Filling orders with a vacuum

Posted: Thursday, December 29, 2005

Black Feather Boats aims to copy an 8-year-old catamaran charter boat from Seattle that sits on the Juneau start-up company's property.

Owner Gregor Welpton is trying to grow his business - and protect his employees - by increasing the quality of his fiberglass with a new technology.

Black Feather already has enough orders for all of next year, but hasn't made a boat yet, and has never tried anything like this.

Welpton walks on board a double-hull boat and points out how the design is fuel-efficient, faster, smoother and more stable than others on the market.

The key is implementing a technology using vacuum infusion, which Welpton came across while working as a shipwright in Italy.

Vacuum infusion involves covering an entire mold with a bag. Vinyl-ester resin is injected into the layers of fiberglass to glue them together. A vacuum is then used to pull the resin through the fabric, resulting in an air-free laminate.

A sample of the end product Welpton held in his hand was smooth and shiny like a mirror, but a lot less breakable because its compactness makes it strong and stiff.

"There's no extra areas of resin," Welpton said.

European yacht makers are embracing vacuum infusion because it's safer and better for the environment than traditional fiberglass methods. With typical fiberglass work, microscopic fiberglass hairs can irritate the skin and lungs and cause other health problems.

This winter when Black Feather makes its first 30-foot catamaran, employees will not need respiratory masks, goggles or other special clothing once the bag covers the mold and the vacuum does the rest, Welpton said.

A hull can be made in 45 minutes, a process that usually takes eight to 12 days with standard fiberglass construction, he said. And no sanding is required since the hull, or any other part, clones the bathtub-like surface that it is pressed against.

Welpton said the process involves much setup time and a little more financial investment. But the product is better and employees stay healthy.

"All things equal out in the end," he said.

Welpton started Black Feather in Homer, repairing boats and building small craft such as skiffs. When he moved to Juneau in 1995, he continued to repair boats on a freelance basis and study ship building.

About two years ago, an associate mentioned to Welpton that the Southeast Alaska market needed someone local to build fiberglass catamarans. Lodge owners are looking for fast and comfortable boats to charter sport fishermen during the tourist seasons, Welpton said.

Most of the company's orders are from lodge owners, some looking to replace entire fleets. The base price of a boat is $100,000.

"I would not have done this if I didn't have the interest," he said.

The company is located in a former Allen Marine boat repair warehouse near the airport.

Black Feather's closest competition for fiberglass catamarans is in Seattle, where some boats are cheaper, but expensive to ship to Juneau.

"It almost makes more sense to build boats close to your customer base," he said.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com



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