Ancient epics endowed vessels with an inherent aesthetic based on worthiness and beauty. Testament to this appreciation of a boat’s individuality has always been the bestowal of a name. A name proudly painted on the stern. But it is the skill of the craftsmen, the creators of the boat that hold it straight and steady in the sea.
As a teenager, Steve Van Dam dreamed of building a boat to sail to far off places. His boat building career started when he sailed a small wood boat on Lake Macatawa not far from his family home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Like many of the area’s Dutch craftsmen whose talent and work ethic made Grand Rapids renowned for furniture, Steve was motivated by self-reliance and a passion to learn. These qualities, complemented by a love of wood and water, were the undercurrents of what Old World masters termed "a calling."
Steve’s hands-on education began by rebuilding a deteriorated 36’ wooden cutter rigged sailboat. The process inspired him to seek professional training from an experienced boat builder. In 1972, he married Jean Hodge of Harbor Springs, Michigan. Jean, an experienced sailor, joined Steve’s quest to learn the wooden boat building business.
The couple lived in Ontario while Steve served as an apprentice to Vic Carpenter, a master craftsman who specialized in building fast, innovative wood sailboats. Steve credits Carpenter for training him as a wood boat builder and for introducing him to the advantages of newer construction techniques and the use of modern adhesives.
"Carpenter was a free thinker and he gave me the opportunity to do more as I sharpened my skills," Steve said. Four years later, the lessons would pay off when Steve and Jean returned to Michigan and set up Van Dam Custom Boats.
Steve’s dream became reality in the woods north of Harbor Springs, just a few miles from Lake Michigan. In 1976, Steve cleared land next to his home and built a small boat building shed. The business now known as Van Dam Custom Boats formally began the following year as Van Dam Wood Craft.
His first jobs were in reconstructing and restoring many notable wood boats. He also built several dinghies. When the business was young, Jean helped support the young family by working in the health field and even completed a graduate degree. "But I always knew Van Dam Wood Craft would succeed," says Jean.
In 1978, Steve received his first large commission to build a 30’ canoe stern sloop designed by Henry Scheel. This commission led to additional contracts from people who realized the young man’s talent. The Van Dam name that underscored each plank became a trademark for excellence in custom wood boat building. As his reputation grew, the need for a larger boat building facility became apparent. The first move was to a commercial park in Harbor Springs, Michigan in 1985.
Six years later, in the spring of 1991, Van Dam Wood Craft relocated to Boyne City, Michigan, a small town nestled on the shore of Lake Charlevoix.
To custom craft the dreams of clients from all over the world, Steve and Jean needed waterfront access and more space. The Van Dams purchased a bankrupt marine development company that included an 80’ X 200’ insulated steel structure, ancillary buildings, and a waterway to Lake Michigan and beyond.
This confluence of opportunity and creativity allowed the Van Dams to attract a talented group of highly skilled boat designers and boat builders who collectively deliver vessels of the highest quality. Steve believes they have been able to build a brand that distinguishes them from others. And he is quick to share the credit. "This didn’t happen by myself," says Steve who attributes several key employees as major contributors to their success.
Van Dam Custom Boats completes two to four custom wooden boats a year, depending on size. Each is unique. The initial phase begins with client consultations concerning boat design, style, and performance.
"Our clients are assured that they will be getting individual attention and a superior boat. We inform and educate on how we build our boats and how we support and maintain each boat after it is finished," says Steve. Clients are part of the project and are apprised of the boat’s progress from start to finish. "A successful boat is one that the customer is happy with." A photo album documenting each part of the building phase is presented to every owner upon the boat’s completion.
Steve and Jean’s son, Ben Van Dam, N.A., who began his Van Dam Custom Boats apprenticeship as a young teen, is now a graduate of University of Michigan’s naval engineering school. Ben’s hands-on learning coupled with a formal education adds dimension to the family enterprise. Daughter Brie, also a graduate of U of M’s engineering school, has spent several summers working in the shop, but is now pursuing her own interests.
Just as Steve acquired skills and learned from master craftsmen, he encourages his employees to do the same. The Van Dams have created a 4-year apprentice program for employees.
With a naval architect and a design engineer on staff, the company has the ability to create a world-class custom boat or yacht regardless of its size or complexity. State-of-the-art computer aided design programs are incorporated throughout the planning and building process. Metal fabrication and mechanical systems are accomplished on site. "We make our own parts and pieces—everything from metal hardware to complex electrical systems," says Steve.
"We’re comfortable with a myriad of mechanical systems, whether they be sophisticated diesel or high performance gas engines." A crew of 10 to 12 skilled boat builders is divided into smaller teams for each project and utilizes the finest materials to build the boats and the latest technology for each mechanical system. Whether designed and built or restored by Steve and his talented crew, each custom craft becomes part of the Van Dam family.
When classic wood boat designs are incorporated with highly evolved engineering, the finished product is strong, beautiful, and singular. Every Van Dam custom wooden boat is different; one might be technically sophisticated, another salty, but each fulfills a vision.