Forty Years of The Only One

Ours is a story of drive. Of passion. Of legacy. Ours is a journey of setting Van Dam apart as builders of the finest wooden boats in the world. We are excited to take our clients on this journey with us. To what end? Van Dam Custom Boats has spent 40 years hand crafting wooden boats that can be called the only one.

When classic wooden boat designs are incorporated with highly evolved engineering, the finished product is strong, beautiful, and singular. Every Van Dam is creation different, but each fulfills a vision. A dream. Founder Steve Van Dam’s dream of sailing to far off places began with a small wooden boat on Lake Macatawa, not far from his family home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Motivated by self-reliance and a passion to learn, Steve complemented these qualities with a love of wood and water – shaping the undercurrents of what Old World masters term “a calling.”

His dream became reality in the woods north of Harbor Springs where he and his wife Jean launched the business now known as Van Dam Custom Boats. Together they built their first small boat building shed. Their family, sharing a love of boating, the out of doors and a strong commitment to the environment, joined them in their pursuit of doing things the right way. Now located in beautiful Boyne City, Michigan, a visceral belief in legacy craftsmanship drives their mission to design and build the world’s finest wooden boats.

When asked what this 40 year anniversary means, Steve first speaks to how fortunate he and Jean have been – for the opportunity of client’s – now friends – that entrusted them with building such beautiful boats; for the chance to live, work and raise a family in God’s country; to have 40 years of relationships that helped establish the company’s reputation for excellence.

Reflecting on lessons learned and the changes that have come about since he and Jean launched Van Dam Custom Boats, technology and the sophistication of mechanical and electrical systems immediately come to mind. Witnessing first hand that making continuous improvements works well, he has learned to trust others to help propel the company forward. And while he has realized that he cannot do everything himself, never quitting is as important today as it was 40 years ago.

In an age when legacy craftsmanship seems more of a lost art, or too time consuming for many of the millennials, it is the belief of Van Dam Custom Boats that hand crafted, superior quality items will always be in demand. While people may not understand why they desire craftsmanship, buyers know it when they see it.

Forty years later with his son Ben at the helm, and Michel Berryer, an award winning designer on staff, the company has the ability to create a world-class custom boat or yacht regardless of its size or complexity. Steve and Jean see triumph in watching a second generation strive to take what they started and loft it to a new level. And with state-of-the-art computer aided design programs incorporated throughout the planning and building process, things are definitely moving forward. Metal fabrication and mechanical systems are now accomplished on site. “We make our own parts and pieces – everything from metal hardware to complex electrical systems,” says Steve. If you ask what his favorite parts of boat building are now, versus when he began in 1977, he will speak of instant communication with clients, digitally designing the boats and of course, the ‘cool tools’. Boats no longer need to be hand drawn at full size to fair all the lines. Computers provide amazing efficiencies and if needed, full size patterns can be printed to check accuracy. The Van Dam crew of 10 to 12 skilled boat builders utilize the finest materials and technology available to build their amazing watercraft.

What is next for Steve and Jean as Van Dam Custom Boats has a new generation driving their vision for the future? Steve offers this poem as a way to say it best:

The Bridge Builder
by Will Allen Dromgoole

An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”

Sharing experiences as teaching moments, engaging new employees in the success of the company and keeping a pipeline full of future work – these tie Steve and Jean tightly to the upward growth of the company. They continue to enjoy the family, friends and community that travel this road with them.

Be it a custom build or a restoration by Steve, Ben and their talented crew, each craft and her owner become part of the Van Dam family. Together, craftsman and client realize the pride in building the only one in the world. And it continues to be quite a journey.




Fit For You

The decision to purchase a boat usually begins with a list of wants and needs, a bit like buying a house. Size, type, use and price might be items on your list. In addition to this list DSC_6628some daydreaming is in order: a day on the water with family, fishing on a quiet Sunday morning, ghosting along on a beautiful evening with a glass of wine and good friends. Once in a while you can fulfill all your needs and wants with a production boat. However, most of the time sacrifices are needed, whether it be too small a cabin for your family, a refrigerator that’s too small, a helm that just doesn’t fit, the style isn’t right, and on and on. There is a way to have it your way!

Why not have a boat designed and built just for you – a boat that “fits” – a custom boat? A custom boat haGRG_2763s many advantages, advantages summed up by our designer, Michel. “For the size and type you desire, you can get any production boat on the market; but if you prefer to be unique and create something that reflects your precise needs, tastes, and budget – a boat that reflects your personality, custom is the way to go”. A custom boat is designed and built around you, taking in all parameters, right down to arm length and eye level, so the boat fits just right. It is built to showcase “unique individuals with unique tastes”.

Another consideration is value. A well-cared-for custom boat can continue to grow in value with time. It is not uncommon for a Van Dam to actually increase in value with each new owner (not that they trade hands often). Many times they are built to be handed down to family members, cherished for generations.

Choosing to build a boat with Van Dam creates a unique experience: the ability to choose dscf4611-adjustedevery detail, to create a boat that is as unique as your own signature – nothing like it anywhere! In the words of our founder, Steve Van Dam, “Every one of us is an individual, when we get to the point in life where we can afford nice things, we search out the very best, and we relish owning it … we want a boat to meet our particular needs and tastes, and production boats are a compromise.”


Unparalleled Boat Building

At Van Dam we are known for the use of a modern construction method referred to as “cold molding” (in which the term cold actually refers to room temperature.) A room temperature cure epoxy adhesive is used to laminate many thin layers of wood planks, which will create the hull. Typically three layers of this planking are used in a hull.

Steve began his venture with cold molding (then a newer construction method) and the use of modern adhesives with his apprenticeship in Canada. Apprenticing under Vic Carpenter, Steve was introduced to the latest method of building wooden boats, which allowed Steve to sharpen his current skills and expand his knowledge base.

By using the many benefits of wood and epoxy adhesives, we are able to engineer all the structural members, joints, and skin. This creates a wooden boat that is strong, durable, and stable. Also, by constructing the boat in this fashion we are able to get maximum strength with minimum weight. The hulls are tough and resistant to damage and rot.

Planks are made thin enough to be able to bend and fit any shape without any steaming. Each plank (also called veneer) is flat and has even thickness throughout the piece. The width will depend on the curve needed for the hull. This lends a great flexibility in the hull’s shape.

Although there are several different methods for constructing a wooden boat, we find that this particular method gives us the strongest and most durable boat we can build. With regular maintenance and care, our boats can last a lifetime without any major overhaul.

A Van Dam is truly unique from the very beginning.

Launch of Tattler II

By: Thor Purinton

It was a scene that could very well have taken place in 1890:  Tattler II, more sail than boat, resplendent in the low sun, pennant fluttering lazily in the light air, her crew in snowy white livery for the occasion.  The day was as perfect as could be, warm, sunny, and absolutely still until the moment the sailors raised the mainsail, when a light breeze descended on the lake, enough to fill the sails pleasantly.  Onlookers and well-wishers surveyed the mornings activity from the shaded comfort of Louise, a 70′ steam-powered fantail launch.


This was the ceremonial first sail, following a christening held on her owner’s shorefront lawn.  A few hours’ worth of genteel fun for most of the guests, but for the owners, as well as Ben, Steve, and myself, the culmination of a ten month construction project, plus a week of rigging, testing, and fine-tuning.

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It was a rare pleasure to participate in the proceedings that day.  As a builder, it often seems to me counterproductive to spend time at the end of a project patting myself on the back, and if I’m honest, by the time a project wraps up, I’ve had enough, and I’m ready for a fresh start on a new boat.  So it was refreshing to see the completion of this boat through her owners’ eyes, as the beginning of something magical, rather than the end of a long stretch of hard work.  And I now admit that taking time out of work–out of life for that matter–to celebrate every now and then, is very much worth the while.IMG_1090

Spring Launch Madness

It’s time to dig out those flip-flops, swimsuits, hats and sunscreen. Summer is approaching and we are all getting excited to spend some much-needed time out on the lake. Things here at Van Dam are really buzzing, as spring launching season is in full swing. Boats are getting shrink wrapped, loaded onto trailers, and launched into the water.

Everyone is preparing for the summer.

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Boats are rolling out the door.

Everyone is getting excited to get out on the water. Some are spending their first summer on their brand new custom Van Dam. Whatever boat you may be on, we hope you get the opportunity to get out on the water this summer and have some fun.

Tattler II

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Building Boats and Friendships


A Van Dam custom boat is unique in appearance, design, feel and experience. Whether you’ve spent weeks, months, or even years flipping through magazines, searching the Internet or just watching boats whiz by, you are finally making your dreams come true by contacting Van Dam, ready to make your boat a reality. From the moment you walk thru the doors at Van Dam, you are treated with the highest level of service. This is the way you should feel when investing in your dream, that and the excitement of knowing your dream boat is becoming a reality. Even before signing on the dotted line, you are assured you and your dream will be taken care of.

Throughout the entire process, start to finish, you are included in every detail. Design conversations are just that, conversations among friends. Every staff member at the Van Dam shop takes the golden rule to heart: “ Treat others as you wish to be treated.” Why can’t every purchase be this way?! You never miss a beat in the build process, from meetings around the custom-made wooden conference table and discussions as the crew stands the frames, to the actual roll over of your boat; you are kept in the loop with each new development. And whether near or far, you are sent pictures illustrating each step in the process.Catnip_3008.3.25.16

“I think the best part of owning my Van Dam was being involved in the design – and after watching it being built, knowing I had the best.” – Greg Fisher (Chiara)

When building a home, you can run into issues such as changes you are told you need to make, or changes you want that cannot be made, and overcharges can cost a fortune. At Van Dam their specialty care and patience helps prevent these headaches (and Scan35heartaches). Receiving weekly communication can ease your mind while awaiting the final product. You are able to zoom in on each new advancement in the project.

From the very beginning, Steve knew how to treat those trusting in him to build their dream. Reflecting on his time with the Van Dam’s, Steve Hansen, the first owner of Silvan, (one of the very first Van Dam builds), recalls, “While minimal, my involvement in the building process gave me a feeling of participation. My family spent summer vacations in Charlevoix and the boat was being build just north of nearby Harbor Springs. I would spend part of the day ordering desired hardware from Steve’s catalogs, or crouching in the hull deciding with Steve, where or how big furniture elements should be.” This business transaction aSilvan18nd demonstration of trust resulted in a life-long friendship. Hansen still pops into the shop from time to time to see the most current projects.

It is important to the Van Dam crew that you, the owner, are happy with every aspect of your boat. As our president (Ben Van Dam) stated in a previous blog: “Striving for perfection is an on-going goal for Van Dam.” We continue to do this not only with our boats, but in our relationships as well, from customer-builder relationships, to workplace relationships. Having happy people from all ends of the spectrum is what makes Van Dam a successful business. Doing what we love to do and making people happy, that is a dream come true!

In Defense of the “Pursuit of Perfection”

By: Ben Van Dam

We’ve had many discussions about perfection here. We’ve heard every quote in the book, quotes like “A perfectionist is someone who doesn’t get anything done!” to “Getting to a 9.5 is relatively easy, its that last .5 that gets expensive!”. Yet I constantly find myself pushing for perfection. Could we have done something more efficiently? Could it have turned out a little better? That spot we had to redo, how could we have gotten it “perfect” the first time? Can we even make something perfect? I have no idea, but the high probability that I will never get something perfect does not keep me from trying to do it. Our collective goal, in the end, is to have our customers feel that their boat is indeed perfect! Some may say perfection is unrealistic, but to us that pursuit, however challenging, is part of why we strive to build the world’s finest wooden boats.

In thinking about what “perfect” really is, it dawns on me that maybe perfection can be in the eye of the beholder. We have built a number of boats that were not perfect, in fact all of them are not perfect, but yet it is only we, that were involved with the build, that can tell. If I had a nickel for every time someone said “wow it’s perfect!” …… Clearly our involvement in the build process allows us to see the “imperfections”, and we take this opportunity to grow and learn. If we weren’t there nitpicking our “mistakes”, though, would the boat, in essence, be perfect? If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?!?!

As I glance down at my 1 month old daughter, sitting in her “newborn lounger”, I am struck that even our emotions can change what “perfect” is. This tiny person that screams at me, spits up on me and pees on me should, by all definitions, not be considered perfect. Yet to me and to my wife, she is. She is absolutely perfect.

One of the things that can be difficult for young, optimistic, energetic guys coming to serve an apprenticeship here is our company’s constant pursuit of perfection, the mentality of Kaizen that permeates our souls. It’s a tough environment to get used to; where completion of a task comes with an explanation of all the ways that it could have been done better. Where we rarely celebrate how beautiful something turned out because we are focused on the next opportunity to chase perfection, once again thrilled at the chance to make something perfect! That insatiable pursuit of perfection drives us to work harder, faster and smarter, but it doesn’t always drive us to remind people that are on-boarding that one of our most important goals is to learn from our experiences in order to make improvements for next time.

I heard several quotes the other day that resonated with me: “Cynicism is the refuge of cowards” and “Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something”. Some people struggle with being paralyzed by the thought of not hitting the mark, of putting themselves out there and failing. Some can’t put their ego aside, also fearing the thought of failure. Those of us who choose to chase perfection understand that in our lifetimes, we may never reach it, but it won’t keep us from being optimistic that maybe, if we keep pushing, we may get so close that it doesn’t matter. We look at failure as an opportunity to improve ourselves and our team. It doesn’t break us when we don’t reach perfection, even though we gave our all. The knowledge that we tried our best, the passion that we put into our work and the comradery of working with a talented, driven, united team is satisfying enough.


Some claim that people like us aren’t able to have balance in our lives, constantly chasing perfection in one, singular avenue of our lives, never satisfied. I find that puzzling, is it really balance that I am looking for? Balance, which implies that in order for one thing to gain, the other has to lose? I think harmony is what we are after. Harmony with all the other extremely important aspects of our lives; our families, our friends, our hobbies. I am focusing on the pursuit of perfection in my professional life, but I apply the same passion and pursuit in my home life, and I find harmony in that combined pursuit.

So why chase that “impossible dream”? Think how much further we will get just by aiming at it!



Getting To Know The Team: Chad James, Shop Manager

Not many have a career we wake up excited about and are eager to head into the office for. How many of us can say that we are truly passionate about what we do every day? I bet this list is not very long. Chad James just happens to be one of the lucky few. Essentially growing up in the Van Dam shop, Chad always had a suspicion that he found his calling early. Diversity in the shop gave Chad the opportunity to learn and grow into the successful shop manager and key team member he has come to be at Van Dam.Catnip_2189.2.3.16

As a fourteen-year-old boy Chad no longer wanted a babysitter and needed some spending cash. Seeing an ad in the newspaper, he walked through the doors at Van Dam. Willing to do pretty much anything; he swept the shop floor and assisted in small projects. Because of his age Chad was unable to use power tools to start off with. He soaked up knowledge from everyone he worked with; Chad was ready when the opportunity finally presented itself. “He was exposed to everything that happened in a boat yard,” says Steve Van Dam, one of Chad’s many mentors and founder of Van Dam Custom Boats. Chad was always ready and willing to take on any task handed to him.

When it came time for college Chad found himself thinking about the shop. He attended North Central Michigan College and then Ferris State University, but all the while wondered what was happening at Van Dam. Reflecting back on this he knew what it was he wanted to do with his life before he even left high school. This brought him back to Boyne City and he began working at Van Dam full time. It did not take long for Chad to climb through the ranks. In January 2005, he became a Project Manager. Steve Van Dam states “Chad can look ahead and see the vision of what we are doing and by doing that he plans for it,” while reflecting on Chad’s impeccable drive and organizational skills. In January 2011 Chad became the Shop Manager overseeing projects, project managers, and the day-to-day operations on the shop floor.

Humphrey_0666.11.20Trying to determine his favorite part of building boats was difficult for Chad; he loves all the phases through the construction process. Finally narrowing it down he said, “If I had to pick one part of the build, I would say it is the day that we stand up all the frames.” As for his favorite part of his current position, he hands down chose the management and coordination. Chad is a multi-tasking genius and enjoys watching more than one project going at a time. He is also a great teacher. He finds this as a very satisfying aspect of his job, but he is also great at it. “ He is an excellent teacher for those that want to learn,” says Steve Van Dam.

Chad loves the diversity in his job, and appreciates the sense of accomplishment he gets when projects are completed. This is a great thing to have within your job, especially when it is something that you are passionate about. Lastly, Chad thoroughly enjoys building things. It is his job, but it is also his hobby. He always has a personal project going on.

Chad built a house with his wife, Amanda, and their first son, William “Porter”, was born in 2006 and their second son, Weston Anthony, in 2009. He is an outdoorsman who enjoys fishing and camping, but more importantly, spending time with his family.

Chad has become a vital part of the Van Dam team; in fact, he is more like family. When asked about the subject Steve Van Dam says, “ It was like watching my own son grow up. Watching him grow from a young teenage boy to a mature, responsible adult and father is amazing and rewarding.” A master craftsman, a dedicated manager and an incredible family man, that about sums up Van Dam’s Shop Manager, Chad James.


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Why a Wooden Boat?

A piece of art that combines form, function, and beauty is the best way to describe a custom wooden boat. There is a certain romance to the look of wood polished to perfection. Whether it is a classic style or contemporary creation, wooden boats have a certain appeal to them. They can so easily take your breath away.

With modern advancements we quickly forget where and why wooden boats were created. The oldest wooden boat discovered was the Pesse canoe, a dugout from a hollowed tree between 8200 and 7600 BC. The use of wood for boats continued until around the mid-19th century when frames started to be assembled using iron or steel, but wood was still used for planking. During the 1920’s the classic Runabout style of wooden boats became popular. At this time wooden boats were being used more as a luxury than a necessity and the romantic feel of a wood boat has allowed it to continue to be a boat of luxury.


There are many other reasons that wooden boats have stayed so popular in the boating world. For example, and I believe Steve Van Dam puts it best when he says, “they are strong, durable, and beautiful.” Wood is a great structural material; it is strong, yet lightweight. Using wood to build a boat is an efficient use of materials with very little waste. There are no expensive molds or tooling that are required for its completion. The most common woods used are Honduras Mahogany, African Mahogany, Douglas Fir, Sitka Spruce, Yellow Cedar, and Western Red Cedar. These species are beautiful to the eye when varnished with flawless craftsmanship.

Some question whether wood boats take more maintenance than those built with materials such as fiberglass, aluminum, or steel. The style of boat and the location it is kept are key factors when determining the level of maintenance, but this is true for all materials used to build boats. Many owners of wooden boats enjoy having a clear finish that displays the beauty of the wood. This will require regular maintenance of fresh
RGG_0833topcoats of finish at regular intervals if the boat is left outside. At Van Dam we use a state-of-the-art automotive clear coat as a finish. It still requires maintenance, but not as much as varnish. If the boat is kept protected in a boathouse or under a cover when it is not in use there will be less regular maintenance required.

Wooden boat owners are in a league of their own, as Charles Colman, owner of a Van Dam DSCN0123and several other wooden boats puts it, “My wooden boats are functional museum pieces that are the center of my fun and my social life!” This same owner was drawn back to wooden boats when his wife would not ride in his Boston Whaler, stating that it was too choppy. Instead he refitted his family’s old wooden Chris-Craft. There is no doubt that there is a certain level of elegance to a wood boat. Many times they are a reflection of the owner’s personality and an expression of his/her needs.

Why a wooden boat? We will leave you with the words of Steve Van Dam that made the creation of custom wooden boats his life’s passion, “ Our wooden boats are dynamic art, beauty in motion.”


The Art of Fairing

We recently had a tour guest ask, “How does Van Dam get the finish so mirror like?” Trevor, our Paint Shop Foreman stated, “It all starts with the fairing process.” There is a reason this process is done so thoroughly and the trained eye is the most important tool in the process.

What is Fair?

So now you are going to ask me to define fairing…. well, this can be rather difficult to do. Fairing is a very subjective term, but it basically means that you are making a curved surface smooth. It is the method of freeing curves from lumps and flat spots in all directions. It is the process of making the hull the true, designed shape.

How to Fair? IMG_2721

The next question is how do you make the hull fair? There are many methods one uses to get the desired results. The first step would be to make sure you have an experienced craftsman nearby. It takes time, patience and lots of practice to get an end product that is perfect. The process of sanding is a tedious one and one that must be done correctly.

Most start out with the use of planes. This tool is only one of many used however. There are various sizes of sanding boards used as well, all the way up to a two man long board! Plus we use a 5 step fairing method that gradually works its way up in grit with the sand paper getting finer and finer.

Measuring Fairness

GRG_2763Alright, so how do you measure fairness since it is a subjective term? One of the smartest ways is by using the batten. When the batten is bent around the surface, it will point out where there is any discrepancy, allowing you to see the “wiggles” in the surface. When you can no longer see the “wiggles” you have a pretty fair surface.

Fairing is done throughout the building process, although it may not be done to the same extreme as the final layer. Prior to planking the frames are lightly faired. Once the stringers are placed in they act as guides to get flawless bevels from frame to frame. Corrections can be made to any high stringer or frame by planing it away until it fairs with the others. This allows the planks to lie across the frame evenly. In between each layer of planking the surface is lightly faired.GRG_1532

At Van Dam we have perfected the art of fairing. This allows the paint and varnish to be applied with that well-known mirror like result, showing perfect reflections in every direction.