I've been out of material since last summer, when I made 40 mats before we moved to Washington state. That's the inventory we've been selling since we've been here. We're down to 2 XL's as of today.
Since I knew we would need more material by Spring, and since I've been stuck in the snow and rain for the last 3 months, I've had time to do some material research. The fabric company we've been using since 1984 has been tremendous. But, their prices doubled in 2007, doubled again in 2008, and we're looking at another increase this year. Plus, the minimum quantity has gone up. So, that has given me the impetus to look around for alternatives more aggressively.
There aren't too many places that make the quality material needed to make mats that are durable and perform well. I did come across a fabric manufacturer who had a very complete sample catalog, and they've been willing to work with us. (Meaning, they know we're small time, but are still interested in our business.) And their prices are low enough to allow us to hold our current retail cost ($250 plus S/H) for at least a year ... and hopefully much longer.
The down side of any new material is that it's an unknown in terms of performance and durability. The spec sheets of this new stuff shows a tear strength and seam adhesion of approximately 85% to 90% of our current material. That may be acceptable, but we won't know until we get some serious water time in on the 4 prototypes I finished earlier this afternoon.
One thing is for sure ... there is no way any 4GF mats will go out to customers until we're reasonably certain that the fabric will hold up for at least a couple years of hard use.
I'm sending the new prototypes off to George G. in tomorrow's mail. He gets in the water every day, and has a deep working knowledge of the current state of the art, mat-wise. So, there's no reason not to turn over the field testing to him and his buddies.
Here are the four prototypes mats he'll be testing. All four are Fatties. My thinking is that this is the most versatile 4GF shape, so George and his friends can get in the water almost every day with no worries. I'm sending them off with no non-skid, since I don't have an indoor, ventilated place to glue them up here, and it's too cold to do it outside...
The Black Mat is made of an extremely heavy nylon material on the deck that is as coarse, or coarser, than a new Converse. When I saw a small sample of this fabric, I thought it was too stiff to make a high performance mat. But, the texture was plenty grippy enough to use with no non-skid.
Even though this black material is much more expensive per yard, there would be none of the labor and expense normally associated with any of the non-skids currently being used. (Rubber Grit, Vulkem, Diamond Back patches, etc.) So, it might pay for itself.
I ordered a short sample roll of the Black "Canvas" to try it on the deck in conjunction with thinner material on the bottom. (I ran this idea past Jonathan J. a few weeks ago, and he immediately equated it with the old Merrin Peelers.)
We need to test the deck adhesion. (The grip is incredible when it's wetted out...better than an old canvas mat when it's new.) But the main problem, of course, is the loss of performance due to the stiffness of the fabric. Perhaps the material will soften up with use, eventually breaking in to become a good mat. Then again, as it breaks in, the deck might lose some of its texture. Who knows until we try it...
This fabric is a complete unknown, and it will take at least a month to get it broken in and sorted out.
The White Mat is made of material that weighs out the same as what we have now, but it's weaker when you test it to destruction. I'm not optimistic that this stuff will work. So, what I did with this material sample is make a shape that George has been asking for since last summer. It's a stock Fatty, lengthened 2", with a Velo-style arc tail with sharp corners in the rear. I made a Standard 4GF with an arc tail for him last year. He liked it at times, but thought it rode "too short" at others. Hence, the 2" increase in length.
I hope he gets enough waves to get a feel for the design change before it pops. It feels pretty flimsy.
The forward black line is the stock Fatty tail, while the rear line is the welded-up Arc tail 2" further back.
The Orange Mat is made of a rip-stop with is supposed to be roughly same weight as the material we use now, but it weighs out much lighter. It has a crisp feel to it. There isn't as much stretch to the fabric, since it has the rip-stop threads running through it. This mat seems like it should be stronger since it's made of rip-stop, but it might actually be weaker over time since there isn't as much "give" to it, and most of the loading will go directly to the seams. It feels kind of toy-like. But, that may be the orange color. Again, who knows until we try it.
The Blue Mat is made of 100 x 70 denier fabric, with a twill weave. Our current fabric is a 70 x 70 denier taffeta. I didn't like this stuff when I saw a small sample, but I got a short roll of it anyway. After I was able to see and handle the fabric in mat-sized lengths, I had a change of heart. It's heavier, weight wise, but, as is well known in the fabric world, twill weave is more pliable than a taffeta weave.
The twill weave seems to absorb more water than the taffeta weave. I wetted out one pontoon to show how much water it appears to draw in.
The advantage of the 100 x 70 denier twill is that it feels as soft or softer than the lighter taffeta, but weighs more, especially wet. It might help prevent mats from blowing away in heavy winds, and it might ride smoother on bumpy waves as well.
I'm the most optimistic about the Blue Twill Mat. The material has a nice, substantial feel to it, along with a soft pliability factor.
I'm getting another short roll of the Blue Twill in a few weeks. I want to make a mat with the coarse Black Canvas stuff on top and the Blue Twill on the bottom. (I didn't have enough Blue Twill to do that this time around.) That might be a killer app for those two fabrics.
I really want the coarse Black Canvas to work on the deck! I covered the top of a Standard 4GF with cotton canvas fabric a few years ago, and the extreme stiffness (due to the canvas/nylon fabric deck lamination) ruined the performance completely, even after an entire summer of break-in. But the feel of having a 100% canvas deck was just great. I kept going out on it just because it was so much fun to be on. So, fingers crossed that the black stuff breaks in over time. It's stiff, but no where near as stiff as an old canvas mat ... it might just work.
Two other things...
The colors of these mats are the stock colors of these particular fabrics. If I order larger quantities, then we can get anything in black. I hate the orange and loathe the white ... but the electric blue color of the 100 x 70 twill is neat. It looks better in person than it does in the pictures.
The other thing is weight. I went ahead and weighed these four mats and a stock Fatty, all with no non-skid. I also weighed them wetted out, so I could get an idea of the water absorption the Blue Twill and Black Canvas in comparison to the taffeta and rip-stop.
Orange Rip-Stop Fatty
Dry - 10.80 oz. Wet - 12.40 oz. (Plus 1.6 oz.)
Current Taffeta Fatty
Dry - 15.00 oz. Wet - 16.3 oz. (Plus 1.3 oz.)
White Taffeta Fatty
Dry - 15.00 oz. Wet - 16.3 oz. (Plus 1.3 oz.)
Blue Twill Fatty
Dry - 15.80 oz. Wet - 17.70 oz. (Plus 1.9 oz.)
Black "Canvas" Fatty
Dry - 23.90 oz. Wet - 30.70 oz (Plus 6.8 oz)
The Orange Rip-Stop is much lighter than the spec sheet claimed, the Blue Twill soaked up more water than the taffeta, but not way-more, and the Black "Canvas" was heavy to start with, and absorbed a lot of water as well. Of course, there would be no non-skid added to the Black Canvas deck mat, so its dry and wet weights are "all-up," while the other four mats will have a few ounces added by the non-skid.
But again, these numbers mean nothing. It's just a test to see if you are as far gone into mat geekdom as me. If you've read this far, GET HELP!
This is my uber-tech mat weigh station. And yes, I re-weighed the box after each wet mat was extracted...