Why You Should Paint Your Boat Yourself
The cost of hiring a yard to repaint a 30- to 40-foot sailboat is likely to be over $10,000, which is a lot given the actual value of many older mass-production boats. The alternative, if you’re willing to put in long hours with a rotary sander, is doing it yourself. It’s a lot of work, but you can achieve the equivalent of a yard-quality finish for as little as $1,000 in materials.
When I bought my Dufour 34, Gypsy Wind, nine years ago, her red gelcoat was nearly 30 years old and badly faded. I repainted her myself, and the result was fabulous; Gypsy Wind looked bright and shiny and as good as new.
Eight years and 30,000 hard miles later, it was time to paint her again, so I hauled out this past summer at Schroeder Yacht Systems in Urbanna, Virginia. This is a full-service yard, but works closely with do-it-yourselfers. Jeff Schroeder and his staff are always ready to offer advice and suggestions, or can take on jobs the owner would rather avoid. There’s also an excellent restaurant and pub on site, which is very important for planning the next day’s work.
First, I gathered my materials: Interlux provided primer, fillers, various thinners and six quarts of Perfection, an easy-to-use two-part polyurethane paint specially formulated for do-it-yourselfers. Interlux has an excellent video demonstrating the roll-and-tip painting method, which I found helpful. This is available at Interlux’s website (yachtpaint.com), along with various other product videos and data sheets. There’s also an 800 number to call for technical assistance, which proved invaluable. None of my questions were considered too trivial, and the staff made many helpful suggestions that simplified the job substantially.
I also gathered sandpaper and tools, plus coveralls, latex gloves and several boxes of foam brushes from a local hardware store. More on those later.
Most of the project—about 90 percent—consisted of preparation. While the actual painting takes relatively little time, the finished job will only look as good as the surface it is applied to.
That means sanding, sanding and more sanding, until the hull is as smooth as glass. Read the product instructions carefully. Watch the videos. Take your time. You’ll be living with the results of your work for many years, so you want to be sure and do it right.
After setting up some scaffolding around your boat, you should first remove as much hardware as possible—through hulls, rubrails, etc.—as this provides a better finish than masking. If you have a boat with exterior chainplates, you might consider taking the mast down to get them off as well. Taping over large pieces of hardware is fine, provided you sand and paint carefully around them. I masked off my anchor roller, for example, as removing it would have been a major complication.
When masking off the boat, be sure to use easy-release masking tape to simplify removal. If you plan on raising your boot stripe, mark where you want the new stripe to be with a sharp knife before you do any sanding and put a piece of tape below the cut so you can find it. For a video demonstration, see below.
Next wipe your topsides down with solvent to clean and dewax the surface. This is vital. You must remove all dirt and wax to prevent it from being ground into the substrate and affecting your finish coat. Clean the entire boat twice, surveying the surface as you go. You’ll probably find an incredible number of small dings and gouges you never knew existed.
Now you’re ready for the real work. Fiberglass dust is nasty, so wear coveralls, a dust mask and eye protection. If your topsides are badly scratched, as mine were, you should start sanding with 180-grit, rather than 220-grit paper. After you’ve sanded the entire boat, wipe it down again to make sure there are no spots you’ve missed. Sand out any small dings and scratches until they’re smooth, patch the resulting concavity with filler, and then sand the patch flush again. (For more information on treating gouges and deep scratches, refer to Don Casey’s Complete Illustrated Sailboat Maintenance Manual.)
Once your topsides are smooth, sand again with 220 grit. Again, you want a surface as smooth as glass before you roll on any primer.
Next you have a choice to make. If you’re unsure of your painting skills, it might be a good idea at this point to have your yard spray on the primer and finish coats. Having done all the prep work yourself, you will still save many thousands of dollars, and the final result, if you’ve done your work correctly, will be indistinguishable from a high-priced professional job.
I, however, decided to roll on my own primer. Because Gypsy Wind is red, I used grey Interlux Interprotect as a primer, as opposed to the white primer most boaters use. White, by the way, is the easiest finish color to work with; red is the worst.
The roll-and-tip technique is fairly simple, though it helps to have a partner. One of you rolls on the paint with a roller, then the other “tips” it with a brush to smooth it out. A badger-hair brush is usually recommended for tipping, but I like to use high-quality foam brushes about two inches wide. The advantage of foam is that you don’t have to stop to clean off excess paint, as you do with a badger-hair brush. When a foam brush feels “draggy,” you just toss it and grab another from your belt. It’s important not to use it too long. If any foam breaks off, you will end up with a chunk of it in your finish. As for the rollers you use, these should be of high-quality closed-cell solvent-proof foam designed for two-part paints.
Before applying any paint, first wet the ground around your boat if it’s dusty. This will keep the dust where it belongs. Start by painting the transom first, as this is a small, discrete area where you can practice your technique. Never repaint over a wet area. If you make any mistakes (you will), it’s easier to sand them out and repaint later after the paint has dried.
Once your primer is dry, sand again with 220 grit, apply a second coat of primer and then sand again. Wash between coats with solvent to remove the dust.
By the time you’re ready for the finish coats, you’ll be a pro at rolling and tipping. Don’t apply your finish coats too late in the day, as evening dew will kill the gloss. You should also avoid painting on windy days or hot, sunny days. If you position your boat so each side receives an equal amount of sun, you can paint both sides in the shade: one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. You may need to thin the paint for best results, depending on conditions. Read the directions carefully when doing this.
Sand your first finish coat lightly with 320- to 400-grit paper. If there are any runs, sags or rough areas (known as“orange peeling”) sand them out. Wash with solvent again. Roll and tip a second coat and, if necessary, a third coat as well, following the same prep regimen.
Once you’ve got the last coat down and it has dried overnight, you can carefully remove the masking tape. Then stand back and admire your work. Don’t do any more than that, however. Leave your boat in place for a week or more to let the paint fully harden. You don’t want to lift it in the slings prematurely and ruin a soft finish.