Painting an Old Sailboat
In early 2020 as Covid set in I took the opportunity to paint a boat that I had recently purchased.
The boat was a 28-foot, 1972 (I think) Northerner which was the predecessor to the very common and popular Compass 28 and then Compass 29. It had its original gel coat with numerous blemishes and a fresh coat, or several coats, could really make an improvement. At the same time, I did some glass work fixing up some cracks in the deck and replaced all the stanchions and lifelines as well as reinforcing the areas underneath the stanchions to add strength.
I had never painted a boat before and so there were some key lessons from my long and arduous experience that I thought might be useful to the next amateur looking to paint their prized possession.
Key Lesson No 1 – Paint is Cheap Relative to the Time Investment
Undertaking the task of painting a boat is incredibly (incredibly) time consuming. If you are painting a boat for the first time then you will spend days researching, reading and watching YouTube videos. You may then spend days removing deck fittings, filling holes and sanding before your paint brush is dipped into a can of paint.
I had put together a very detailed plan in Excel that would get my boat painted in just one week. This very quickly blew out to four weeks!
My original plan was to use cheaper single-pack paint, which is fine, but I soon decided to use the more expensive two-pack products when I realised the supporting material for these products was comprehensive. I also realised that the cost of the paint was just a small fraction of the cost relative to the time I was investing in the project.
Key Lesson No 2 – Do Your Research
Doing your research will certainly help you end up with a final product of which you are proud. Spend some time reading online articles, consulting sailing forums and watching YouTube.
I also found the representatives from the paint manufacturers more than happy to answer questions you might have. I called the helpful lads at the paint company a couple of times when I had questions and once after I had made the fatal mistake of painting before a cloud burst. Your local chandler will be able to put you in touch with the local representative. I have heard great things about the reps from the main large companies selling boat paint.
One particularly valuable resource I found was the eBook by Russell Brown, Rolling Perfection. You can find this online for approximately $10. If you need to do some glasswork then Russell Brown has an equally useful book on doing epoxy work.
Key Lesson No 3 – Practice Makes Perfect
Before starting on the venture I removed the hatch to my anchor locker and took it home to practise painting. I cleaned and sanded it and then started painting. I even took photos of my work and posted them online to get answers to a few questions. Doing this was essential in ironing out some bugs in my thinning of the paint (see next tip) and the rolling and tipping. It also allowed me to learn the importance of keeping a wet edge to prevent streaks.
Practise also gave me the motivation to keep going as the hatch looked amazing after the final coat of top paint and non-stick Kiwi Grip.
Key Lesson No 4 – Thinner is Better … Most of the Time
One valuable lesson I learnt when practising on my hatch was that putting on the paint too thick can cause issues such as microscopic bubbles that dry leaving little holes in the surface. This can be fixed by thinning the paint and also by tipping with a brush after rolling on the paint.
The manufacturer’s data sheet for the paint you choose will tell you how much you can thin the paint and what to use as a thinner. Be sure to read and keep a copy of the data sheet as you will certainly refer to it.
When doing your top coats just remember that these are the harder protective layer that provide UV protection. Thinning these too much may not be in your best interest.
Key Lesson No 5 – Good Paint Brushes Make a World of Difference
For the first coat of paint, the primer, I used a couple of cheap brushes to do the detailed work around the edges. My original plan was to use lots of cheap brushes and throw them out after each coat. I quickly found that the cheap brushes were hard to work with. The hairs kept falling out, random strands stuck out leaving paint where it shouldn’t be and it was difficult to get a consistent stroke up against the edge. On my next coat I used a slightly better brush and it made a world of difference. My work was finer and I was moving a lot faster. In the end I was buying really good quality brushes and going to the effort of cleaning them with the required thinner.
By the last coats I had settled on a system where I used the following:
- Paint roller tray one size up from the paint roller I was using. This allowed me to have space on the tray for at least two brushes.
- 100 mm mohair rollers which I bought in a pack of ten. I often changed the roller a couple of times while applying a coat as they clog up as the morning paint goes off. These are disposable. Be sure to use masking tape to pull out any loose hairs before use.
- One good quality small brush for doing the fine edge work and which I cleaned at the end of the day.
- One good quality larger brush for tipping which I also cleaned for reuse.
The paint manufacturer’s data sheet will tell you what to use to clean your brushes. Some solvents you expect to work may not work at all and if you try to use them you may end up destroying your brush. For example, turpentine will not clean your brush of two-pack paints, your brush will end up in the bin if you try it.
Key Lesson No 6 – Personal Protective Equipment
Paints can contain some incredibly nasty ingredients and so it is important to protect yourself from contacting the paint or inhaling the fumes.
If you have never owned a respirator then now is the time to buy one. You will be surprised how often you wear it over the years for painting, sanding, or using harsh cleaning products. Be sure to purchase the right cartridges/filters that will protect you from chemical fumes. These filters are different to the ones that protect you from dust when sanding. My respirator now lives on my boat just in case I want to do an odd job.
Nitrile, laboratory style gloves are essential. The best ones are the black ones which are thicker and don’t tear as easily as the cheap latex ones. This allows you to wear them while sanding and doing other work. These can be hard to find and so buy a large box as you may use a dozen pairs in a day. If you have ever tried to remove two-pack paint from your skin you will understand why gloves are so important. Some of the thinners and paints contain harsh chemicals that you should not get on you.
Be sure to read the safety section of the product data sheet and the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for the products you are using and follow safety instructions and PPE requirements. I cannot stress this enough. You only get one set of lungs.
Also … be sure not to get paint on your mobile phone. It will never be the same again.
Key Lesson No 7 – Not Taping is a False Economy
I originally taped before I sanded which was a mistake as my sanding damaged the tape which I then had to remove. I then thought taping was so time consuming I would be better off just using a small brush to do the details. This detail work was time consuming and slowed me down.
A few locals working nearby noticed I wasn’t taping and offered their advice, so for the next coat I went around and taped some areas. I soon realised that the time invested in taping properly actually saved time as you could quickly paint around the edges and fittings. For latter coats I taped up everything and completed the coats in a fraction of the time.
Towards my last coats a professional shipwright saw what I was doing and approached me with a roll of thin 6mm flexible corner tape that could be bent around corners when applying. This corner tape is similar to electrical tape but narrower. This at least halved the time it took to apply the tape. My procedure was then to use this corner tape first and use wider masking tape beside the thin tape.
Using masking tape and a scalpel or other blade is an efficient way to go around corners.
Removing fittings and hardware sounds time consuming and difficult. You will be glad you did as painting around these is difficult and un-professional.
Also, remember to take the tape off after every coat. I made the mistake of leaving the tape on for too long and ended up integrating a small amount of blue tape into the deck for eternity.
Key Lesson No 8 – Develop a System
Applying the paint cleanly, streak free and with minimal mishaps requires a lot of technique. Luckily you have a number of coats to get more skilled before applying your final coat of paint. There are many techniques and the following are just some I developed over numerous coats:
- Roll the paint out first, then tip, then do the edges around the detail. I found that when I did the edges first it would partially dry and would smear if I then rolled.
- Try not to paint over or touch up something you have left for a while. It will be tacky and result in a smear. Leave it to dry, sand it and fix it with the next coat of paint.
- Do small sections at a time so you can constantly maintain a wet edge of paint. If you do a large section, then your edge of paint will dry and will smear when you do the section adjacent to it.
Key Lesson No 9 – Painting in the Rain will Cause a World of Pain
I made the catastrophic mistake of starting the first top coat of paint when there was some chance of rain. The BOM was reporting <1mm of rain. The rain gods must not have been happy because when I was halfway through the coat the clouds parted and it rained lightly. Just a few drops. At the time I thought it will be fine.
On returning the next day I had a gooey mess that took at least three days of back breaking sanding before I could put another coat on! What a nightmare. I then went to the hardware store and made an investment in many tarps to protect the paint from both rain and dew.
Choosing the right weather is key to the application of a successful coat. The product fact sheets will tell you what temperature and humidity to paint in and don’t tempt fate by painting outside of this window. Be sure to check the weather report and consider buying a small humidity and temperature gauge (the type you might have at home).
Any dew will either ruin your paint or at best turn a gloss coat into a matt coat. If there is any chance of dew you will need to cover your boat with tarps to prevent the dew settling. Fans also help at keeping the air moving.
Painting too late in the day will also prevent the paint from going off as it cools down in the evening. Start early and give yourself a hard stop. For me I had to stop painting at 1pm.
If possible, choose the right season of the year to do your painting. This will save you a whole lot of heartache.
I repeat – never, ever, ever, paint if there is any chance of rain!
The result – Its worth it!
After what felt a lifetime of hard labour, I finally finished my project. I had, what looked like, a brand new 40-year-old boat.
I have since sold the boat but she is on a mooring next door to my new boat and I like to marvel at my work every time I row my dinghy past her. In fact, the result was so satisfying I went out and bought another boat I could restore.
The paint job is still as white and glossy as the day I finished applying the last coat! Now I’m off to paint my new boat.