First, I’d thank everyone for the concerned questions, comments, sincere emails and vicarious anger regarding our arch project. I’m hopeful this post and video will answer all your questions, and we can finally put the “arch saga” to rest.
To get a few things out of the way…
- Yes, we tried our best to get our money back.
- No, we did not get any money back.
- No, suing them didn’t seem like it would yield any positive results.
- No, we don’t want any legs broken.
- Yes, we filed a complaint with the BBB.
- Yes, we wrote reviews on every review site imaginable.
- No, we will not give out their information publicly.
- Yes, if you want to get similar work done in the area, and are concerned about hiring them, we’re happy to share the information privately to ensure you don’t.
Now that the past is in the past, let’s focus on the future, and all of the awesomeness that is the custom bimini we constructed and sewed ourselves! This project was a game-changer for us for a couple of reasons:
- Shade — This cannot be overstated. Our cockpit was miserable on sunny days. There was nowhere to hide from the sun, and without a reliable autopilot we were forced to stand at the helm in full sun all day long. Sailing all day in the warm tropical sun may sound alluring, but it’s not. It’s terrible. It’s unbearably hot, it sucks the energy right out of you, it literally kills you! 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70 and more than 2 people die of skin cancer in the U.S. every hour. (source)
- Solar Power — The other major reason we wanted a bimini was to have more space to mount our solar panels. We made do at the end of the previous sailing season by lashing them down to the foredeck when we were at anchor, but this was an inconvenient and hap-hazard approach. The bimini gave us the opportunity to more than double the amount of solar panels (160w to 420w) that we have mounted on the boat, allowing us to generate more power than we need on a regular basis. This revolutionized our cruising lifestyle. No more running to a marina because the batteries were low, in fact we don’t even plug in when we are at a dock because we always have power. How cool is that?
Why did we decide to build a bimini ourselves?
After the arch debacle, we got so many recommendations, referrals and generous offers to help… but to be honest we were a little shell shocked. We did eventually speak with a few people who came highly recommended along the Florida gulf coast, and received quotes from a couple companies while we were hauled out for hurricane season.
We also considered buying a cheap off-the-shelf bimini just to have something on the boat until we found the perfect company to build the arch we always dreamed of. But we decided doing this ourselves was the most sensible option for us.
One of the big attractions to this sailing adventure has always been about gaining new experiences, gathering new skills, pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone, and becoming more independent, self-reliant, and self-sustaining.
So, in addition to getting exactly what we wanted and being relatively affordable, building a bimini ourselves allowed us to learn some new skills — and that sealed the deal.
Sailrite 3-Bow Bimini & Skin Kit Review
Having never built a bimini before, and having only dabbled in small sewing projects, we turned to Sailrite for help. They have a series of fantastic tutorials for all sorts of Marine Sewing Projects, including How to Make a Bimini Top, and they sell all the supplies and equipment necessary to complete the project.
It can be extremely daunting to get started, but the tutorials provide a ton of information and make it so that even a complete novice can turn out a good-looking product with a little patience and perseverance.
Based on our experience, we recommend watching the entire How to Make a Bimini Top video before beginning construction. Written instructions were provided as part of the kit, but many times we’d get ahead of ourselves following the written instructions, only to find that they weren’t as clear or detailed as we wanted them to be, so we’d jump back to the video and realize that we had misunderstood something that had been shown more clearly in the video.
The frame and the fabric are actually two separate products. This was a bit confusing at first, but makes sense. If you just need to freshen up an old bimini, you can order the 3-Bow Bimini Skin Kit which includes all the materials you need to measure, template and sew a replacement bimini to fit over your existing frame. We didn’t have a frame to start with so we needed both. We chose the 1″ Stainless Steel 3-Bow Frame Kit to match the existing 1″ tubing on our dodger.
We chose a light “silver” Sunbrella material, in an attempt to reduce the heat underneath. This was based on some loose scientific testing we did on our boat while in Key West. We used our infrared thermometer to test a bunch of different surfaces around the boat on an unbearably hot day. The underside of our dark blue dodger registered 135°, and you could feel the heat radiating from it on your head. For perspective: the bare deck was 120°, but underneath our white boom tent it was just 90° — very near ambient air temperature.
The Frame Kit comes with a bunch deck hardware, including nylon tie-down straps, all of which was unnecessary for our installation on the stern rail. The Skin Kit also included a spool of standard thread, but we wanted to use the UV-resistant Tenara thread, so we ordered a separate spool.
We placed our order online, but had we known that Sailrite also sells all of the pieces in the kit individually and will happily customize your order over the phone to meet your specific needs, we would have saved a quite a bit of money on all the unnecessary hardware we received, and wouldn’t have had to donate it all to the boatyard’s free bin.
Sailrite LSZ-1 Sewing Machine Review
We had initially planned to use an antique White sewing machine a friend had gifted us, but after a couple of days trying to troubleshoot tensioning issues with the incredibly thick Tenara thread, we were able to borrow one of the legendary Sailrite LSZ-1 Sewing Machines to finish the project. (We then promptly went out and bought one for ourselves shortly after finishing the project).
This sewing machine is a beast. Unless you own an industrial sewing machine, there’s probably not another one on the market that can do what this thing does. It is incredibly heavy, very solid, well thought-out and appears to be very well built. It is unlikely we could have sewn through the 7-8 layers of Sunbrella material we needed to complete the job with anything else. The number of layers mixed with the diversity of material (Sunbrella, vinyl, zippers, binding, sticky tape) combined with our lack of experience made it a bit tricky at times to get proper tension on the machine we borrowed. But we should note we haven’t had this issue with the unit we purchased. All said and done, we’re extremely happy with our Sailrite machine and look forward to many more projects with it.
The Frame Construction Process
The reason this kit is DIY-able is that the bimini bows are shipped in 3 pieces. This caused us some serious hesitation at first. We really wanted a single piece bow that was custom bent to match the lines of our boat.
That said, the 3-piece bow was a necessity for economical shipping, and it allows the builder to customize the width to fit their needs. However it also meant that without modification we were going to end up the dreaded “soccer goal” look (straight legs, with 90-degree bends and a nearly flat top.) We really wanted our bimini to more closely follow the lines of our boat.
This was a non-starter for us until we discovered our neighbor had a pipe bender we could borrow, which allowed us to modify the center section of the bows to add more “crown” or arc, to the top. This helps the bimini shed water more easily, and gives it a more rounded appearance which more closely matches the look of our dodger.
The thought of a loosely held-together bimini frame rattling in the wind with potential for corroded mechanical fasteners failing someday definitely gave me the willies. But after putting it all together, I’m happy to report that the stainless rivets provided by Sailrite combined with the tension of the finished Sunbrella material itself really do a good job holding everything together, and I haven’t even thought about the frame being separate pieces since finishing up construction.
All of our building decisions revolved around 4 key design considerations:
- We needed space to install our 4 semi-flexible solar panels (2 x 80w & 2 x 50w) that we purchased for the project.
- We needed the bimini to be tall enough for both of us to walk under without feeling like we had to duck, but no taller.
- We wanted to taper the width of the bimini at the stern to follow the lines of the boat.
- We wanted a window above the helm to view the masthead for wind direction & sail trimming.
We went through a number of rounds of discussion before even agreeing on where exactly the first bow should be mounted to the boat. We spent a couple of days sitting in the cockpit, while taking breaks between other projects, holding the bimini bows in different positions, debating the pros and cons of each placement of this part or that, trying to envision the finished bimini to get a feel for how each of the decisions we were making affected all the others components of the design.
Ultimately we decided to mount our frame on the forward end of our stern rail, and we’re very happy with that decision. This saved us from drilling a bunch of holes in our cored deck, significantly shortened the length of the stainless tubing we needed (meaning less clutter, less windage, and less weight in the stern of our boat). It also kept the coaming clutter free, one of our favorite places to sit while heeled over underway, and eliminated any possible interference with the primary winches used for trimming the headsail.
This mounting position allowed us to get just enough height to clear my head, while leaving enough room for the boom to easily clear a future bimini-to-dodger connection. Then, the other two bows were be mounted on the leg of this first one. This technically meant we were building our bimini in reverse (meaning our “primary” bow was the forward bow instead of the aft) which caused some confusion for us down the road.
The secondary/aft bow was just as tricky as the first. We wanted the aft bow to give good shade coverage for the helm seat, but we had to contend with the backstay and the radar pole. We went back and forth about the merits of putting this bow in front or behind the radar pole, and ultimately settled on behind. This gave us the most shade and space for our aft solar panels, but made a more complex sewing job to accomodate an opening for the pole in the fabric.
The last/middle bow, which on most bimini kits is probably the easiest, was just as difficult as the first two for us. Since our bimini was going to be a trapezoid instead of a square/rectangle, not only did we need to figure out how long the legs should be to create the appropriate peak in the middle to shed water, we needed to triangulate exactly how wide it needed to be to ensure that it perfectly bisected the angle created by the fore and aft bows. This was easier said than done, because before we could do that we needed to know exactly how much space we needed between each of the pairs of bows to accomodate our solar panels while still leaving room for a viewing window. Whew!
To help us with this, we mocked up our solar panels using some scrap foam insulation and awkwardly held them in place while trying to take measurements fore and aft. All and all we didn’t make this a simple job for ourselves.
Creating the Fabric Skin
After finalizing the construction of the frame, the next step was to create the template which is used to cut out fabric for the bimini canvas. Sailrite provides all the necessary materials for this in the kit which is really nice. This is where watching the full video first would have been very helpful, as we were tripped up here a number of times trying to figure out where to mark and cut the template.
The goal is to get the fabric to lay as smoothly as possibly over the frame without stretching it. Any wrinkles that show up here will be transferred and amplified in your final product. It took us a few attempts to get the templating material to lay down the way we wanted it. Having two people for this stage is an absolute necessity, and doing it on a calm day is very much advisable.
The final stage is sewing! Again, we didn’t do ourselves any favors here. We had only completed the frame before leaving the boatyard, which meant we’d need to complete the entire sewing project while in the water. We spent a good couple of weeks hanging out on a mooring ball in Marathon, carting the sewing machine into the workshop every day via dinghy and bringing it back every night the same way.
A lot of the decisions made during frame construction resulted in more complicated work here as well. We needed a slit on the aft side to accommodate the backstay, more openings for our radar pole and for the vertical rigid stainless supports we added to the back rail in lieu of nylon straps, and the solar panel cables that needed to be run down to the cockpit. Each one of these required a bunch of planning, measuring and intricate finish details that complicated the sewing process.
Solar Panel Mounting
And if that wasn’t enough (!), we had to figure out how best to attach our semi-flexible solar panels. I used some old paracord I had lying around when we were in Mobile, Alabama to create (what I thought would be) a temporary mounting arrangement for the panels on the dodger. This worked well enough there, but we were hoping for a cleaner, more professional looking attachment on the bimini.
We landed on using high-strength Velcro on the bottom of the panels to attach them to the canvas. We then added flaps that wrapped around the edges of all four sides and were secured with more Velcro on top. The idea was that the velcro on the bottom was probably enough, but the flaps would keep the wind from getting underneath and prying the panels away from the bimini. In the end I think this system was a bit overkill, and if we were to do it again, we’d modify it slightly…
We’d still put Velcro on the bottom, as this held very securely. But instead of putting flaps all the way around we’d make small pockets in each corner with grommets in them just large enough to match up with the grommet in the corners of the panels. We’d then use a very small bit of paracord to lash them onto the fabric pockets on the bimini, in a belt-and-suspenders approach.
We are incredibly happy with the final results. We learned a ton of new skills, we acquired some fun new tools, and have a lot of experience to rely on if/when we decide to tackle a similar project. The bimini has massively increased the comfort and enjoyment we get out of spending time on our boat. We were finally able to get all of our solar panels mounted, which keep the batteries topped up and has allowed us to stay away from the dock for months at a time. We’ve been able to sail all day in the comfort of the shade without feeling burned up and drained. And we’ve significantly increased the functional living space on our boat, which is hard to come by on a vessel this size.
Let us know what you think!
Do you have a bimini on your boat? How did you mount your solar panels? What would you have done differently? We’d love your feedback.