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Old 07-12-2002
Dan Dickison Dan Dickison is offline
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Making Your Own Sails

Can you give me some tips about making my own sails?

Dan Dickison responds:
Thanks for your question. Making sails really isn't that difficult a process if you're talking about the mechanics of seaming and stitching panels of Dacron together (or other materials) and adding the reinforcement panels and the appropriate hardware. There are a number of books available on this topic and they might be useful to you. But the difficult part about building sails is getting the shape right. And that's the catch. Sailmakers expend a great deal of time, energy, and resources to determine just which shapes work best in which wind conditions, aboard which kinds of boats, and with what kinds of materials. All of that translates into a product that has the appropriate shape and longevity.

Ordinarily, to make your own sails, you first have to come up with a design based upon measurements you take from your rig as well as the size of the raw materials you end up working with. (Say you buy yourself some Dacron and it comes in 50-inch rolls, you'll probably want your panels to be roughly 40 inches wide so that you can incorporate the necessary broad-seaming that will ultimately create the shape in the sail.) What weight the cloth needs to be will depend upon what sails you intend to build and when you intend to use them. If you want a general purpose mainsail that will last a while, you'll need to start with something at least as heavy as six-ounce Dacron for the body of the sail and use several overlays in the corners for reinforcing.

Of course there are other materials that you'll need too. For a bolt rope, some sailmakers now use polypropelyne line because it does not absorb water, and that part of the sail doesn't require much tensile strength.

Regarding thread, sailmakers use a standard, UV-coated nylon thread that comes in various sizes and strengths. Of course you'll have to have a device for pounding the grommets and cringle rings in if you want those (some sailmakers use a pneumatic press), or you can simply sew in loops of nylon webbing to take the place of those fittings.

That pretty much covers the basics. Of course there are other ways of going about this. You can purchase a kit from one of several outfits like SailRite that offer sails in do-it-yourself kit form. They ship you the materials and instructions and you do the work. That's not a bad way to teach yourself more about sails, sail design, and construction too.

Either way you choose to go about this, you won't know if your sail works well with your rig and boat until you take it out there and give it a try. Chances are you may have to recut it here and there just to get it to fit the sail plan—this happens to professional sailmakers all the time—and then you might want to do some secondary cutting and refitting to make sure that the draft in the sail ends up in the right place and the sail can actually power your boat upwind properly.

As you can see there are several variables in the sailmaking equation that you'll need to control in order to come up with a satisfactory result. The whole process can be frustrating, and it can end up being expensive because of the trial-and-error element. That doesn't mean that we're trying to discourage you, but there's a reason why sailmakers exist. Sailmaking is a complex blend of science and art that is best accomplished with experience if you're looking to produce the perfect sail for your needs.

This answer isn't meant to discourage you, only to be realistic about the many aspects of making sails. As a further option, you might want to consider getting in touch with the folks at Air Force Sails—SailNet's in-house sail loft—and see how they can help you. The loft's manager Lin Robson (1-800-324-3220 ext. 1238; e-mail lrobson@sailnet.com) can answer your questions and offer you advice about the process. Of course, if you decide you want to consider having AirForce make your sail, their online, interactive system can help you research the AirForce products 24 hours a day. Here's hoping that this information is useful to you.