A family on the water having fun on their Bennington QX pontoon boat

As a long-time boater and someone involved in the marine industry for over 3 decades, I have been to many boat shows.  I specifically remember one show in Minneapolis many years ago when pontoons were the new craze.  Seemingly every boat manufacturer had jumped on the bandwagon and there were aisles and aisles of pontoon boats on display.   Most looked pretty much the same making it very difficult for shoppers to choose one over another.  Perhaps you have been in that situation too.

The goal of this article is to give you a framework to compare pontoon brands.  Beyond obvious things like the appearance and layout, the focus here is on how to evaluate the relative quality of a given manufacturer.

While I have personally owned multiple boats and have been involved with the boating industry most of my adult life, I am by no means an expert on all boat types.  That is why I reached out to the folks at Bennington Marine for additional guidance.  I chose Bennington because they are a leading manufacturer with a long reputation for quality.

Introduced in 1998, Bennington was instrumental in the shift from the no-frills, slow-moving boats that only “old people” bought to the luxurious, versatile, family-friendly and more powerful vessels that are popular today.  In the words of Ryan Good who is responsible for Sales and Distribution at Bennington, “these are not your grandfather’s pontoon boats anymore”.  He should know.  Mr. Good has been in the marine industry his entire adult life and was gracious enough to spend time with me to discuss how to evaluate a pontoon.

Specifically, I asked Mr. Good to describe what to look for in terms of the Product Design, Construction Process and Materials/Components used when evaluating pontoon brands.   Much of the information that follows stems from my discussion with him.

DESIGN CONSIDERATIONS

By product design, I am not talking about how the boat looks but rather how it is engineered.  Most every manufacturer offers a variety of “designs” or models to choose from.  Below are some factors to consider to help you find the right pontoon boat for your needs.

Number of Pontoons

Two is less money but three (tritoon) gives you better performance.

Many manufacturers offer the choice of two or three pontoons.  Though Tritoons cost more, they give you greater stability, a smoother ride, better maneuverability and the potential for higher cruising speeds.   And, the added pontoon provides additional floatation for increased load capacity and the ability to hang a larger outboard motor.

If you plan on doing watersports or boating on a larger, rougher, body of water, then a Tritoon is likely the way to go.  On the other hand, if you just want to do some slow cruising on a small inland lake, then you could save some money by going with a traditional (2-log) pontoon instead.

Size of Pontoons

Larger diameter tubes will give you greater buoyancy.

The diameter of most pontoon tubes range from 23” to as much as 27”.  Larger tubes will naturally give you increased buoyancy along with a smoother ride and higher speeds.  This is because more of the boat is lifted out of the water rather than plowing through it.  Also, some tritoon manufacturers use a larger center toon so that the boat will lean a bit on the turns for added maneuverability.  If comfort and performance are important to you, be sure to look for a boat with a larger pontoon diameter.

The Layout

This is less of a quality issue and more about finding a boat configuration that meets your needs and preferences.  Fishing oriented pontoons will generally have one or more pedestal seats in the bow and/or the stern.  Pleasure pontoons will have a combination of seats, benches and perhaps even chaise lounges.  But besides those broad differences, there are a wide variety of layout configurations available and the key is to find the layout that is conducive to how you intend to use the boat most of the time.

While some manufacturers offer a select number of layouts, others offer numerous options and, in some cases, even let you customize the boat.  As Ryan put it, “Bennington might have 230 different layouts but we welcome customs too as well. That choice is very important in allowing the customer to get exactly what he wants and designing it for him and his family.”

If it is your first pontoon boat, it might be difficult to anticipate the ideal configuration for your particular needs.  This is where it is a good idea to talk to other pontoon owners to find out what they like and dislike about their particular layout.

Storage Compartments

Whenever I ask boaters about their most important needs, storage is often near the top of the list.  Having enough storage of the right size and type is key to keeping your boat clean and uncluttered.

Look for storage compartments of varying sizes to help organize the things you are likely to store or bring aboard your boat.  This might include skis/watertoys or fishing tackle, life jackets, towels, personal items, day bags, lines, anchors and fenders, and even a cooler.  For this last item, my personal preference is to have space to store a cooler rather than having a built-in cooler itself so that you don’t have to load and unload it after each outing.  And the cooler should be located in a common area, not under a seat, to avoid having to displace someone every time you want a snack or drink.

The type of storage is important too.  Most boats should have a combination of wet and dry storage locations. Wet storage is good for things like lines, fenders and anchors that naturally get wet and should be allowed to drain to the outside of the boat. Dry storage is for things like personal items, clothing and towels that should not get wet – even if it rains or a wave splashes over the deck or someone sits down with a wet bathing suit.

The area underneath the seats is an ideal dry storage location but not all are designed for this purpose. One way to check is to see what the seat bases are made of. Some use aluminum while others use roto-molded plastic. According to Ryan, “the biggest reason (Bennington) uses roto-molded plastic is because it is a tub.” With aluminum framing, “any water that gets on your deck is going to go under your seat and get anything stored there wet. There is nothing worse than putting your purse down there and finding out later that it got wet.”

CONSTRUCTION PROCESS

The way a boat is put together can have a big impact on its quality and longevity.  According to Ryan, here are some things to look for.

Frame Construction

Is it solid?

The frame of a pontoon boat acts like a skeleton. It needs to be sturdy to withstand the weight and vibration that boats are often subjected to. Bennington uses what they call “uni-frame” construction meaning that key components such as the pontoons, deck and rails are all bolted to the frame to act as one. The benefit is that “you are going to get less flex in the boat”, Ryan stated. “A little bit of flex can be good but you don’t want too much flex in the aluminum or the frame as this will give you a poor ride and not feel as comfortable – especially in rough water.” Plus, a stiffer frame will vibrate less and should remain tight as the boat ages.

An alternative, but less robust, construction method is to connect some key components (like the railing) to the deck but not the frame.

How can you tell the difference? Ryan said to “look for where the rails on the outside are attached to the deck – by looking under the rub rail – where the pontoon and rub rail meets – and see if that railing is bolted through to the frame or just through the panel or decking.”

Bolts vs. Screws

Bolts will hold up better over time.

Most boats will use screws to attach some items in the boat. But, for major components such as the deck, railing, bimini/tower and seat bases, bolts will generally handle stress and vibration better and are less likely to work loose.

In order to tell the difference, Ryan suggests “crawling under the boat and look underneath where the decking is connected to your cross channel. If you see a bolt with an aluminum lock nut, it is bolted through. And if you see a screw, usually a self-tapping screw, then it is screwed together. There are some manufacturers that will upcharge you to thru-bolt it. It is actually an option. It is standard on every Bennington.”

Chambered Pontoons

A chambered pontoon is safer if a leak occurs.

As the name suggests, a chambered pontoon will have separate air-tight chambers that are welded together.  Alternatively, some manufacturers will weld pieces together to form one continuous cavity.  However, the benefit of having separate chambers, according to Ryan, is that “if a leak does occur, it doesn’t go into the entire pontoon for safety.”

An easy way to tell if the pontoons are chambered is to “go to the aft of the boat and look at the bottom of the pontoon to see if there is a drain plug.  If there is a drain plug back there, it is not chambered.”

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MATERIALS/COMPONENTS USED

Ryan pointed out that boat builders are largely assemblers that buy a bunch of components that they put together to build a boat.  As such, the quality of the components is key.  Here are some specific things he suggested that you look for:

Seat Vinyl

Is it thick and have quality stitches?

Most pontoons have large amounts of upholstery that take a lot of wear and tear from sitting and stepping on the seats and from exposure to the elements. As such, the choice of vinyls is very important. Key things to look for are the vinyl thickness and seam strength (how much weight can it hold). Unfortunately, most boat brands won’t provide this objective information and so you will have to go by feel (does the vinyl feel thick or thin and “papery”) and visual inspection (do the seams feel tight and difficult to separate?). Also, double stitching should hold up better than a single stitch over time.

On a related note, when you get your boat, be very careful what you use to clean the upholstery. Harsh cleaners and stiff brushes can easily damage the fabric and threads or remove the anti-microbial protection leaving you vulnerable to mold and mildew. Instead, always use a marine vinyl cleaner and rag or a soft brush if absolutely necessary.

Foam

Are the seats and benches comfortable and provide adequate support?

The amount and density of the foam used will impact seat comfort. Bennington actually uses a variety of foam densities because, according to Ryan, “the thing that touches your back needs to be softer than what touches your bottom because it needs to be firmer.”

The best way to check is to simply sit on all of the seats. “Some of the seats might feel very thin and not supportive. Where does the seat hit you in the back? Where does the seat hit you on your legs and does it feel comfortable?”

Deck Materials

Know the advantages and disadvantages of each deck material.

Premium pontoon builders use differing materials for their decks.  No one material is definitively superior as there are pluses and minuses with each.

Marine-Grade Plywood

Perhaps the most common decking material, marine-grade plywood consists of 5 or more wood plies that are bonded together with water-proof glue and finished with heat and pressure. The layers of wood are stacked so that the grain alternates from horizontal to vertical for added strength. This is the material that Bennington, Barletta, Harris and many others use.

Advantages of marine-grade plywood are its high strength and its ability to dampen or diffuse heat, sound and vibrations. The disadvantage is that the wood could rot if exposed to moisture for a prolonged period. Therefore, it is important that manufacturers that use plywood take steps to carefully seal it.

Note that marine-grade plywood should not be confused with pressure-treated or wolmanized plywood which has been chemically treated to resist rot and insect damage. However, it is not as strong as marine-grade plywood and is not ideal for surfaces that might come in contact with bare skin because of the pesticides used.

Composite Decking

Composite decking is commonly used for backyard patios and picnic tables and is gaining in popularity among pontoon builders. The product is made of wood fibers and plastic – often from recycled materials – and therefore is considered more environmentally friendly. Manitou pontons and the Forest River brands (South Bay, Trifecta and Berkshire) are examples of companies that use composite decks.

The main advantage of composite decking is that it won’t rot like wood and is low maintenance. However, it is not as rigid as marine-grade plywood and some believe it does not hold a screw as well. It also gets hotter and is more expensive.

Aluminum

Aluminum is light weight and will not decay like wood. This is a key reason why Veranda uses it on its pontoons. However, it is not as rigid as marine-grade plywood and composite decking, is more likely to transmit sound/vibrations and heat and is more expensive.

The bottom line is that there is no obvious answer as to which deck material is superior. The key thing is to check to see how a given manufacturer addresses the deficiencies of their chosen deck material. For example, if they use marine-grade plywood, it is important that the material be properly sealed to deter rotting. If it is aluminum, see what steps were taken to shore up its rigidity and to minimize vibrations.

Electronic Equipment

Are items of sufficient quality OR are you given a choice?

Pontoons are often equipped with things like a stereo system, fish finder/chart plotter, and perhaps even a trolling motor. If one or more of these items are important to you, then it is important to do your homework to assess the quality and suitability of the items installed – especially since many of these items can be fairly expensive.

For example, one of my current boats is a 19’ Aluminum Fishing boat. The fish finders that came with the boat were pretty basic. However, given the price of the overall boat package, it was still worth it for me to purchase it knowing that I would need to upgrade some of the electronics later.

If you are particular about the equipment used on the boat, then your best bet might be to look for a manufacturer that will let you pick your equipment or give you separate brands and/or models to choose from. As Ryan put it, “with Bennington, it is about choice. We do business with three of the top (fish finder) manufacturers and the dealer or consumer can choose what they want to put in it.”

Engine

Go with a brand that has a quality dealer nearby to support you.

Outboard engines have come a long way over the past decade or two. Though each manufacturer has its share of strengths and weaknesses, all modern outboard brands are pretty reliable for the most part. The biggest consideration nowadays, according to Ryan, is to go with an engine brand that has a reputable dealer nearby to support it. That means that if you were leaning towards a Mercury but the local dealer supports Yamaha, you will likely have a better overall experience by going with the Yamaha brand in this case.

Another important consideration is the size of the engine. From decades of experience in doing research with boaters, I found that underpowering is a fairly common cause of owner dissatisfaction. And I have yet to hear anyone complain that their motor was too big. This is where your intended usage matters. If you plan on slowly cruising around on a 500 acre lake, then a 60 horsepower motor is probably sufficient. However, if you are on a large body of water or intend to pull kids on skis or a tube, then you will likely want a larger motor. A quality dealer should be able to advise you on the proper size of engine for your needs.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Warranty

Another important clue as to the quality of a pontoon boat is the warranty.  If a manufacturer is confident that their boat is well-built and going to last, they will likely back it up with a substantial warranty.  Of course, the opposite is also true.  Be sure to compare the warranties for the brands you are considering to get another potential indicator of the relative quality.

Price vs. Cost of Ownership

Finally, when making your boat brand purchase decision, you should consider more than just the initial purchase price. Resale value is important too. As Ryan put it, “Your true cost of ownership is not just the price you pay for the boat. It is the price you pay, PLUS the cost of ownership LESS the price you sell it for”. So, paying a little extra for a quality boat upfront might actually be cheaper in the long run for brands like Bennington that tend to hold their value.

Special thanks to Bennington Marine and Ryan Good specifically for contributing to this article.  Please note that BoaterInput received zero compensation for including Bennington but selected them because they are often thought of as a “gold-standard” for pontoon boat quality.

Sources:

Good, Ryan (of Bennington Marine).  Interview.  Conducted by Jerry Mona.  24 October 2023.

Bennington Factory Tour“. Web Blog Post.  Bennington Marine. 22 May 2023.

12 Important Things to Look for in a Pontoon Boat.” Web Blog Post. BoatTest.com. 27 March 2019.

WHICH HAS MORE BENEFITS – A TWIN TUBE OR TRITOON PONTOON BOAT?.” Web Blog Post.  Manitou Pontoons.  August 2021.

Pontoon Tubes.” Web Blog Post. PontoonBoat101.com.

Eldridge, Jonathan. “The Pros and Cons of Popular Pontoon Boat Decking Materials and Coverings“. Web Blog Post. Better Boat. 06 August 2022.

Reynolds, Scott. “What are the Differences Between Using Composites, Aluminum, or Wood for Your Boat Deck.” Web Blog Post. Pontoon-Depot.com. 16 March 2016.

Phillips, Emily. “Marine-grade Plywood: Everything You Need to Know.” Web Blog Post. Today’s Homeowner. 12 October 2023.

What is Marine Grade Plywood?”. Web Blog Post. Forest Plywood.

Lewandowski, Bill. “Is Composite Decking for Pontoon Boats Worth It? Debunking the Myths!” Web Blog Post. PontoonOpedia. 23 July 2018.

Goldman, David. “How to pick the Best Marine Vinyl?“, Web Blog Post. MarineVinylFabric.com. 19 April 2017.

6 Things to Make You a Better Pontoon Boat Buyer.” Web Blog Post. Charles Hill Marina.  2 December 2021.

Jerry Mona - BoaterInput

About the author

Jerry Mona is an avid boater and angler and long-time boating industry insider. With over three decades of experience, he is often considered to be the leading research expert with boaters and has helped numerous manufacturers and trade associations to understand the needs, wants, attitudes and behaviors of boaters. He now shares many of his insights about boats and boaters for free on his BoaterInput.com website.

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