Material Guy

Canvas is not the only thing this inventive entrepreneur wields

by Heleigh Bostwick

canvas0412Robert Dennis Carman began working in the upholstery business right out of high school, but the winding path to opening Vermont Custom Canvas & Upholstery in Milton took a few turns.

By 1964, when Robert Dennis Carman (he goes by Dennis) arrived in Vermont to finish out his senior year at Bellows Free Academy, he’d already attended 17 schools.

“My dad worked for the U.S. government and was assigned to posts all over the world, and my mother was an interpreter who spoke seven languages,” says Carman, who was born in Lisbon, Portugal, and himself speaks Spanish and German and is learning Chinese. “When my parents were sent to Mexico I came here to live with my uncle in St. Albans.”

The summer after graduating from BFA, Carman, now the owner of Vermont Custom Canvas & Upholstery on the Georgia Shore Road in Milton, took a job at a small upholstery shop half a block away from where he was living.

“The place was called E&H Upholstery and my gross pay for 60 hours of work was $35 — the take-home pay was $29 and change, and I was paid in cash,” recalls Carman. He worked there about a year before finding a better paying job at Union Carbide. “With the money I made from that job, I bought a white Honda 150cc and drove it to Guaymas, Mexico, to visit my parents.” He still has that motorcycle.

After returning to St. Albans, Carman took another job at Union Carbide and began working part time at E&H Upholstery again. His goal, he says, was to save up enough money for college and to buy a car. Two years later, Carman left Union Carbide and enrolled at the University of Vermont. He continued working part time at the upholstery shop, and graduated in 1971 with a forestry degree.

“In the early ’70s jobs were scarce, so a friend and I decided to open up our own upholstery shop,” says Carman. “E&H had changed hands so we saw an opening.”

The business, Colonial Upholstery, was short-lived, however. The partnership didn’t work out, and a year later Carman went to work for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) doing research on sugaring here in Vermont. “I worked that job for two years and then took another job with the USFS surveying Vermont forests,” he says.

In 1973 Carman started the small upholstery business that would eventually become Vermont Custom Canvas & Upholstery. “It was just me and one other employee and all we did was furniture.”

That was about to change, though. In 1975, Carman relocated his business next to a convenience store down by the dock on St Albans Bay. “People would go in to buy coffee and supplies or whatever and stop by my shop to ask me about making a boat top,” he recalls. “After that, people would see me working on the boats outside and word got around.”

Although he continued doing upholstery work, before he knew it, most of his customers were boat owners who wanted canvas covers for their boat tops or winter covers for their boats,

Despite being self-taught and learning the marine canvas trade through trial and error, Carman has a rare skill, thanks to his upholstery background, which allows him to think of angles that others might not consider doing. That kind of innovation and creativity has paid off for him.

Ron Thorne, an avid fisherman who works in the seafood department at Price Chopper, thought Carman’s solution to his fishing boat cover needs was so innovative that the two eventually formed a business partnership making and selling Lure Lockers. These are 20- by 20-inch canvas panels that allow quick access to fishing lures rather than having to dig around in a tackle box.

Says Thorne, “I met Dennis last year when I bought a new boat and was looking to have a canvas made for it. I fish almost all year-round, and I wanted the cover to be sealed to the boat. He came up with the idea of using weather stripping.”

Another example of Carman’s creativity can be seen in what he refers to as the “wide walk-through” design for a boat cover, which, he says, “completely changes the look when you’re inside the boat.

“I’ve been doing them for at least 20-25 years and no one else seems to be doing them. People, almost without exception, like the idea when I explain the wide walk-through to them.”

Although sewing machines haven’t changed over the years, Carman says fabrics and thread have definitely changed. “I’ve always used polyester thread because of its durability and strength, but now it has water-repellent coatings and UV coatings.”

As for fabrics, Carman says he was probably one of the first to use acrylic canvas on the boat top. “I had a customer that wanted a red top, but the only red available was Sunbrella, an acrylic fabric.”

Carman is also known for his geometric and striped patterns, which require putting together multiple panels versus just a single color panel of fabric. “I started doing the geometric designs with the Baja boats at Bevins Marine in Montpelier. I’d choose colors that pick up the colors in the boats,” he says.

He’s even made covers with gold binding and built-in clear plastic windshields. One of his custom canvas projects incorporated 23 pieces of canvas stitched together in such a way as to prevent wrinkling. He won an award for that one, he says, adding that, in truth, he’s won an award from the Northeast Canvas Products Association for every project he’s ever entered into one of its competitions.

Another of his claims to fame is a fishing boat cover he made in 1994 for the then-editor of Outdoor Life, who liked it so much he put a picture of it in one of the magazine’s issues. He remembers his phone’s ringing off the hook soon after. “I got about 600 phone calls because of that one photo,” he says with a chuckle. “I could have started a business just going from place to place doing this.”

He’s been married to his current wife, Lili, for two years, although for part of that time they have been apart while dealing with family immigration issues. She’s a former accountant who grew up in China and helps out with the accounts.

Carman has four grown children from a previous marriage: Loren, Stacy, Jeremiah, and Whitney. His youngest is the only one of his children to follow in his footsteps. “When I was young, my dad would pick me up from school and I would go to the marinas with him,” says Whitney.

After she graduated from high school in 2005, she started working with her dad while taking classes at Community College of Vermont, where she obtained an associate’s degree in liberal arts in 2010. “I started out learning the sewing part and then the next year I was able to do entire projects start to finish.”

By the third year, she had decided it was time to start her own business, which she calls Savage Point Canvas & Upholstery. Although her business is a separate entity, she and her dad share a workspace and often collaborate on projects, whether it’s boat upholstery or covers.

Whitney’s planning to change the name to Canvas Girl in 2013, because, as she explains, “When I go to Ladd’s Landing Marina in Grand Isle, people ask me if I’m the canvas girl. When people are looking for me they’ll ask, ‘Hey, are you the canvas girl?’ ‘Where’s the canvas girl?’”

When he’s not working with canvas, Carman finds time to play the ukulele, a habit he picked up as a high school student living in Hawaii. He also enjoys rebuilding and restoring old, beat-up ukuleles he finds on eBay.

In the winter he and Whitney like to float on the ice. “Sometimes we’re a little bit crazy like that,” he says. In summer, they participate in handgun competitions held once a month at the local gun club. “I taught Whitney how to shoot and now she’s my competition,” he says with a laugh.

While most of Carman’s business these days revolves around boats, he also makes time for other projects such as interior car door panels, like the one on the ’55 Chevy he’s working on, or convertible tops for cars. Carman also makes the log carriers sold at the Vermont Country Store, something he’s been doing since 1980. He puts his forestry experience to work running the 125 taps in his small sugarbush.

Then there’s his new venture, Lure Lockers. As for the economy, he says, “How much money I make depends on how much I want to do.”

Carman doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon. “My grandfather used to make amazing hinged sewing boxes out of fancy woods after he retired,” he says.

This is my retirement business.” •