How to Paint your Boat Like a Pro
by Steve Miller

Painting your boat is important since it is the paint or varnish finish that people see. They do not see the many hours of building. They see smooth paint. So how do you get that perfect paint job? Read online or all the books you can get. I like Sam Devlin's book, it will help a lot. There is no one right answer to this subject. Talk to other builders whose work you like. Ask them how they paint. This is what works for me.

The basic way you get a spectacular paint or varnish finish is really good preparation. Its not all that hard to get nice glossy yacht paint on smoothly but what kills the look is bad or not enough prep. Most guys wimp out at that stage. I say boat building is 50% sanding. You will need to get into the "zen of sanding". Sand until you want to stop. Then come back later and repeat. Keep at it until the surface is perfect. that's the zen of it. Sanding epoxy and glass fair and smooth will take longer than bare wood. Depends on what you are building and how you want to finish it. Work boat or show boat or somewhere in the middle. Do what will make you happy and proud. Do what makes YOU smile. Show boat finish will be more work to do and more work to maintain. To me, a good finish is just as important as the building. So I do as good a job as I can on the sanding and finish work. Your surface should be smooth and fair with sanding done to at least 220 before you start painting.

If painting, use a good primer - not one that "sands easily" or contains talc. They absorb water and are soft - not a good thing under boat paint. The primer will not be glossy and will help you see what work still needs to be done. It will let you see little imperfections need a bit of filler. That’s why I use primer. Technically you don’t need it to get most paint to stick to epoxy so if you are painting a boat that is glassed and epoxy encapsulated you can skip the primer. For filler I like the 3M Marine Putty. Sets fast and sands nice.

Super smooth boat show like finishes were probably sprayed (over perfect prep) or actually polished like they do classic cars. Very fine sandpaper up to grits like 2000 and then buffed with ever finer grades of polishing compounds. You need lots of paint on to do that. You also need a very clean shop and the ability to control access to it. In other words - once the paint or varnish coat is on - no one enters the shop to stir up dust etc until the coat is dry to the touch. Not even the painter to sneak a look! If you are not in the shop you won’t stir up dust bunnies or be tempted to try to “fix” that little flaw in the paint an hour later causing even more trouble.

Paint selection is also an issue. Devlin has lots to say about that. You will not be able to use the 2 part linear urethanes like he does without ALL the safety equipment. So you will be using 1 part boat paint or maybe the new water base linear poly from System 3. Neither are as glossy as the linear. Interlux Brightsides is very glossy and turns out a nice finish. Petit EasyPoxy has loyal fans. Some guys use exterior porch paint or equipment enamel with good results. The one part paints are all mostly alkyd enamel with various amounts of polyurethane added. They are not true polys. Also the Wooden Boat Mag forum guys seem to like the Kirby Paint. Made for boats. I have not used it. Some guys like and use plain old house paint on their boats. It works but I don’t like the way it looks. On a kids knockabout skiff it would be perfect. Let them bang it up and slap more paint on it. Porch paint seems to be a nice middle ground between the marine paints and house paint. The Glidden brand has worked for me and since it has a tint base it can be mixed in just about any color you want.

Normally no clear coat of any kind is used. Too hard to repair and touch up. The only one I have seen for boats is the System 3 clear coat to go over their water base linear (for more gloss). I would talk to them before I used it over another brand of paint. Do not use lacquer any where near a boat. It is not water resistant at all. Cabinet guys like it since it dries really fast and levels nicely. They can get lots of shiny coats on in one day and be done.

If not spraying then use rollers for any large areas. Brushes for small areas or detail work. If you use the right rollers and tip the paint you can get a sprayed on finish look with little or no roller texture.

I don't have problems with Brightsides but it does have a reputation of being hard to apply. Like most marine paints it is thin and prone to runs, sags and drips. It is so glossy that it shows every imperfection. This means it demands very good prep. Most builders are in such a hurry to get the boat in the water they skimp on prep. Prep means fair surfaces and smooth sanding. Prep means time. My “Zen of Sanding” concept already discussed.

Paint needs to go on in thin coats. I don't think you can successfully brush it on large surfaces. Brushes leave too much paint. Use the white foam rollers (4", round ends) at Home Depot or Lowe’s. Use paint filters and filter every batch you put in the roller pan. Do NOT put the unused paint back in the can since it has lost solvent and will affect the rest of the can and your future results. So don’t put half a quart in the roller pan. Carefully roll it on thinly and evenly like you would use any roller on any paint but finish each section by rolling like you were using a brush. That means rolling one direction only - dry to wet. Note that the rollers seem to have a grain - one direction will leave more bubbles than the other so flip the roller to check.

Do a few sections (2 - 3 square feet each) then tip by using a second dry roller. No pressure just the weight of roller. All you are trying to do is pop any bubbles. The warmer it is then the faster you need to work or the smaller the sections need to be.

Have good light and really look at each section as soon as you are done with your final rolling. Check for anything you don't like. Now is the time to fix it then do the final roll again. Once you have tipped DO NOT TOUCH IT AGAIN. Brightsides sets fast but takes a long time to get hard. It levels well for the same reason it sags and drips and runs. The idea is to get just enough paint on to be glossy and wet but not too much. Too little applied will leave the grain of the roller in the surface. Easy to see when you are checking for imperfections at the end of each paint section. If it runs or sags after you have tipped just sand it out later. Note that you can sometimes “hear” that you have too much paint on by the way the roller sounds when doing your final rolling. Too much paint will also tend to bubble more.

If you have trouble with the paint not leveling or it sets too fast then add a couple of ounces of Penetrol to the paint. It will help it flow better and delay the “set” time so you keep a wet edge longer. Penetrol won’t delay the dry time (when you start sanding). I always use it in varnish but not always in paint. Depends on the temperature of the shop that day.

Sand between coats with fake steel wool by 3M - finest grade you can get. Wet sand every second or 3rd coat with 400 grit. Anything coarser is for paint salesmen. This will build coating thickness faster and still give you a good smooth paint job. Do not use solvents of any kind to clean up after sanding. Shop vac with a brush then wipe with clean lint free cloths. No tack rags. When you wet sand rinse with clean water before letting it dry.

The nice thing about painting lots of coats is that you get to practice. Only the last coat shows. The rest get sanded and all your learning happens with the primer and base coats of paint.

Now stand back and smile. Be sure to post a picture on Duckworks!