direction of a doorway zipper to a totally different style and type of enclosure. Recently, we’ve adopted a “no straight lines” approach for our sailboat frame systems.
  • Each job must include something not typically found on all the other boats of its kind. This can be something as insignificant as using magnetic catches for those hard-to-reach places. Over the years we’ve had great success by throwing out the norm and adding functional designs that makes it easier for clients to use our canvases. 

Creativity equals profitability

Now, you might wonder why you need to think out of the box if you’re happy doing the same ole thing over and over. The answer is profitability. In our market, we are seeing marine service departments and canvas shops needing to charge a $150 to $250 per hour labor rate to cover inflationary costs and payroll. On the East and West Coasts, these rates may be double. 

So, the question is, if you expect customers to pay these types of prices, don’t you want to offer something other than what everyone else does? Don’t you want to be known as the shop that goes that extra step? We have always tried to put design and quality into every job. I think that is why we have survived quite well while so many other shops have disappeared in our market. 

Step up, think out of the box and you’ll be successful too! 

Russ Griffin is co-owner of Northcoast Marine Specialties LLC. Northcoast operates a canvas-making training school in Port Clinton, Ohio.

SIDEBAR: Out-of-the-box ideas for canvas shops

Photo 1

Design unique frame systems (Photos 1 and 2). This doesn’t require expensive equipment. We build some very exotic frame systems using 1.25-inch stainless steel pipe and a $350 bender.

Photo 2

Create master sail shades for boat, residential and commercial applications (Photo 3).

Photo 3

Use sliding doors (Photo 4). All of our flybridge boats receive sliding doors for easy access. Sewable keder welt allows you to make sliding doors for soft-tops as well.

Photo 4

Engineer reversed doorway zippers (Photo 5). After solving an issue of an 88-inch-tall doorway zipper that a 5-foot, 4-inch-tall person could never reach, we developed a simple string and pulley system that opens and closes tall zippers with ease. See the video at 

Photo 5

Create elongated sailboat dodgers (Photo 6). These are a hot item right now, as they serve as a dodger and a bimini combination. Who says the dodger must end at the hot box? 

Photo 6

Vary the shape of window glass in fabric panels (Photo 7). Windows do not have to be square cornered. Make them round! Make them oval! Follow the lines of the boat! 

Photo 7

Eliminate needless vertical darts on your covers (Photo 8). 

Photo 8

Talk with your customers. Discover the canvas issues they are having. Sit on the boat and spend a few minutes coming up with improvements to the design.