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Composite Construction

A while ago on one of the bulletin boards a question was raised as to whether wood based construction was inferior and obsolete.  After answering that post, I had to remember how many times I had done so on our showroom floor.  I realized that it was a question that Nichols Marine as a Champion (wood based) and Skeeter (composite) dealer might be qualified to address for all of our "cyber customers".
So here is how I addressed the subject on the Bass Fishing Home Page...Boats & Motors board....

Post # 6257  1/3/98:

I sell Champion and Skeeter boats.  Champion uses plywood and end grain balsa in the construction of their boats.  Since 1995 Skeeter has been making the transition to all composite structural components in their boats.  Hopefully I don't have an axe to grind either  way. 
First, I think it's important to define what "composites" are and the various methods of composite construction.  Today, anything that is not wood is being called composite.  That includes fiberglass, poured or injected foam, honeycomb or foam based products such as Klegecell, beetboard, aluminum and steel. 

You really have two very distinct composite construction methods.

The first is to use non wood products as direct replacements for wood components.  That is where the basic construction of the two types of boat is the same (hull /stringers /floor) with the difference only being whether the components are wood based or not. 
The second method is an "inner liner" method which uses fiberglass cavities injected with foam (forming a glass/foam/glass sandwich).  Those Champion owners out there with Champion's composite or "liner" hulls have this type of construction.  

Also, Gambler uses this "hull within a hull" method.  The liner method really requires a 100% manufacturing commitment because it is a radically different way of building a boat.  It is a very tooling intensive (outer and inner hull molds in addition to cap molds) and requires training your people for a different methodology.  

I used to be a Gambler Dealer and I remember Bob Ackerbloom (Gambler's owner) recounting to me how long it took him to develop the technique and how expensive it was to introduce new models (a good reason for Gambler's limited model selection).
Champion dropped this method for two reasons.
The first related to the cost of running "dual" manufacturing styles and the second related to poor repairability.  It seems that the dual hull injected foam method severely limited access to the structure of the hull.  Once the structural foam was compressed or damaged (i.e. due to an impact), it was impractical or impossible to repair and reinforce the damaged area from the outside.  This resulted in liner boats that normally would be repairable (if they had been conventionally constructed), being total losses. 

Using most of the off the shelf composite materials available today simply as wood replacements also has its problems.  Wood as a structural reinforcement generally has better strength to weight ratios, panel span strength, durability under compressive loads and resistance to degradation over time.  The major exception is that untreated or unprotected wood can and will rot if exposed to water over an extended period of time.

However, composites also have their Achilles heel.  Fiberglass laminates that absorb water delaminate.  If you doubt this, just talk to anyone who has experience with structural damage due to hull blistering.  Foam based honeycombs tend to degrade under continued compressive loads.  This is the reason that Allison Boats used Klegecell extensively as a structural component and uses steel in the transom.  Products such as beetboard (so called because it is made from sugar beets), have the the nasty tendency to degrade over time.  Composites usually have inferior panel span strength.  That is why Skeeter strut supports their nested hatch composite decks. 

What does this all mean?  It all reminds me of the great "hand laid" versus "chopper gun" debate of the late 80's.  Time has proven that a good chopper gun boat is better than a bad hand laid boat.  Time has also proven that each has applications in which it is superior.  Today just about everyone uses a skin chop to fill hard to reach voids and to prevent nasty cosmetic conditions like "print through". 

In my opinion, composite technologies will go through a great range of growing pains from annoying to catastrophic.  It is also my opinion that the increasing cost of wood and the marketability of "no wood construction" will demand the perfection of the technology and the invention of new and better materials. 

Having wood in a boat (if it is PROPERLY protected) does not mean you are dealing with an inferior boat any more than a decal that says composite means you are dealing with a superior boat.
In the final analysis, it's going to come down to your confidence that the builder has command of whatever materials and methods it chooses to use and has the history, track record and financial wherewithal to be able to stand behind their products.
A well made boat will never be obsolete.

Rico       Nichols Marine