Small business building boats

Hi. I'm contemplating trying to start my own small business building high quality hand-crafted wooden boats, kayaks etc. Has anybody done this before ? How did you go about sizing the market and your corresponding business opportunity ? How did you determine which kinds of boats/kayaks the market was greatest for ? Any other advice you can provide ?



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RE: Small business building boats

How to make a small fortune building boats - start with a large fortune.

Seriously, the only way to justify charging enough money to support yourself is by buiding extremely high quality boats and selling to essentially the luxury market.

In addition to the cost of the materials and your labor, there'll be the costs of running a business - accounting, legal, regulatory, etc. You'll need liability insurance for when someone using one of your boats goes out into completely inappropriate weather and his relatives decide that it was your fault.

Regulatory issues will become very important in your life. There's Coast Guard regulations, EPA regulations (epoxy, paints, thinners, etc. are all hazmats), state regulations, local zoning regulations, etc.

It's definitely possible, but you may want to start out small and stay below the governmental radar. Begin by building a couple of showpiece boats and seeing if you can sell them. If things look possible, then increase your volume to the point where the regulations apply to you.

Good luck,



RE: Small business building boats

Setup shop in China.

I'd ask this question on Guillemot Kayaks' Kayak Building Bulletin Board. You might elicit feedback from posters there who are doing this. Notably, Nick Schade, Dan Caouette,Rod Tait, Brian Schulz and others.

Good luck,


Ogata (eric)

RE: Small business building boats

From Someone who is unemployed and surrounded by water here in Fl.  Let me tell you that you will starve.  Keep in mind that an okay yak takes about 300 hours to build (I have done a time study on 2 of them), how much are you wanting for your time.  Then add the material cost, and things like bits, blades, sandpaper, extra plywood...

Simple terms... I tell people that figure the cost of a kit, add $500 for the extras, and I do a labor of love at a buck an hour and the boats still run about $2500 and so far I am making two commission yaks a year.

You have to find people that want wood instead of Glass or Kevlar, and it is hard to get people away from big names like Valley, Seda, Current Design... because those are the guys you are competeing with in high dollar sales.

Dreams are Great, and if this is your dream then go for it, but just be aware of the starvation factor.  Even the Schade Brothers ( Nick @ Guillemot & Eric @ Shearwater) are engineers, sell kits, do teachings, sell acc's and trust me they are not listed in Forbes.


RE: Small business building boats

Another possibly viable business model is where a builder would construct the basic, unfinished hull structure to sell to those who would like to 'build' their own boat, but lack time, space, or confidence to build the hull. 

Since the majority of time building a boat is in adding trim details and finishing, you could offer the unfinished hull at a reasonable cost, while still making some profit.  This is probably not something that anyone will get rich doing, but money isn't everything.


RE: Small business building boats

I'll dissent from Kevin's time assessment because there are plenty of ways to cut time on good kayaks.  He's also assuming strip built boats from scratch (I believe) rather than having someone else strip and cove/bead the strips for you.  The $500 for extras is generally an NRE fee and can be significantly reduced by building multiple boats.

I will say he's right that you won't be able to make a living off of it for a long time.  You'll be able to make money, but not enough to consider quitting your day job.

Interesting idea from Ron, but I think you'll find people who want to go to that much effort to "finish" their boat will probably be the same people who'll build it completely because to finish a boat requires many of the same tools and all of the same space that building one does.

Laszlo and Kevin both have the right idea- start small build a niche and then try to grow from there. 

Last piece of advice I have is to remember that hobbies turned to careers often make people lose their love for the hobby.  When it becomes work, it generally becomes less fun, especially when your livelihood is riding on it.


RE: Small business building boats

There are probably a lot of us here who have entertained this idea after building a boat or two and getting tons of compliments. Ah, to be self employed, just building boats all day long, loving the smell of cedar and okoume, watching that next perfect boat emerge. Plastic? Fiberglass? Kevlar? Ha! After people see this one they'll be flocking to my door! If you can make it work go for it!

There have been many good points made here, Laszlo brings the reality of it all into focus. Regulations, shmegulations! We may not like them (I work for the government so I know a bit about them!) but they're there and for good reason sometimes.

I have to admit I entertained the thought once a few years ago. I go to 2-3 boat shows around the eastern seaboard each year and have won a ribbon or two and have had many people come up and ask me if I'd be interested in building them a boat. We even talk about price and most say $2-3K is reasonable, they take a business card and I never hear from them again. No biggee. I still love building boats. Kudos to Kev for actually getting a couple of commissions/year!

As far as time to build, I can knock out a S&G kayak in a hundred hours or so. So what's my time worth? Ten bucks an hour? So I make a cool grand and charge the customer 1500-1700 bucks to offset the cost of materials. Well, my time is worth a lot more than 10 measly bucks/hour so I'll charge the 25 (at least) that I'm worth. So now I'll make 25 hundred buckaroos. Well, remember earlier when I said I haven't sold one yet? You can do the math on how fast my retirement account is growing!

So for now I'm working for the man which ain't so bad as I'm able to afford the luxuries in life the wife is accustomed to - food, clothing and shelter. And date night every Friday night. Life is good. In retirement I plan on building boats. Probably just for me and the family. The shop is already overflowing but I have an acre of land so I can build quite a few more.

At any rate, follow your dreams but take a reality check every now and then.

Happy boat-building.

George K

RE: Small business building boats

Very interesting stuff, this.   I believe that of all the good points raised above, among the most valid are Frank P's parting comments on the loss of the fun factor, when a hobby turn to a livelihood.  


RE: Small business building boats

I analyze business models for a living and don't think that building these boats can actually turn into a career - maybe a sideline activity that makes you a very small amount on each boat?  Not enough to justify your time but if you simply love to build and don't have anything to do with the boats than there is a market for them.  The people who have been able to make money on it do so by doing more than just building boats, but rather design plans, offer classes, sell kits and parts, etc. 

As one of the other guys mentioned, you need to find an elite market of some kind that is willing to pay at least $3000 or more for a boat that they didn't event build.  I think there could be a market but it will be hard to find.  Primarily people with very large and expensive boats that want sometime to paddle around the marina that would turns some heads.  Another market could be people with very large lake homes.  Still would be hard as most of them aren't going to want to paddle anything.

 I agree to keep it a hobby and you will love it more than watching some elite buyers take you hard work and set them behind their boat or in some storage building or something.

 Don't mean to be negative but the costs and labor are just way out of wack with the people are willing to pay for such a work of art.


Economy of scale

I agree with the general conclusion that this is not a path to riches, but will throw in my two cents. I think there would be economies of scale here - my second boat will be cheaper than my first since I now have most of the tools. If you can get okoume by the truck load it is cheaper than by the sheet. Scarfing with a hand plane is great, but there is a nifty jig for a router floating around that might speed that step up w/o hurting quality.

My point is there may be money in it if you can make one sale for ten boats. I have been to several resorts that offer a fleet of plastic boats and canoes. I know that a few would love to swap them for a nice Sassafras or Skerry fleet. Of course these would be more expensive than the plastic boats but some of these places want everything about their resort to reek of quality.

Colleges and camps are another possible source of institutional sales. And although a ply kayak is more expensive than a poly kayak I think this gap diminishes when you get into sailboats or rowing shells. I see old battered sunfish on Craig's list for around $1k.

My two cents on making four cents...


PS CLC grants licenses for additional boats within the same family for a very fair fee. You'd want to check what licensing is appropriate for a commissioned fleet.

RE: Small business building boats

Thanks to all for the reality check !


RE: Small business building boats

Sorry, I got into this thread late.  Maybe not too late to add a cent or two....  I've been displaying my S&G & cedar strip boats at wooden boat shows for a couple of years.  They draw a crowd and the "you are a true craftsman" type comments, but no one has bought one....yet.  Gets to a point where room to store new boats puts a stop to new builds.  One little glimmer on the horizon, though.  I sail out of a swanky yacht club and am wondering if there might be a small market for dinghies or prams (tenders) customized to match the colors of a weekend captain's sail or power yacht?  Any thoughts on this?  Jer (aka mtsailor)

RE: Small business building boats

I am in agreement with all the aforementioned answers and would add that my second canoe was purchased by a family friend about one third thru the building process.  He ordered it for his wife's birthday and wanted her name on the bow.  Well, he now calls me frequently wanting to know progress so it will be on time.  It will, however  I am beginning to regret the time pressure it created on me.

RE: Small business building boats

Check out his video on it he talks about building 8 to 10 boats per year and tells the customers they will get it when it's finished.

Is a start up like your talking about I think his shop rates are under $20 an hour.

Asking 5,000 to $8,000 for a ceadar strip kayak and aparrently getting it.

 I considered opening a shop just to have a place to build my boat since my garage is too small but the monthly industrial rent here is 3 to 5 a sq ft.  Consider what your market is or where it will be before offering a product or service. A lot of people start a business here with advertizing from vinyl stickers on their trucks and vans. I started a business with a 20 dollar ad in a penny saver that ran one time and word of mouth spread until my yellow pages ad came out. Once your in the phone book and have a business license customers will find you.

The obvious problem with boat building is delivery. Good luck!

RE: Small business building boats

Stick to Wordsmith, you'r too old to be looking at the other site. SEEYA Jack

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