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Expert advice for installing a new dock at your cottage

After more than 35 years at the lake, we like to think we know a thing or two about replacing and maintaining docks. But with 46 years in the dock-building game, R&J Machine, a family-owned dock manufacturer that builds everything right in Lakefield, Ontario, has even more expertise than us.

To pass on what can be learned from nearly half a century of creating some of cottage country’s highest-quality waterfront products, we sat down with R&J co-owner Katie Peet to learn the most effective way to plan your new cottage dock.

Know your dock options

If you’re new to cottaging, or if you’re still using the same dock configuration that’s been at your family cottage for generations, you might not be aware that there’s a better system for your specific needs. Whether it’s a truss-pipe dock, a lift-up system, or a floating dock, there’s likely a better option that will make your dock sturdier, more durable, and easier to maintain in the winter.

“If your water’s not too deep with a bottom that’s relatively stable, then usually a pipe dock is the preferred way to go,” Katie explains. “But if you’re in an area where you can have a base to use as a hinge, lift-up docks are great because they get your dock out of harm’s way in the winter.” For deep water or sheltered shorelines where there isn’t a lot of ice movement in winter to worry about, Katie recommends a floating dock—especially when you’re dealing with fluctuating water levels. “Some people will lose five or six feet of water over the summer,” she says. “Floating docks are good for those scenarios, because they can move with the water levels.”

Understand your shoreline

It’s not uncommon for seasoned cottagers to have been using docks for decades that don’t suit their shorelines. “A lot of cottagers are used to traditional wood floaters on blue barrels because that’s what their grandfather built,” Katie says. “But why have that kind of floating dock if you’re in four feet of water? You’ll get more stability with a pipe dock or a lift-up dock.” Similarly, a pipe dock doesn’t make much sense for a shoreline with 12 feet of depth.

To best understand the unique challenges of your cottage’s shoreline, Katie recommends talking to neighbours who’ve weathered a few winters on your lake, and seeing what kinds of docks they use. “If they’ve been there for years, they’ll tell you what’s going to happen in winter with the ice, so you’ll know what to expect.”

Invest in hassle-free durability

Plenty of cottagers have grown accustomed to the hassles of winter dock maintenance and the limited lifespans of their docks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t easier and more durable options. From R&J’s perspective, the most durable route is to start with a rot-proof aluminum frame. “We develop our own exclusive aluminum dies so we can design different dock sizes using full-length extruded aluminum,” Katie explains. “It gives the dock a cleaner, more streamlined appearance and adds strength and durability to your dock frame.”

That durable framework makes upkeep far easier, because decking is simple to replace when the time comes. “If people invest in an aluminum frame, which is never going to rot, they might come back in 15 years if they have cedar or pressure-treated decking to replace the decking panels. So all they do is pop in the new decking panels, and they’re away to the races,” she says. “Whereas if you build an all-wood dock, your whole frame could be rotted out, so you’ll be starting from scratch. 

Maximize your use of the space

Your dock can be so much more than a place to moor your boat—especially if your cottage is ensconced on a Canadian Shield shoreline without a lot of accessible outdoor space. With a dock that pulls double duty as a deck, you won’t just get more enjoyment out of it right now; you’ll also be adding a ton of value if you decide to sell later on. “A lot of cottagers are buying dock systems and lift systems now as an extension of their cottage,” Katie says. “Many of the cottages that are coming up for sale right now don’t have pristine waterfronts, so buyers are looking to create more of an ‘entertaining’ space on the water. So it’s not just a simple 4′ by 16′ dock that you can tie your boat to—it’s actually an extension of your living space.”

Pay special attention to decking

Whether you’re stepping off the boat or lounging on your dock on a sunny Saturday, your choice of decking material is going to be a major factor in how much you enjoy your new dock—especially if you’re not keen on maintaining or replacing those boards. The three main options are pressure-treated lumber, Western red cedar, or PVC. “We recommend PVC for someone who’s going to stay at their cottage for a few years, and who doesn’t want to worry about staining their dock or getting wooden splinters,” she says. Pressure-treated lumber is a cheaper option, but it’s also heavy if you’re removing it in the winter. And cedar is the middle ground. It lasts for 10 to 12 years, and you can choose to stain it or let it naturally turn grey.

While cost and durability are the main concerns, a decking material’s traction should also factor into your decision. “A lot of the new PVC decking options have tread built into them, so they’re often equal to wood—if not better—in terms of being slip-resistant,” Katie points out.

Start planning earlier than you expect

The pandemic has thrown a spanner in the supply chains of most industries, and docks are no exception. So if you’re thinking of installing a new dock or replacing a rotting one, you’ll need to plan ahead. “Most people will come to us in the fall to start planning for next spring,” Katie says. “Right now, we’re booking well into July for installations. So if you’re thinking about doing something substantial, I would start in August or September of the year before. That way, you’ll have time to figure out the permits you need, and you’ll have a chance to consider different configurations.”

As part of that planning process, Katie recommends perusing the photo galleries on R&J Machine’s site to get a sense of what you’d like in a dock or boat-lift system. “After that, we can discuss the best options for you,” she says. “But it’s always nice to know what you’re looking for ahead of calling, so we can steer you in the right direction.”

Looking to replace your dock or install a new one? Learn more about R&J Machine’s quality workmanship, specialized materials, and innovative designs at rjmachine.ca.