The tiny Michigan yard that builds world-class wooden vessels.
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Two Of A Kind

The Van Dam family has been building custom wooden boats their way for over 40 years, proving that passion can in fact be passed on.

It’s been said that you can tell a lot about a man by his handshake. That was certainly true when I met Ben Van Dam for the first time. Vice grip hand strength and calloused palms only begin to tell the story of a man who was raised in his father’s Michigan boatyard. From the time he could walk, frames and skeletons of wooden boats were his playground, messing with tools under the watchful eye of his father his earliest education.

“I had him here with me since he was this tall,” laughs Steve Van Dam, (a “young 68”) as he gestures to knee height. “I’d show him things and have him drill some holes with the press. He grew up here.”

Ben, 36, has been the president of Van Dam Custom Boats—a company his father and mother, Jean, started 41 years prior—for two years now. He can’t stay and chat long; his company is in the finishing stages of building a 44-foot sailboat and it’s all hands on deck. At the time of our visit there was still a lot of work to be done before their deadline; Ben moves about the shop with purposeful calm.

Steve’s humor is warm and often self-deprecating. “I have more time to give tours and talk to people in my new role now that Ben took over,” he says with a smile. “But I still swing a brush from time to time.”

“Yeah, he swings it at us,” Ben replies with a laugh.

To date, Steve and the Michigan-based Van Dam Custom Boats have built nearly 60 fully custom wooden boats.

When I mentioned to Power & Motoryacht Inside Angle columnist and yacht designer Bill Prince that I was planning a visit to the Van Dam yard, he assured me that I wouldn’t be disappointed and said that they “build the prettiest wooden boats in the world.” Prince may be biased—he’s currently designing a runabout with them—but his opinion is well founded. Boats like Alpha Z, a 33-foot, 100-plus-mph speedster designed in collaboration with Michael Peters, has garnered international attention.

Jesse Brown is the magician behind the metalwork aboard Catnip.

Jesse Brown is the magician behind the metalwork aboard Catnip.

The best example of the craftsmanship his team is capable of is perhaps the 30-foot runabout Catnip, which lay inside a covered trailer that was about to begin a trip back to its owner. Despite being inside a trailer that was inside a garage lit with fluorescent lights, it was clear that the team at Van Dam are artisans in the truest sense of the word. The woodwork appears to be painted on. And what I believe to be polished chrome shines to a finish that would put most, well, mirrors to shame. I say as much. “That’s actually polished stainless,” says Steve as I watch my jaw drop in the reflection of the aft end of the boat. “We do almost all the metal work here.”

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The man behind most of the metal work and design on Catnip is a craftsman named Jesse Brown who is 40. Brown’s parents are both artists, a talent that he seems to have inherited in spades. He shows us some parts he’s finishing that look like they belong in a Zales showroom, not a shop with sawdust blowing across the floor.

Brown began his time at Van Dam as a carpenter and was heading down that path until Steve learned that he could weld, and “weld better than I could.” His progression with the company is something Steve is proud of. It’s painted on his face.

Just before wrapping up our short tour and saying our goodbyes, I ask Steve what his secret is. How is he able to keep an employee like Jesse engaged for 14 years, or pass on his passion for wooden boatbuilding to his son who seamlessly picked up the family torch?

The only thing Van Dam doesn’t build are motors, but they’ve considered entering that market too.

The only thing Van Dam doesn’t build are motors, but they’ve considered entering that market too.

He opens up a worn leather wallet. “It’s all about creating a culture,” he says. Next to some crumpled bills and cards is a folded leaflet. He pulls out a 37-point list and hands it to me. “This is what our culture is about. Now, we plagiarized some of it, but this is what we try to work toward. Like this first one: Practice continuous improvement everyday, all day.”

When times are busy, Steve says he takes a couple minutes out of every morning, gathers the troops and reads one of the bullet points from his company’s creed and they discuss the topic. “It doesn’t take long, just a few minutes, but it reminds us to do things right.”

A preliminary mock-up of the Bill Prince-designed runabout.

A preliminary mock-up of the Bill Prince-designed runabout.

He disappears into his office and returns with a crisp new copy of the one he keeps in his wallet and offers it to me.

“We’re not perfect. If you ask us, we’ve never built a perfect boat—but that’s what we aim for. If you’re going to do something, why not try and be the best? Why settle for mediocrity?”

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This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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