Achieving excellence

Published On: July 1, 2024Categories: Exterior and Cover, Projects
The author says that always striving to do your best work, with the best materials, on each project means you’ll always have happy customers.

If you read this magazine with any regularity, you will see many examples of excellence on these pages. These artistic fabricators are perfectionists when it comes to the art of canvas and upholstery for the marine industry. So as not to leave anyone out, I’ll refrain from naming names, but who are these people and how did they become such overachievers in the trade? Are they born with a gift that only some people get? Did their childhood environments lead them to excel at a level above us normies? Perhaps.

However, I believe we all have the ability to reach heights of perfection in this trade. Rather than name those who already have, I think it’s valuable to describe the differences in mindset, fabrication techniques and materials chosen for projects that may help all of us achieve this level of excellence.

Function doesn’t need to be boring. Adding some style to projects, as with this Cat 30, raises the bar to excellence.

Commitment to caring

A business expert may say that excellence produces the highest profit. In today’s world, many common products have been cheapened to increase profit margins. Excellence and profitability do not always go hand in hand. In this trade, we can celebrate that excellence does reward us very well. However, money or competitive superiority is not always the motivator.

Personal experiences play a big part in one’s character, good or bad. Life experiences may cause someone either to give up or strive for excellence and perfection. Parents, mentors and instructors often help shape an individual’s success. Still, the fabricator must have a vested interest.

Pre-bending corner pieces of track provides a cleaner and more symmetrical finish to your track system.

We’ve heard the cliché “It’s all in the details.” While that statement is almost always true, I believe there is a deeper meaning to it. The details begin with the heart. Do you build canvas for the short-term, say three to five years, or do you want it to last far beyond expectations? Do you spend an hour or two in consultation with the customer so that every concern, desire and expectation that can be met is met? Do you under-promise and over-deliver?

Approaching your next project with a mindset of caring for the person who ultimately writes the check will greatly change the way you fabricate.

One-piece keder welt provides a better shape and seal for your track systems. When possible, make track and keder all one piece on your projects.

Stand-out fabrication techniques

If your shop takes in general repairs, you’ve already seen everything from pure garbage to fabrication excellence. Often, when a customer comes to retrieve the finished repair, I’ll ask who the original canvas maker was. I don’t want to recommend someone who cuts corners, uses inferior products, or apparently didn’t care enough about their work to do it well.

Once upon a time, a local fabricator near us used a cheap brand of thread that lasted about two seasons before it began rotting away. When I asked him why he uses that thread, he said that it was his “future work” because his customers will have to pay again to get things re-stitched. That is not a good business model when your competitors are using a lifetime thread that never needs replacing. Worse, it shows that his craftsmanship didn’t come from a place of caring about his customers.

Pipe exits not only offer a tighter seal around tubing, it is attractive as well.

10 questions that establish fabrication excellence

  • Here are some things to consider before, during and after you work on a project:
  • Is the customer left-handed or right-handed, and how does that affect the direction of zippers?
  • Does an access panel need to be made in the enclosure for power cords and hoses?
  • Are the ends of the rain flaps snapped down to keep the wind from blowing them open?
  • Are locking fasteners used where the canvas was inverted, or prone to coming unsnapped?
  • Is there spray welt along the bottom edge of the windshield to seal out wave spray?
  • Are there pull loops on the cockpit cover to assist the client when installing the cover?
  • Are we using stainless steel zipper-stops rather than melting the teeth together at the ends?
  • Do the flaps have adequate hook-and-loop tape to hold them in place?
  • Was the heat-bent track sealed and re-gauged after installation?
  • Did we do our best to ensure protection from the weather while providing ease of operation?

These are just 10 details from a list of hundreds that we think about on every job. Are these details ego-driven? Do we consider them because we like spending extra time and effort to do them? No. We do them because we care enough to approach every job as if we owned the boat. Ask yourself, “If this was my boat, how would I want it constructed?”

Offering upper and lower window panels, versus floor-to-ceiling panels, makes it far easier for the customer to use them.

Excellent materials produce excellent projects

Over the past 20 years, I have spent many hours addressing the use of proper materials for the job. Reinforcement materials are a good example. Our policy is: “If it will rub through, might rub through, or could even possibly rub through, reinforce it!” Given that, I often marvel at the repairs that come into the shop when I discover that many things have no reinforcement where needed or, almost worse, the wrong type of reinforcement. Improper reinforcement materials include upholstery vinyl and PVC glass. Both products are going to shrink. As they do, the covers will no longer fit properly, and this causes undue stress for the customer.

Fabricators are often deterred from using the best materials because the best materials cost more than lesser-grade materials. I must remind you that the customer pays for the materials. The money is not coming out of your pocket. Once you have the mindset to use the best product for a specific application, regardless of the cost, you’ll begin to fabricate a better product. A better product leads to perfection. Perfection leads to excellence.

Matching the boxing stripes to the upper face of cushions (railroading) creates a higher level of quality in your work.

For example, polycarbonate windows can be fabricated with a lesser-grade product that is thinner and not resistant to scratches. The best polycarbonate is double-side coated, 60 mil thick, abrasion resistant and warrantied by the manufacturer. The cost is nearly double, but the benefits extend many years beyond the lifespan of the lesser grade. And who pays the difference? The customer who wants quality over price.

A few decades ago, material costs added up to a fraction of what we see today and typically were about 20% of the total project price. Today, material costs are much higher, yet they are still about 20% of the project total. Everything has gone up, including the total price of our projects. If you are skimping on materials to be profitable, you need to raise your shop rate.

Choose excellent instead of average

The bottom line is there is a difference between average and excellent. However, it is a thin line. While some fabricators have a true gift for the industry, we can all strive for excellence by doing our best. It starts with caring. It starts with heart. It starts with a commitment to using the fabrication techniques and quality materials that produce the superior results we’re capable of. 

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