For nearly half a century, Van Dam Custom Boats has created some of the finest custom wooden power and sailboats in the world, and also some of the most unique. Its finished creations resemble works of art as much as working pleasure boats.
The company was founded in Harbor Springs in 1977 by Steve Van Dam and his wife, Jean, after Steve spent several years as an apprentice with accomplished boat builder Vic Carpenter. It wasn’t long before Steve Van Dam’s custom woodwork and the completion of several commissioned designs gained recognition, which led to more interest in the company — and, ultimately, the growth of Van Dam Custom Boats.
In the 1990s, the purchase of a 16-acre property in Boyne City that included a defunct marina gave the Van Dams the space to move their shop out of Harbor Springs. The purchase also included 100 feet of Lake Charlevoix waterfront access and a travel-lift. The couple established the Boyne Boat Yard, and added service and storage to their business model.
Although the facilities have expanded over the years, Van Dam Custom Boats is still a small company, completing one privately commissioned new build every one to two years, along with providing selected restoration work and small projects with about 20 employees.
“Van Dam places a high emphasis on the culture of the company and the cohesion of the crew,” says Jeremy Pearson, head of sales and marketing. “When everyone wants to build the best of the best, you have something special.”
Using a combination of Old-World craftsmanship matched with newer innovations such as CAD technology, the Van Dam team employs the cold-molding process — a room-temperature construction method using thin layers of wood and epoxy adhesives — to build stronger, lighter boats while creating less waste.
“Cold-molding is the best way to ensure our boats will last, and maybe outlive all of us,” Pearson says.
Van Dam is known for its high-quality and unique boats. The team works personally with each client to develop a plan based on the boat’s future home, its intended use, the desired size, and other design foundations.
They then look for inspiration in individual items or features their client finds interesting and attractive. These features can be identified on other boats, in lines of architecture and aircraft, or they can come from parts and pieces like gauge clusters, seating designs, and configurations.
“Our team listens,” Pearson adds. “Then, we brainstorm until a concept develops.”Van Dam’s process creates a one-of-a-kind design for each client, which also results in a high level of exclusivity, since the company won’t build another boat like it unless the original owner gives the company permission to do so.
This means that every time they build a boat, it’s the first time they’ve designed and built almost every component.
“Everything about working with the Van Dam organization was first-rate,” says the owner of the Patrician. “I often tell people of their commitment to excellence, and that they have that beautiful mix of art and engineering.”
Adds the owner of Chocolate Chip 3: “They’re the best place to go with your idea for a dream boat. We were impressed as much with the total experience as we were with the end results. It’s wows on and off the water.”
Van Dam uses a variety of wood types for each project, including yellow cedar, oak, cherry, spruce, maple, and teak. The hulls are created with a combination of yellow cedar and African mahogany, which has a beautiful grain and color.
Woodwork isn’t the company’s only specialty. Adding a CNC machine has given them the ability to create all of their own custom metalwork including cleats, hinges, rails, port lights, and other hardware. The metal shop staff has developed such a high level of skill that other companies request Van Dam’s help with their own custom needs.
Van Dam provides owners with a lifetime warranty against rot and water intrusion. To maintain the warranty, owners must have their boats inspected yearly by Van Dam or someone approved by the company. Many buyers often worry that a new wooden boat will require a lot of care, but the cold-molding process and regular inspections make it easy to spot potential issues, and repairs are often relatively simple.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the amount of maintenance a wood boat needs,” Pearson explains. “Our boats are built much differently than the old Garr Woods and Chris Crafts.”
Van Dam boats are stained and clear-coated with the same products used by Rolls Royce and Bentley. That provides a hard finish that can go long periods without needing much attention. “We try to make it as easy as we can for owners to enjoy their boats,” Pearson says.
After nearly a half-century, Steve and Jean Van Dam decided to retire and sell the company to their son, Ben (president), and his wife, Erica (vice president), thus keeping it in the family and opening the door for new ideas and the vision to continue pushing the company forward.
“I think we’re the best-kept secret in the boating industry,” Pearson says.
Van Dam Custom Boats