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The Wooden Pontoon Seat Evolves

Pontoon boats have a long, rich history. They were based on the design of the catamaran - used as far back as 300 B.C. and responsible for much early exploration. The main difference between the general characteristics of catamarans and pontoon boats is that the catamaran hull is not enclosed. Pontoon boats have watertight pontoons, sometimes called sponsons, which afford much better buoyancy.

The first United States patent for a boat that looks very much like our modern pontoon boat was awarded to Alexander G. Wilkins, in 1908, and was simply titled, "Boat." The dual, watertight pontoons were attached to a simple deck, encircled by safety railings. This early pontoon boat was powered by the person sitting on the wooden pontoon bench seat located near the center of the boat. The paddles were activated much like bicycle pedals and were used to both propel and stop the boat.

While Wilkins' pontoon boat was fun, his only contribution to comfort was a hard, wooden pontoon seat. Louis N. Bell had much grander ideas. He patented a "Pontoon House Boat" in 1929. While much more exotic, and comfortable, Bell's floating houseboat had no means of propulsion, and had to be towed to the destination. This type of pontoon boat, although not credited to Bell, was even used in the Himalayas at remote mountain holy lakes. English officers were not allowed to build homes on the shores of the lake, so used this style of pontoon boat as a summer home. These elegant boats are still used for tourists visiting the area.

With limited advertising available in Wilkins' or Bell's lifetime, news of these "new" pontoon boats was slow in spreading across the United States. Several people took credit for inventing pontoon boats during the 1950s, but a more accurate claim would be that they invented "better" pontoon boats.

Motors and steering capability were added, advanced building materials were used and, perhaps the most appreciated advancement, better pontoon seats such as pontoon captains seats were added. This time-period fairly exploded with pontoon boats, resulting in a number of manufacturers with several types of pontoon boats and boat furniture.

Pontoon boat seats evolved from the wooden bench seat on A.G. Wilkins' boat to the padded and vinyl upholstered pontoon seats introduced by Harris Manufacturing in the 1960s. At last pontoon seats that were built for the more comfort-loving boaters.

Aging Pontoon Seats

Pontoon boats were nicknamed party boats or party barges for a good reason. What better place to relax with friends and have a party than on the water. That is why most pontoon boats might often look a little worse for wear. A domino effect of party wear-and-tear begins when the pontoon seat covers become bleached and dried by the sun after a few seasons of use. After the sun damage, the vinyl or other upholstery fabric loses its flexibility and the integrity of the upholstery material is compromised.

Tears, cracks and worn-out patches of pontoon seat vinyl on pontoon seats allow moisture to enter the padded area, leading to waterlogged seats. Waterlogged seats, besides being uncomfortable, disintegrate quickly. After a season of being soaked and then dried by the sun, the interior padding, also called upholstery foam, becomes brittle and can turn to small grains of what was once padding.

The options for repairing the damaged pontoon seats range from patching with duct tape, to purchasing replacement pontoon seats, to replacing the entire boat. Any sort of patch job is temporary at best and the cost of a new pontoon boat is prohibitive for many people. The most popular option when pontoon seats have worn out, particularly if the rest of the pontoon is in good shape, is simply to replace the seating.

Some of the seating used for pontoons can be built by do-it-yourselfers. The difficulty in refurbishing all the different types of pontoon seats including captain's chairs, bench seats, folding seats and L-seats, is prohibitive for many pontoon boat owners. Most boat owners, however, opt to buy used pontoon furniture.

During the 1960s, when padded pontoon boat seating was first introduced, replacement pontoon seats had to be purchased from the manufacturers. Now that several decades have passed, used pontoon seats are available at a reasonable cost. Used seats can come from pontoon boats that are no longer used or from owners who have upgraded their furniture.

Quality Levels of Pontoon Seats

Pontoon seats come in many sizes, shapes and levels of quality from premium seats to discount pontoon seats. Molded plastic pontoon seats are most often manufactured using injection molding or rotational molding. Injection molding forces liquid plastic into a cold mold to form the plastic furniture units. The rotational molding process fills the hot mold with plastic granules, and then rotates as the granules melt. The injection molding process remains the most popular method of forming plastic and can produce intricate pieces. Larger, one-piece products can be produced inexpensively, although more slowly, using the rotational process.

Pontoon seats typically have molded plastic bases and padded, upholstered seating sections. The bases are attached to the pontoon deck with bolts or screws. Stainless steel or aluminum hardware is most often used for the longest life and least amount of rusting. Hinges that allow access to furniture storage areas are also made with rust-resisting aluminum and stainless steel. Commonly, pontoon fishing seats and captains seats have stainless steel pedestals which attach to the deck of the boat.

Padding for pontoon seats, usually called upholstery foam, varies in quality, density and thickness. The pontoon seat cushions are filled with durable, high-density, plastic upholstery foam with a thin covering of plastic to provide water resistance. On pontoon boats, the pontoon pillows are used as flotation devices, so closed-cell foam that resists water is used for padding. The quality and depth of the pontoon seat padding is often an indication of the quality, with thicker, denser padding being of higher quality.

Upholstery fabric used to cover the pontoon seats can be fabric, but because pontoon boats are subject to almost constant dampness and harsh conditions, pontoon vinyl is often the preferred material. Upholstery material is attached to pontoon seats using stainless steel staples or screws. If wood is used for the base of the pontoon seat, it must be marine quality to repel water for a longer life. Good quality pontoon boat seat covers are resistant to UV rays that are damaging to the fabric. Pontoon boats face winter storage, often outside with just a thin protective covering over them. The cold air can cause vinyl to crack, opening the interior of the pontoon seat to unwanted water leaking inside.

Even the seams and zippers on pontoon seats must be made of tough materials that resist harsh conditions and hard wear. Bonded Polyester thread is typically used for marine upholstery because it provides superior resistance to sunlight (UV), mildew and abrasion. If zippers are used, the best choice is nylon for both durability and resistance to the elements.

Purchasing Used Pontoon Seats

When purchasing used pontoon seats, inspect them carefully for quality, wear and tear, and affordable pricing. To make an informed decision, check multiple used boat furniture sources to compare the quality, price and condition of the furniture. Look for wear and tear on the seams and the edges of the pontoon seats, where they cover any hard surfaces, also referred to as abrasion points. These areas wear out the soonest and, if damaged, can allow water to enter the pontoon seat. Excessive bleaching from the sun and the accompanying breakdown of the pontoon vinyl fabric can indicate the upholstery material may leak.

Many avenues are available when searching for used pontoon seats and other accessories. Online classified directories and auction houses list merchandise available for sale by individuals and companies specializing in used pontoon boat furniture. Check web sites for online companies that specialize in pontoon seating, including pontoon benches, captain's chairs, flipping lounge chairs and entire sets of pontoon furniture. Individual sellers are often quite motivated to recoup the money for their used pontoon seats to offset the cost of new seats. Local marinas and boat owners may also be aware of available used pontoon seating.

To get pontoon furniture that fits correctly, it is important to measure the area on the pontoon deck carefully. When considering the replacement pontoon seats, confirm the exact dimensions of the furniture bases, including height, depth and width. When pontoon seats will have armrests, make sure to add the width of the armrest when laying out the floor plan for the deck.

Purchasing New Pontoon Seats

Purchasing new pontoon bench seats from the pontoon boat manufacturer has several benefits. Purchasing new pontoon seats is a good choice when considering the lifespan of the furniture, if used pontoon seats that fit the pontoon cannot be located, or if the cost of the new seats is not prohibitive.

Purchasing pontoon seats from the original manufacturer ensures the seats will fit the pontoon boat deck exactly as it should, since the furniture was made specifically for that vessel model. Often, improved materials and construction are used in replacement pontoon furniture because technology has advanced since the pontoon was manufactured.

The furniture for each model of pontoon boat is available in different levels of quality. Usually basic, intermediate and high quality replacement seats are offered. Pontoon seat construction, quality of materials, and depth of cushioning dictate the cost of the furniture.

Installing Pontoon Seats

Replacing pontoon seats may be cumbersome because of the size of the boat furniture, but it is a relatively simple process. The boat owner's physical abilities and the cost of hiring someone to replace the pontoon seats are taken into consideration. Most often, families make a weekend project out of removing the old pontoon seats and installing the new, or new-used pontoon bench seats.

Pontoon seats are installed using bolts and screws. If the original furniture was installed with products that are not rustproof, they may be difficult to remove. Difficult hardware can be removed by using one of several products specifically designed to eat through rust and allow removal of the hardware. If hardware is excessively difficult to remove, the bolts and screws can be cut to remove the old pontoon seats.

After the old furniture is removed, inspect the location of each bolt to make sure it is clean and in the right location for the new furniture. This is a good time to replace deck carpeting and other pontoon seat accessories, if that is included in the budget. Installing new carpeting under the furniture allows easy installation, and results in a better fit that lasts longer.

Installing new, or new-used pontoon furniture is not difficult but can be frustrating if not done correctly. As each pontoon seat is put in place, hand-tighten the screws or bolts. Continue this process for each unit. Fully tightening each piece of hardware before installing the next unit will prove frustrating, as it may not leave room for minor adjustments.

If the pontoon seat's hardware is located in a place on the pontoon deck that has no existing hole, a new one may need to be drilled. Once each pontoon seat is in the correct location and each bolt or screw is hand tightened, the hardware can be tightened using a hand tool.

Caring for Pontoon Seats

Use a cleaner designed for marine furniture at least twice a year to protect your new pontoon bench seats. Improper cleaning products can actually add to the wear and tear by breaking down the fabric surface. For better protection, clean pontoon seats more often, particularly during pollen season, if passengers use suntan lotion or if you see any evidence of mold and mildew. The sooner damaging elements are removed from the pontoon seats, the less damage they can cause. After thoroughly cleaning pontoon seats, rinse carefully to remove all residue from the cleaning process.

Using a pressure washer to clean or rinse pontoon seats may seem like a good idea, but the intense pressure from the water stream can actually damage the surface of the seat. Either hand washing with a bucket or a lower-pressure water hose is recommended for this purpose.

Reduce damage done from UV rays by applying a protectant after cleaning pontoon seats. UV rays not only bleach color from the boat furniture vinyl, they can break down the surface of the seats, causing cracking and disintegration. When plastics are created, additional protection against UV rays are added. Over time, this additive is worn away. It is a good idea to coat the surface of older pontoon seats more often to ensure adequate protection from harmful UV rays. When not in use, pontoon seat covers are recommended.