Would we recommend Orchard ?

Inevitably we get asked:
" would you recommend Orchard?"


Our answer is unequivocal:
" Yes, definitely ..."

How to read the comments below depends to some extent on what else you are considering.
Are the bespoke builders like Fernwood, Braidbar, Heartwood, Barnowl etc a serious possibility? They weren't for us. Prices starting from £130k (2010) put these firms out of our reach.
Or are you looking at the foreign built boats such as Aqualine ? Their build quality is apparently superb, but we did not consider them as they do not offer the degree of customisation we wanted.
Or are you looking at some of the numerous small boat builders around, as we did. They offer similar pricing to Orchard, complete customisation but not (we decided) the same build quality nor boat "know-how".
Finally you just might be looking for a really low cost boat !

Incidentally, we started by looking at second hand boats from various brokers. It quickly became apparent however that the prices expected are either so near-new for decent boats as to be ridiculous, or sensible money but for tatty boats.

Market positioning

It would not be too fanciful for Orchard to adopt a tag line "Bespoke quality at off-the-peg prices".
The finished result can be every bit as good, and in some ways better, than the £130k'ish bespoke boats (but see caveats below).
About the only item where the finished result could be claimed to be consistently better in boats costing half as much again is a) the woodworking. Orchard achieve superb results from automated CNC methods. Nevertheless there is a certain charm to the hand-cut & hand-carved designs only available from the bespoke firms, and b) the shell design, the upmarket builders produce more elegant designs.
Also remember ALL the various boat builders have, more or less, a house style. Another way of saying this is:
"Boats from Builder-X will be the best if you want what Builder-X prefers to produce, they will be less good if you want something different !!! "
In our opinion, in Orchard's case, that implies wanting a smooth, unfussy, contemporary interior style, but you can't have anything else !

So why is
Orchard so good?
  1. Extremely knowledgeable about boats. This is not at all universal. Many boat builders come from a highly skilled joinery past but do not necessarily have extensive experience of boats. Others are eg marine engineers who are excellent about everything technical but fail to understand wood appearance, fabrics & anything requiring good taste.
  2. Ideal sized (construction) team. The small builders are basically a skilled chap and his helper, plus many subcontractors. That is probably too small to produce consistently good results. At the other extreme is eg Collingwood's production line, and, being in Liverpool, it has many "Friday jobs" like the car manufacturers of the 70's. Most of the bespoke firms appear to be similarly sized to Orchard's operation.
  3. Everyone is top-notch. Gary is a very skilled engineer, in addition to running the show. Mike, who did most of AW's joinery and fit out, works to extremely high standards. John their painter produces results we have only ever seen matched by the bespoke firms (esp Heartwood). Finally Sandra is one of the country's experts on narrowboat electrics and it shows on AW.
  4. Flexibility. Considering their mode of operation Orchard are very willing to incorporate items chosen by their customers. This was very important to us. We assume we were spending towards the top end of Orchard's range of boats. Essentially we were after the "bespoke quality at off-the-peg prices" mentioned earlier, if not in solid wood content then certainly in tailor-made to our (fussy ?) requirements.
  5. Top quality equipment is standard. The bow thruster, morse control etc is all Vetus. Top-of-range Stirling pure-sine inverters and electronic alternator-to-battery chargers provide power. Expensive patterns of full 30mm granite is used, and is single piece, even for L-shaped kitchens. This use of top quality equipment continues in all areas of the boat.
And in what ways
is Orchard not good?
  1. The Liverpool connection. Orchard is owned by the family who own Collingwood Boats in Liverpool (ex-Liverpool Boats). The only advantage of this is presumably the tight margins and the low purchase prices their style of working can achieve. Unfortunately there are a great many significant disadvantages.
    Be aware some people have ordered boats form Orchard which are then built & fitted at Collingwood.  None of the comments on this page refer to these vastly inferior boats.
  2. Project Management.  Orchard desperately need (as of 2012) an additional member of staff.  Someone to primarily sit in the office and answer the phone (not only customers but also suppliers find them difficult to reach). This person could also easily keep track of order progress. No one attempting to do all the jobs Gary does could possibly not occasionally forget things on their to-do lists.  So although it is thus unfair to criticise Gary or any other existing member of staff personally, as a company it is a valid criticism of Orchard to say they are hard to contact and display poor project management.
    Having said all that they are probably only typical in this respect. Canal boats move at less than 4 mph and boat builders seem to have a matching laid-back (Jan calls it "Mediterranean") approach to business life.
Orchard if you:
  1. Like value for money. Orchard must be at the peak of any rational narrowboat price/performance curve. Sure if you pay significantly more you can get more individuality, style & design flair. And it is possible to spend less. But if having top-quality equipment on an excellently built (if slightly more "bland" than some) is your thing, then Orchard won't disappoint.
  2. Want bespoke but can't afford it. Provided you like the contemporary interior look they produce, then you can spec up all the other fittings & equipment and end up with a boat of identical quality for 60% of the price. We for instance specified the excellent Channel Glaze windows we first saw at Braidbar. These are twice the price of Orchard's standard windows, but it was an incremental cost we were happy to pay. Similarly we wanted solid oak flooring. Again Orchard fitted what we think is a superb alternative to laminate or Kardene.
Don't choose
Orchard if you:
  1. Like heavy hand carved woodwork. If your perfect boat is the almost ecclesiastical style of some of Braidbar's boats, or you want the full "roses & castles" look for example, then Orchard will not be a good supplier.
    Orchard use beautifully finished solid hardwoods (oak in AW's case). The fit is superb. But they achieve this perfect fit by means of industrial CNC machines. For those looking for that "almost perfect, skilled craftsman" finish or a "distressed" look or a country kitchen style, then Orchard is not for you. But you are going to have to pay 1.5x to get these looks at a similar build quality !
  2. Know exactly what you want when you see it, but can't easily describe it up front. Orchard make a boat from steelwork arriving to customer delivery in typically 4 weeks!!! This leaves very little time for adjustments, redesigns etc. If you are fussy (like we are) about all the little details, you MUST be able to spec what you want up front, because it will be fitted before you blink = too late to change. The numerous small boat builders who produce just a few boats a year work at a much slower pace, leaving plenty of time to sort out and change the design. The price will be similar but the finish no were near so good. Alternatively the bespoke firms will take as long as you want, produce superb results, but charge you for it !