How To Paint A Boat

No matter how you perceive it, boats have to handle a lot of abuse. Even sitting on a trailer, they are battered by rain, baked by the sun’s UV rays, and have to weather all kinds of temperatures. They get bumped against docks in the water, dragged across rocks, and are constantly under assault by the local flora and fauna.

The only thing standing between your boat and these hazards is a thin coat of paint. Unfortunately, this means that repainting your boat is no laughing matter. Do it wrong, and you could end up damaging your investment.

Without further ado, here is how to paint a boat correctly, from stem to stern.

Paint The Deck And Upper Hull

The first step to painting your boat is painting the deck and upper hull. These parts of the ship are exposed to the elements but are not submerged, so they are treated differently from the bottom of the hull.

For this section, we will assume you are painting a wooden boat. Once we have covered the basics, we will discuss the extra steps you will need to take for fiberglass boats.

After you have chosen a good quality marine paint, prepare your boat for painting:

  • Remove any hardware such as cleats, rails, and vents that might get in the way. Also, remove any trim that is stained or painted a different color. This trim can be refinished and replaced separately.
  • Prep the surface by de-waxing it, sanding it, filling any holes, and washing it all down.
  • Prime the surface, being careful not to leave any drips.

When painting the deck, the most important thing is to leave a clean, smooth coat. For this reason, it is best to use the “roll and tip” method used by floor refinishers the world over. One person goes ahead, applying a rough coat. Another person follows behind, smoothing out the roller pattern and ensuring an even coat.

Another essential part of painting your deck is to use three or four thin coats. Thick coats generally don’t cure as well as thin coats and can peel off easily. More thin coats will form a stronger bond and will be more durable against weathering.

Above all, diligently follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding cure time. For example, if they say to recoat within two to four hours, don’t recoat after 90 minutes or wait until the following day. Paint drying is a chemical process, and these cure times exist to ensure that new coats are applied at the correct time in the process.

Finally, never start a paint job if you are not sure you can finish. Clear your schedule for the weekend, and check the weather forecast if your boat is parked outside. Considering the scale of the job, it is also prudent to request a friend or two to help.

Painting the upper hull is usually straightforward. With a mostly flat surface and very little hardware, you can paint even a reasonably large boat reasonably quickly. Be careful, though. Because the surface is vertical, it’s easy to end up with drips and runs if you over apply your paint.

Once the last coat of paint has cured, wax all of the boat's exposed surfaces. This will protect the paint, as well as give your boat an attractive sheen.

Once complete, all that remains is to treat your boat with the same loving care you always do. Clean it regularly, and rinse it off after getting out of saltwater. And remember to reapply wax as needed.

Painting Fiberglass Boats

In terms of basic technique, painting a fiberglass boat is more or less the same. However, you will need to prepare the boat a bit differently and take extra precautions during application.

First off, let’s be completely clear. The best way to paint a fiberglass boat, bar none, is to spray on the paint. This needs to be done by a professional and is a bit more expensive than doing the job yourself.

The preparation requirements will vary depending on the paint you choose, so make sure to follow the instructions religiously. One universal requirement, though, is a thorough de-waxing. Acetone or wax stripper can be used for this purpose to ensure not one bit of wax remains on the surface.

In general, there are three types of fiberglass boat paint, each with its benefits and drawbacks.

Single-part enamel paints are the most affordable option and also the easiest to apply. You paint them with the same “roll and tip” technique used for wooden boat paints. That said, enamels aren’t as UV-resistant as other paints and tend to fade quickly. You will need to wax an enamel boat more frequently if you want it to keep its shine.

Single-part polyurethane paints are more durable and UV-resistant than enamels. However, the liquid paint gives off fumes and costs more than enamel.

Two-part polyurethane paints are the longest-lasting — and shiniest — of any type of boat paint. That said, they cost more than other varieties. They also require an epoxy primer and need to be mixed and applied in a narrow time window.

Be warned, two-part polyurethanes give off harmful fumes and can burn your skin. You need to wear a respirator with filters, goggles, a paint suit, and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Even other paints will require one degree of protection or another. Remember, always follow the instructions!

Paint The Bottom Of Your Boat

Unlike the top of your boat, the bottom is constantly exposed to water. This means you will need anti-fouling paint to deter marine life from growing. These commonly include copper, but copper contamination has become an environmental concern in some marinas, which may require alternative paints. Check with your marina before choosing your paint to ensure that it is within compliance.

The good news is that painting a boat bottom is more manageable than painting the topside. De-wax and sand as necessary, and apply your new paint. Runs and drips are less of a concern in this area since the surface will be underwater. And with gel paint, even mediocre techniques will produce nearly zero drips or beads.

Again, it is essential to read the instructions before you start. Some hull paints have a maximum dry time and need to go in the water before that point. It provides you a window in which your boat must be launched, rain or shine.