What Makes a Great Boat T-Top?
Many of us already know that a boat t-top is an excellent boat upgrade investment. For center console boat owners, it adds much-needed shade, functionality for fishing and increases your boats resale value. Compared to the notoriously annoying standard folding boat bimini, you can move freely around the deck and cast your lines with fewer obstructions. Unfortunately, picking out the best aftermarket t-top may not be as easy as choosing a new phone or kitchen appliance. Some t-tops are better than others- there are great and not-so-great ones on the market. Selecting the right t-top can be complicated: do you go with a custom fabricated one or an aftermarket one? Who makes a quality product, and how can you tell the difference when shopping online? We are here to help you avoid wasting your hard-earned money and precious time buying and installing a hunk of junk t-top package from a sub-par manufacturer.
This guide goes through some of the main the features you should consider before you make your purchase. Aside from making sure you pick a t-top that will fit your boat, match your style and provide all the features you need, you should choose a t-top that is made of high-quality materials and built with excellent workmanship. When we’re finally out fishing with family and friends, the last thing we want to worry about is the t-top breaking or not performing as it should. Beyond that, you'll want to make sure it's easy to install, that you select a finish that's easy to maintain, that the manufacturer you pick offers a solid warranty and that you always receive great customer and product support when you need it. Ultimately, like with anything else, you get what you pay for. Picking the cheapest option often leads to more headaches and hidden costs down the road. As the old adage goes, "save now, pay later." Spending a few extra bucks for a quality product is valuable insurance in the long run.
What is the Best Metal for Boat T-Tops?
All boat t-tops are made of metal. Most of the structures use metal tubing or are combined with pieces of CNC machined solid metal. The type of metal varies, but here's a quick list of the most common:
- 6061-T6 aluminum- The most durable aluminum alloy offered on t-tops with a level 6 temper. It also has great corrosion resistance. Considered a "structural grade."
- 6063 aluminum- A weaker alloy that has good corrosion-resistant but should be avoided. Considered an "architectural grade."
- Stainless steel- Very strong but very heavy, it's offered in a smaller diameter tubing to save weight. Most standard 2" diameter clamp-on accessories will not fit. It is also corrosion-resistant but not used by many manufacturers. These are typically much smaller bolt-on solutions that are more of bimini than a t-top.
6061-T6 Aluminum: The Best Metal for Boat T-Tops
Because your t-top will be exposed to all the same water, wind, and sun that your boat does, the material your t-top is made of is critical. Choppy seas, the weight of added accessories and fishing gear all put a lot of pressure and stress on the t-top. As you compare different t-top models, make sure that you’re choosing a model that is made of a material that will stand up to everything you throw at it. The last thing you want is a cracked t-top that could damage your boat or your skull.
6061-T6 aluminum alloy is the best and most durable boat t-top metal available on the market today. It is commonly used for airplanes, race cars, bicycles, and other applications that require high strength. “T6” indicates the high level of temper, which is a heat-treating process that changes the molecular properties to increase durability. There are different temper levels, and smaller numbers indicate lower strength. It has properties that will make the bars and welds stand the test of time. Aluminum is also great because it is light, corrosion-resistant, and easy to clean. Weight is important because it's both easier to install and will have minimal effect on the boat's performance and stability. Stryker t-tops are made from 2" or 2.5" outer diameter 6061-T6 aluminum on the leg sections depending on the model and all models use 2" diameter on the top "hoop" section. 6061-T6 is a high-grade aluminum alloy that is both strong and lightweight.
Some manufacturers use weaker 6063 aluminum alloy for all their t-tops. It is NOT aircraft-grade as it is often claimed to be. It's primarily used as an architectural metal alloy. Most common industrial applications are window and door frames, roofing, and other products that require light to medium strength. 6063 has a different molecular composition that gives it lower tensile strength and is more malleable. Be warned: in addition to using 6063, some t-top manufacturers do not specify what level of temper they are using on their website, which should be of concern to buyers in our opinion. We feel that 6063 is used by these manufacturers mainly to save cost. It is easier to extrude and bend, which saves them time and money. Whether they are trying to increase profit or lure you with a cheaper price tag, ultimately it's the customer who gets the short end of the stick. A quick Google search online will give you many results that compare 6061 to 6063 in detail.
Below is a table illustrating why 6061-T6 is superior to 6063 and a critical feature to find in a t-top:
ULTIMATE TENSILE STRENGTH
6061-T6 (Stryker T-Tops)
290 MPa (42,000 psi)
240 MPa (35,000 psi)
190 MPa (28,000 psi)
160 MPa (23,000 psi)
140 MPa (20,000 psi)
97 MPa (14,000 psi)
Not many manufacturers use stainless steel- it's much heavier and more expensive. Although the strength sounds great at first, stainless steel is considered by many to be overkill to construct a full framed t-top. Plus, when installed on a light fiberglass boat, all that weight centered high above the water line can negatively impact a boat’s performance and stability. Most stainless steel "tops" are not real t-tops- they are something closer to a bimini or hybrid that is designed only to provide a little shade.
Manufacturers that offer stainless steel attempt to save weight by using a smaller diameter over the typical 2". The problem here is that most t-top accessories like rod holders, rocket launchers, lights, and others are designed to fit 2" diameter. Even with clamp insert adapters that allow 2" clamps fit smaller diameter tubing, a common complaint is a loose fit that will cause them to rattle, slide down and spin around. Since the stainless steel solutions out there are more like lightweight biminis, and the tubing diameter is so small, you basically can't fit any aftermarket accessories to them. Stainless steel is commonly used on many smaller boat parts like bolts, door hinges, railings, cleats, cup holders, etc. However, for a large t-top, it's not a great choice.
The t-top you choose should be made of a minimum thick 2" 6061-T6 aluminum alloy with solid aluminum billet joints and mounting feet. 6061-T6 is preferred over 6063. When shopping for your t-top, pay close attention to the type of metal you are getting. Not only will it ensure your t-top will stand up to years of boating and fishing, but it also means the best in safety for your family, friends, and boat. Again, you could save a couple of hundred dollars on a t-top package by skimping on metal quality, but it's risky in our opinion. Some manufacturers use only use 6061 on the solid joints but use 6063 on the rest of the tubing. Read all product descriptions carefully!
Pay close attention to the diameter of tubing used on t-tops since it varies by manufacturer and their models. When shopping online, the small photos make it difficult to tell the difference between a 2" diameter, 1.9" or even a 1.5". 2" outer diameter is recommended and it's the most common for the leg sections and top hoop. Most clamp on accessories are made for 2" but usually ship with inserts that act like spacers. Some t-tops have beefier leg sections that are 2.5" but still use a 2" on the top hoop which is where you'll mount your accessories.
Note that almost all manufacturers use stainless steel hardware which is essential for strength. It's a good idea to confirm this is what you're getting with the kit before you buy it. Also, when it's time to install your t-top, make sure to apply a generous protective layer on all the threads of each bolt. When put together, aluminum and stainless steel will gradually experience galvanic corrosion that could seize them in place. Most bolts on t-tops should be thread locked and we recommend products like Permatex® or Loctite #243 or #242 . If you have a folding t-top, some bolts will need to be removed before collapsing it and an anti-seize lubricant with galvanic protection is needed so products like LanoCote® or the Tef-Gel work great. Be sure to refer to the t-top installation guide so you know.
Since you are tightening a stainless steel bolts into an aluminum frame, be sure you don't over-torque and strip the threads. This would be disastrous and challenging to repair or replace. After the t-top installation, your first time out on the water, and periodically after that, it's a good idea re-tighten all bolts and screws from top-to-bottom. If allowed to loosen, a t-top will sway, rock and rotate until either the tubing or welds crack. There is also risk of personal injury or damage to your boat.
What is the Best Finish for a T-Top?
There are several finishes available on aftermarket boat t-tops depending on the manufacturer. Beyond just the look you’re getting, you should also know the differences because it can affect the maintenance required to keep it looking new.
An anodized finish is the most commonly found on boat t-tops that are used frequently in saltwater. Anodizing is a hard finish that looks dull or matte compared to a polished surface, and it's easy to maintain. The process of anodizing aluminum involves bathing the pieces in a bath and using an electro-chemical process. Anodizing is a technical process and must be performed by specialized shops.
Although it provides an excellent barrier to the metal, it requires specific cleaning products and regimens for its care. This is not a big deal considering all the protection you're getting. Also, because the process of anodizing is done to whole sections, it is tough and expensive to repair the finish on a t-top. If you want to fix the finish on a small three-inch section, all the old anodizing will have to be removed on the entire piece first before re-anodizing. Again, as long as you're regularly washing it down with clean water and wiping it down with a clean microfiber cloth, you'll be in good shape. We recommend at least one good cleaning and polishing per year with a cleanser and protectant.
One important thing to ask when you are shopping around, make sure the manufacturer does the anodizing bath process after they have welded the sections together. This gives the t-top the best uniform protection. Some manufacturers only anodize the tubing then fabricate and weld the sections together. We feel this leave the welds vulnerable to corrosion and creates failure points.
Anodized Brushed Aluminum
Similar to what you might see on a refrigerator or bathroom fixtures, brushed aluminum has a very distinct look. The problem here is that for a t-top, it’s not very practical. The microscopic ridges and valleys on the metal that give it that look make it much more prone to scratches. Combined with the fact that brushed aluminum t-tops are also anodized, you’ll find removing scratches or repairing the finish is near impossible. There aren't many offering brushed aluminum, but we recommend avoiding it.
Powder coating is perfect for the marine industry and an excellent choice for a t-top. Most manufacturers offer black or white, but if that's not the look you're going for, you could always buy a non-powder coated finish and have it custom powder coated at your local shop. The only drawback to going with a non-white or black color is that all the rod holders and clamped accessories will also have to be coated if you want a matching t-top package.
As far as maintenance goes, it's very easy to clean by just wiping it down with a microfiber cloth. There are some special cleaners and polishes on the market made just for powder coatings.
Powder coating is not like the paint on your car or truck. Instead of liquid paint that is sprayed on, powder coating is applied by electrifying the metal with a positive charge then spraying a powdered medium that evenly sticks to the surface. The parts are then moved to an oven to melt the powder down to a smooth, thick layer. Also, there is no clear coat similar to auto paint, so be aware that you are working directly on the paint surface so a little care should be taken.
It is difficult to find a t-top made of polished aluminum and if you do, don't buy it. Polished aluminum is raw aluminum that has been polished to a mirror finish- there is zero protection. It's a perfect application for wakeboard towers that frequent freshwater lakes but not so great for fishing t-tops. The saltwater and atmospheric contaminants will etch and pit the finish over time. To prevent this, it requires frequent and diligent cleaning, polishing, and protecting.
An anodized finish is the easiest to maintain and provides the best protection. For most center console boats, it will most closely match the metal hardware on the rest of the boat. A powder-coated finish is a close second for its ease of maintenance and protection properties. Plus, you can either match or contrast your boat's color scheme with powder coating. For a more in-depth article, you can read anodized aluminum maintenance or powder-coated maintenance on our website.
What's the Best Canopy for a Boat T-Top?
Hands-down, Sunbrella® Marine Fabric is the best canopy material for a boat t-top. It's the fabric of choice for covers, seating, shade, and enclosures with many colors and patterns available. It is UV and fade resistant, mold and mildew resistant, has the Skin Cancer Foundation's seal of approval, is easy to clean and it is breathable so cooling air can pass through.
Be VERY careful and make sure you know what material you're getting with your t-top! We hear from people who have purchased from other manufacturers and report that their canopy had faded extremely fast. We've also heard of fading from black to grey or from red to pink in as little as a few months. Fading is completely unacceptable and, unfortunately, just another example of them cutting corners at the customer's expense. The canopy material these guys are using is a low quality canvas that is woven then dyed after. This is very unlike Sunbrella®, which is 100% acrylic thread that is dyed first then woven after to make the fabric.
We have always used Sunbrella® Marine Fabric, and our customers have had almost zero problems. Beyond the fade resistance, you should also insist on Sunbrella® because it's much stronger and can hold up to the wind. The inferior fabric has a looser weave pattern that will break apart and tear much sooner. Sunbrella® is not waterproof, but it does repel water much better than the cheap stuff. We have a great canvas guy in Florida that makes these for us, and he does an excellent job cutting, sewing, and installing the grommets.
A vital tip to remember when it's time for you to install the canopy on your t-top is to 1) follow the instructions and rope it correctly and 2) make the canopy drum tight. This will prevent rain or water from pooling up, which can stretch and weaken the fabric. Also, it will keep the fabric taught in the wind- a loose canopy will flop around and quickly lead to the fibers failing. If you already have a t-top, but the canopy is not drum-tight, we highly recommend fixing it right away.
The last thing you should know is that some t-top manufacturers use a combination Velcro and zipper system instead of paracord to mount on the canopy. Velcro and zippers will not give you a drum-tight fit and will be more prone to sagging, pooling water, and rattling from the wind. It's also important to note that the Velcro/zipper canopies do not use Sunbrella® Marine Fabric.
Do You Need a Folding T-Top?
If you are planning on storing your boat in a garage, you will want a boat t-top that collapses. In the folded position, you can fit the clearance of a standard garage door with the boat still on the trailer. Many of our customers have low clearance bridges in their area and having a collapsible t-top lets them pass under with no problem.
How do you fold a t-top? T-tops are all designed differently and have a different process for breaking them down. Typically, you will remove some bolts to disconnect part of the upright leg sections, and this will allow you to pivot the top section of the t-top forward towards the bow. Depending on the configuration of your specific boat’s layout, the resting height will vary. To make folding easier, we sell sets of quick-release knobs that replace the original Allen head bolts. Their big knobby handles make removal a breeze.
If you have a folding t-top, make sure you do not trailer your boat with the top in the folded position. When folded, the t-top is connected at only two points of the frame. As you drive, make turns and hit bumps, the folded part of the top might sway and bend part of the frame. It is also important to remember that the canopies are speed tested to 50 mph and you want to keep the speed down, so you don't damage the canopy.
What T-Top Accessories Do You Need?
Boat t-tops are popular not just because they’re great for shade, but also because they can be fully customized. With a wide range and styles of rod holders, electronics boxes, lights, speakers and more, you can dial your t-top in until it’s the envy of the docking ramp. Most t-tops are compatible with accessories that have a “universal” clamp that fits 2” tubing.
Before you buy a t-top, make sure you know the outer diameter of the tubing of the leg sections and the top "hoop" section depending on where you want to mount your accessories. Talk with the manufacturers and make sure you know what the limitations are before adding items to your shopping cart. You want to avoid buying accessories that are not compatible with the t-top you prefer.
Although most of the time, you can add one company’s rod holders to another brand’s t-top, most customers decide to buy the entire package from the same company. We, for example, give extra discounts for every accessory you add on making for a very competitive t-top package price. Lastly, if you ever need to make a return, exchange, or file a warranty claim, it’s much easier to do it all through the same company.
The best selling t-top accessories are rod holders sold as either as singles or "rocket launchers" that hold 5,7 or 9 fishing rods, an electronics box which is primarily for mounting marine electronics in or for keeping your phone and wallet locked away high and dry, lights for safety or illuminating the deck and even speakers to the liven up the boat when fish aren't biting.
How Easy is it to Install a T-Top?
All our t-tops are designed for an easy DIY installation so you and a buddy can complete it on a weekend morning. Some of our customers prefer to leave it to a professional at their local boat shop. Whichever route you decide, expect the average installation time of 3 to 5 hours. Depending on the accessories, you can easily add 1 to 4 hours. An electronics box, for example, is very simple because it only takes 4 bolts and you drill through the tube at the mounting points.
However, if you want to mount lights or any marine electronics on the t-top, you'll need to factor in extra time to feed the wires through the t-top tubing at the top where you attach it, send the wires down through the legs, a small exit and re-entry at the leg joint, and out at the bottom. Before you drill a single hole in the t-top, measure multiple times and make sure you have the wiring path exact. Knowing where your battery or terminal is located, how much wire you need and picking up several rubber grommets to cover the wire holes are great considerations.
Before you buy, here’s a quick checklist to consider:
Most manufacturers post their installation guides online. You can download and preview them before purchasing to see how much work is involved. Similar to the new office coffee maker we just bought, we have noticed that some boat t-tops installation guides have been written out of the country- the English was broken and hard to follow. In our experience, this is a red flag for the quality of service you might get via email or over the phone from those companies. We recommend you always call and/or email the manufacturer before purchasing just to size them up.
2. Customer gallery:
Look through the manufacturer’s customer photo gallery. It’s very probable that one of their customers has a boat similar to yours and has installed the t-top you’re looking at. Not only will you see how it looks once installed, but you can also take notes on their mounting location on the hull and what accessories look good. Most galleries can be sorted by manufacturer or t-top model.
If their entire gallery has very few boats in total, this is not a good sign typically- either they are a new and inexperienced company or have sold very little. A small note here, if you have an uncommon boat but don't see it listed in their gallery, it doesn't mean the manufacturer doesn't have a t-top for your boat. It just means no one with your boat has submitted photos yet. Call the t-top manufacturer to find out which models can fit your boat.
3. Tools required:
When considering your time and budget for getting a t-top on your boat, ask the manufacturer or refer to their installation guides to see what tools you will need. It’s likely you or a buddy already have everything, but just in case, know what tools you’ll need on installation day and save some time. Some standard tools we recommend to have on installation day:
- Power drill with variable speeds and reverse
- Friend or "coerced" son or daughter for installation help
- Painter’s tape
- Socket wrench set
- Washable marking pen or wax pencil
- Tape measure
- 5200 Marine Adhesive
- Allen keys in a variety of sizes
- 45-degree chamfer bit (for chamfering the gel coat and fiberglass)
- Variety of drill bits
All Stryker T-Tops include at least one pair of standoffs. These are thick solid aluminum bars that connect your boat's center console unit to the upright leg sections of the t-tops on both sides. These are not optional! You must install them at the recommended locations for your t-top to be structurally sound and stable. If you don't use them, the t-top could wiggle or sway, and this can lead to cracked welds or even cracked tubing. See our installation guides to learn more and to get an idea of where they mount.
If you have an older boat, there's a chance that your center console unit was manufactured with thicker material where the standoff mounts. One way to find out is to push in from the outside. If you notice a lot of give or movement, you might need a different mounting point, or you will need to install some backing material to add strength and distribute the force. A backing plate is usually a ½” thick hard material that's at least 6” x 6”. These plates go on the inside of the center console unit of your boat, and your t-top’s standoff hardware goes through it.
While every t-top usually comes with backing washers for the inside of your hull, they are only 2” to 3” in diameter. We recommend buying something like marine-grade plywood and a marine adhesive like 3M’s 5200. Before you buy or have anything cut, you should take a peek inside your center console unit and get a lay of the interior. Measure the size of material you need and, if possible, identify locations you can connect the backing plate to for extra strength. While you're in there, make sure you have a clear path to avoid wires on installation day. Zip tie if needed and you can steer clear of accidental wire cutting.
5. Customer service:
How easy is it to get a hold of the business you are thinking of buying from? We frequently hear complaints about some companies that are impossible to get on the phone or an email response from. It’s a good idea to call and email a couple of manufacturers and measure their response time. You should ask where they are located, what their business hours are, and even how many work in their call center. Here at Stryker, we have dedicated full time, fully staffed sales and support team located in Southern California. They don't work off commissions and aren't pushy- their only job is to help customers.
Installing a T-Top with a Side Door on Center Console Unit
If your center console has a side access door, you will want to be very careful when picking out an aftermarket t-top. Most designs have a horizontal leg brace that might block your access and prevent the door from opening more than a few inches. Some t-tops like the Stryker SG900 have solved this problem by moving the brace much higher and making use of four standoffs to compensate for extra stability. A standard solution for some customers is to swap out the pivoting hinge with a removable pin. This lets them slide the door out and remove it completely. The only downside to this is that the crossbar will make entry into the center console unit a little tricky.
Cheapest Boat T-Top Warning
Looking for the absolute most affordable t-top? Before getting into the main points, we want to briefly mention that the best advice is don't fall for the lowest price out there. Even though some t-tops mostly look the same online, they are not built the same or made of the same materials. Comparing them side-by-side in person, holding and inspecting them reveals a lot. We have heard from many unhappy customers who purchased from other manufacturers based on price alone. Ultimately, like with anything else, you get what you pay for.
Picking the cheapest option often leads to more headaches and hidden costs down the road. As the adage goes, "save now, pay later." Paying a just few extra bucks for a quality product is good insurance in the long run. Skimping on a set of $5 disposable socks is one thing, but a t-top package is entirely different- it's for the life of the boat. Do your due diligence and ask questions about material quality, workmanship quality, warranty, and customer service quality. Everything covered in this article should empower you to become a savvy shopper.
It may all seem like a lot, but it's ultimately an investment that will significantly upgrade the looks and performance of your boat. We understand that beyond the new fun and functionality it brings, most customers also care about picking a reputable and recognizable brand that will increase their boat's resale value. Quality and reliability are especially crucial for the safety of family and friends for years to come.
Every reputable boat t-top manufacturer and dealer will be able to answer the questions outlined above about their products. If the answers you get, do not meet the standards outlined in this article or are unsatisfactory, ask to speak with another sales representative or keep shopping around.
Believe it or not, there are a few more points not covered in the article. If you want to read more about shopping for universal t-tops for boats or are completely new to aftermarket t-tops, be sure to learn about all the basics in the first link below:
- Learn the Basics About Boat T-Tops
This is an expanded FAQ article that includes some of what you just read here, plus, it dives a little deeper into what a boat t-top is, what it does and what features are important to boaters and fishers in general.
- Installation Guides
All our installation guides are downloadable. We recommend reviewing the installation guide(s) from all the manufacturers you're thinking of purchasing from. Not only will it give you a good idea of what the process will be, but it can also provide a little insight into the professionalism of the company. A few poorly written sentences are one thing, but almost illegible instructions in broken English is not acceptable.
- Boat T-Top Care & Maintenence
Good to read through before you buy a tower not just after. Learn which of the available finish requires the least amount of maintenance to keep it looking new. If your spare time is valuable, this article is recommended.
- Customer Photo Gallery & Reviews
All reputable t-top manufacturers have a customer gallery on their website with many photos and reviews. It shows you the number of excited customers who are happy and proud enough to take the time to submit them. In most cases, your boat or one that's very similar is listed, and you can see how a t-top package looks and where they installed it on the hull.
If their gallery only has a few boats, it might indicate they have very few customers, haven't been in business for very long and their products haven't had a lot of time tested in the real world. Note that if you have an uncommon boat, you might not find it in anyone's gallery, but that doesn't mean they don't have a compatible t-top.
If you have any questions for us, feel free to contact our customer support team via phone at (949) 407-5000, email, or by filling out our online contact form. We’re happy to answer your questions, talk about your boat, or help you create a customized t-top package. You can also search our customer photo gallery for your boat to see what works well with it. Again, if your exact boat isn't in the gallery, it doesn't mean we don't have a t-top that's a perfect fit. Just contact us, and we'll let you know what your options are with no sales pressure.
Happy shopping and happy boating!