Prior to his career as a naval architect in Norway, he spent time in Queensland, Australia, with several of his brothers, including Thomas. While there, he sailed with a cargo up the Fitzroy River, Queensland "when it was almost if not quite unknown".
He and his shipyard were known for building durable and safe ships. The most notable single ship built by Colin Archer was the FRAM, which participated in expeditions to the North Pole, and later Roald Amundsen's historic first expedition to the South Pole. He also designed a sturdy sailing vessel class for the Redningsselskapet (The Norwegian Lifeboat institution) which was used for many years and now is referred to as a Colin Archer. Fram is now preserved in the Fram Museum on Bygdøy, Oslo, Norway. The prototype lifeboat "Colin Archer RS 1" is still afloat and in use as a floating museum. Several other original vessels of the Redningsselskapet are still sailing including the Frithjof Wiese RS40.
Archer spent a lot of time calculating how an efficient hull should be designed. Even to this day, people still consult his work when designing new ships. He is credited with over 200 vessels. The Fram is one example.
Archer's designs were adapted to pleasure sailing in the 20th century. In 1904, Archer built a boat for the writer Robert Erskine Childers called the ASGARD. This yacht is now in a museum and is considered the "most important yacht in the history of Ireland". In 1928 William Atkin scaled down Archer's 47-foot Regis Voyager, a pilot boat, to make the 32-foot Eric. This design went on to become very influential in ocean sailing, with boats such as Vito Dumas's Lehg II and Robin Knox-Johnston's Suhaili making notable circumnavigations. In the 1970s, the design was adapted to glass-reinforced plastic by William Crealock, and became the Westsail 32; this famous cruising boat has, in turn, inspired many imitations, so that the "Archer double-ender" style of boat continues to be popular to this day.