Do It Yourself Paint: Sailboat Painting

A faded, dull-looking fiberglass sailboat can be restored to a gleaming yacht finish with modern polyurethane paints using foam rollers and lots of patience.

Older fiberglass sailboats usually have a tired, dull finish after years of exposure to the ultra-violent light of the sun which fades the original Gelcoat finish. Gelcoat is not paint, but is rather a pigmented resin that is sprayed into the mould in boat construction and is, unfortunately, difficult to renew or reapply once it has been buffed out and waxed as many times as is practical over the years.

There is hope for older sailboats, however, and they can be restored to a gleaming yacht finish that will make any owner swell with pride by using the new varieties of marine polyurethane paints available today. These paints come in a wide range of formulations, some being quite expensive and requiring mixing with hardeners and other agents and a degree a patience beyond that of most boat owners simply wanting a good looking vessel.

My preference for painting boats is to use the one-part polyurethane paints marketed under such names as "Brightside" and Easypoxy." Retailing for just under $30 a quart, these paints produce a hard, high-gloss finish that is durable for at least several years, even in the tropics, and they are easy to apply, with brush, roller, or with spray equipment. Because of their superior leveling-out characteristics, these paints can be applied with a brush or roller to achieve a finish that looks sprayed on by a professional. Here's how:

First clean the hull of your boat thoroughly with soap and water, and a de-waxing compound if it was waxed. If surface repairs are necessary, fair in the damaged areas with an epoxy compound and sand until the repair blends in with the rest of the surface. If the hull is in good condition, sand all areas to be painted with a medium grit paper such as 100 or 120-grit, then again with 220-grit to really smooth it up. Once again, wash the hull with soap and water to remove any residue, and then wipe it down with a clean rag dipped in mineral spirits. The hull is now ready for painting.

In my experience, the best way to get that mirror-like finish you want is with the high-density foam rollers sold in paint or home-improvement stores. The key is to thin the paint using the manufacturer's suggested thinner until it is just the right consistency to flow well, and then to apply each coat from bow to stern without interruption to avoid "edges" in the paint surface. For smooth coats, work an area about 2 feet square, beginning at the bow. Roll the freshly-dipped roller on with vertical strokes, top to bottom, then roll across this same area horizontally. Move into the next 2-foot area with fresh paint, repeating the same motion, but then go back over the first area with vertical strokes from bottom to top, applying almost no pressure. This smoothes out bubbles and eliminates roller-stroke marks. Work into the next area, blending paint from the first area so there are no transition marks. It takes patience and practice, but relax"¦ If you mess up the first coat, just wait for it to dry and sand enough to smooth out the imperfections before applying the second coat. Most boats will need several coats anyway. When I recently painted my white 26-foot sloop a dark green, it took no less than 7 coats to get the desired result. Sand the paint between each coat with 220 grit paper or 220 grit foam sanding blocks, and wipe down with a thinner-soaked rag before applying the next coat.

With these paints, you should wait overnight before sanding, so a multiple-coat paint job will take a few days. It's worth it though. Next time you pull into your marina slip or drive up to the boat ramp, you'll be the envy of all those sailors with the worn-out looking, faded Gelcoat finishes.

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