A Look Inside Formula: What Makes a First-Class Boatbuilder? - 09/01/2010
Did you ever think about what it takes to build a fiberglass boat? It’s a lot more complex than just layering resin and fabric: Along with laminators, boatbuilders employ designers, engineers, mechanics, electricians, welders, joiners, upholsterers – a boatshop is a beehive of skilled craftspeople, all contributing to the creation of the boats we enjoy. There are lots of excellent production boatbuilders in the world today; one of the best is Formula, located in Decatur, Indiana. If you want to know what it takes to build a first-class fiberglass boat, pay them a visit, as we have.
What Does It Take?
While building a boat takes a lot of individual factors, they can be grouped into three basic categories: Materials, People and Processes. In the 21st century, when most things are assembled by robots, boats are still built primarily by human hands, so one can make a good argument that people are the most important. Anyone can buy the materials, everyone knows, or can learn, the processes, but people – at least skilled people – are hard to come by.
It Starts at the Top
Apparently the Porter family, owners of Formula for more than 40 years, does a good job of making their workers happy. (When Victor Porter bought Formula – then called Thunderbird Boats -- in 1976, he already had 20 years of boatbuilding experience himself.) Company management -- Vic Porter’s four sons and a daughter -- stresses employee involvement, using self-directed work teams to build the boats; the teams are encouraged to take an active part in improving both the product and the way it’s built. Formula also runs an on-site training program, Champions of Reaching Excellence, or CORE, to bolster workers’ skills in both professional and personal areas.
Designers Are People, Too
Even the best craftspeople can’t build a boat until somebody designs it, and for the past 35 years Formula’s designer has been John Adams. Adams combines an eye for aesthetics and styling with deep technical expertise. Both are important in boatbuilding, although style is subjective – a sleek, sexy boat for one person might look like an ark to another. But technology and engineering are finite areas, and Adams’ skills here contribute deeply to Formula quality. Using a single designer also gives the entire product line a cohesive style that makes each boat immediately identifiable as a Formula.
Ever see a boat that looks like it was designed by a committee? We have, and in every case it was actually designed by one. The Bertram 31 is a classic example of how a committee can ruin a good hull. Formula boats simply do not have that problem.
Materials and Processes
All boatbuilders have access to the same materials; which ones they choose depends on what kind of manufacturing facilities they have, what they can charge for their boats and how high-tech they want to be. Formula, like most production builders, takes a middle road, using proven materials that balance cost with quality. Yes, in the perfect world all boats would be built from Kevlar and carbon fiber, vacuum-bagged and post-cured in a hull-sized oven – but not many folks shopping for boats like Formulas will want to pay for that kind of technology.
Test the Resin
Most good companies can build a boat that’s adequate to meet its intended usage, but better companies like Formula go a bit further: Before using a new batch of resin, their quality-control folks analyze and test it to ensure it’s what it’s supposed to be. There are different resins for different uses, and sometimes one type is accidentally substituted for another. In the past, some boatbuilders have had to make good on laminates that failed due to using the wrong resin, a costly error. Formula by testing, knows that its resins meet spec.
Take Plenty of Time
A laminate hardens quickly in the mold, at least to the touch, but is not fully cured for days, maybe weeks or even months, depending on conditions. (That’s why dark-colored hulls often show “print-through” when taken to warm climates: The sun heats the laminate, prompting it to cure further and shrink a bit, revealing the pattern of the woven roving underneath.) Until a part is cured, it can warp or deform when removed from the mold if not handled carefully. Companies trying to maximize their output often lay-up parts quickly and pull them as soon as possible. Formula lets their hulls cure in the mold.
Formula, on the other hand, like all the better builders, takes its time, hand-laying its fiberglass parts. The laminating crew takes pains to ensure all the fabric is fully wetted-out with no voids or air bubbles and any excess resin is squeegee’d away. The parts are then allowed plenty of cure time in the mold.
Boats Are More Than Fiberglass
There’s a lot more to a fiberglass boat than fiberglass: Most problems with boats stem not from their structure, but from their systems. Many builders cut corners installing plumbing, electrics, fuel systems and so forth. There are standards for these systems: In the U.S., the American Boat and Yacht Council has a massive book full of standards for almost everything that goes into a boat. Until the past few years, though, adhering to these standards was voluntary, and nobody checked that companies claiming to build to ABYC Standards actually did.
Today it’s different. The National Marine Manufacturers Association requires that all its members – and in the U.S. that’s virtually every boatbuilder – adhere to the standards and be certified by NMMA surveyors. Each model in a company’s line has to be certified individually, and proof of certification is displayed by a plaque attached to the boat. Other countries have similar practices. If you’re shopping for a boat, the first thing to look for is proof it’s been built following the appropriate standards where you live. (NMMA certification does not require a sea trial, however, nor is each individual boat certified.)
Formul has never been a mass-produced boat line. We've always thought of its products more like Aston Martin sports cars -- low production units, great styling, lots of TLC in each unit, with the fit-and-finish that only great care can produce. They are at once a boat and a sculpture. We think they are something special in the world.