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Fabricating metal frames

Metal fabricators take different paths to success, including collaborations with other shops.

Features | January 1, 2023 | By: Jeff Moravec

Metal work on a boat is both a functional and an aesthetic decision. Here, Lakeside Marine Canvas of Buford, Ga., installed a “hoop back” frame on a cruiser to extend the bimini past what the manufacturer offers. Photo: Lakeside Marine Canvas Inc.

Fabricating frames, tubing, hardware and other items can present a quandary for marine fabricators. It’s a job that customers need, but it’s not easy work, and it can take a pretty penny to have all the necessary equipment on hand. 

But as is usually the case with fabricators, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The fabricators interviewed for this article each have different systems, capacities and specialties, but they have all figured out a system that works best for them.

To weld or not

Welding is a foundational capacity that a fabricator needs to decide to do in-house or farm out.

“As a business owner, you have to choose where you’re going to focus your resources,” says Jeff Newkirk, owner and principal designer at Precision Custom Canvas Inc., which provides custom canvas and upholstery from its location in St. Catharines, Ont., Canada. “The frequency at which I need welding is not enough to make me do it in-house.

“A small welding machine is not overly expensive to have, but it’s also a time consideration,” says Newkirk, who has been in business for 25 years and works primarily on 35-to-50-foot sailboats and cruisers. “My staff has enough to do already, so to be able to farm something out and have it reliably done at a high level is worthwhile.”

It’s the same case for Eric Gibson, a fabricator for 20 years at Lesch Boat Cover & Canvas Co., which has been in business since 1954 in Norwalk, Ohio. “We do a lot of metal fabrication, such as bending of frames and custom grab handles for frames,” says Gibson. “But we have a local welder that occasionally helps out on jobs that we come across that we’re not able to do. That’s really the only thing that we send out.”

Work is underway here on a 56-foot Neptunus, a joint project between Precision Custom Canvas, which designed the project, and Klacko Marine, which did the welding. “We work collaboratively,” says Precision’s Jeff Newkirk. Photo: Klacko Marine Inc.

Horizontal bending

Gibson uses a BendARC marine tubing bending system, along with custom-made crowning blocks of various radii. “We mount the bender on the table and bend our tubes horizontally,” he says. “A lot of canvas shops mount theirs on the wall and bend vertically. We have a lot more legroom that way, especially if it’s a taller bimini, and don’t have to worry about the legs of the frame bottoming out on the floor while bending the shoulders.”

He also uses the EZ Frame software program, developed by Tom Hunter of Clearwater Canvas Inc. in Belleair, Fla., to properly measure for cutting and bending.

Occasionally, the shop will be asked to bend a frame for another fabricator in the area, says Gibson. “Not everybody has the tools,” he says.

When Newkirk needs welding, he sends it out to Klacko Marine Inc., owned by Doug Gierula, who is also the lead fabricator. It helps that Klacko, a leading builder of custom stainless steel yacht arches, is literally down the street from Newkirk’s shop in St. Catharines. “One of the best arch and railing shops is two blocks from me,” says Newkirk.

“I’m 99.9 percent a metal fabricator, working with aluminum and stainless steel, but mostly in tubular stainless,” says Gierula. “Our company is synonymous with metal fabrication, at least in Canada. There’s not many of me, to say the least—I can count on my hands how many there are in Canada.”

Metal projects in process at Lesch Boat Cover & Canvas Co., in Norwalk, Ohio. Lesch uses a BendARC marine tubing bending system to bend frames and custom grab handles for frames. Photo: Lesch Boat Cover & Canvas Co.

Mutual aid

Newkirk is more than just a customer to Gierula; both describe the relationship as more of a partnership. 

“We work collaboratively,” says Newkirk. “Last spring, for example, we did a big extended cantilever back on a 56-foot Neptunus. Doug and I developed the design and the welding. Doug’s an engineer and knows once we get into the bigger structures where we need the support. We’ve done a bunch of projects that way. There are a lot of accessory things he does for me as well; when it comes to putting grab handles on the side of a dodger, he knows the formula.”

“Working with Jeff has definitely upped the ante of what we are able to give people,” says Gierula.

In addition, Newkirk says that he partners with Gierula to purchase the stainless steel stock they need. “We bring in a truck twice a year,” he says. “That’s where I get all my tubing supply from, and it allows us to get better bulk pricing.”

Photo: Lesch Boat Cover & Canvas Co.

Tools and knowledge take time

Daymon Johnstone, co-owner with his wife, Joni, of Lakeside Marine Canvas in Buford, Ga., since 1997, has been honing his marine fabrication techniques for 25 years. Johnstone says it took him quite a while to build his specialized inventory.

“I have jigs, drill presses and various abstract creations set up to do one little piece of our procedures,” explains Johnstone. “I have somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 of equipment that has taken the length of my career to acquire.” 

Johnstone fabricates miscellaneous aluminum tops and stainless steel “hoop backs” in various shapes and sizes. He also designs and manufactures the “Ridged Door” for houseboats, an aluminum frame wrapped in clear vinyl and Sunbrella® to mimic the feel and use of a regular door. He also builds sport tops, T-tops and other miscellaneous frame systems during his “slow season.”

Johnstone says that when he first started selling rigid doors 25 years ago, he was charging $1,000 apiece, “and we were selling them like crazy.” Today, he’s still charging the same amount, although his process has become streamlined and efficient.

“That’s helped me keep the market on it, because no one around here can copy the door for that price when you’re only building one or two of them,” he says. “I build so many of them, and now with all my equipment, I can build that door in a couple of hours, where before it was taking me two days.” 

There’s a lot more metal on boats than some people realize. “A small welder is not overly expensive to have, but it’s also a time consideration,” says Jeff Newkirk of Precision Custom Canvas. “My staff has enough to do already, so to be able to farm something out and have it reliably done at a high level is worthwhile.” Photo: Precision Custom Canvas Inc.

Technology pros and cons

Metal fabricators also have different approaches to the technology they use in their shops.

“We are capturing specific projects with Prodim or lasers depending on the environment, designing in CAD where many people aren’t utilizing a programable bender to ensure accurate and repeatable bends,” says Johnstone. “Our bender is not state of the art, but around our shop we haven’t heard of any others investing in this specialized equipment.”  

Gierula says he has been using CAD for 20-plus years and currently uses Rhino. “When I am working with Newkirk, we want to be able to give people things that look better, with more curves,” he explains. “I’m good with CAD; it really speeds things up and it allows us to play with looks and ideas. If you’re laying out things manually in the shop, at full size, it’s obviously difficult and time-consuming.”

But there’s no computerization in Gierula’s shop other than CAD and laser cutting, he says. “The basis of the technology in fabrication is still from 1980, maybe 1990. As far as bending goes, we’re still using the same machines that were built back in the 1970s, and they’re still going strong.

“Technology exists and it makes duplicating things easier,” he says. “But with the custom nature of my work, and all the one-offs I do, duplication really makes no difference to me.”

Metal work is both art and skill

“There’s a little bit of art on the metal side of things,” says Gierula. “It’s not as cut and dried as laying it out on the computer and printing it out. There’s a lot of fitting and fiddling and grinding. Computerizing would not give me a leg up.”

Materials have not changed much either, says Gierula, as long as he uses U.S.-made stainless and not offshore material “that is half the quality or less.”

“I’ve been dealing with the same U.S. tubing company for 30 years, and I have pieces of material that have been sitting in the storeroom for 10 years—it’ll bend and be the same quality as a piece I get today. Especially with tubing, the exact diameter, the temper, how it bends and the finish, is all very important. When you start messing with that, it’s hard to do the job.” 

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

SIDEBAR: Staying focused is key

While some marine fabricators may try to be all things to all customers, smaller shops especially often find success by focusing on a market, or a few markets, and trying to serve them exceptionally well.

That’s a lesson learned early by Daymon Johnstone, co-owner of Lakeside Marine Canvas in Buford, Ga.  

“When I was first getting into aluminum fabrication,” says Johnstone, “several of my colleagues in the marine industry—not necessarily even in the fabric or sewing business—told me not to stretch myself too thin. The best advice they gave me was to try to find one or two things that I could really specialize in and stick to that. Do whatever it takes to make that the best you can.

“That’s what I’ve done with my houseboat concept,” he explains. “We have the largest concentration of high-end houseboats in the world in this area, and that’s my main business.”

But Johnstone says he learned about this the hard way. 

“I did a wide variety of things in the beginning, which was difficult to go through and keep everything going,” he explains. When Lakeside began specializing more in houseboats, “it was expensive at first, but our narrowed focus allowed us to polish our concepts and create an all-around better product.

“But it was difficult to get started,” Johnstone adds. “I would really stress to anybody who is thinking about this business, if you spread yourself too thin trying to do everything, you will have a hard time ensuring the quality of your endless projects.”

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