The Do-It-Yourself Topside Paint Job

April 4, 2002

If your boat’s gelcoat looks faded and dull then it’s time to paint your boat. Doing so will not only seal and protect the integrity of the gelcoat, but the smoother finish will also make it look and feel faster. People who are smarter than me usually bring me their boats to paint, but if you’re one of those do-it-yourself types who’ve never had the pleasure of painting a boat, I’ll guide you through the experience.

Get your crew motivated by involving them in choosing the design and color scheme. Consider the name of the boat and the image you want to portray. Draw a similar hull on a piece of paper, make a bunch of copies, get out the crayons, and start coloring. Once you’ve decided on the colors and design, then decide on the product line you want to use.

Each brand of topside paint has its fillers, primers, and recommended prepping methods, so it’s essential to use chemically compatible products. Stick with whatever the paint manufacturer suggests. At my shop, we mainly use two-part products that we apply with a spray gun. They provide a hard, shiny finish that will last for years but they’re difficult for the novice to get good results with. They’re sensitive to exact mix ratios, require perfect conditions, and special equipment. For the do-it-yourselfer, I recommend using one-part products that are designed to be applied by the roll-and-tip method–roll on and smooth with a brush.


Get it Ready

Once you’ve acquired all the tools and supplies listed at right, you’re ready to start. Prepping the boat is 75 percent of a successful paint job so be prepared for some serious grunt work: an average 40-footer takes about 80 hours depending on your motivation, equipment, stamina, and the number of crew willing to lend a hand. For motivation, keep in mind the money you’re saving; a professional Awl-Grip job for a 40-footer would cost as much as $8,500.

To remove old graphics, use a hair dryer to heat up decals. Use a razor blade to peel them off, but be careful not to gouge the gelcoat. To remove painted names, I like to use Easy-Off oven cleaner. Clean the entire boat with soap and water. Strip the topside wax with a wax and grease remover such as Awl-Prep Plus, using Scotch-Brite pads and rags. It’s essential to get rid of all the wax. If you think it’s necessary, do it twice. Tape the topside edge with 3M olive-green fine-line tape. Then “bag” the deck with clear plastic sheeting to protect it and keep it clean by sealing it with 2-inch masking tape. Make sure the plastic is snug to the deck to prevent it from falling into wet paint. Also, tape off the waterline and drape masking paper to protect the boat’s bottom paint.


Evaluate the gelcoat to determine the appropriate sanding grit–use 80 grit if it’s beat, 150 if it’s in relatively good shape. More nicks, abrasions, cracking, and crazing usually require heavier sanding. Badly oxidized gelcoat will appear porous and chalky. Repair any dings, imperfections, and chafing damage, filling and fairing as needed. Then, put on your protective gear and let the dust fly. I like to sand in an X pattern followed by a fore and aft pattern. When you’re satisfied with the smoothness of the surface, wipe down the hull with Awl-Prep or rags soaked in acetone. Acetone is nasty stuff so use protective clothing at all times. Make sure you change rags regularly; wax and crud will travel with the rag.

The roll-and-tip method works best with two people; one rolling up and down and the other smoothing fore and aft with a foam or fine brush tip. Courtesy Interlux

Primer Provides the Base

Apply the recommended primer using the roll-and-tip method. We like to use a 9-inch Redtree brand foam roller cover, a Jen foam brush, and a 9-inch roller tray and frame. First, mix the paint and thinner according to the manufacturer’s specifications. The application works best with two people: one rolling, the other tipping. This makes it easier to keep a wet edge, allows the paint to flow better, and eliminates excessive sanding between coats. For large areas, such as a boat’s topside, roll vertically and tip fore and aft. You’ll most likely need several coats of primer to prevent the old color from printing through. Sand the primer between every coat with 320- to 400-grit sandpaper. Sand out any drips, as they will show through to the final coat. Wipe the surface clean again with Awl-Prep and check the tapelines before proceeding to the next coat. The tape gets beat up while sanding. Repeat the application process until you get good coverage. There’s a learning curve–one coat may be too thin, another too thick and saggy–and you need to adjust for conditions, with every application. Priming is good practice for the final finish coat–at least you’ll have learned what not to do.


Time to Paint

Before you apply the finish coat, consider the following: Available staging and light–you can never have enough. Temperature of the paint, boat, room, and expected cure time–make sure they match the manufacturer’s recommendations to the tee. Make sure you have the proper tools: roller pan and frame, brushes, high-quality masking tape, etc. Minimize dust, bugs, and airborne debris with proper ventilation. Consider the number of coats you’ll need, and how much dry time is required between each coat. Leave enough room in your schedule to compensate. Also take into consideration the paint’s pot life. Finally, don’t forget to watch the weather to monitor any drastic changes in temperature, humidity, and wind, etc. The more you plan the more control you’ll have and the better the paint job will be.

When painting, use the same method of applying the finish coat as you did with the primer–roll vertically, tip fore and aft. Remove the masking tape no earlier than one hour after the last coat. Doing so will leave a softer edge line. If you’re applying other paints afterward, such as cove or boot stripes, you’ll have to wait at least three days before you can tape over the paint, and always use low tack tape over fresh paint.


The final finish should be a brand new looking boat, a boat to be proud of. The paint should have depth, reflectiveness, and few imperfections. For the best results, a professional sign company should apply the name, logo, and hailing port. Or you can do it yourself with vinyl letters.

Karl Anderson owns Karl’s Boat Shop in Harwich, Mass., which specializes in boat restoration and go-fast paint jobs. He’s prepared eight of the last 10 J/24 world championship winning boats and has won five J/24 world titles as crew.


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