Writing today wasn't in the cards. Spent the day working on our new little boat. So here's A little article I wrote a while back. My wife Georgene used to be the Canvas Lady when we were In Deltaville Va.
Now she is just a lady.
A small group gathered around the binnacle of Georgene Kate. Pollard’s name sake the Sailboat “Kate” and are sipping at steaming cups of coffee and feeling grateful for the protection from a cold March wind that is provided by Kate's Bimini and enclosure. We are not out on a sailing trip which tonight we are thankful for, but instead setting up in the boat yard where we have all been working on our respective boats. The conversation is on boat repair, improvements and tired sore blistered hands.
Tina sips her coffee in one hand and then taking the gloves finger tip of the other between her teeth and pulls. Reaching up to the aft end of the Bimini she strokes the soft leather along its edge and asks smiling, alright Canvas Lady how in the world does someone like me who doesn’t sew have any Idea how to buy a canvas job for my boat.
Yes you've surly got a problem, The Canvas Lady replies but don't feel by you're lonesome. It’s a problem for me as well. I’ve been working with this stuff a long time and there are so many different materials and uses that we all put it to, that its almost impossible to definatly say in every case what the best or worst really is.
Well we all call it canvas. There is canvas and then there is canvas! Actually almost none of the canvas in boat canvas is canvas.
We should thank our lucky stars for that. Real canvas though it conjures up old-fashioned thoughts of hand stitched sails, water buckets, and a thousand other articles out of our long nautical history is just that, history. Canvas rotted, mildewed, shrunk, stretched and required copious amounts of oil or wax to water proof it, even a little. It was generally sewn with cotton and the threads had all the same failings.
It is possible today to construct fabric dodgers and such with nearly the strength of much heavier solid construction using modern fabrics and materials. Don’t believe it? Consider how light a pilot house or flying bridge construction has to be to allow your boat to right herself before the next comer hits her when she’s been bowled over to the gunnel by a wave.
Here are some things you should consider in purchasing canvas work, upholstery and cushions for your boat. Most of these things I am saying are an accumulation of opinions and ideas of several boat canvas shops who’s opinions I respect. Some are my own.
This first statement may seem to fly in the face of good sense. A white top is not cooler! A dark colored top absorbs more sunlight than a white one. Sure the material will get hotter but the suns rays do not go through it to land on you. The white surface will reflect more light you say. That’s true but only about one third of the light reflects and almost all the rest goes right through. The farther south you go the more apparent this gets.
Where outdoor fabric are concerned I consider Sunbrella © the best for Bikinis, dodgers and weather cloths. It holds up for many years outlasting stitching and windows alike. If kept waterproofed it will keep you reasonably dry although a heavy downpour for an extended period will work its way through. The original factory waterproofing may last as long as five years but will need to be recoated about every year thereafter, a simple task with an aerosol can of commercially available water proofing [ye-Gads keep it off the glass]
The color pacific blue is almost indestructible by ultra violet for many years in even tropical sunlight. Most of the red colors fade and turn pink early on, although they seem to maintain their strength. As a reminder remember brown colors contain red pigment. There are other materials that look like Sunbrella and I have no experience with them as I consider saving a few pennies on and expensive piece of work not worth the risk. I personally would insist on Sunbrella on any canvas work. It’s a good idea to ask up front.
Plastic coated fabrics generally don’t leak except were their sewn. Since they don’t breath they do usually mildew. It doesn’t seem to hurt the fabric but it is certainly a sorry sight and will spread below into the interior of your boat if your not careful. Beware of removing the mildew with bleach, it destroys the stitching and it’s not cost effective to restitch something brought to the shop all in pieces.
Many shops use seam binding along edges and around windows and such to cover up raw edges. This plastic product is usually the first thing to go on a Bimini or dodger, cracking and peeling, quickly making a four year old canvas job look ten. It also does not offer the strength that a turned and sew edge offers.
Since we are discussing edges I’d like to voice a personal prejudice. Today most shops use a hot knife to burn and seal edges rather than turn the edges under and sew them. It saves labor and of course money for them and the consumer. I have no evidence that this practice creates any problems or failures but there can be no doubt however that when the edges are turned under and sewn the doubled thickness of Sunbrella on both sides of the glass can hardly help but be stronger. Consider this also: Your boat builder went to a lot of trouble to build your boat with a beautiful finish, fine looking stainless hardware and may have even trimmed it in exotic wood. Suppose he had left the hull and deck seam exposed for all to see it’s jagged edges.
There are a few shops around all over the world that do not back up fasteners with plastic window glass in between layers of cloth. Be wary of this practice your snaps, common sense or Lift A Dot fasteners will pull right through the material the first time they come under a strain. I consider this practice shoddy in the extreme.
What kind of thread to use? Gore-Tex thread or anti-wicking Polyester thread. It’s a well-known fact that Gore-Tex thread is not anti-wicking. It allows water to run into the holes punched by the needle and in fact actually invites it in. Now an occasional shot of waterproofing will stop this but will also collect dirt. Gore-tex will last about twice as long as polyester it is claimed. Most canvas shops have not used it long enough to know for sure it’s so, but it may well be. The down side is it’s expensive, about 15% of the cost of a Bimini or Dodger. If your going to the tropics Gore-Tex seems to make sense for a new Bimini. It should last about six years and then restitch with Polyester for about three more years. With a little luck you may get ten years out of a canvas job. Of course this depends on how fussy you are about looks. The other thing is that the thread usually has flat spots in it that are constantly changing the tension on the sewing machine as the thread goes through the tensioner. The stitching sometimes looks like a chicken has been scratching at it.
I would guess that even though initially Gore-Tex may be weaker than polyester but after a couple of years weathering polyester becomes weaker.
Glass is another subject that’s ripe for disagreement. What kind of clear plastic windows to use in your enclosure or windshield. Of course if you don’t like my pinioning on this just ask anyone and your sure to get a different one.
First to consider is 20 ml Ultra-violet resistant roll glass. Sorry stuff all will agree here. But on a small boat it can be rolled up tight and doesn’t take up a lot of space. Thirty mil. Rolled glass holds up and looks better but only a little. Neither of these are very clear and do not last long. I once replace windows on a 16 ft runabout with heavier glass and to my dismay the boat owner seemed disappointed. I guess it was too bulky for his small storage space? Even the professional doesn’t always know better than the folks using the boat what they need.
Thirty Mil. Sheet glass is great stuff for enclosure side windows and 40mil. Is even better for windshields and Bimini's. This sheet stock can be counted on to last half again longer than the best rolled glass and is clearer from the start. It’s reasonably stiff and holds up well in ultraviolet light. In the windows I make, I run the glass all the way out to the edges of the curtain or dodger. All the fasteners along the edges are run through the folded and sewn Sunbrella and through the 30 or 40 mill glass. The result is the fastener is mounted in 4 layers of Sunbrella plus glass. You will break the fastener before it pulls out.
The dodger on our sailboat ”Kate” was constructed in this fashion. It stood up to one hundred mile per hour winds during a hurricane and there was no damage to it at all. The wind blew directly from the bow. Of course had it blown from the stern it may have been a different story. Who knows?
Polycarbonate glass is nearly distortion free and wonderfully clear and is stiff. On the negative side it can’t be rolled up and is not scratch resistant. It cracks if whipped about in strong wind. It is used on power boat flying bridges where it can be raised up to the overhead and fastened without the need for rolling. Some Say this material does not hold up well in sunlight. Others claim it works well except when covered with a scratch resistant coating in which case it soon looses clarity.
I personally have little experience with this material. These widows are usually large to fit flying bridges on large powerboats and they take up to much space in my small shop. I am aware that Polycarbonate is what Lexan is made of and this product although strong, does not hold up well when exposed to constant sunlight.
Windows made of any of the above materials should never be cleaned with any product containing ammonia. The ever-popular Windex, although great for real glass is one of those that is said to be deadly to some plastic windows.
Custom canvas shops cannot usually compete on price with the manufactures of production made Bimini's. To make one piece of anything cost many times of that one piece made in a production run of thousands. The canvas work on very small boats are often aluminum framed and are adequate for light use. Never, ever should they be left up to weather storms. They are just not strong enough to stand up to thunder squall wind gusts. Canvas work of this kind is generally considered throwaway canvas and can be purchased at retail marine stores at very reasonable prices.
Bimini and dodger bows are the skeleton of your canvas work. It cost very little more to make them of one inch diameter stainless tubing instead of the often-used seven eighths The tubing costs about the same with the fittings only costing a little more. Because of this I only use one inch with the exception of Bimini's for really small boats where the smaller tubing looks more fitting
The fittings that attach to the deck mounts should have wired on pull pins for easy removal when stripping you boat for hurricanes.
Lighter frames that give under wind pressure cause canvas to tighten on one side and go loose on the other, flapping and fluttering. Slack canvas is not long for this world.
You will want to remove your Bimini or dodger on occasion for repair so the top part of the bows should go through zipper pockets so that you do not have to take the frame apart for resewing back at the canvas shop.
It is absolutely essential that the bows be curved across the top so that the canvas will not hold water. Any pocket forming in the top and collecting water will get deeper and hold even more water. I like to see the two middle bows higher on Bimini's than the forward and aft bows for the same purpose. This is not essential if there is enough bow in the top.
All your canvas will be held down to the boat with fasteners. I like Lift A Dot fasteners for this purpose. But have used snaps in cases where they suited better. There are times when Common sense fasteners work better than any other. A case of this is when the canvases pull is straight up on the Lift A Dot stud rather than pulling sideways to it. These fasteners do not do well under this circumstance nor could it be expected to. It was never designed for that kind of service.
Snaps are much stronger than most give them credit for as long as the pull is sideways to the snap.
The other fastener not to be forgotten is the zipper. Plastic zippers are far superior to metal as long as sunlight is kept off of them. Metal zippers corrode unless they are stainless (BIG bucks here) and the first time you jerk one to break it loose a tooth pops out and that’s usually the end of it. The plastic sliders last longer as they don’t corrode as does metal.
No zipper works well unless it’s lubricated. Plastic or metal teeth should be coated with something like WD 40, silicons or petroleum jelly.
Under no circumstance except canvas work from any canvas shop unless the zippers are covered by a flap or some means of keeping the sun off of them. The same is doubly true of Velcro. I would only use Velcro in direct sunlight when there is just no other way. Those little tiny hooks quickly go brittle and break off when exposed to direct ultraviolet rays, often in as little as a year. It’s great stuff below decks where it is protected from direct or reflected sunlight.
Where canvas chafe against wood , fiberglass and more especially rope protection is needed for both. Split cow hide in the form of apron leather is the most popular. It provides protection and at the same time a finished craftsman like look. But there are other uses, handrails on dodgers and steering wheels are often covered with this soft luxurious feeling material On a boats wheel it provides a sure grip and protection for the hands from cold stainless steel. It is impossible not to touch a leather covered steering wheel
For saloon cushions lets take a look at colors first. If you spend long periods languishing about in your boat warmed by a cabin heater during winter months and reading a good books, there is nothing so comforting as warms reds, yellows and browns. Summer months in the cool colors of green and blue can be pleasant but possibly less time is spent below at that time of year. If you are a world cruiser spending months at sea, what a wonderful thing it is to carry the familiar tones of brown earth with you. These combinations of Reds and yellows will cradle and worm your soul while crossing a sea of blue, green and sky blue above. We may love the sea but our home is ashore even for those who cruise to distant lands. After all the ultimate goal is to find land.
Cotton fabrics look wonderful but they don’t work well aboard a boat. Much better is polyester, polypropylene, Nylon and Olefin. Of course they need some kind of moister resistant coating to keep out spills and the damp air of the ocean.
I consider again (I.E. Sunbrella) the best. It’s an acrylic-blend comes in many patterns and colors and is made in many different textures.
A really luxurious interior is Ultrasuede if you can fit it into your budget. It’s not cheap by anyone’s standards but it’s washable and feels so gooood. The amazing thing is that it never looks pretentious in any setting. After a hard day driving into rolling seas it is wonderful to spread out on soft cushions covered in this suede like material.
Buttons help to keep fabric from sliding on the foam cushions but there are other ways of achieving the same thing. Welting around the edges helps as does really well fitting covers that are cut slightly smaller than the foam they go onto. To lie down on a main salon settee and have buttons poking you in the back will cause you to go to a bunk and get a blanket to lie on.
There are embossed plastics that don’t stick to the backs of bare legs when you get up. Some are made so as to resemble cloth and most are hard to distinguish from the real thing. Great where there are children or pets aboard. They wear well but because of the textured surface may need to be scrubbed with a brush when cleaning. Beware though of setting down with that forgotten putty knife in your pocket, you will have a gash in a cushion that cannot be repaired. Make sure you have extra material to replace a torn seat top with. You will not be able to buy more that will match exactly, your color.
Well made covers will increase the life of your foam cushions as well as the covers themselves, so have it done right if possible.
Foam is an absolutely wonderful place to save a few dollars and pay and pay and pay. Save a buck here and it will poke you in the butt or back every time you sit or lay down. Don’t use the very soft 1.5 lb. Foam. Most shops use 2 1/4 lb. With about 35 lb. compression strength it’s really good for cushions in your main salon. Softer backrests are great but may cost more as your upholsterer might have to purchase more foam instead of being able to get seats and backs out of the same sheet of foam.
Old fashioned Foam Rubber or latex is probably the best for the Captain and first mates bunk among all the foams. It comes about 5 !/2 inches thick and is wonderful to sleep on, as your hips never bump bottom. The second choice is one of the stiffer foams such as 2 ¼ lb or six-inch Ultacell high resilience foam.
If you have a high overhead you can hardly get foam for your every night sleeping berth to thick. Remember also that a really soft bunk is hot. You sink to far into it. For cool comfort better to lie on top.
Many boat owners with large aft cabins are buying household mattresses cut to fit their boat bunk. This runs about the same price as real latex foam. All I’ve talked to seem happy with these innerspring mattresses. I guess the steel springs rust in time though it doesn't seem to be a problem in the short run. I know one couple has had one for maybe 5 years.
Cockpit cushions are a real love hate proposition. They get wet, usually take forever to dry and there is a storage problem. With plastic covers they stay dry a little longer and wet forever. Closed cell foam stays dry but is generally hard as a brick to set on. Dry fast foam is my choice you can spray a garden hose straight through it and air goes through as well. When covered with Sun-Sure the cushions will dry in about a half a day if stood on edge The only problem being that they need to be fairly thick. The older dryfast foam was very soft and you hit bottom even with four-inch thickness and that was a major drawback. Today it comes much denser but I doubt that you can get as thin as two inches and still have a comfortable seat.
The sun-sure covering looks a great deal like nylon window screen but comes in a verity of colors, patterns and mesh size. These thicker cushions can be left outside if finding a place to store them is a problem. Just be sure they can’t blow away. Other products of this kind are textelen , sheerweave and Ultraweve that is used as window sun shades in boats and Rv’s. Cushions of this type are not slippery when wet so you are in less danger of falling when standing on them.
Acrylic covering is stained by the sun tan lotions we all need to wear for protection from today’s high ultraviolet sunlight. These stains are permanent.
I like to fasten cushions in place with snaps mounted in short straps that are sewn at both ends. You can reach your finger into the strap and press the snap onto it’s mating part.
The most luxurious piece of equipment on a boat of any kind, power or sail, is the full-length awning. On hot summer days it provides shade for the entire boat and crew. It saves the topside gel coat, bright work, canvas, cushions and people. Yes, it even takes the strain off the air conditioner. Old time buy boat captains and riverboat captains knew this and they all had one on board. Putting into port they quickly set them up as does Bahamian island traders of today.
We have a material today that makes these awnings even more practical then they have ever been. It’s called Stamoid. It is light strong and waterproof. This product carries a guarantee of five years. An Awning for a 40 ft boat can be rolled into a small bundle because it is so thin and then stuffed into a small locker. It is light so there will be no strained backs. This material is about double the cost of Sunbrella but because it is light and strong it saves some on labor though nowhere the difference in cost. A big plus is that since awnings are only used in the summertime they should last for many years thus greatly reducing their cost per year.
Properly rigged they will catch rainwater filling your tanks and they are a lot cheaper than a water maker.
On occasion I have seen powerboats in the Bahamas sporting full length awnings looking much like a political gathering aboard the old presidential yacht Sequoia. I have never understood why awnings have fallen from favor on powerboats don’t have them. So very elegant they are!
I personally am willing to cover most anything on a boat to protect them from the elements, but there are drawbacks in overdoing it. Consider that six coats of varnish scuffed up with sand paper and lightly re-varnished a couple of times a year, will last twenty years out in the mid Atlantic states sun. I’m not sure how the labor involved stacks up against having to remove so much canvas and replace it again every time you go for a sail. If you have intricately carved teak, as do some boats built in the Far East it is surly practical to cover these carvings. I have found that boats that take more than about fifteen minutes to get underway are almost never used for that sundown cruise after work. What a pitty!
Used reasonably, canvas as protection for bright work, can save a lot of work and expense. How much to cover has to be decided by the owner
Dodgers, Bimini and enclosures though not cheap in themselves are a real bargain when you
consider the cost of added living space aboard your boat. Sticking with a well-canvassed 35 ft. boat as compared to stepping up to a 45 ft. boat to get space and comfort can easily pay for that long sought after cruise to the Caribbean.
Finishing her Monolog, Georgene said, Sorry folks if I’ve talked your ears off. I guess you shouldn’t have gotten me started though, you know?
One member of the group stretching and groaning as we all stood said we splash in the morning so I guess it’s bedtime. Our guests worked their way down the ladder to the ground, pairing off they all headed for their boats.
The Canvas Lady and I stood on deck high above the ground watching a ship make its way down the Chesapeake Bay. It’s lights flickered in the clear, crisp and cool night. Hit by a gust of wind we each felt a chill. We moved into our cockpit and lay basking in the heat coming up out of our cabin. The little diesel heater below was doing its job. We watched the lights going out, one by one, in our neighbors boats.
It would be over an hour before we woke up to go below to our bunk. We closed the hatch as there didn't seem much point in heating the cockpit with no one up there.