Features October 1, 2003 Issue

Vinyl Boat Lettering

You may only letter or re-letter a boat once, but it's got to be done right. We wondered ... if you have no sign-maker in your family, or along your street, how would it be to order lettering online?

It wouldn't be possible to rate the hundreds of sign and lettering shops around the country that handle boat lettering as a specialty or subspecialty. The advent of computer-aided signmaking has made it possible in recent years for mom-and-pop operations to turn out professional-looking boat names and graphics that can simply be peeled and stuck to a boat. Aside from price and customer service, there's not much to evaluate. Still, we thought, there must be good ways and bad ways for consumers to shop for stick-on signage. What about being able to design, preview, and specify orders online? Would the Internet offer ways to eliminate some of that trial and error from the get-go? 

Maira on the topsides and transom. The results of our Internet shopping spree are in place.

We sought out companies with an e-commerce approach to vinyl boat graphics. In theory, the business model goes something like this: design your own graphics online, picking fonts, colors, and sizes, and place your order via secure credit card transaction. The graphics arrive via courier, and you apply them yourself.

Could it be as painless and simple as all that? As it turns out, no. There are too many details and variables that you want to get right, and that means human interaction. Consequently, customer service is what separates one company from another.

Ultimately, a complete assessment of the products tested will only come out after long-term exposure to the sun. Most boat-lettering companies use vinyl either from Avery or 3M, with a life expectancy for both of 5-7 years, so quality of the materials likely will not differentiate one online service from another. Still, we'll keep you posted about long-term wear. In the meantime, here's an assessment of the e-commerce experience.

Vinyl boat lettering is a cottage industry. A flip through local sailing broadsheets will uncover legions of small companies occupying this niche. For the most part, these operations serve small geographic markets. Not so for online companies who, although they may remain small operations, may face a veritable ocean of customers via the Internet. It's relatively easy for a company to make a website and take orders through it, and if the website is well-designed it can give the visitor the impression of visiting a major emporium. This is rarely the case. Instead, some boat lettering companies have aligned themselves with larger marine marketing businesses, such as SailNet, BoatU.S. and West Marine, to be the fulfillment partners for graphics orders made through the larger companies' catalogs or websites. And even the online companies have to contend with the seasonal, boom-and-bust nature of the marine industry in most of North America.

Our Test Method
We could not use all companies offering this online service for this review, since our boat would look like a printer test page. Ordering from different companies for the port and starboard sides and transom of the boat introduced more complications than what the typical consumer is going to encounter. We had trouble matching fonts, colors and sizes between vendors. For instance, a font that we found on one company’s web site and decided to use did not appear on any other company's website. Ordering from a single vendor will of course mean that the port and starboard graphics will match each other. Still, challenges remain: matching to the existing colors of the boat (we didn't quite hit the right shade of navy) and fitting a graphic on today's modern, walkthrough, swim-platform transoms are but two.

We surfed a lot of web sites, searching for the ultimate online boat graphics e-commerce site. Our ideal site would allow you to type in your boat's name, pick a font, a color, and add text effects if so desired, and be able to preview the results right away. Once satisfied with the aesthetics of your choices, you would then be able to proceed to a checkout that quotes a price for the graphics exactly as you specified. What we found, instead, were a lot of broken shopping carts, font previewers that wouldn't preview, and so on. Most sites do not have a font previewer at all, requiring that you imagine what your boat's name might look like in the font Brush Script. We picked the busiest time of the season to test these companies' customer service and responsiveness. We needed, and asked for, good customer service, and those companies that provided it won our shootout. (Or should we call it a write-off?)

BoatU.S. Graphics
BoatU.S. Graphics has an attractive, easy-to-use e-commerce website (www.boatus.com/boatgraphics). The font previewer makes it very easy to visualize your boat's name in your choice of font. However, some of the special effects such as slant or drop-shadow do not come through in the previewer. The shopping cart and checkout pages are also well-designed and easy to use. BoatU.S. Graphics comes the closest to our ideal e-commerce boat lettering experience.

Because we needed to replicate with other companies the lettering ordered through BoatU.S. Graphics, we sent some questions via e-mail regarding the exact dimensions of the lettering. Responsiveness in answering those e-mails went anywhere from a few hours to a day or more. We later learned that the underlying fulfillment partner for BoatU.S. keeps its staffing levels low, and takes phone orders as well, which explains why our e-mails were not answered promptly. As it turned out, the dimensions quoted by the website were off, particularly in overall height.

The graphics took longer than expected to arrive. There was some confusion over shipping arrangements, for which we were partly to blame. BoatU.S. Graphics contacted us to clarify the confusion.

Ordered: "Maira," 8" high, 25.2" long. Font: Art Gothic. Color: Navy Blue. Standard vinyl. Cost: Graphics: $58.95. Shipping: $16.95. Total: $74.45.

Marine Graphics Inc.
We chose Marine Graphics Inc. (www.marinegraphics.com) because its website showed a font that we thought was the same as the one we chose with BoatU.S. Graphics. As it turned out, there were subtle differences. The solution: a quick visit to My-Fonts.com, for a secure credit card transaction and download of the proper font file, which we were able to e-mail to Marine Graphics.

Marine Graphics Inc. does not have the kind of integrated e-commerce website that we were searching for. Instead, you pick a font from a page of samples (the words "Boat Name" appear in a few dozen font faces), type your boat name into a form, select a color, and fill in the rest of the form with shipping and payment details.

There were lengthy delays in getting our lettering from Marine Graphics. The company uses a web service called PayPal to process credit card transactions. Confirmation of our PayPal payment got lost through poor communication within Marine Graphics, which meant that our order did not go into production for nearly two weeks. Days would go by without receiving a reply to our e-mails asking about the status of our order. Had there not been a delay in the launching of the boat, we would have been applying the lettering to the hull from a dinghy.

We were surprised and concerned that the graphic arrived from Marine Graphics folded in a courier envelope. The creases remained in the vinyl when we applied it to the boat, and no amount of squeegeeing could remove them. Thankfully, the creases disappeared after a few weeks.

Ordered: "Maira," 8" high. Font: Art Gothic. Color: Dark Blue. Cost: Graphics: $50. Shipping: $30. Total: $80.

We came across Boat-lettering.com, and were surprised to learn that the company is located in Saskatchewan, proving that cyberspace has no geographical limitations. The font previewer on the www.Boat-lettering.com lets you see your boat's name in the font you select. The font-previewer only lets you specify letter size in font points, a system that will be unfamiliar to many people. The selections you make in the company's font-previewer do not make it onto the order form; you have to re-specify the fonts, sizes, colors, and other characteristics that you just finished selecting in the previewer.

We opted to use Boat-lettering.com for the transom of our test boat, where we had to work around an awkwardly positioned stainless plate sitting on centerline. With little room for error in the dimensions, we sent several detailed requests by e-mail, asking for the specific dimensions of upper-case and lower-case letters, and how far below the line the capital M in our chosen font extends. We got a reply within the hour, with an attachment showing the lettering and all of its relevant dimensions, to fractions of an inch. Still unsure about whether the graphic would clear the stainless plate, we e-mailed a digital photo of the transom (with a ruler taped to the side of the boat for scale). Boat-lettering.com returned the photo, with the proposed lettering added in digitally, exactly as the name would appear on the boat. This service (for which another company in our review charges $150) sealed the deal. The graphic arrived by courier shortly thereafter, neatly rolled in a tube.

Ordered: "Maira," 6.28" high, 16.33" long. Font: Art Gothic. Color: Blue. Cost: Graphics: $32.40. Shipping: $21.50 Next Day Air. Total cost: $53.90 (Canadian)

West Marine
We felt that a survey of online boat lettering services ought to include West Marine. Accordingly, we headed over to westmarine.com, clicked on "Services, " then on "Custom Boat Graphics" on the next page.

West Marine generally does e-commerce well, but its online boat graphics business barely qualifies as e-commerce. Instead of a web page that allows you to create and customize your lettering online, you get facsimiles (in PDF file format) of the pages in the West Marine catalog that cover vinyl lettering. There is a contact information form on the site you can fill out to express interest in the product. West Marine also lists a toll-free number for you to call them directly, and this is probably the company's preferred sales channel. Still, our goal was to conduct as much as possible strictly online, so we submitted our contact information on the site. West Marine contacted us several days later to take our order. The call center that contacted us handles all special orders for West Marine. Orders for boat graphics are a significant proportion of the call volume (reported to us in the range of 10-20 orders per day), so the representative we spoke to was very knowledgeable about the product.

Like BoatU.S., West Marine partners with a company that actually prints and ships your lettering.

The West Marine catalog has a limited set of font samples. To see if the font and color we wanted were available, we were referred by the West Marine call center rep to the website of the underlying fulfillment partner.

The lettering arrived in due course, neatly rolled up in a carton, accompanied by a squeegee—and not a word of directions on how to apply.

Ordered: Our favorite magazine title, 3" high. Font: Melior Semi-Bold. Color: Cardinal Red. Cost: Graphics $35.10. Shipping $6.95. State tax $2.11. Total cost $43.16.

Do-It-Yourself Application
In all cases, the product comes in a multi-layered sheet, consisting of two types of backing paper with the actual vinyl letters sandwiched in between. The entire name is applied at once; there is no need to place and align letters individually. Applying the vinyl involves wetting the letters, applying them to the boat, then squeezing the water away from behind the letters, so that the adhesive comes into contact with the hull.

The first step of our application was to remove a section of the cove stripe on the test boat. We followed the same steps one would use to remove vinyl ordered from the companies reviewed. To peel vinyl away, you heat the vinyl with a blow dryer, and use a flat tool to lift up a corner or edge. We sliced the tape about a foot from the aft and forward edges of the graphic area. Our efforts to lift up a corner of the vinyl at the forward slice damaged the edge of tape that was to remain on the boat. For aesthetic reasons, we decided to extend the white space on either side of the boat's name, and in doing so fortuitously hit upon the technique of lifting up the tape somewhere in its middle and peeling out to a cut, leaving a clean edge.

There are two basic methods for applying the lettering. One technique that we'll call the tape-and-flip method calls for taping the top edge of the sheet to the boat in the position that you want it. You then flip the sheet up, exposing its backside for spraying with the water and dish detergent solution. The alternative method involves laying out the sheet on a flat surface such as a picnic table and spraying it with the soap solution there, before carefully lifting and placing it on the hull. The companies we used differed in which technique they recommended; we adopted the tape-and-flip method universally.

It was a small sampling, and we didn't expect to find the "best" boat lettering business—but we can vouch for BoatU.S. among the bigger, familiar names. Since BoatU.S. retail operations have been taken over by West Marine, we wanted to make sure readers could still make use of the superior BoatU.S. system by the time we went to press, and were assured by BoatU.S. representatives that their lettering operation will continue.

At the smaller end of the business scale, Boat-lettering.com is a good example of a conscientious shop that can operate from the wilds of Saskatchewan (actually, we're not sure they're in the wild part), and serve buyers anywhere with person-to-person service. The only caveat about such shops is that they can fall prey more easily to seasonal ups and downs, staffing woes (e.g. a family wedding out of town), and even trouble expanding to meet demand if things start going too well.

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