Steve Van Dam really did get his wife Jean, to “volunteer” to help him build his first boat shop. It was in 1977 and the young couple was living in a single-wide mobile home on a small woodlot outside of Harbor Springs, Michigan.
“I wanted to build boats,” is how Van Dam likes to describe his approach to business. And today, almost 40 years later Steve, and now his son Ben, are still building some of the finest all-custom, handcrafted vessels on Earth.
We sat down with Ben and Steve for a talk about their philosophy on boat building; how Van Dam Custom Boats grew from a high school boat-nerd’s dream to a 16,000 square-foot shop in Boyne City, Michigan. And their deeper thinking on their latest projects: including a lovely retro 30-footer called Catnip, a 35-foot Michael Peters Sportster and a 50-foot commuter-style day boat.
How has your second-generation shop handled diversification?
Steve: We look at diversification as an opportunity to enter distinct businesses. We actually sat down and painted a vision for what we wanted to be in these 16 acres here in Boyne City. We split it up into our Boyne Boat Yard services business, and then Van Dam Custom Boats. We deliberately choose to divide the services business from our high-end wooden construction. If we did get another idea for a new business, we would create a separate brand.
Ben: The whole philosophy is that each business should stand on its own; but one is not less important than the other. Our goal is build to the finest wooden boats. We are all about exploring what is possible with this material called “wood.” Our vision is to insure the future of craftsmanship and the pursuit of perfection. We are never going to get there, but we never going to stop trying.
How many people do what in your shop?
Ben: We have around 15 people. There’s a core group of shop and project managers of 3 to 5 depending. We carry two specialists that handle metal and paint. Paint is trickier than it looks, particularly at the high-end we work in. Michel Berryer is our designer. From there, 7 to 9 people work in the shop, after serving a four-year apprenticeship of something like 8,000 hours. It takes 3 years for somebody to get the basics. That last fourth year is when they start-to hone their particular skill set.
Our wash-out rate is extremely high. It is not easy to finish the program. Like anybody, we struggle to find top talent.
How are you using modern tools when you work with traditional wood?
Ben: The whole idea of a cold-molded boat is not well understood. The general population thinks that a wooden boat is going to crack or peel or be lower-tech than glass or carbon. This is a misconception. Cold-molded wooden boats can be stiff, strong, light and durable. There is a lot of engineering that goes into making one of our boats.
Steve: All our techniques revolve around how we join and laminate pieces. The weird shapes that you do are the hard part. Car makers can cop out and use Bondo to fix mistakes. We cannot. We have to stretch the wood to the limit to connect one material to another.
Ben: If complex hydraulics are part of the project, than that is what we need to make work. We have done complex swim ladders, like what you would see on a Rolls Royce. We do joystick steering. The bottom line is to wrap it all in wood. That’s where we want to be. Wood is hard to do well. And it makes us, us.
Give us your sense of the design trends in the boats you are building?
Steve: It’s all about the change in customers. We look at it who our clients will be in 20 years. We are still trying to predict that. We are talking to them. What seems to be emerging is an extremely contemporary story, with a bit of a retro nibble. We are not seeing interest in classic boats with elements of the 1920’s or 1930’s.
I watch the car world a lot. People are looking at the 50s and 60s. They get inspiration from the auto world. Those are the kind of vehicles that gives us a hint: Right now it is hot cars and muscle cars. Boats tend to live in that nostalgia. I see that timeframe having sway right now.
Where do you see the custom boat business in 5 years?
I think the outlook for that is good.
Ben: I feel the same way. We think we see the same high potential out there for our custom work. We like the idea of doing something better than other people. I grew up in the shop. Steve and I are wired pretty damn similarly.