View Full Version : Making sails

Old Salt
01-16-2003, 04:22 PM
Has anyone here gone down the path of buying a sailrite sewing machine and learning how to make your own sails? I intend on always building small boats and sails seem to be a common denominator. Besides the ability to make covers, dodgers and all sorts of neat accessories.

Now for the big question...what is the learning curve like? Will you end up with professional quality and looking sails or will they look like they were home made? Do the kits include tutorials or instructions? Would it be feisable to make sails for others or is there a big difference between a backyard loft and a professional with years of experience???

Reality check please!

Ian McColgin
01-16-2003, 04:51 PM
Not a sailrite - I happened in to an excellent commercial machine but will get a sailrite before heading off off and away.

And I didn't work from kits - had a very tolorant sailmaker to instruct me.

Even in the best of circumstances, I'm a slob, not a craftsman. If I can make sails that look and work well, anyone can.

It will also absolutely convince you that sailmakers are not overpaid!! A good, if humbling, experience.

Bob Cleek
01-16-2003, 05:02 PM
You must not be THAT old a salt or you'd have been there and done this by now. LOL... Sailrite are good people and they make good products. I have a British Read's Sailmaker sewing machine, which is no longer produced. Sailrite used to carry them and still provides parts and service. Sailrite is now marketing a model that is nearly identical to the classic Read's, but probably made in Taiwan or the like.

First off, the short answer is NO... there is no comparison between professionally cut and built sails and ones you make at home... unless you are a sailmaker to begin with. It's the cut and fit that separates the fly**** from the pepper. Sailrite will sell you kits that come close, but not really. I've had a couple of buddies make them... they were adequate, after a whole lot of work went into them, but in both instances, they ended up sending them off to the local loft for recutting and fitting! Not much of a savings when you consider the time that went into them. Besides, if you botch up a homemade sail, you can't play hell with the loft until they get it just right. A homemade sail is fine, however, if you are wanting something for a small boat or dinghy and aren't really worried about how well it performs. Don't think your 505 or Fireball is going to stand up against the competition with a sail you ran up on the wife's Singer, though!

Also, to properly work canvas ("Sunbrella" etc) or dacron sail cloth, you really do have to have a decent sewing machine. This means 1) an industrial machine like the lofts use ($800+ used), 2) a "mini" industrial machine like the Read's or Sailrite's sailmaking models (Which are just as pricy, but worth it when you consider that some are 120VAC/12VDC/Manual and are made to be used aboard and taken cruising, or 3) a DAMN good, top of the line heavy sewing machine like maybe one of the Berninas or whatever. Zig zag is an essential if you are working the new synthetic fabrics (i.e. not cotton or flax). The requirement is a machine that will FEED a thick heavy fabric. It is not as much of a problem getting needle to punch through a stack of 8 ounce dacron clew, but its the foot and feed mechanism that has to be able to hold it tight and move it evenly under the needle. This requires a HEAVILY built machine, not one with a pot metal frame and plastic bearings, if ya get the drift. That costs money. You will also, of course, have to learn how to maintain the machine. More so than any other machine I've ever used, a good sewing machine really requires frequent maintenance and adjustment while you are using it... so sending it to the shop isn't an option unless the problem is life threatening!

A decent sailmaking machine is a real luxury that you will enjoy. A funky one will be nothing but grief. (If you've ever used a sewing machine, you know what I mean.) For keeping sails repaired and for doing canvaswork it is just the ticket. For MAKING sails, I'd say, your money is better spent leaving that to the pros. Do it right, do it once, hire a licensed contractor.

01-16-2003, 05:03 PM
I bought the cheapest sewing machine that zig zagged that I could find, a White, when I started making sails. Not recommending it but it worked okay. It sewed through all the layers necessary after consulting with sailrite a time or two. Their support was great. No way a White can compare with the ones they sell however.


Well, bummer. I wrote the above while Bob was posting his. Don't mean to be contrary and I sure as the world did not make professional style sails on my store bought White but, but,.... Yeah, what Todd said below. But five years to learn hand stitching? Would you believe 3.66?

[ 01-16-2003, 08:54 PM: Message edited by: NormMessinger ]

Todd Bradshaw
01-16-2003, 06:50 PM
I actually sort of started off that way. I bought a Sailrite machine in '79 or '80 which I'm still using today. I have another machine that I use these days for spinnakers, but the Sailrite does most of the work. You will pay more for it than you might if you find a used machine, but you will have somebody readily available who can answer questions and solve problems which is worth every extra penny and more. As with any tool, there is a learning curve and it isn't always without a hitch here and there, so you need somebody who can assist you and who knows your machine cold.

The actual assembly of a sail isn't very hard. Since every single stitch is right out there on the top though, assembling one as neatly as a pro is another story but most beginners can end up with a decent looking and quite reasonable sail. Your stitch lines may not be as straight, but they will work fine anyway as you hone your skills.

It's hand sewing (rings, roping etc.) that takes a lot of practice. If you plan on any hand sewing, figure that you can get it sturdy and workable right off the bat, but it will take about five years of practice before it starts to take on that professionally-sewn look.

The part of sailmaking that really is difficult is designing them and getting the shape right. It is a learning process that never ends. I will strongly disagree with Bob on the value and quality of kits though. Sailrite uses the same high-end grade of plotter ($100,000 +)that only the big boys can afford and much of the same design software. They are far better equipped to plot and design a good sail than your average loft. Like anything with computers, the outcome is only as good as what data is put in in the first place, some of which is usually generated by the boat owner and done through mail order, so who knows what happened. I'm surprised that they chose to have somebody re-cut them when they come with a guarantee which would have taken care of problems. It is true that if you are class racing and want state of the art sails for a particular boat, tweaked to perfection, there are probably better sources for them.

Class racing sails come and go. One brand is hot for a while and then somebody else comes up with something faster and they become the hot item. It's mostly a matter of tweaking existing designs for a particular rig or way of setting up the boat. Sailrite's sails will be more generic in application and may not always reflect the latest developments for every particular class of boats. On the other hand, don't think for a minute that the pro sails are always going to be better built, better reinforced or stronger. I've spent better than 20 years fixing sails with high-powered labels on them and the one phrase that I've probably uttered most is "These Idiots should have known that this would fall apart!!!"

The nice thing about kits is that the computer does the design part for you. You become the assembler, rather than both designer and assembler. The shape is there before you even start and their plotter is extremely accurate so there aren't many surprises. I started out by building a few kits and later rented time on Sailrite's plotter when I was building Kevlar radials and other modern sails that really can't be lofted out traditionally. I'd tell them how I wanted the paneling done, which fabrics where, how much draft and where to put it, how many battens and how they were to be arranged etc. Then I'd send them a roll of fabric and they would plug the specs into the computer and send me perfectly cut pieces. Never had a problem.

Get copies of Marino's "The Sailmaker's Apprentice" and Jim Grant's (the head honcho at Sailrite) "The Complete Canvas Worker's Guide" and his series of small books on making the different types of sails "The Sailmaker's Library". You won't need any other books on the subject for several years and they will give you a good idea of what you are in for before you buy a sewing machine.

To build sails for others you pretty well need to get to the state where you are doing all the design work yourself. Combining the price of buying a kit and your labor to assemble it for someone, you would never feel like you were breaking even. Renting plotter time may run you $4-$5 per yard of fabric (in addition to what you actually paid for the cloth in the first place) which also really eats-up your share fast. For it to be worthwhile, you need to find a niche where you can do all the work yourself - something that most of the big lofts either can't or won't do, and get really good at it. There is money to be had fairly easily in the sail repair business if you have enough local sailors. There isn't a lot of design theory involved in most of it, just common sense and you can take a yard of fabric and make it go a long way. Not much to get your creative juices flowing though. It gets pretty tedious after a while and you spend a lot of time yelling about idiots.

Ian McColgin
01-17-2003, 11:10 AM
Echoe what Todd says. Especially the kit if you don't have a sailmaker friend. If you do, however, it is a gas to watch and learn the old way.

Grans' foresail came out very nicely once I corrected the inaccurate way I did the luff slides.

My mentor has a lank string which he used to determine both the point of greatest draft and the subtle curve for the actual seams. Quite a kick watching him give the string a twitch and then squint form both directions and tweak it again.

Like watching Capt Pete Culler carve and then build from a half model.

I had tried to do all that for a sail I made back in the 70's but with no guiding hand over me. Came out looking like the butt end of a hippotomous with a bad case of cellulite. . .

Speaking of which - about 90% of a good job is feed into the machine. Depending on the seam, double side tape or staples may be the best to start but it takes plain practice to get the pull on each layer of fabric to be right.

I made my sails out of Oceanus, which I like. To my surprise, I did a better job than a local loft did on a friend's oceanus staysail - He just hadn't taken the time to realize how stretchy the stuff is on a bias and he got a pucker in some seams.

On the otherhand, for no apparant reason except that I was thinking backwards, I stressed the tape and not the raw leach on my jib, so the first version came out cupped. Bummer. But nothing that a little stitch ripping and resewing could not handle.

(For Todd: I faked it by splittng and patching at the center rather than rip out the peak and clew patches. The things you can do on your own work that would never pass muster for a pro . . .)

[ 01-17-2003, 11:16 AM: Message edited by: Ian McColgin ]

01-17-2003, 12:33 PM
The one Sailrite kit we made seems ok, but I know next to nothing about go-fast sail shape. Our basic Singer did so-so, but I'd not recommend it even for home work.
To my mind the Sailrite machine is a tool and decent tools are a Good Thing. If you or your SWMBO do any kind of sewing w/ a machine it's worth buying their walking foot zig-zagger even if it doesn't make tapestries all by itself :rolleyes:

[ 01-17-2003, 12:36 PM: Message edited by: TomRobb ]

Todd Bradshaw
01-17-2003, 12:45 PM
Hey, as long as it works you won't hear me complaining. The pros aren' necessarily immune to such stuff. I once had a brand new asymmetrical spinnaker come in which a boat dealer had just had custom built for his Melges 24 at one of the better known Midwestern lofts for racing sails. This was a pretty expensive sail and he said it had a really severe hook in the leech and wanted me to take a look at it.

As it turned out, the employee who trimmed it out did a very neat job, but was a little short on sailmaking theory. Somehow, they had cut the little Dacron strip that binds the raw leech edge about 18" shorter than the edge. They had managed to get in on OK, carefully easing the fullness all along as if putting a sleeve into a shirt. The only problem was that what's good on a shirt seldom works very well on a spinnaker and it was as if somebody had pulled 18" of leech line out and permanently cleated it off. I wound up removing it and re-taping the edge and the hook disappeared. The rest of the sail was fine, somebody just measured wrong and the person doing the sewing went ahead and made it fit.

I remember when I was just starting to do repair work in the early '80's and working in a very small space a guy brought in a main for a Venture 25 or something similar and wanted a reef put in. We spread the sail out, outside on the lawn, and decided how much we wanted to reef-out. It's normal to kick the tail end of a reef line up a few inches for boom clearance, both from the skipper's head and from the water if the boat is heeling a lot in a blow while reaching, so we figured the amounts, raised the clew end about 8" and I made a couple pencil ticks at the luff and leech where the new reef tack and clew would be. Then I took it inside to work on it.

I sewed on all the little middle patches, took the luff and leech apart to get the new corner patches under the luff tape and leech hem and then spent about three hours hand-sewing big rings at the ends and little rings between them. I seized off the boltrope, put in a mid-run leechline cleat and managed to get it folded and back in the bag.

A couple days later, the guy came to get it, and just when I was about ready to collect my $140, we unrolled it on the lawn so that he could see it.... Well....somehow, sometime, somewhere, somebody had already put a little pencil tick on the leech - about 25 inches above the one that I had put there to mark the new reef clew. The sail now had a rather curious "sky-reef" which was going to be great for boom-to-sailors-head clearance in the back of the cockpit or for onboard parties, but lousy for sailing. As I remember, I ended up replacing the panel and putting in a new reef for free. Oh well, I didn't get my $140 but he got a free reef line and I learned to always double-check before getting out the seam ripper.

01-17-2003, 12:50 PM
I may have run into an unusual situarion, but when I needed a 15 sq ft mizzen, the Sailrite kit quote was more than a completed sail from a man who specializes in traditional type sails.

Old Salt
01-17-2003, 02:18 PM
Seems as with most questions come answers to just about any outcome you could imagine. I appreciate all that took the time to comment. Still undecided.

I have a possible opportunity to get use of a walking foot machine that doesnt do zig zag. Would this be of any use to do a couple small projects to get a feel for if this is something I am willing to invest in? Could some small boat sails be made without zig zag stitching...like 70 to 90 SF sails.

Ian McColgin
01-17-2003, 02:33 PM
A walking foot is the nuts. Very nice with heavy and modern materials.

The traditional zigzag has several purposes. It's less likely to break or constrict the cloth's natural stretch on a seam. It also lays down nicely on the edge of the seam.

Both of these purposes are mostly vestigial in modern fabrics, especially in smaller sails. The material is not going to stretch and the modern threads are strong.

The other advantage of the zigzag is that you get more holes per running foot of seam without having them so closely spaced that they will cause a weak line in the fabric where a seam tear can start.

Perhaps to obviate this, I've seen some sails that have stitching running down the seam from one side to another with a series of straight stitches formed inot a zigzag pattern that takes an inch and a half or so from peak to peak.

Close stitch spacing makes for a stronger seam so long as you don't damage the fabric, but modern stuff, especially if you tape the seams anyway, is so strong I doubt this would get too critical.

Thing is, the proper zigzag stitch looks right.

Todd Bradshaw
01-17-2003, 02:45 PM
That's due to the way they have their kit pricing set up. When you buy a kit, you're buying the materials (at a pretty good price, compared to full retail) along with the instructions and the computer design and plotting of the kit's pieces. As I remember from when I last talked to Jim Grant, the plotting (entering the numbers, designing the sail and then actually cutting out the panels) was a fixed rate of something around $75 per sail. This pays for all that expensive equipment and the labor time to run it.

When you get down to a sail that small, having only a couple yards of fabric in it, the plotting fee becomes the major part of the price. If your local sailmaker does his own design work and either plotting or lofting on the floor, he may very well be able to build you a finished sail that will beat the kit price. At some point, there will be a cross-over. Random guess maybe 40 sq. ft. or so (could be less, but I doubt it's more) where the kit price starts to come out lower and it continues to decend as the sail gets bigger. At a typical price of around $6-$7.50 per square foot for finished sails, it doesn't take much extra sail area to cover the plotting fee and get the price structure in order.

The sail that I was checking on was a very small spinnaker. I can, and have lofted them out on the floor, but it takes about two tedious days of work to figure out and draw all the panels and their curved edges, which need to come together to make a smooth spherical shape. In a case like that, it's a bargain to just have a kit punched out and spend an afternoon putting it together. For a more simple, pretty flat cut, like a tiny mizzen, it's hardly worth the money to use the computer, as you found out.

[ 01-17-2003, 02:45 PM: Message edited by: Todd Bradshaw ]

01-17-2003, 03:35 PM
Talk to Sailrite about the need for zigzag. On the size sail I was considering, <75 sq.ft. I was told zig zag is better but not necessary.

The high end tools are better for any job, sawing, welding, pulling nose hair, sewing. But, it doesn't mean you cannot do an acceptible job with less.

Todd Bradshaw
01-17-2003, 03:37 PM
A straight stitch machine will do fine on canvas work. Straight stitches are less prone to getting snagged and I think they often make crisper-looking seams. For synthetics like Sunbrella, you need a long (4mm-6mm) stitch. This is because most synthetic canvas "needle-puckers" a fair bit. The needle, passing through the cloth pulls fibers and effectively "shrinks" the length of the seam. If you cut a strip of Sunbrella about 10' long, fold it lengthwise and sew a single line of stitching down the side, making a tube, the sewn side will end-up being about 4" shorter. Long stitches help keep the needle puckering to a reasonable minimum and with sturdy thread (V-69 or V-92) strength isn't a problem.

You can also build sails with a straight stitch, though it's not ideal. You run a line of stitching down either side of the overlapping seam. It's pretty hard though, to get it to look good since any irregularity in your feeding and stitching shows-up like a sore thumb. Zig-zag looks cleaner and as Ian mentioned, it spreads out the holes for more strength. If you straight-stitch Dacron, I would again suggest a fairly long stitch. It is an extremely uniform material and a line of closely spaced holes makes a perforation that just sort of says "tear hear".

A lot of home machines now come with what's called a 2-step or 3-step cam, as do some of the big industrial sailmaking machines. This is the stitch Ian mentioned which is effectively one big zig-zag pattern spanning the entire seam overlap, yet each zig or zag in actually made from several angled straight stitches (two on a 2-step, three on a 3-step). Most production sails these days are built with 3-step stitching on all of the panel seams and may also have it elswhere, like on corner patching.

The 3-step makes a nice flat seam that is quite strong, even though it doesn't tack down the edges of the panels quite as well. The big reason that it is so common is that the seam can be sewn in one pass through the machine, rather than the two passes that a regular, double-stitched zig-zag seam takes. Time is money.

If you could find a small machine with a reasonably wide 2-step or 3-step, you could use it on sails. Unfortunately, a straight stitch machine won't have it because it takes the same components that a zig-zag has to move the needle bar back and forth while it sews.

Old Salt, if you can borrow a straight stitch machine and pick up some fabric, a few basic canvas projects might be worth a try. It might give you at least some idea of what you're in for if you decide to dive-in later. Some folks really enjoy the work, while others rank it just below scraping bottom paint. I'm not sure I'd go after a sail kit with a straight stitch machine though.

Dan McCosh
01-17-2003, 03:44 PM
Lots of years ago, I found a book called "Make your own sails", written just as Dacron was displacing Egyptian cotten. We sewed a gaff-rigged main for a 15-foot dory that not only looked traditional, it worked well. Studied tapered splices, tabling, etc. I also had a dockmate who raced a 40-foot IOR boat successfully for years, who made lots of his own sails. (Not a good example of the average do-it-yourselfer, really--he also was a consultant to Dennis Conner and I once saw him singlehandedly repair a 3-foot hole in a carbon-foam-epoxy hull flawlessly in a couple of days.) Main problem here is that sailmaking is both a skill and awfully competitive, which means most of the cost ends up in the materials, even in professional loft. Sails generally are too good a deal to make your own with any substantial cost savings. That said, if you are so inclined, making them can be as interesting a project as the boat itself.

Dan McCosh
01-17-2003, 03:57 PM
Lots of years ago, I found a book called "Make your own sails", written just as Dacron was displacing Egyptian cotten. We sewed a gaff-rigged main for a 15-foot dory that not only looked traditional, it worked well. Studied tapered splices, tabling, etc. I also had a dockmate who raced a 40-foot IOR boat successfully for years, who made lots of his own sails. (Not a good example of the average do-it-yourselfer, really--he also was a consultant to Dennis Conner and I once saw him singlehandedly repair a 3-foot hole in a carbon-foam-epoxy hull flawlessly in a couple of days.) Main problem here is that sailmaking is both a skill and awfully competitive, which means most of the cost ends up in the materials, even in professional loft. Sails generally are too good a deal to make your own with any substantial cost savings. That said, if you are so inclined, making them can be as interesting a project as the boat itself.

Dan McCosh
01-17-2003, 03:59 PM
Lots of years ago, I found a book called "Make your own sails", written just as Dacron was displacing Egyptian cotten. We sewed a gaff-rigged main for a 15-foot dory that not only looked traditional, it worked well. Studied tapered splices, tabling, etc. I also had a dockmate who raced a 40-foot IOR boat successfully for years, who made lots of his own sails. (Not a good example of the average do-it-yourselfer, really--he also was a consultant to Dennis Conner and I once saw him singlehandedly repair a 3-foot hole in a carbon-foam-epoxy hull flawlessly in a couple of days.) Main problem here is that sailmaking is both a skill and awfully competitive, which means most of the cost ends up in the materials, even in professional loft. Sails generally are too good a deal to make your own with any substantial cost savings. That said, if you are so inclined, making them can be as interesting a project as the boat itself.

Ian McColgin
01-17-2003, 04:18 PM
Back at theology school they taught us the three point sermon:
First you tell 'em what you're gonna say
Then you say it
Then you tell 'em what you said. . .

(Or: I'll delete one of mine if you delete two of yours .

Todd Bradshaw
01-17-2003, 05:24 PM
There are still copies of "Make Your Own Sails" (which is more commonly known in the industry as "Bowker and Budd", who were the authors) floating around in used book stores. It's worth picking up if you see a copy and it will be reasonably cheap. There are at least two versions. The early ones (1957 I think) were just about building cotton sails and remain one of the best sources for that information if you're so inclined. The later revisions also included information on synthetic sail fabrics which were just coming out at the time. Much of that part is now way out of date and not currently of much use.

I'll disagree with Dan a bit about cost breakdown, at least as far as lumping the whole industry into one category. In some cases, he's right. Take a high-tech, Kevlar/mylar or worse, some really exotic PBO/Zylon/ultra-sexy radial-cut, computer-plotted racing sail for example. Some of these fabrics wholesale at $30 per yard and radials waste a lot of fabric which ends-up being unusable, irregular scraps. Plotting is pretty fast and with the right machines, assembly is pretty quick as well. In that case, materials are a major portion of the cost.

On the other hand, the more traditional or the more cruising-oriented the sail's construction is, the more labor costs figure into the equation. Fabrics for these sails are substantially cheaper than exotic laminates (even though they still aren't cheap) but good cruising sails have more reinforcement, reefs, slugs, slides, possibly triple-stitched seams (three lines, not 3-step) and other things to make them last. It takes a lot of time to do some of these things and a computer plotter can't do it for you. Sails like that are a prime opportunity to buy a kit and save maybe 30%-40% as long as you're willing to do the work yourself for free.

Traditional sails are usually slanted even farther toward labor being the big factor. Look at me, these days I only build little, fancy, traditional sails for canoes and dinghies. Right now I'm waiting on a roll of fabric (which is why I seem to have little to do at the moment other than hang out here by the pot-bellied stove and shoot the breeze). When it gets here, I will build a pair of fairly basic, Chinese lugsails for a customer, a 30 sq. ft. main and a 15 sq. ft. mizzen.

Obviously, they will take very little cloth at 45 total square feet, so that part's not going to be very expensive - but it's going to take the better part of a week to build them. Had they been ordered with fancy roped edges and hand-sewn rings, they would take more than a week of crawling around on my knees to make. From my end of the spectrum, it's all labor and whether I use the best materials or the cheapest, it probably wouldn't change the price more than about 5%. Fabric is somewhat like wood though. A good piece of wood is wonderful to work with and a bad piece is annoying as all hell. The same is true of cloth and I see no good reason to ever go with cheap fabric (apologies to all those "Poly-Tarp" sailmakers, but those things are generally damned yooogly)

It may sound like I think everybody should try making their own sails, which isn't the case, but I will always support those who find it interesting and want to try. In the process, they will likely save some money and there is no reason that their sails should be all that inferior (if they even are) to the typical production sail. On the other hand, don't try building sails specifically to save money. By the time you get them done, you will have paid the price.

[ 01-17-2003, 05:24 PM: Message edited by: Todd Bradshaw ]

Peter Jacobs
01-18-2003, 12:01 AM
I've made several decent sails for my Montgomery 17 (a Lyal Hess designed FG boat) using Robert Lainé's Sailcut software (free). He has a web page at http://www.sailcut.com

Like anything else in the "do it yourself" business, the first one is always the hardest, :mad: the second one not quite good enough, :( and the third one just right. tongue.gif And by that time you've spent enough money to buy a ready-made one. But the level of satisfaction just wouldn't be the same.

I think a good machine goes a long way towards making the job easier. That and a nice long room to work in, with long work surfaces in front and behind the machine. I was lucky enough to pick up an old Pfaff 138 zig zag machine that seems to handle dacron quite well.

I built a small storm jib first, then a Genoa, and later a reaching spinnaker. I also have a friendly professional to help with material choices and advice.

The software gives you a printout of x and y coordinates that you use to plot the shape of each panel, ensuring the correct shape for the sail. Mr. Lainé was very helpful with suggestions for the design of the shapes, plus Mariano's book was an invaluable aid, too.

The other most useful item was sail maker’s double backed tape. I glued the whole storm jib together before stitching, but on the Genoa added one panel at a time.

Most of the work is in layout of the panels, then in the finishing of edges and corners. Sewing the panels together goes really fast. I found it helpful to have an old, well made sail beside you for reference.

Old Salt: I was told by my sail maker friend that a straight stitch walking foot machine will work ... you just have to make two passes to make a double row of stitching. It might not look quite as professional, but would work just as well.
I think you should give it a try! It's a great feeling gazing up at your new sail, filled with a breeze and pulling your boat along, knowing you made it yourself. (And who gives a hoot about that little wrinkle by the clew).