Bring on the Shade with a T-top!

Super Radius Hardtop

Is your center-console topless? Adding an aftermarket T-top is easy and affordable. 

By Gregg Mansfield

A few years ago, Sid Sutton was having a used center-console boat inspected and the surveyor included a usual note in the report. 

“Buyer is aware the vessel does not have a hardtop and will regret the decision on sunny days,” said Sutton, reading from the surveyor’s report. 

Sutton still bought the used 22-foot Wellcraft and after a few months of fishing along the Alabama coast, he needed some permanent shade on the boat. “The surveyor was right that I’d regret not having a T-top,” Sutton said. “Truer words have never been written.” 

Boatbuilders usually offer hardtops as optional for smaller center-console boats to keep the price competitive for entry-level buyers. While going topless saves money up front, buyers such as Sutton usually pay later to add a hardtop to their boat. 

Consumers have lots of choices when it comes to aftermarket T-top companies that offer canvas or fiberglass hardtops. Installing a hardtop is a good weekend do-it-yourself project for the mechanically inclined or can be easily handled by a marine mechanic. 

Radius Pro SoftWe caught up with the folks at Atlantic Towers, which sells Tower in a Box, to get the scoop on how to add an aftermarket tower to a center-console boat. Steve Tull founded the company in the early 1980s and was supplying T-tops to Boston Whaler, Rampage and Blackwatch. 

Nearly two decades later, Tull’s company developed custom hardtops that weighed one-third less and were about the cost of traditional fiberglass retrofit hardtops. Just a few years later, Atlantic Towers launched its Tower in a Box product at the Norwalk Boat Show. 

The New Jersey-based Atlantic Towers has patterns for more than 800 boat models, so chances are the company already has the pattern for your boat model. The T-tops can be customized to fit thanks to interchangeable components. 

The easiest way to know if your center-console boat can accept a tower is talk to the aftermarket tower manufacturer where you plan to purchase it. If the boat was built in the last decade, contact the builder and they may provide the original tower manufacturer (if it wasn’t built in-house). 

Most center-console boats have a windscreen, so make sure any aftermarket tower is taller than the windscreen or plan on modifying the screen. 

Consumer can choose between T-tops with canvas or a fiberglass top. The hardtop is more expensive and is heavier but requires less maintenance such as replacing the canvas. Atlantic Tower’s Tull said the canvas should be a high-quality Sunbrella fabric. 

“That’s where quality comes into it,” Tull said. “If you don’t have a quality fabric that you can stretch tight like a drum and it stays that way, it’s gonna stretch and it’s gonna loosen up and now you get that flutter effect.” 

t-top Welded In Box

When the T-top arrives at your home, take it out of the boxes and do a rough assembly on the ground. The manufacturer recommends using petroleum jelly on the Allen bolts to make them easier to install and adjust. It’s important not to cinch the bolts to allow some finessing of the tower when putting it into place. 

Atlantic Towers recommends building temporary wooden supports to hold the T-top in position on the boat before the final installation. The temporary support allows the installer to check if there is sufficient headroom, which is usually 75 to 78 inches. It’s also the last chance to see if the T-top supports are in the right spots and to walk around the boat. 

The biggest challenge with installing an aftermarket tower is making sure it’s adhered to the cockpit. The ideal method is putting screws through the sole and securing it using backing plates. With some boats, access to install the backing plates isn’t possible because the voids are filled with foam or the fuel tanks may be in the way. 

Tull said the company developed a “glue and screw” method seven years ago to support the tower without the screws having to be through-bolted. The key is to drill the holes, so the bottom is closed, he said. 

Epoxy Welded On BoatMost deck soles and gunwales are 3/4” or 1” thick and Tull recommends after drilling a hole to use a metal coat hanger to measure the depth. Professionals will use a drill stop or a piece of tape on the drill bit to measure the depth. Either technique will help speed up the process. Make sure the parts fit properly before using the MarineTex epoxy to permanently install the pins. 

“Now when you put that screw in the epoxy, it’s like an auger and it’s forcing the epoxy into the core material, not pushing it through,” Tull said. “If you drill all the way through, you take a piece of masking tape and your ball it up and you push it down at the bottom of the hole. It’ll hold the epoxy long enough for you to get that screw in.” 

Tull said the company has had more than 10,000 T-top installations and hasn’t received a report of any problems whether doing a install with backing plates or the “glue and screw” method. 

Once the T-top frame is affixed, the manufacturer recommends mounting lights, antennas or other electrical equipment before installing the Sunbrella top or fiberglass hardtop. With the top firmly in place, use a thread locker such as Locktite to keep the Allen bolts from loosening. 

The tower may flex while the boat is running at speed but should not make any noise if installed properly. 

“No boat is rock solid, the hulls always flex and there’s a lot of dynamic forces going on what looks like a fairly simple structure,” Tull said. “There’s no clocking, no metal on metal, nothing.” 

Radius Pro Hard t-topThe cost of having a tower installed by a professional will vary by region. Tull said investing in a tower will pay dividends when it comes time to sell the boat. 

“I can’t project what the value of your boat is going to be,” Tull said. “But I can tell you that whether you improve it with a T-top or one of our aftermarket hardtops or a water sports system, your boat will sell first.” 

Sutton agrees that adding a hardtop will enhance a boat’s value. Looking back on the used boat buying process, Sutton said that boats without a T-top stayed on the market longer. 

“With the used boat market so hot right now, a T-top might not make a difference,” Sutton said. “Once the used market slows down, they’ll wish their boat had a T-top.” 

Atlantic Towers, 800-831-8889,