Custom and hand made
Farmers try to make hay while the sun shines. So do marine fabricators in the northern tier of the U.S. For Al Sceiford, owner of Al’s Auto Trim and Upholstery in Erie, Pa., April to November is his chief harvest season; the other four months he’s pretty much hunkered down against the daunting Lake Erie winters. However, he still gets some marine upholstery work done in his indoor facility; it can accommodate boats up to about 24 feet.
After a tour of duty in Vietnam in the early ’70s, Sceiford returned to his job to find that he’d been replaced. “But the guy I’d worked for said he knew an upholsterer who needed help, and he took me on,” Sceiford says. Through the GI Bill, he was able to get training in auto trim work as well as furniture and marine upholstery. After a few years the business broke up, and Sceiford went on his own.
What changed, what didn’t
“When I started, my business was about 70 percent auto trim, 10 percent furniture and 20 percent boat covers,” Sceiford says. “Over the years it has switched completely. Now I’m doing about 90 percent boat covers and just a little other upholstery. I send auto trim work to another local shop and they refer boats to me.”
Most of his work comes from within a 5- to 10-mile radius of his shop. He currently has a single employee—a seamstress who also does other work around the shop. “We have a well-lit shop with larger tables, and we pattern with Canvex® material and cut and sew by hand,” he says.
One of the things that has kept Sceiford in business is what he calls the “tremendous” growth in the local boating industry. “It used to be a lot of small fishing boats and pleasure craft,” he says. “Now a lot of people have mid-20 to 40-foot pleasure and fishing boats. As it ages, the canvas and upholstery needs to be replaced.”
Those bigger boats are evidence for Sceiford that business should remain strong into at least the near future. “I talk to many small business owners because I’m working on their ‘toys,’ and I always ask them how their business is doing. And I hear over and over that during the past couple of years it’s slowly getting better.”
What about the future?
That’s good news for the shop, but Sceiford is concerned about its continued existence after he retires, and his two children are not in the canvas business. “Very few people have the needed skills, and there is a growing demand [for canvas work],” he says, adding that he hopes in the near future to bring in someone to train and take over the business.
Sceiford also credits his membership in IFAI and the Marine Fabricators Association with his continued growth as a canvas fabricator. “I always tried to make the best boat covers I could,” he says, “but when I started going to the Great Lakes workshops led by Dan Lesch, I improved the quality of my work about 20 percent immediately, and always more since. It’s great to see how others do things, and I’ve made many friends.”
Sceiford is looking forward to trading in working on boats for simply boating himself. “I have a nice old Sea Ray Sundancer that I spend as much time on as I can just relaxing,” he says. For now, he’s just waiting for the ice to melt on neighboring Lake Erie.
Jim Tarbox is editor of Marine Fabricator and a frequent contributor to the Review.