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Choosing the right window materials

Making the right window material choices means finding the best way to serve both fabricator and client needs.

Features | May 1, 2023 | By: Jeff Moravec

This craft has acrylic windows, one of the most popular material choices. But for many boat owners, the decision is not always easy because each choice has pros and cons. Photo: Chicago Marine Canvas

Selecting boat windows for customers might be the hardest thing a fabricator can do—or the easiest. Most customers have two primary concerns: cost and longevity. Make them something that’ll last and that doesn’t break the bank, and they’ll be happy. Easy, right? Not necessarily, because achieving that involves finding the right balance of clarity, scratch resistance, UV resistance, stain/chemical resistance and flexibility—which can be a challenging task.

Understand the options

Everyone wins if fabricators use the right materials to satisfy their customers while honoring their own design intentions. So, what’s the best way to do that?

First, you need a clear understanding of the most common window materials. Here’s a description from Craig Zola, vice president of marketing and distribution for Herculite Products Inc., a manufacturer of marine fabrics and materials, including Strataglass®:

What starts here is a window choice that will have a long-term impact on the boat owner—will it be a good value or not? Photo: Brake Marine Canvas

Flexible clear vinyl: “This is a great choice for many boat owners because of its breathability, suppleness and recent advances in technology like scratch-resistant and UV-resistant coatings. This material is clear plastic and is soft and flexible, so it can be rolled up when not in use. It also has excellent stability and durability, and is inherently fire-retardant, waterproof and mildew resistant.”

Polycarbonate: “This is also a super-clear plastic, but it’s semirigid, making it hard and nearly unbreakable. The material can also be coated with UV-resistant technology and is also waterproof. However, it can’t be rolled up like vinyl, and it can cost more to
replace when damaged.”

Acrylic: “This is another semirigid option that is inherently UV resistant. It’s clear and strong. It’s not as scratch resistant, but scratches are usually repairable. It’s also not flexible enough to be rolled up.”

Zack Chapman, owner of Brake Marine Canvas, says how well any product works comes down to how well the boat owner takes care of it. Photo: Brake Marine Canvas

Customer needs and canvas condition 

Vince Innocenzi, owner of Chicago Marine Canvas, says the best way to determine the best materials for a particular boat owner is to look at the customers’ needs. 

“Find out how they’re going to use the canvas and what geographical areas they might be boating in,” he says. “If the boat is going to be moved to a saltwater environment, that comes into play.” 

Innocenzi says the condition of the existing canvas also makes a difference in the window material he recommends. 

“We do a lot of canvas repairs,” he explains. “People will bring in their canvas windows and say they want new flexible clear vinyl put in, so we look at the condition of the canvas. If it’s in great shape, they maybe want to go with a higher-quality window, such as a press-polish sheet.”

This is a work in progress at Brake Marine Canvas, where owner Zack Chapman says the location of a window on the boat will often determine the best material to use. Photo: Brake Marine Canvas

Many leading manufacturers of flexible clear vinyl, such as Strataglass, Aqua-View®, O’Sea®, Regalite® and CrystalClear, use the “press-polish” method. Pressed-polished window products are made by taking two layers of clear vinyl, heating them until they’re on the verge of melting, and then pressing them together between highly polished chrome plates to ensure a consistent thickness that is smooth and free of flaws. This process creates one thicker, polished sheet with excellent optical clarity.

“If the canvas is going to last another five to 10 years,” says Innocenzi, “you want a quality type of window in their canvas so it will last the same amount of time. If the canvas looks like it’s in really bad shape, and the customer just wants something basic in there because they’re going to sell the boat or they want to get a couple more years out of it, we recommend they get regular clear vinyl that will have a shorter life span.”

This boat is the work of Greg Keeler at Oyster Creek Canvas, who says the method used to attach a window to the canvas is often what dictates the material.

Boat style and use 

Innocenzi says it’s also important for the fabricator to look at what type of boat the windows will be going on. “On a higher-end boat, you’re probably going to want a higher-end product on it. On the other hand, if it’s a smaller day boat where they might use the windows a few times a year, there’s no reason to spend more money on a higher-quality product.” 

In addition, says Innocenzi, a lot of the window decision depends on how the customer plans to use the boat. 

“If the owner is down on their boat every weekend and they’re always taking their windows on and off the boat, and they have limited storage and like to roll them up, we’ll definitely talk to them about doing soft windows—just because they have flexibility to store them when they’re not in use.”

Oyster Creek Canvas sews all its windows, which in part determines the material to be used. Photos: Oyster Creek Canvas Co.

Moving toward rigid

Innocenzi says that when he started, he didn’t do any rigid windows. “But as time has gone on, it’s something we talk to all of our customers about, and I would say 50% of the new ones will go with are polycarbonate.”

For a hard-top boat, Innocenzi likes to use a polycarbonate or an acrylic window. “In our area we definitely use more polycarbonate than acrylic because polycarbonate is the same design and sewing process as a soft window, as opposed to training an employee how to bond an acrylic window,” he says. “We do acrylic sometimes, but it’s just more labor intensive for us and a higher cost to the customer.

Vince Innocenzi, owner of Chicago Marine Canvas, says the best way to determine the right materials for a particular boat owner is to look at the customer’s needs and the type of boat the windows will be going on.

“The only reason customers typically wouldn’t go with rigid is for storage reasons,” he adds. “If they like to roll windows up to store them or they’re always taking them on and off, it’s more difficult to store rigid windows and keep them flat.” 

Innocenzi says a number of customers have had the wind catch a hard window that is being moved or is sitting out. “Those larger polycarbonate windows act like a kite, and the window just flies away into the lake. If you’re always taking them on and off, soft windows are easier to manipulate and fold up.”

Polycarbonate windows were installed on this boat at Chicago Marine Canvas. Photos: Chicago Marine Canvas

Attachment methods matter 

Sometimes, the method used to attach a window to the canvas dictates the material that is used, says Greg Keeler, founder and owner of Oyster Creek Canvas Co. in Bellingham, Wash. “We sew all of our windows, so the materials we use are going to be polycarbonate, pressed polished sheets and very seldom roll vinyl.

“It all depends on how a customer uses the boat, whether or not the windows will be taken on and off a lot, and whether they’re going to be rolled,” says Keeler.

In the end, most of the time that means using polycarbonate. “We’ve gone that direction in the last few years, from probably a quarter polycarbonate to more than half,” says Keeler. “It holds its shape really well, and with any sort of radius, polycarbonate is going to hold its shape better than a press-polish sheet. Every dodger we do is polycarbonate; it’s been years since we’ve done one using press-polish sheets.”

Chicago Marine Canvas didn’t do any rigid windows when it started but now uses about half polycarbonate, as on this boat. Photo: Chicago Marine Canvas

Keeler says if his customers are going to be taking windows off part of the year and want to be able to put them away, he’ll lean toward press-polish, which is easier to store. 

“Cost is another consideration too,” he says. “Like on a big flybridge enclosure, we’ll always do the front windows with polycarbonate, but maybe the side windows could be Strataglass or O’Sea or something similar. They lie flat on one plane. I can fabricate Strataglass faster than polycarbonate and the material cost is a little less.”

Design dictates materials

While some fabricators prefer to bond their windows to the canvas, Keeler sticks with sewing. “I feel like I can create better shapes if I am sewing. Bonding works well if you have a lot of straight edges. I like to make things that look like waves or shapes, and I don’t use many straight edges except where zippers are.”

Zack Chapman, owner of Brake Marine Canvas in Morehead City, N.C., says his first consideration for window material is where the window is going to be on the boat and what shape it’s going to hold. “I’m a big shape guy,” he says. “If it’s going to be a big piece that doesn’t get moved around a lot, a corner curtain or a large side curtain on some of these bigger boats, it’s easy to choose one type of material over another.

Greg Keeler, owner of Oyster Creek Canvas, says window material choices are affected by factors such as, “how a customer uses the boat, whether or not the windows will be taken on and off a lot, and whether they’re going to be rolled.” Photo: Oyster Creek Canvas Co.

“We tend to use Strataglass for a lot of panels that need a smiley face or roll-up zipper in them,” Chapman says. “We also use a fair bit of Makrolon® [TUFFAK®] polycarbonate sheets, which is a lot more resilient to cracking and breaking. We use that on smaller center consoles where people might not want to spring for the extra thickness acrylic glass brings.”

In the end, though, Chapman notes that how well any product works often comes down to the customer. “If you have a customer who doesn’t take care of their stuff, you can’t expect it to last very long.” 

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

SIDEBAR: Here’s the rub: everything scratches

Vince Innocenzi, owner of Chicago Marine Canvas, says at his shop he formerly used Makrolon® AR2, which offers superior abrasion resistance and glass-like surface hardness. “But now we use Aqua-Lite® UV polycarbonate,” he says. “It’s a lot less expensive and has a UV coating but is not scratch resistant.”

Ah, it’s that old discussion about scratch resistance. 

“It doesn’t matter what the material is,” he says. “It can be soft material, it can be polycarbonate, and it can be scratch resistant—but at the end of the day if someone rubs up against it with a sharp pointed piece or metal or anything sharp, it’s going to scratch. It doesn’t matter what the product is.”

Obviously, as Innocenzi explains, if someone mishandles a window or takes it on and off frequently, it’s more likely to get scratched. “It helps if you leave them up all the time, and no one should really touch them except to clean them with the proper product,” he says. 

Innocenzi notes that for some boats, it’s about the same price to buy windows without scratch-resistant coating and then replace them a few years down the line as it is to buy the coated version. “They’re also easier to replace because we already have the pattern,” he says. 

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