Do you think about center consoles at a restaurant? No? Well, maybe you should. Hard or soft shell is the question when you order tacos, and that same query applies to T-tops for boats. It doesn’t matter whether the top accompanies your initial boat purchase or you add it later, you’ll still have to determine which kind best suits your needs. And each has clear advantages.
“We offer both styles at completely different price points, but just a handful of our boats go out with soft tops every year,” says John Caballero of Miami-based SeaVee Boats, a semicustom builder. “Today’s customers don’t want a bolt-on solution. They want something that is engineered from the get-go. A T-top is no longer a piece of fabric separating you from the sun. An integrated hardtop is a structural part of the boat with accessories molded in. It’s a much more elegant approach, and it adds value to the boat, including a better resale value when you do sell it or trade it in.”
Caballero says SeaVee outsources frames to Pipe Dream, a local aluminum contractor that uses heavy-duty tubing. SeaVee normally rigs soft tops with Sunbrella fabric to complete the assembly, although other materials are available. Its hardtops are made in-house of two cored-fiberglass outer shells infused and vacuum-bagged for strength and rigidity. The hand-finished seam essentially creates a unitized piece that’s durable and easy to maintain. Compressed urethane internally in high stress areas, such as bases for radar and outrigger mounts, adds integrity. Integrated elements include wire chases for various components; and molded receptacles for spreader lights, stereo speakers and electronics are options, Caballero says.
Although many customers opt for a large rectangular shape to maximize sun protection, fishing-friendly configurations are easily accommodated, according to Caballero. Especially popular is a true Key West T-shape canopy that allows vertical rod storage along the sides of the console. So are other options, like upper-station secondary controls and a cushioned seat integrated into the sliding overhead hatch.
The finish on the T-top pipework requires yet another decision between polished anodized or powder-coated.
“Anodized is by far the more-popular choice,” Caballero explains. “It’s more robust and requires less maintenance. If you start with a protective spray applied a couple of times a season, and rinse the salt off and wash it with soap, it holds up well. Powder-coating is a beautiful finish and really accents a custom look. But it’s potentially more susceptible to chipping and flaking, and once the damage is done, it’s harder to restore to the original finish. For every powder-coated top that goes out of here, there are 10 anodized.”
Upfront cost remains the biggest difference between the two styles. For example, Caballero says a basic soft T-top for a SeaVee 32 would run $7,100, versus $11,400 for a comparable hardtop.
“The advantages to a hard T-top are clear,” he says. “Customers who buy premium boats expect aesthetics. They want a streamlined look that is engineered for a flowing, graceful profile. Sure, you’ll pay more initially for a hardtop, but it’s functional and adds long-term value too.”
Soft T-tops are an efficient alternative for many anglers, especially on small to midsize center consoles. Georgia-based Fishmaster builds universal folding T-tops designed to fit the consoles of multiple builders. Side pipes adjust in or out from 24 to 50 inches wide, but fitting requires a flat deck surrounding the console for secure installation.
The standard kit includes one set of stand-offs to attach to the console. If the console is less than 30 inches wide, an optional brace kit adds stability to prevent side-to-side movement. Fishmaster tops are through-bolted to the console with backing plates, while the deck mounts are fastened with lag screws and 5200 adhesive. The framework is 1.9-inch, polished anodized-aluminum tubing, with a choice of nine Sunbrella fabric colors. Options, which can be added at any time, include accessories such as rod holders and electronics boxes.
“Our sweet spot is boats 17 to 24 feet,” says Fishmaster president Greg Spivia. “It’s a do-it-yourself kit, and probably 98 percent of our customers install the tops in their driveways on weekends. Installation time is typically about four to five hours. Our tops also fold easily for storage or to transit under bridges. The tubing is fitted with Allen screws or quick-release knobs if you intend to take it down often. It takes less than three minutes to drop the top.” The standard Fishmaster universal folding T-top starts at $995.
High Speed Welding in Wilmington, North Carolina, also caters to the smaller-boat soft T-top market, albeit with fixed, rather than folding, designs. The company’s nearly 30 soft tops retrofit to popular makes like Sea Hunt, Parker, Sea Fox, Boston Whaler, Scout and Pioneer. Tops for Carolina Skiffs are among the most popular, and the company also outfits Tidewaters through a local dealer. A standard soft top with four rod holders, two pads for antenna-mounting brackets, an anchor light and choice of three Sunbrella fabric colors runs $1,995 installed. The boat must be onsite for installation. Owner Stuart Foreman says his customers come from as far away as the Midwest.
“We offer appointments, and that works best for customers from out of town,” Foreman explains. “If they drive in on Sunday, we start to work first thing Monday morning and send them home by lunchtime Tuesday with a shiny new T-top and a boat ready to fish. It works out pretty well.”
Like ordering tacos, the choice of T-tops starts with hard or soft shells. Both are functional additions to any center console. The fillings and toppings may vary. However, the decision comes down to a balance between your appetite and your wallet.