Sunbrella: The Classic Choice for a Modern Marine Update

Mike Johnson, owner of Mike’s Marine Custom Canvas, has been working with Sunbrella fabrics for decades, so it’s no surprise that he reached for Sunbrella when updating the enclosure on his personal boat, a 1988 Tollycraft 44’ Cockpit Motor Yacht.

Mike chose the Tollycraft as a fixer upper since he has been working on boats for “about a hundred years,” according to his estimate. He enlisted the help of his son, Dan, using their collective acumen to update the enclosure to be more modern, open, and provide a lot more visibility.


The Tollycraft, a 1988 Tollycraft 44’ Cockpit Motor Yacht, got a streamlined makeover with the help of Sunbrella.


A Modern Look

To achieve a more streamlined and open look and feel, Mike needed to update the fly bridge bimini and enclosure of the boat. Switching out the glass from vinyl to polycarbonate, updating the canvas, and slightly modifying the bimini top was just what the Tollycraft needed. First, Mike changed out the three rectangular windows in the front of the boat to a single, nine-foot window with diagonal lines following the struts, and a flip-up u-zipper opening. “It’s like a giant picture window instead of three windows,” said Mike. He also removed the venturi windshield below the railing so there was only one pane of glass on the bottom to look through instead of two. He then replaced all the lower fasteners with a Costa track and zippers. “It looks like it’s just hanging there but it’s 100% secured and sealed,” Mike noted.

Mike used Sunbrella in Captain Navy for the enclosure, sandwiching the glass between two layers of canvas. “We covered the outside of the window with one sheet of Sunbrella and then we cut the window out and tucked the edges as we sewed it to the glass. The inside is faced with some type of material we can cut out without unraveling,” said Mike.


A single window with diagonal lines provides an updated, open view.


A Rich History

Since 1996, when Mike first opened shop, he’s won more than 60 awards from Marine Fabricator. “We’re also fishermen and we know you’re not going to catch anything if you don’t throw the line in the water,” he philosophized. “If you throw several lines in different directions, you might catch several fish. We only enter jobs we think are worthy of consideration because you do 100 ‘plain janes’ and every once in a while, you get one that’s kind of unusual, and that’s what they’re looking for, the design and the workmanship. Most of our jobs come out, workmanship-wise, really nicely because everybody that works here is meticulous and we care about projects being executed perfectly coming out perfectly.” 

The appreciation for fastidiousness starts at the top. Mike cut his teeth in the United States Marine Corps in 1967, learning to sew safety and survival equipment, like parachutes and ejection seats. “The first two weeks of parachute school was nothing but sewing and sewing machines. That’s how I learned how to sew a straight perfect stitch every single time and that was my introduction to the needle trade.”

After five years serving in the Marines, Mike touched down in Colorado and became a family man, working at Peterson Canvas Company with Chuck Peterson. “We were one of the first companies to do backlit awnings, back in the ‘80’s.” Mike recalled. “Chuck was an artist and a welder and a cowboy and an awning shop owner. He was my teacher and mentor, and it was like going to school with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.” Working at Peterson in the ‘80’s introduced Mike to crazy shapes and creative stitching—and Sunbrella. “I’d never heard of Sunbrella until I got into the awning business,” Mike said. “We were building awnings out of Sunbrella and other types of vinyl fabrics. That’s how I learned about Sunbrella: in the awnings field first and later in the boat industry. We didn’t do as many boats as we did awnings and that’s the only reason why. We always liked the hand, the stiffness, the durability, and the ease of fabrication, the stability. The reputation over the years has continued to grow and expand. It’s almost as old as me.” These benefits, along with UV protection, fade resistance, mold, and mildew resistance, are why Sunbrella marine canvas fabrics have been a trusted choice of boat enthusiasts, marine boat manufacturers, and fabricators around the world for almost 60 years.

Next, Mike ended up working for Mr. Hogshire of Hogshire Industries for nine years, helping him run the shop. “He took me to a bunch of the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) [events] and I started looking at the Marine Fabricator magazine and all these projects from people all over the country. We did boats, awnings, ships… That’s how I cut my teeth, by fabricating awnings and when every boat job that came in, I got to do it.”

When Mike opened Mike’s Marine Custom Canvas, he continued to compete for MFAs. He won his first in 1998 and has continued to earn awards in that time.

Now that Mike’s Marine Custom Canvas is celebrating its 25th anniversary, Mike has the experience to know quality. It’s why he chooses to use Sunbrella fabrics on his projects: “Sunbrella has been around and has a fantastic track record and is continuously updating and improving and extending the warranty and all those things help us when we’re building or selling,” said Mike. “It creates a beautiful product. We also use polycarbonate glass, rigid glass, which helps to hide any kind of imperfections or undulations that creep in when you don’t have as much lateral or vertical tension as you want. It’s all about tension. The secret to life is knowing about tension. There’s good tension and bad tension and knowing the difference is the key to a happy life. Good tension is when you pull the canvas wrinkle-free. Bad tension is when you don’t purchase the right things on the grocery list.”


Captain Navy fabric is a timeless, classic choice.


A Comprehensive Warranty

“Sunbrella has become more of a household name,” said Mike. “Year after year, decade after decade. When I started, it was 10 or 15 years old. It was a newbie on the block. Now it's 60 years plus.” Mike credits the strength of Sunbrella to the stability, longevity, and warranty of the fabrics. “You’re not spending the money, you’re making an investment,” said Mike. “You’re not going to have to replace every two years if you get Sunbrella. It has the 10-year warranty already. So when you sell the boat, it’s still looking good and working well.”

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” said Mike. “In that time, I think I’ve had to send in a warranty on Sunbrella three times. That’s a pretty good track record. We’ve used thousands of yards of Sunbrella in 40 years. The warranty is bulletproof.”

As for his own boat, the Tollycraft, Mike didn’t end up living on it after all. But that doesn’t stop him from enjoying the “streamlined, sexy” look that he and his son created. It may not have won an award, but the Tollycraft has definitely made a positive impact on Mike’s retirement.

Even More Inspiration

Learn more about Sunbrella marine canvas and order a sample today! For more inspiration, check out our last project spotlight on a restored 210 SkiNautique.