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Van Dam Custom Boats: CAD/CAM Programs Metal Parts for Custom Wooden Boats

By CNC Software Inc. Press Release
The Susan C 38′ sport cruiser is one of Van Dam Custom Boats’ wooden models. It benefits from CNC metal component manufacturing using Mastercam CAD/CAM programming on a Haas VF-4 VMC. (All images provided by Van Dam Custom Boats)

In the heart of the Great Lakes region, the Van Dam family business is carrying on the timeless tradition of wooden boatbuilding, incorporating the latest techniques for manufacturing attractive and functional metal fixtures and components. Steve Van Dam’s desire to sail around the world in a boat he built himself introduced him to the craft of wooden boatmaking.

After apprenticing for the visionary Vic Carpenter for four years, he founded Van Dam Boats in 1977 with his wife Jean. Thirteen years later, Van Dam, his brother, and a handful of investors moved Van Dam Custom Boats to Boyne City, Mich. The new location had waterfront access, a new market, and room to grow that “started the growth trajectory that we’re on today,” said his son Ben, a naval architect and current company president.

Location was not the deciding factor in Van Dam Custom Boats’ success, though. The elder Van Dam’s passion for excellence quickly attracted likeminded designers and craftsmen. “He’s always wanted to do this better than anybody else, and he hired a group of people that also want to do that same thing,” Ben Van Dam explained. “These guys like to be constantly challenged, finding no joy in doing the same thing twice. That is who we are to our core anyway.”

The combined ingenuity of such a group has made the complete in-house construction of these wooden boats possible, Ben Van Dam said. “We do everything from the actual hull construction to the electrical rigging systems, all the interior cabinets, everything. Metal components, too. Only the upholstery and engine building are outsourced.”

Although Steve Van Dam’s training was in woodworking, he understood the value of being able to make custom metal fixtures. He turned to Jesse “Jess” Brown to run Van Dam Custom Boats’ machining operation. Brown was already an experienced boat builder, with East Coast boatbuilding school and Van Dam Custom Boats’ four-year, 8,000-hour apprenticeship under his belt. He quickly adapted to machining. “A lot of people can understand the art behind something or understand the engineering behind something, but there are very few guys that can do both the art and the engineering,” Ben Van Dam said of Brown.

At Van Dam Custom Boats, Jess Brown programmed custom port lights for the 44’ Italmas Cruising Sailing Yacht using Mastercam’s Solids and Model Prep features to create the solid model from scratch. Model Prep allows programmers to move, delete or suppress any and all parts of the model as they work.

“Jess started with us in 2003,” he recalled. “He had a drill press, a disc sander, an old Atlas lathe and a crappy old welder. We were doing some nice, unique work with those really basic tools.” However, the company decided to give automated machining a try. “For us, it’s all about being able to make as much ourselves as we possibly can. We try to make sure that we’re not limited by something we can buy off the shelf. The software gives us that freedom.”

The decision to switch to CNC was easy for Van Dam Custom Boats. They talked to a number of different machine shops, and the overwhelming advice they got was, “don’t shop around; go buy a Haas, then go buy Mastercam, and you’ll be all set.” The team bought a Haas VF4 and Mastercam CAD/CAM software from CNC Software Inc., Tolland, Conn., and never looked back.

Almost immediately, Van Dam Custom Boats was impressed by how much faster production went with the CNC software, but Ben Van Dam admitted that speed wasn’t the primary concern.

“Certainly, when you compare even simple brackets, you can whip them out a lot faster on the CNC than we ever could on the Bridgeport,” he explained. “But our mission is to build the world’s finest wooden boats. The software’s given us more freedom to be creative, and I think that’s what’s important to us. Not necessarily that we’re able to cut ten parts when we used to be able to cut one. It’s how we can draw a very artistic shape which we could never really do before.”

To optimize metal removal rates for transom-hung sail boat rudders, Van Dam Custom Boats switched from large inset cutters to solid-carbide end mills and employed a radial chip thinning strategy that makes use of the entire flute length.

Among the components that Van Dam Custom Boats machines in-house are cleats, gauge displays, mast mounts, exhaust tips, and switch panels. Aesthetics, durability, and efficiency often war with each other, but the Van Dam team has come to rely on Mastercam’s adaptability. “We have more control of the end result. We have a higher quality product, a more custom product, more tailor-made,” said Ben Van Dam.

The CAM software makes even the most challenging cuts simpler. Figuring out how to hold small parts, like mast bushings that measure 1″ (25.4 mm) in diameter, proved to be difficult, but luckily, the company has solid support from Mastercam Reseller Axsys Inc., Wixom, Mich., whenever there is a problem. Nearly every representative at Axsys has programming and machining experience, meaning issues get resolved just as quickly as they arise. Van Dam Custom Boats had representatives from Axsys perform on-site training initially, but now Brown and Ben Van Dam go to Axsys’ headquarters to stay current with the newest updates.

One of the software features that Brown uses most often is Model Prep. The solid modeling technology allows design and simulation to happen simultaneously, streamlining the production process. One of Van Dam Custom Boats’ current projects, a sailboat, has specific port lights. Even the best port lights on the market didn’t meet the company’s standards, though, so it was decided they would be produced in-house.

“We started out with a quick mapping sketch of how we thought we could make it better,” said Ben Van Dam. “Jess took it and did the solid modeling. We brainstormed how the hinge was going to work, how the latching mechanism was going to work, how the seal was going to work, and he did all that modeling in Mastercam.”

Model Prep allows programmers to move, delete or suppress any and all parts of the model as they work. They can push or pull faces and edges to add clearance or stock, translate and rotate the 3D model, split the model into multiple faces, combine faces to simplify the simulation, and align faces to pre-existing planes. All these options are offered on a clear, intuitive display that eliminates toggling between screens. The entire process took a fraction of the time it would have without the software, and allowed even more creativity.

Jess Brown used flowline and drill/counterbore high-speed toolpaths and OptiRough toolpaths to machine the complex geometries featuring holes of differing sizes, contours and other tight corners of this gooseneck swivel connection. It connects the boom to the mast of the Italmas Sailing Yacht.

Brown also depends on Dynamic Motion technology, which maximizes cutting efficiency by using proprietary algorithms to monitor changes in the material as it is being machined. Because the tool is constantly engaged with the material, air cuts and tool breakage are virtually eliminated. Cycle times can be reduced by as much as 75 percent, and the material remains perfectly safe. “A big thing for us is finding anything we can do to make a better finish, because the hand work that follows that up is very intensive,” Ben Van Dam said. “That’s where we’re using Dynamic toolpaths the most; roughing the material quickly and having surface finishes that help us get that polish faster.”

Joel Bartell, account manager at Axsys, recalled assisting Ben Van Dam and Brown through one particular issue with machining rudders out of 316L stainless steel. Having heard of the extreme cutting speeds that can be achieved with OptiRough toolpaths, the team at Van Dam Custom Boats was disappointed when the metal removal rates fell below expectations at first. Bartell quickly solved the problem.

“The stack up of tolerances over the complete length was giving enough runout to prevent the desired removal rate,” Bartell explained. He recommended shortening the toolholder and switching to a centering collet. The results were immediate. “Once the runout on the tool was removed, the chips were so heavy that they had to be removed with a garden hose hooked up to the coolant tank.”

For more information from Mastercam-CNC Software Inc., go to or phone 860-875-5006.

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