rolling the limosine

Van Dam Custom Boats – Part One

By Bruce Niederer — GBI Technical Advisor

In this issue, I begin a two-part series that will feature a custom boat project being built by Van Dam Custom Boats in Boyne City, Michigan. We featured a Van Dam-built boat in Epoxyworks 14, the beautiful and unique Alpha Z. We want to give our readers a glimpse into what is currently happening at this world-class boat shop.

I traveled to Boyne City in early May and was graciously greeted by Steve Van Dam, the owner and founder of the company. We chatted as Steve showed me around. He introduced me to the guys working on various projects including a modified Sandbagger sailboat and a 32’ VZ custom power boat reminiscent of Alpha Z.

We then went into the room where the Limousine was sitting. There were a couple guys working diligently on it installing one of the engines and fitting other various components. There certainly is no moss growing under anyone at this shop. Steve expects the boat to be completed and launched fairly early this summer. But this story begins much earlier, in autumn of 2014.


The build begins by constructing a strongback and ladder frame. Steve explained that they like this method because it quickly allows for the station frames to be installed, squared, and the basic hull shape in place.

station frames

Always multitasking, while the station frames were being installed the transom was being laminated and vacuum bagged in a jig.

frames in place

This is a view from the bow with all the frames in place. The boat is now ready for installing the keelson, bulkheads and spreaders.

bulkheads and girders

We see here the bulkheads and “girders” installed viewed from the port side. There are two girders (stringers) mounted 1’ off center on both sides. Notice the guy working on the installation – his head is where the keelson will go along the centerline. The frames are removed to install the girders. The permanent bulkheads are also in place.

battens installed

The battens are installed and faired on both sides of the hull. Dave Snyder checks the fairness of his work. He hand planed high spots to keep the contours of the battens exact. The first layer of plywood is already dry fit and nailed in place temporarily on the bottom.

dryfitting plywood layer

The second layer of plywood is dry fit by Justin Halteman and secured to the bottom temporarily to ensure uniformity and structural integrity. Both courses of plywood planking will be removed and epoxied down in the exact position as initially placed.

mahogany planks

Good quality Honduran Mahogany is getting harder and harder to find. Van Dam buys entire logs or even entire tree trunks from sources developed over many years of building boats. These slabs are 2” x 12”x 15’ and will get run through the band saw to a thickness of ¼” then planed to 3/16”+. These planks become the “show “ planks on the hull. When complete, the show planks will match on each hull side port and starboard.

templates are made

Before the final “show planks” are epoxied to the hull, templates are made and placed on the hull to make sure the characteristics of the wood are uniform and parallel to the lines of the boat. Each of the templates are numbered to make sure that the planks, when cut using the templates, are placed in the exact position as they were intended. Chad James is seen here hard at work making the template.

staining the hull

With the bottom and the show planks glued on, the stain is now hand processed prior to the application of a clear coat using West System® 105 Resin and 207 Special Clear Hardener to protect the hull during the rollover process and while the build continues.

glassing the bottom

Typically the bottom gets glassed with either 2 layers of 6 oz. cloth or 1 layer of 10 oz. cloth.

rolling the limosine

The rolling of the ‘Limousine” begins. Large eye hooks fore and aft are used to secure the belts during the roll. Steve Kim and Michel Berryer control the boat as it’s rolled.

deck framing

Now that the boat is right side up, interior structure and deck framing are fitted and installed. You can see the bulkheads and battens that were installed while the boat was upside down.

plywood and mahogany

The deck consists of ¼” plywood glued to the deck frames followed by mahogany deck strips. In this photo you can see both the plywood underlayment and the mahogany decking as it gets planed smooth by Ben Van Dam and Chad Buras.

interior structure

Another look at the interior structure and battens showcases the craftsmanship of the Van Dam crew.

crew applies stain

The Van Dam crew all apply stain by hand to get it done quickly. Steve hires graduates from The Great Lakes Boatbuilding School in Cedarville, Michigan; The Landing School in Arundel, Maine; and the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building in Port Hadlock, Washington. Each of these schools turns out quality trained boat builders and each has been featured in an Epoxyworks article. Hard at work staining are Trevor Brazell, Dave Snyder, and Chad Buras.

checking the fit

To finish part one of this two-part series, I’ll end with a photo of a custom-built stainless steel Cutwater built in the Van Dam metal fabricating shop, a fairly new addition to the business. Jess Brown checks the fit during installation.

In Van Dam Custom Boats Part Two, I cover the build starting from where we stopped in this issue. You’ll see the cabin top, steering/nav station, the engine and electrical systems installed, finish applied and the completed boat.