|Boating Sportsman Staff Report |
The focus of Boating Sportsman is on all types of aluminum boats. So chances are good that if you’re now holding this publication, you too understand the advantages of owning an aluminum boat versus a fiberglass one. But since this is a Buyer’s Guide there might be a few consumers who are still trying to decide between the two.
An aluminum hull, as compared to fiberglass, will yield a more durable, longer lived boat, easily customized to customer requirements, that is simply and quickly repaired and is easily retrofitted to meet changing operating requirements. But the advantages go beyond the obvious.
Aluminum boats offer a number of added benefits that should not be overlooked—advantages that aluminum boat owners have enjoyed for years. A lot of boat owners think more about their bait than the material used in the construction of their boat, so sometimes the more prominent of the two in the recreational boating market gets all the attention. Fiberglass is considered to be the best by some, while the aluminum boat is regarded by many as the lesser of the two.
But let’s not be too quick to judge. Have you actually seen an aluminum boat lately? It might surprise you that the construction has come a long way in terms of look, function and more importantly, price. It’s worth a closer look so if you’re not sold on aluminum, take a moment to ponder these advantages when compared to traditional fiberglass boats. Chances are good that you’ll see why aluminum deserves a second look and some respect in this industry.
First Aluminum Advantage
To succeed in this industry manufacturers need to find the best weight-to-strength ratio for the material of their boats. Aluminum is relatively light yet durable at a reasonable cost and the physical properties of aluminum make it superior to both fiberglass and steel.
Aluminum is about one-third the weight of an equal volume of steel and, properly alloyed, is near its strength. Therefore, you could have a hull that is 50 percent thicker than steel, but is still lighter.
Actual construction favors aluminum as well. Its flexibility allows spring-back and it bends without breaking. Try this with fiberglass and you’ll find the brittle material tends to rupture on impact. Other benefits on the lightweight side of the equation include needing a lighter-capacity trailer and a corresponding smaller tow vehicle. You can save money on your engine package and achieve the same horsepower-to-boat ratio with a lighter boat and smaller engine.
Second Aluminum Advantage
Perhaps it’s not a concern to you as a boat buyer, but those on the manufacturing side of the boating industry know that quality and consistency is a big plus. When it comes to quality control, aluminum is easier than fiberglass to test. The primary rating of a piece of aluminum stock is gauge or thickness. For instance, consistency is simple to design into the sheet-rolling process. Physical and instrument inspection is a straightforward method of ensuring that what is rated is so.
A piece of 5083 alloy is the same everywhere, so alloy specifications conform to worldwide recognized standards. Aluminum manufacturing facilities are certified through widely established standards. Visual and instrument inspection can also be used to help guarantee consistency in the assembly process.
Third Aluminum Advantage
It’s true that fiberglass earned its popularity reputation because of relatively cheap molds and high-volume manufacturing, which helps keep those production costs down. However, that gap is closing quickly thanks to evolving production techniques. Through the use of three-dimensional CAD software coupled to a computer-controlled cutting table, precise and repetitive cuts can be made quickly to create component pieces for aluminum boats.
Aluminum, a very malleable metal, can be machine-shaped in sections that are then assembled via welding. With the benefit of mass production and assembly-line construction, the cost of aluminum boat manufacturing is edging closer towards fiberglass. As techniques evolve to make use of aluminum’s ease of fabrication, you will see a similarity in designs and notice little difference when comparing aluminum and fiberglass.
Again, this might not be a huge advantage to you as a buyer, but you might be interested in what this means to the environment. The fiberglass process operates under many air-quality constraints and fiberglass manufacturing uses numerous solvents in gel coat and resin formulations and for cleanup. These volatile organic compounds are under ever-increasing restrictions. There is no way to know what the future increases in cost will be to enable fiberglass boat manufacturers to continue those processes.
Fourth Aluminum Advantage
The up-front costs are still a little higher for an aluminum boat compared to a fiberglass one, but that gap is decreasing more and more. But where aluminum catches up is the lower maintenance demands. Fiberglass experiences minor to major structural fatigue over time, which may lead to major repair costs. Aluminum resists such failures.
Fifth Aluminum Advantage
How many fiberglass boats have you seen on a skinny stretch of a river? Probably not many, since these types of boats don’t hold up to the stresses of the marine environment like an aluminum craft does. The strength of its panels, along with its flexibility when dented, is a huge advantage.
Especially for boats that seem to find shallow water often, dents do appear on aluminum hulls. But when those dents do appear, they can easily be pounded out. If the damage is something more severe, the section can be cut out and a patch handily applied. When done you can’t even tell there was ever a problem. You can’t say the same for fiberglass.
Sixth Aluminum Advantage
If you like to do a lot of repairs yourself, chances are good that you have the common hand tools needed, such as a drill motor, drill bits and hole saws, a hack saw and a saber saw to get most jobs done. Even routers and circular saws are appropriate to work aluminum. Adding a through-hull for a bait tank or a transducer for a fish finder is as simple as adding them on a fiberglass hull.
Fiberglass is actually harder on cutting tools such as drill bits and saw blades since the glass content in the material dulls the cutting edge much more quickly. Since aluminum is relatively softer than steel and kinder to tools than fiberglass, the ease of working it is another bonus for the aluminum boat owner, even if you’re not the one doing the work.
Seventh Aluminum Advantage
The marine-formulated aluminum that is being used today is not the same material that was used in the past. One main misconception about aluminum is that it’s vulnerable to corrosion, but this is not true.
One of aluminum’s characteristics, mixability, makes its use appropriate for marine application: formulated in an alloy with magnesium, the 5xxx series resists corrosion in fresh water and salt water. The unpainted metal reacts with air to form aluminum oxide, a hard coating that protects the underlying aluminum.
Eighth Aluminum Advantage
Something that most people will never have to deal with, or even really think about is fire resistance. Have you ever seen an aluminum boat burned to the waterline? That’s because of aluminum’s resistance to fire.
While the argument may be made that fiberglass doesn’t burn, it is the resins with which it is saturated that are so flammable. These concerns don’t exist with aluminum construction. While this does not release you from the responsibility to keep matches out of the hands of children, it is one less concern on the water for owners of aluminum boats.
Ninth Aluminum Advantage
Most buyers go into a boat purchase feeling like this is the one, but you should at least be aware of the boat’s resale value. Beyond the understanding that durability, strength and low maintenance cost all translate to longevity, the resale market indicates that aluminum boats hold their value better than fiberglass.
If you have made it to this point without giving aluminum a second thought, then you are a tough sell. If you take the emotion out of the consideration and simply compare the difference between aluminum and fiberglass strictly upon facts, aluminum should be a realistic consideration as the material for your next boat. And what better way to get familiar with aluminum boats than picking up this Buyer’s Guide that is centered around all aluminum boats?