Breathing New Life Into Your Old Aluminum Boat By Hannah Pennebaker
It’s the middle of summer, and the middle of the boating season for many of us as well. Boats take us to our favorite fishing spots and open up opportunities to find new ones. Aluminum boats in particular are a Pacific Northwest staple. They are tough and hardy fishing machines, capable of pounding the mighty shores of the Puget Sound for salmon, and sneaking into shallow waters in search of trophy bass. Although boats provide us with many fun filled summer days, even the most durable and well-crafted aluminum boat is going to eventually need some TLC. One of the most important repairs and investments you can make is in a new floor. Over time, boat floors get pounded and water logged, either from leaks or just from use. This doesn’t have to spell the end for your boat, however. Replacing your boat floor is quite the project, but it can breathe new life into your old aluminum boat and make it last for many more seasons of summer fun.
Last year, we upgraded from a fourteen-foot Sears Gamefisher to a sixteen-foot Smokercraft Alaskan Pro. The boat was turn-key ready, and served us well over the season. Many kokanee, crappie, and salmon were bonked on the deck. After a while, we noticed the bilge pump turning on more and more frequently. Upon closer inspection, we noticed that the floor and foam were soaked due to leaking (and missing) rivets! We weren’t ready to give up on our new boat quite yet. The hull and transom were still solid, and we knew there were many more years of service left in it. Ultimately, over the course of the off-season, we decided to replace the flooring. It took more time and effort than we expected, but now we have a solid boat with a brand-new floor, ready for many more years of fishy adventures! Follow along as I guide you through the process, so that you can give your old aluminum boat a facelift!
Removing your old flooring and foam is the first step in this process, and probably the most grueling. Soaked foam will corrode and pit your hull while rotting your floor, destroying your boat from the inside out. Removing it is quite the process, though. It’s best to chip away at it each day- you can divide it into sections and pace yourself. You’ll want a circular saw and some pry bars to remove the boat floor and get at the foam. Rotten, wet plywood will be the easiest place to start. Pry up some boards to start with, and then saw the rest out. A word of caution when using the saw; make sure to find out where the stringers (metal support structures) are, and avoid cutting them. Protect your eyes, hands, and ears by wearing all proper PPE. For removing the foam, you can use a pressure washer, a shovel, or a knife. Removing all that soaking wet foam will take hundreds of pounds of weight out of your boat, improving your gas mileage and top speed considerably. You can cut the foam out with your knife, scoop it out with your shovel, or spray it out with your pressure washer. We ended up using a combination of the three methods in order to get every last bit of foam out. Getting all that old floor and foam out of your boat is a great step towards protecting and renewing your boat.
Now that all that old, wet foam and plywood is out of your boat, you’ll need to decide what material to use for your new flooring. There are many different options available, and your choice will depend on a few factors. You’ll need to consider the weight, cost, and durability of your flooring. Marine grade plywood is the cheapest option, but also one of the heaviest. Most boat manufacturers use marine grade plywood, but the major downside is that it isn’t the most long lasting or durable option. Composite floors are becoming an increasingly popular option in new and refurbished boats alike. They are more expensive than plywood floors, but they are significantly lighter, stronger, and tougher. Coosa board, honeycomb board, and HDPE are all great options. Shipping costs can add to the price of your flooring, however. Marine plywood is more readily available than composite and metal flooring, which means you likely won’t have to pay hundreds of dollars in shipping costs. We decided to go with Coosa board because there was a dealer in Seattle, so we did not have to pay shipping costs. The heaviest and most expensive option is aluminum or steel floors. Metal floors will require little upkeep, look great, and can simply be sprayed off at the end of the day. It all depends on whether you’re more comfortable working with metal or composite/wood. We have more carpentry tools than metal-working tools, so this also factored into our decision for a composite floor. In deciding between composite, metal, or plywood flooring, you will want to think about your long-term plan for your boat. How long will you keep it? Are you going to want to upgrade soon? If you only want to get a few more years out of your boat before upgrading, marine grade plywood is a great short-term option. But if you want to keep your boat for years to come, composite floors are the way to go. They are more expensive in the short-term, but they will save you money, time, and effort in the long run because they last so much longer. Composite floors don’t get water logged like plywood does, but they are susceptible to UV damage and can be slick, so they must be either painted or wrapped. Overall, when selecting your boat flooring, take time to think about your long-term goals for the boat and whether you’re going to prioritize affordability, durability, or weight.
Now that you’ve selected your flooring, the next step is to decide if you want to wrap it or paint it. Most aluminum boat manufacturers choose to use vinyl. This creates a neat, clean, and slip resistant layer that also protects the wood underneath. Composite and plywood floors must be either wrapped or painted, but metal floors are okay on their own. There are several types of non-slip paint you can use. Look for textured paint, or paint with sand in it. Boat floors can get slippery with fish blood and water, so it’s a good idea to make sure your floor is as non-slip as possible. Alternatively, you can wrap your boat in vinyl flooring or carpet. Carpet is a great option for bass boats, as you can easily shape it to fit casting decks in the front and back. Vinyl works well for v-hulls and is quite non-slip, even in rain. A less common solution is to install EVA panels or rubber mats. Rubber mats are easy to throw in, clean, and remove, but they won’t protect the underside of your flooring from water leaks, and they’re quite heavy. EVA panels can look great, but their long-term durability is questionable and they are more expensive. We decided to wrap our Coosa board in vinyl because it’s easily replaceable and looks great. There are many different options available, so make sure to weigh cost and durability in your decision.
One important step in boat floor repair is deciding what kind of flotation foam you’ll use, if you use any at all. Federal law requires boat manufacturers to put flotation foam in any boat under twenty feet long. In the unlikely event that your boat capsizes, flotation foam will at least ensure that your boat floats and doesn’t sink. Most manufacturers use pour foam, as it is easy to use and will expand to fit all the nooks and crannies underneath boat floors. It is quite messy, however, and if you ever need to access your floor to repair a crack or a leaky rivet, it is time consuming and tedious to remove. Alternatively, you can use sheets of foam or styrofoam and cut them to size with a saw or knife. They will be much easier to remove, but you won’t be able to fit quite as much foam into the nooks and crannies of your boat.
Taking the time to install a new floor in your aluminum boat is a great way to increase its longevity and value. You’ll be able to inspect and repair the hull for missing rivets or cracks, making your boat safer as well. If you have a leaky floor or water-logged foam, don’t give up on your boat quite yet! You can customize every aspect of your new floor and truly make your boat your own. Whether you decide between metal, marine grade plywood, or composite, you’ll end up with a beautiful new floor that will be fishable for years to come.