January 14, 2016
How a T-top makes the boat.
By Fritz Grell
Handsome canvas top with upper helm station.
A T-top offers shelter, an unobstructed deck and a platform to carry an array of electronics, antennas, rod holders, outriggers and overhead storage.
Stock tops vary greatly from builder to builder but are generally well-suited to their particular boat. Removable or folding T-tops are even available, such as the Fishmaster, for boaters who must negotiate low bridges on a regular basis. With multiple fabrication shops in most larger coastal cities, Florida boaters have limitless options for customizing T-tops.
The most common and affordable T-top is a soft top. The aluminum structure has a canvas top laced to the frame or, at additional cost, secured to the frame mechanically with the edge of the canvas under a trim piece fastened to the frame. This top gets an A for affordability but is the worst for longevity and maintenance.
Canvas deteriorates from the sun, and it's hard to keep clean. Pipework under the top requires constant maintenance. Aluminum pipework is anodized, but still needs to be rinsed and chamoised after every trip and waxed often. One of the nice features of some canvas tops is a mesh zippered storage area for life jackets. A T-Bag or StowMate life jacket holder can also be added to most soft tops.
A single skin fiberglass or vinyl (such as Pro-Trim) top eliminates the canvas replacement problem, but the amount of pipework to maintain remains.
The T-“top-of-the-line,” if you will, is a cored fiberglass top. At perhaps double the price of the other tops, it is still a good value as it lasts for the lifetime of the boat and is easy to maintain. There's minimal pipework to maintain, no canvas to replace and loads of custom lighting and fishing options.
Aluminum and Welding
T-top frames are built of anodized aluminum in smooth bright finish or a brushed finish (personally I prefer the looks of bright finish). Ultimately, though, structural integrity is more important than aesthetics. And that's where experience, proper design and welding come into play.
Stay away from cracked or uneven welds, which indicate poor welds or structural problems. Good welds, according to Dana Bausch, President of Baush Enterprises in Stuart, are smooth, uniform and consistent. Bausch, which builds tops and towers for Pursuit Boats, employs TIG welders. Wire-fed welders also produce strong welds, just not as pretty.
Look at how the top is mounted. Since most consoles are only screwed to the deck, Bausch mounts the main four top supports to the deck instead of the console. If you are looking at a boat, stand on the gunnel and try to shake the top. The top should not move much. Also take note of any flexing of the surface it is mounted on.
Below-top adjustable outriggers are a terrific addition to a center console. Brian O'Donnell at The Fiberglass Shop in Stuart favors the Taco model GS 275 outriggers—they are affordable and the mounting is easy. Instead of aluminum on aluminum, which can freeze up with lack of maintenance, the Tacos are stainless with Delrin liners; there is no welding, metal-on-metal or additional pipework.
Typical mounting position for outriggers and cockpit lighting.
Duck for Cover
Enclosures can be added to most tops. A common setup is front and side curtains to block rain, wind and spray. These may be affixed by means of snaps or slide rails, or a combination thereof. Some boats have no enclosures and all of the shelter is from the console and windshield, while others have full enclosures including back panels.
Modern tops have wire chases and outrigger mounting plates on each side, as well as plates to mount an overhead electronics box. There's usually ample room to mount radio and GPS antennas on the wire chase to keep the top clean with no loose wires. Drill and tap into the top of the chase, which will be about 3 inches wide and 1 inch deep, to mount the antenna base. Drill a hole adjacent to the mount and run the wire into the chase, down the top leg and into the console. For systems in an overhead box, mount antennas above the box, utilizing the same structure the box is mounted to.
Installation and Wiring
Modern tops have wire chases and outrigger mounting plates on each side, as well as plates to mount an overhead electronics box. There's usually ample room to mount radio and GPS antennas on the wire chase to keep the top clean with no loose wires. Drill and tap into the top of the chase, which will be about 3 inches wide and 1 inch deep, to mount the antenna base. Drill a hole adjacent to the mount and run the wire into the chase, down the top leg and into the console. For systems in an overhead box, mount antennas above the box, utilizing the same structure the box is mounted to. FS