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Keep Your Canvas in Tip-Top Condition

After replacing our cadet-gray Sunbrella twice and replacing zippers and restitching countless times in our first six years cruising, we decided there had to be a better, more cost-effective way to maintain our cockpit canvas.
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After replacing our cadet-gray Sunbrella twice and replacing zippers and restitching countless times in our first six years cruising, we decided there had to be a better, more cost-effective way to maintain our cockpit canvas. Our first surprise was that light gray is one of the fastest deteriorating canvas colors. We thought that dark colors would retain heat and deteriorate faster than light colors, but it turns out darker colors tend to last longer than lighter ones.

To keep our new cockpit enclosure looking like new for as long as possible, our canvas maker, Keith Purves of Riverside Covers in Fort Myers, Florida, provided us with the following tips:

Brush off any loose dirt at least once a month before it becomes embedded in the canvas and then spray with fresh water. Be sure to clean up any stains as soon as you notice them—especially bird droppings.

For a more thorough cleaning use a mild soap, never detergent. A solution of Ivory, bleach and lukewarm water works well. The Sunbrella website also recommends Dreft or Woolite. Rinse thoroughly and let your canvas completely air dry.

When making a soap solution, don’t use more than one cup of bleach per gallon of water. You should also test an out-of-sight area before using bleach on canvas that is not Sunbrella. Use a soft brush and gently clean the canvas.

Keep in mind that bleach may shorten the life of some threads.Also be careful what you’re wearing. I once ruined a perfectly good pair of black yoga pants when I inadvertently splashed some bleach solution on them.

Take special care to clean and thoroughly air dry canvas before applying any waterproofing, such as 303 Fabric Guard (the only water repellent endorsed by Sunbrella). If there are dirt particles embedded in the cloth, the waterproof treatment will wash off in the next good rain as the dirt underneath unseats it.

Because 303 Fabric Guard is heat-activated, it should be applied on a warm, sunny day when the canvas is completely dry. Sunbrella recommends applying a light coat, letting it dry and then applying a second coat. If you use a different waterproofing, make sure it is compatible with your canvas by testing it on a small, out-of-the-way place first.

Tenara, or PTFE, thread, made by GoreTex, is the only thread that will not deteriorate when exposed to UV radiation. Unfortunately, the holes it makes through the canvas tend to weep more than other types of threads. It’s worse when the seams are new: after some use, the needle holes tend to minimize with the movement of the weave in the fabric. If you’re concerned about weepy seams, ask your canvas maker for a recommendation on a seam sealer that will temporarily fill the holes. Riverside Covers recommends Iosso Seam Sealer, available online at iosso.com or riversidecovers.com.

Sunlight is isinglass’s biggest enemy, so if it’s up all year, you may want to consider canvas covers. If it’s only up six months a year, it usually will stay clear for years if cared for. Keep your isinglass clean, rinsing it regularly with fresh water to keep the salt off. Any scratches or blemishes will act just like pits or scratches on stainless, creating corrosion, so take care to clean it once a month with a product like IMAR Strataglass Protective Cleaner and a clean microfiber cloth, nothing abrasive. Once a year, or maybe every six months, use a polish as well.

Clean all stainless tubing with a good cleaner and wax every six months, more often if you start to see rust spots. I like Collinite Metal Wax, which cleans and polishes at the same time. I also like Flitz and Iosso Metal Polish for longevity. The paste waxes are a bit more difficult to use, but they last longer.

Few people pay much attention to their snaps until they stop working. But snaps need maintenance, too. Because it’s waterproof and doesn’t gunk up like other lubricants, I use EZ-Snap Zipper & Snap Lubricant. Vaseline and chapstick are heavier and tend to attract dirt, while white lithium grease can get messy and stain canvas. WD-40 works fine, but tends to be messy, and smf can stain canvas and zippers. Worst of all, it will make things very slippery if it gets on your deck-—exactly what you don’t want on a sailboat!

After the thread, zippers are typically the first thing to deteriorate in the tropics. Cruisers are constantly trying to find someone to restitch and replace zippers in canvas. YKK zippers are the industry standard and seem to hold up better than other brands. Like darker colors of canvas, black zippers will last longer than white ones. Use the same EZ-Snap Zipper and Snap Lubricant that you use on snaps, applying a small amount along each zipper every six months or so, depending on usage. Use a small brush to get the lubricant into the zipper teeth. You can also put a small dab of the lubricant in the zipper head and then work it back and forth along the zipper to disperse the lubricant evenly. According to zipper manufacturers, silicon may shorten the life of zipper teeth.

Just like your boat, if you take good care of your cockpit enclosure and canvas, it should provide protection from the elements for many years. Because canvas is expensive, it’s well worth the effort.

How to Select a Canvas Maker

Having a dodger, bimini or cockpit enclosure built is very expensive, and the craftsmanship of the canvas maker you select can significantly affect its lifespan.

Take a stroll around your marina. Find canvas you like on other boats. Ask who did it and if the owners are happy.

Ask the dockmaster. They often keep a book of business cards from vendors who have worked in the marina.

Develop a list of what you want in your new canvas. If you’re starting from scratch, think about things like how high you want your dodger or enclosure to be so it won’t interfere with your line of sight. Be sure to include lifestyle information. For example, in our new enclosure, we knew we wanted to maximize shade, but we didn’t know exactly what our options were. The canvas company we selected recommended ideas we hadn’t considered.

Make appointments with at least three canvas makers recommended by others in the marina. Meet with all three and give them a copy of your list. Use your list as a starting point for each discussion. This will give you an idea of how each canvas company thinks and works.

Get quotes from all three. Evaluate the level of detail in the quote. A lack of detail can lead to extra charges later.

Ask for referrals from the companies with the best quotes. Take the time to visit the referred boats and look at their canvas.

If the owners happen to be present, ask them about the project.

Photos by Jan S. Irons; top photo by Peter Nielsen

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