Fixer Uppers on the Water

Filed in Maintenance, On The Lake by on October 6, 2015


By David Pedersen

With the number of damaged boats needing repairs each year, it is surprising to learn there are so few businesses specializing in fiberglass restoration.

This past July, a summer storm greatly impacted the Brainerd area, resulting in an estimated $2.5 million in insurance claims. Some 90 percent of the boats caught in the storm turned out to be a total loss and were junked.

“We are constantly doing insurance work,” said Paul Kujawa of Kujawa Fiberglass Repair in Detroit Lakes. “Storms are very good for business for us. Insurance companies tell folks to get a formal estimation and they will send out an adjuster. However, many people don’t know where to take their boats. An auto body shop normally does not do fiberglass.”

So what to do when your boat or jet ski is grounded? Fiberglass repairs can be quite complex. Aluminum boats can be less costly and easier to repair. Most marine repair shops mainly deal with mechanical issues and auto body shops can deal with most aluminum dents and leaks. Finding an expert in fiberglass repair is not so easy.

Dusty Smith from Anchor Marine Repair in Delano says there are a handful of quality fiberglass shops. He said about five summers ago there was a big storm in the Battle Lake area and that summer he was there almost every week picking up boats. After Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast a few years ago, their employees drove to New Jersey every week for six months to fetch boats.

“It is kind of a unique business and not many people do it,” said Smith. “There are some auto body shops that try to get into some boat work and then they realize the fiberglass aspect is too hard. Spaying and blending colored metal flakes is an art form and a lot of work.”

1015LAHM-Anchor-Marine-after-1Fiberglass repair shops stay busy all year long. One of the biggest operations is Anchor Marine Repair that has eight or nine repair specialists working 45 hours a week. Some 50 percent of their repair jobs are generated from insurance claims.

The Fergus Falls, Battle Lake, Ottertail and Perham areas are well served by a group of repair operations owned by Sheldon Hein. They combine to utilize different skill sets to form a one-stop shop for boat repairs, including fiberglass.

The businesses include two locations for Advanced Docks and Lifts, Sheldon’s Car Care Corner and Battle Lake Boat Works. Josh McConnell, who has been the manager at Battle Lake Boat Works for four years, said last year the group of companies totally restored 30 boats that had been flipped in storms. In a normal year, the group repairs more than 3,000 boats.

“The turnaround depends on severity,” said McConnell. “Most shops are two to three weeks out before they can even touch a boat. We are usually swamped since before spring. We now have more than 100 boats in our lot getting worked on.”

Another company building a niche for fiberglass boat and personal watercraft repair is the smaller one-person shop in Detroit Lakes owned by Kujawa, who is uniquely qualified. He is certified in poly flake painting with gel coat, which he calls a totally different beast compared to paint.

“We are one of the few shops in the area that do it,” said Kujawa about fiberglass repairs. “That is why the business is busy in the winter time because that’s when a lot of repair projects are done. There are times in March when I am working 12 hour days.”

1015LAHM-Anchor-Marine-before-2The most common cause of boat damage is hitting obstructions like rocks and wing dams in the water and then there are a certain amount of accidents that happen on the roads.

Boat insurance rates vary between agencies, so it is always wise to request a rate quote from more than one agency. Like other insurance policies, each quotation should address and include a provision for the type of coverage, who is covered, coverage amounts and limits and deductibles, all of which will differ depending on the size of your boat.

Vic Cossette has worked in the boat repair business for 50 years, developing Anchor Marine Repair into one of the largest shops in the state. Calling metal flake painting an art form, Cossette says they paint both sides of a repaired boat, upgrading from the original surface. Repaired properly, boats and pontoons are made better.

“We use marine grade water proof plywood not used by boat manufacturers,” claims Cossette. “They are good for 25 years. One year we replaced a transom in a boat that was five years old because it had crummy inexpensive wood.”

Cossette is a self taught fiberglass repair technician because there are no schools to teach the work.

He in turn has taught everyone who works in his shop.

“We have two foremen who do absolutely perfect metal flake refinishing,” says Cossette. “When they are done with something you can’t find where they started or stopped. We probably do 100 metal flake replenish jobs each year. We are a true repair shop where some others are part replacers.”

As for the fiberglass repair shops, Kujawa says there are not many and there are not many good ones.

He has been doing fiberglass work for 18 years. When working as a manager in a fiberglass manufacturing plant, the CEO asked Kujawa to go through every facet of the business and learn how everything worked.

1015LAHM-Anchor-Marine-after-2“I started doing a little bit of it on the side for relative and thought it was kind of fun,” says Kujawa. “The difficulty in working with fiberglass is the gel coat is extremely thick compared to automotive paint that is as runny as water. It must cure properly or it will have a tacky finish.”

Fiberglass has been around for a very long time because it is very durable, is heavier than aluminum and it repairs nicer, according to Kujawa.

“If you scratch the outside of your fiberglass boat that has gel coat and it is not real super deep, you can sand it out and buff it,” adds Kujawa. “If you scratch paint, it is so thin it goes right down to the metal. The only way to fix it is to repaint it.”

Kujawa says you can bang up against a dock with fiberglass and not really dent it, compared to aluminum. Fiberglass is mostly found in the recreational runabouts and jet skis, plus big wake boats with the big towers. Most aluminum boats are lighter and used for fishing.

Kujawa works on many jet skis, which are mostly fiberglass. Jet skis are not like a boat, they need power to steer and some people don’t figure that out, so they run into things.

He offers a service to keep customers on the water during the prime season. If a boat has a hole in the bottom during the season from Memorial to Labor Day, the company will apply a temporary patch so the boat still can be used.

“If it takes longer than a week to do, that means for two weekends in the summer you are not going to have your toys.” adds Kujawa. “At the end of the season, the customer brings it back and we do it correctly.”

Fiberglass is improving all the time. Boats and jet skis are coming out with sheet molded compound, which is a different type of fiberglass. They can manufacture them faster because they use high pressure, high heat to mold. It is less labor intensive but the upfront costs are more.

“Gel coats today are so much better than they were years ago,” says Kujawa. “They have more UV projection which keeps them from fading. There are not as many hazardous fumes out in the atmosphere when they are manufactured.”

When fiberglass repair shops restore older boats the color will be the same, but the newer gel coat will be used because they don’t make the old gel coat anymore. The new gel coat will spread a lot nicer and it will stay shinny a lot longer.

“We are seeing more and more pontoons come in for repairs because more are made of fiberglass or have fiberglass parts such as the helms, side panels, seat bases and motor covers,” says Kujawa. “The covers have real thin fiberglass inside and out and takes a special resin to repair it.”

When decals or graphics are needed in the restoration, repair shops will typically get a hold of the manufacturer to buy direct from them. For anything five years or older there is a very good chance you won’t find the graphic or decals for them. To fix it you either look at the newer style stuff or switch it over to a newer year. Or, a graphic artist can duplicate the design.

No matter what you do, gel coat is going to fade out over time. Kujawa says you want to blend it so you don’t see as drastic of a color change. The entire boat does not need to be sprayed.

What happens to all the boats that are sent to the trash heap? builds and sells the largest inventory of rebuild-able items in the area.

Auctions begin on the first Monday of the month in February and run through October. Boats, pontoons, campers, ATV’s, snowmobiles, motorcycles and personal watercraft are all available. Are you willing to take on a fixer upper? Or do you just need to get your banged up boat out of storage and into the shop for makeover?

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