“Wooden boats are so much work.” We hear that statement regularly here at WoodenBoat magazine. It’s often uttered by people who might otherwise consider owning a boat made of wood, but who are turned away by the perception that a wooden hull is a tough taskmaster. An owner of a boat made of wood, the logic goes, will spend more time working on it than actually using it.
My answer is the “80/20” Rule. This labor-saving approach is about getting 80 percent of the results for 20 percent of the work. I hope this installment of Getting Started helps you achieve that and, along the way, helps you understand that wooden boats aren’t as hard to maintain as commonly believed.
Beginners often ask us whether a wooden boat must be stripped, recaulked, and refinished every year. The answer is no. There are, indeed, jobs that must be performed annually on a wooden boat, but usually these involve little more than a good cleaning and a scuffing with sandpaper, followed by the application of a coat of paint. For a boat of average standard of finish, these tasks don’t require much more effort than would the maintenance of a fiberglass hull. Look at it this way: If you were the responsible, caring owner of a fiberglass hull, you’d regularly employ a routine of soap, rubbing compound, and wax to keep your hull looking shiny. There’s human energy involved in this job. You’ll burn no more calories on a similar-sized wooden boat in painting it every year.
It’s true that many derelict wooden yachts require Herculean effort (and equal bank accounts) to bring them back to life. It’s also true that boats maintained to super-high standards of finish can be surprisingly expensive to keep. But there is a journeyman’s standard between these two extremes—a relatively low-effort one that won’t break the bank or the schedule. Your boat probably won’t win the Lake Tahoe Concours d’Élégance (an annual show for world-class mahogany speedboats) if so maintained, but you can still take great pride in it.
This installment of Getting Started will discuss how to maintain a wooden boat, in serviceable condition, with minimal effort. We won’t cover engines, sails, or systems here. Rather, our focus will be on the things that make a wooden boat different from a fiberglass one: the finishes on the topsides, bottom, and trim. For the sake of illustration, we’ll be considering boats that you can trailer home and maintain in your driveway—boats like the peapod on the facing page. Keep in mind, however, that the same principles apply to larger boats. If you maintain your boat consistently, and keep the finish simple, your ratio of days on the water to days in the driveway will be quite acceptable.
There’s nothing wrong with a boat that appears a bit older—as long as she doesn’t appear neglected. A good scraping, minor repairs (if needed), and some paint will go a long way toward keeping a wooden boat operational and looking good. This 40-year-old peapod, here sporting last season’s finish, will soon look new again after a one-day repaint.
Any painted surface needs periodic recoating no matter what the underlying material. If it’s outside with the sun beating on it, and moisture is getting at it through rain or snow, or by being waterborne, it needs attention more often than if it’s sheltered from the elements. So it pays to keep your boat under cover whenever you can. Off-season, an unheated shed like a garage is ideal, but, short of that, a cover of some kind can do. Heat hurts wood because it dries it out, causing it to shrink and, in combination with moisture, to rot. So keep your boat out of direct sunlight. Keep it free from rainwater, and give it plenty of ventilation to dry out any moisture that gets in. It’s all common sense. Shrink-wrapping offers economical protection over the winter months, but if left on too long without ventilation, it can cook the wood, causing it to shrink excessively and encourage rot. For more on shrink-wrapping, see Paul Haley’s article in WB No. 145.
You have to think of wood as living, even though it’s no longer in the form of a tree and has been fashioned into a lovely boat. It shrinks and swells when it sheds or absorbs moisture, just as the furniture in your house does between summer and the winter’s heating season.
It’s been proven best to recoat the exposed areas of a wooden boat annually. We’ll take that approach in what follows.
The short message is that if you’re limited for time or lack wooden boat experience, omit the varnish (a.k.a. “brightwork”). Boats can be made to look just as good without it, and with a lot less work. For a visual “pop” here and there, if you must have some bright-work, select items like tillers or spars that can be removed and babied. For varnishing guidance, see The Brightwork Companion by Rebecca Wittman (available at The WoodenBoat Store). Or, for a natural finish, consider using Cetol or a transparent oil finish.
Preparing the Surface
This means scraping and sanding, the object being to get the new paint to go on reasonably smooth and to last for a season. Of course, you can fuss more— and will have to if you’re using gloss paint, where surface imperfections like dings and scratches become magnified by the shine. Low-sheen finishes require far, far less preparation and look just as good—even better, to my eye.
Make this scraper from a softwood block, about 3⁄4” to 1” thick, about 1 1⁄2” wide (the width of your scraper blade), and about 4” long. The back of this simple scraper, fitted with sandpaper, can be used for hard sanding and fairing.
Dry scraping is the fastest, quietest, and most dust-free means of achieving a reasonably smooth surface. You can do wonders with a quickly made scraper that you sharpen on the fly with a common mill file. If you’re careful and guide the scraper with both hands so it digs only as far as you want it to, and draw it at an angle across the surface so it doesn’t chatter, it’ll become your favorite tool, provided you recognize when it dulls, then stop and file it sharp again. Give the cutting edge a slightly convex shape and, unless you need them, file away the corners so they won’t accidentally dig in. Scrape diagonally to the grain to avoid wood tearout. Be sure to file the blade when you feel it growing dull.
At a single stroke with this versatile tool, you can rip away last year’s squeezed-out bottom putty; with more care, you can flatten out the sags and runs in last year’s paint, or rake away peels, blisters, and flakes, and even feather the margins between the resulting bare wood and the adjoining intact paint. Do a good job scraping, and you can skip much of the hard sanding!
Just in case hard sanding is needed, which it may be to make a surface fair (i.e., to eliminate dips and humps), a piece of 80-grit sandpaper stuck to the scraper’s handle (that’s why it’s block-shaped) will take on the chore without your having to change tools.
After this kind of scraping and fairing, the object of sanding becomes that of abrading away the dirt (although washing does a better job at this; see “About washing”) and to kill the existing paint’s glaze so the new paint can get a better grip. For this, I like fine grits in the 150 to 220 range because they’ll leave more and shallower scratches per stroke and outlast the usual 120-grit. Back up this thin paper with a foam pad to put its entire surface to work. Although they’re pricey, 3M’s contoured pads and 3″ sticky-backed paper (which comes in rolls) work really well.
You need to get dirt out of the corners and grooves before you can expect new paint to stick there. Use an orbital sander with stick-on sanding discs makes sanding easy. A void vibrating sanders, though—they don’t perform well. I also like sandpaper that comes in adhesive-backed rolls; they make quick work of changing out paper when using the foam block (shown) whatever method is quickest—washing, scraping, or sanding. But take it easy on sharp exterior corners, as you don’t want to break through and start reshaping the wood.
We’ve found it’s best to get all the scraping done and swept up before sanding begins so the residue doesn’t obscure what you should next be examining and working on. Likewise, the sanding dust has to be swept, blown, or vacuumed away before any painting begins.
Paint simply won’t stick to a dirty surface. While the sanding, as described above, gets rid of the dirt as well as smooths the surface, if you wash what you’re planning to paint with a mix of warm water and a little ammonia, you can save yourself time sanding. Wear rubber gloves.
Paint also won’t stick to wet wood; it needs a dry surface. So if you’ve chosen to wash the surface, make sure it’s good and dry before you start to paint. The same is true of damp wood exposed by scraping. A day with low humidity is best for this and for painting as well, and is worth waiting for. As in many endeavors, working in concert with the weather instead of ignoring it, gets better results.
About power sanders—
To simplify, I’ve suggested hand-sanding. For the small boats covered here, you’ll have the surface sanded by hand by the time you dig out your power sander, hook it up, load it with paper, don your face mask and ear protectors, hook up the vacuum cleaner to collect the dust, and drag all this paraphernalia behind you as you move around the boat—then go back and hand-sand the missed nooks and crannies. But for big boats with those large, flattish areas, a random-orbit disc sander really does speed things up. Vibrating palm sanders, I feel, are virtually useless.
Fussing with a wooden boat’s bottom, unless you’re racing and need it mirror-smooth, is pretty much a waste of time. Give it a scraping to get rid of last year’s marine growth, loose paint, and any seam putty that got squeezed out when the planks swelled—and call it good. Don’t bother to sand because, by nature, bottom paints have a dull finish that new paint sticks to pretty well. “Pretty well” describes how the common copper-based, antifouling bottom paint acts after a winter ashore. It’s barely hanging on, but that’s okay. The new paint will also do pretty well, but no better than that, no matter how much prep work you do. If it hangs in there and inhibits marine growth for another season, why should you want more? The point here is that appearance isn’t an issue with a boat’s underbody because, after launching, it’s hidden.
If the bottom seams have opened up or shed their seam compound, fill them flush by knifing in Callahan’s Slick Seam or soft putty as described by Harry Bryan (see WB No. 199). The idea is to keep the water out upon launching until the wood swells and tightens the seam. (Recaulking is another issue, and carried out when and where proven leakage dictates. For more on this, see Harry Bryan’s two-part article in WB No. 201 and this issue.)
Above the Waterline
In dealing with topsides (the part of the hull between the waterline and the rail) and, for that matter, any other paint above the waterline, it pays to not dig too deeply unless you’re looking to increase the job’s scope. As with the bottom, keep in mind that paint that sticks “pretty well” is okay; you’ll get another chance next year and can touch up during the season if things get too bad. Touch-up—and especially annual painting—is one of the great benefits a wooden boat offers. “You end up with a new boat every year” is how my friend and fellow springtime boat painter/owner Bill Mayher describes it.
Bare wood, when exposed by scraping, needs to be sealed or primed so as to fill the grain. Otherwise the finish coat will be absorbed and look different (less shiny and more grainy) than the surrounding areas. If you’re in a hurry to apply the final coat, prime with a quick-drying, shellac-based primer/sealer like B-I-N or Kilz. Now comes the actual application, which, for various reasons, isn’t well understood and is where first-timers go wrong. The basic idea is to brush or roll on a paint film of uniform thickness—ideally, one that’s as thick as it can be (to be an effective surface protector) but not so thick that it will sag before drying. Keep this goal in mind as you thin and apply the paint; look back to check your recent work often (and to fix runs and holidays while you still can); and remember that neither elaborate preparation nor expensive brushes can make up for paint that’s too viscous to spread evenly, is laid on too heavily in places, or that tacks up too soon in the sun and/or wind.
Paint that’s too thin (top) can be made to work, but gives poor coverage—and this means another coat. You’ll want the paint to be as thick as possible but not so thick that it will sag (middle). A good starting consistency is somewhere between maple syrup and heavy cream, but you’ll have to experiment and, even after you start, you may have to thin occasionally if the brush starts to pull. Keep playing around, and you’ll soon get the hang of what works (bottom) and what doesn’t.
This boat was tied to a pier without a fender. Waves caused the area to drop onto the pier, tearing the rail and plank. (The rail was repaired by removing the half-round and replacing the damaged white oak with a new 3′ strip.)
Use an epoxy-based fairing compound on plank damage. Make a simple form to shore up the compound as it dries. Cover the form in waxed paper to prevent sticking. Either staple or tape (shown) the form to the hull. Use a squeegee-type applicator for best results.
After the repair cures (check with manufacturer for cure time), shape the repair, making it flush with the plank face and edge. Be sure you don’t create hollows in the surrounding plank area when shaping. Blend to the rest of the hull with primer and paint.
Dents, gouges, and above-the-waterline joints and seams that have shed their putty—at least the big ones—have to be filled to bring them up to the same level as the surrounding surface. Even blisters in a thick coat of paint that have been scraped down to the underlying wood need this treatment.
You can choose either a quick-drying polyester variety like Bondo or White Lightning used in auto body work and be ready to sand and paint in 20 minutes, or you can use an epoxy-based fairing compound for a better-sticking, easier-sanding means of filling—this latter requiring an overnight dry. If you’re filling a vertical surface and gravity causes the uncured, putty-like filler to sag, avoid a second or even a third application by taping or stapling a waxed-paper or plastic-coated keeper over the area.
Pettit, Interlux, and most other popular marine paint manufacturers generally don’t offer low-sheen finish paint in colors. You can dull down their gloss paints with flattening agents, but they cost extra and require a thorough mixing. Further, they reduce the paint’s hiding ability, since a lot of unpigmented flattener is needed to noticeably kill the gloss. On the other hand, Kirby Paint Co. makes semigloss in a wide variety of lovely colors, which, except for thinning, can be used right from the can.
Kirby has been manufacturing marine paint since 1848 and is still a family business, so when you phone in an order, you’re likely to get the current generation’s George Kirby himself on the other end. This company will make any amount in any color you want. Even if the color isn’t one of their standard offerings, they’ll make a special mix on order. If you decide to try Kirby paint, be sure to order a quart of conditioner to go with it. Like most other brands, Kirby paint invariably requires thinning.
Alternatively, in pursuit of a low-sheen finish, there’s nothing at all wrong with using exterior oil-based house paint on a boat. Eggshell, low luster, satin, and whatever else their names imply, all mean low sheen and all look far, far better than high gloss on the kind of surface this article recommends.
Paint should flow across the surface without the brush dragging. If the process ceases to be enjoyable because the paint feels like glue—and you’ll find this true of most out-of-the-can paints—by all means stop and thin it! Thin the paint by stirring in Penetrol, Interlux 333 brushing liquid, or Kirby conditioner. This will make a world of difference. It’s tough to convince yourself to do this when you’re worried about losing that “wet edge,” but in the end it’s worthwhile.
Rolling and tipping is an efficient method for painting large areas. It’s even faster when two people work together with one person rolling and the other following with a brush.
A brush is about the only tool that works for coating uneven surfaces and for cutting in one color against another. Use a many-bristled brush that holds lots of paint; say, 2 1⁄2″ or 3″ wide for the size boat we’re talking about. Throwaway brushes are not an option here; although they’re great for touchup and priming, they are too thin and their bristles too short to absorb enough paint (not to mention their annoying habit of spitting bristles). But without going to the other extreme, you can get a decent brush for under $10 and, by thoroughly cleaning it right after each use, you can employ that one brush for all paintwork (except, perhaps, for detailing, where a smaller one is called for).
For large areas like topsides and bottoms, brushing can be slow and at times hard work. For topsides, consider using a foam or short-nap roller combined with a foam or bristle brush. You can do this by yourself, with the roller in one hand and the brush in the other, but two people can spread the paint faster and, therefore, give it less chance to tack up during the process. With this roll-and-tip method, you apply and spread the paint evenly by roller, then immediately “tip” it out with the brush to squeeze out the entrapped air bubbles and get rid of whatever “footprints” the roller has left behind. You establish a pace so that the tipping takes place before the paint begins to get tacky, yet keeps the overall job moving along. Low-sheen paints don’t self-level as much as gloss ones, so chances are there’ll be brush marks remaining after drying. Those brush marks will look more natural and be less conspicuous if they run parallel to the grain of the wood instead of across it, so final stroking of the topsides, for example, should be parallel to the boat’s sheer.
A medium-nap roller, by itself, will make quick work of painting a boat’s bottom up as far as the sharp-edged waterline. I like small-diameter rollers best; they’re about 1 1⁄4″ diameter and 6″ long. Handle extensions enable keeping this messy job at arm’s length and keep you from having to spend too much time under the boat’s bottom.
Cutting in one color against another, these days, means taping to achieve a crisp line. (A steady hand and a fine-bristle brush can also get a great job without tape, and this is the traditional technique, being both quicker and less expensive—provided you’re up to it.) No matter whether you use tape or not, a color change at some kind of natural juncture looks better than one done in the middle of a flat surface. Even waterlines look better if they’re guided by a scribed line instead of simply plastered on the uniform surface of the hull. Paint the bottom color after the topsides, and force the bottom paint into the scribed line; then the overhanging upper corner of the depression will hide any wiggles.
Use the topsides color (in this case, white) to paint the hull, down beyond the scribed line. Then, paint the bottom. If you have a steady hand, you should be able to paint to the scribed line without taping. Work the bottom color into the scribed line for best results.
Give the brush three rinses, each in fresh K-1 kerosene, with spins after each one using a brush spinner. While this shows a trash can, a five-gallon bucket is best for spinning. This will flush out the paint and ready the brush for whatever color comes next. And the kerosene won’t soon evaporate, so the brush stays flexible between uses.
From scraping to cleanup, you don’t need many tools to do a decent job of spring painting. They consist mainly of a scraper, homemade as described; an 8″ mill file; a roll of 3M’s adhesive-backed 220-grit production paper with contoured foam pad; a couple of sheets of 80-grit, or a roll of same; filler, seam compound, a putty knife, and a rasp and mask if you need to fair an epoxy-based repair. You’ll also need a roll of low-tack masking tape; a decent 2 1⁄2″ or 3″ natural-bristle brush and some K-1 kerosene for cleaning it; a few tack rags to wipe surfaces just prior to painting; and the low-sheen paints of your choice along with a quart of one of the recommended thinners. And, of course, antifouling bottom paint if your boat needs it. Apply the 80/20 Rule, and you’ll find yourself working less and enjoying your boat more.
Maynard Bray is WoodenBoat’s technical editor. Each and every spring for over half a century, he and his wife, Anne, have painted several of their personal fleet ranging from 8′ prams through Beetle Cats, peapods, and lobsterboats to 40′ varnish-laden cruising sailboats. Limited time and the desire for use have encouraged them to favor the 80/20 Rule.