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How to Best Display a Boat Name

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What’s in a Name?

Displaying your boat’s moniker can be a thorny issue.

William Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet—maybe so, but writing Romeo and Juliet was child’s play compared to, first, picking just the right name for your boat, then deciding on the best way to display it. Bill, I guess, might have hired a shipcarver to incise Tudor Rose into his yacht’s transom, or maybe carve and paint a Tudor Rose emblem—many people couldn’t read back then.

But today we’re spoiled by options, from traditional painted lettering to wild vinyl graphics to backlit 3-D letters. Choosing the best lettering for your boat isn’t much ado about nothing—even a sweet name can look sour if it’s not displayed creatively. (Read the legal requirements for displaying a vessel’s name at

I named my first boat Calypso, and there was only one choice for applying the name: I used stick-on letters I bought for about a dime each from the hardware store. Design? None at all—just block letters, equally at home on a boat transom or the mailbox in front of your house. I wouldn’t mind having Calypso back, but I think this time I’d find a better way to display her name, maybe including a colorful graphic. I’d need an artist for that, of course, and I know just where to find one.

 a hand-painted transom

The Lettering Goddess

Some Down East boatyard guys call her “The Lettering Goddess,” but to you and me she’s Sarah Brandon ( or Sarah Brandon Art & Handlettering on Facebook). Based in Steuben, Maine, Brandon holds a fine-arts degree from the University of Massachusetts; has been hand-lettering boat names for more than 25 years; can carve a nameboard; is an expert gilder; and can add custom graphics, too: When the owner of Sea Smoke asked for something extra, Brandon painted a seagoing dragon breathing stylized smoke onto the boat’s name.

Brandon says that her fine-arts background helps with fancy work like dragons, but not every graphic artist is an expert boat letterer. “A sign maker has a better idea of the scale of a boat,” she says. “These aren’t business cards.” While most sign makers have a good sense of design, look at samples of their work before hiring one to lay a brush on your boat. “Choosing the name style or font is a personal preference,” she says. If you want to self-study, there are books, magazines, and online sites covering the sign-making industry, with layout examples, samples of typefaces, and so forth. There are also differences in style among different parts of the country, Brandon adds. “In New England, it tends to be more traditional.” 

When Brandon gets a commission to letter a boat, she first works out a design and layout on paper, then gets any necessary approval from the customer—sometimes the owner, but often the boatyard, she says. If there’s a name on the boat already, she has the yard remove it (see “Exorcising Ghost Names” on page 96), but preps the resulting surface herself: She washes and de-waxes, then wipes it with denatured alcohol before painting. Brandon lays out the lettering and any graphics by hand. “I often start out using a pattern, but sometimes freehand using reference lines,” she says. The paint Brandon uses is formulated especially for signs, and will last, on average, five to seven years.

Gold leaf is treated differently, since it’s very susceptible to abrasion. On most surfaces, Brandon hand-brushes a protective layer of Awlgrip clear coat over the gilded letters, letting it dry before outlining with paint; the outline helps seal the clear coat to the hull. (Sometimes the boatyard lightly sands the surface, then sprays on clear coat once Brandon has gilded and outlined the letters.) Varnished transoms are sanded lightly, then recoated after the letters are gilded and outlined. Brandon can burnish gold leaf with cotton to make it look like incised lettering, using a technique she learned from old-timers, and one she won’t share. “I have to have some trade secrets,” she says. Gold leaf on a varnished transom will last as long as the varnish is maintained, says Brandon.

3-D boat name on transom

Fantastic Plastic

Maybe you’re not into gold leaf, or you want to save a little money by doing it yourself, but you’re not a wizard with a
lettering brush. I’ve got one word for you: Vinyl. The 21st-
century descendant of Calypso’s stick-on letters, vinyl graphics are the go-to solution for many of us. They’re relatively inexpensive, they look good for years, you can design and order them online, and you can stick them on yourself if you take your time and follow the directions. Any decent sign shop can
do the whole job for you, but I’d start off at BoatUS (

BoatUS has been selling vinyl boat names for more than 20 years, but since 2014 has also offered a Custom Boat Graphics service that lets you, aided by a BoatUS designer, create your own graphic. It’s for folks who want more than just lettering, but don’t have the ability to design artwork; in a press release issued when the custom service went live, design specialist Ron Crittendon said, “Boaters only need to come to us with an idea, and in as little as two or three business days we have custom designed artwork … delivered to their door.” Whether you want a Hawaiian hula girl, a water-skiing frog, or a simple and staid New England design, BoatUS can work up graphics that you can apply yourself.

And by the way, if you mess it up, you’re covered by the “Oops Assurance Guarantee.” Within 30 days, BoatUS will replace, free of charge, any letters that are damaged during installation. If you ordered the wrong size or color, you can reorder what you should have asked for in the first place at a 50-percent discount. I used the Web site’s design function and worked up a basic name (6-inch letters) and hailing port (3-inch letters) for Calypso for about $70, less a 10 percent discount because I’m a BoatUS member. Embellishments add to the cost, but even with full bells and whistles the price still came in under $150. 

Creative boat name

Exorcising Ghost Names

When you change a boat’s name, the old one sometimes leaves behind a ghost that must be exorcised before the new name’s applied. Here’s how to do it; no mystic powers required.

Painted names can be removed from gelcoat with rubbing compound. Go easy, and try to restrict the compounding to the paint; no sense wearing away perfectly good gelcoat. If you like chemicals, use paint remover; any chandlery sells a gelcoat-safe brand. Either way, removing the name shouldn’t take much effort—it’s a thin layer of paint.

If the name is painted on Awlgrip, varnish, or marine enamel, you’re sniffing a different kettle of fish. Ask your yard manager for advice; you’re probably looking at recoating, so maybe you should just keep the old name.

Vinyl graphics usually peel right off with application of a little heat. A heat gun works best, but a hair dryer may do the trick. Apply the heat carefully so you don’t damage the surface; with luck an edge will lift and you can smoothly pull the old vinyl off. If not, start a corner with a knife or razor blade.

Once the old name is gone, you’ll see its ghost thanks to leftover adhesive and built-up wax; there’s no wax under the name, so what you’re really seeing is clean gelcoat. Use a decal remover to strip the adhesive; the folks at BoatUS recommend Sticker-Off. Put some on a paper towel, wet the surface, let it sit for a few minutes, then scrape it clean with a plastic squeegee. Clean and de-wax the hull before applying the new vinyl. Note: If the gelcoat around the removed lettering has faded from the sun, and compounding doesn’t help, you can either paint the boat or (my choice) buy a new one. You wanted a bigger boat anyway, didn’t you? And you can still use the new vinyl graphics.

Do It in the Dark

If ol’ Calypso were a bigger boat, I’d go for 3-D letters, like those from Yacht Graphx ( The company is a partner of Yachtlite, the originator of LED-illuminated yacht letters. According to Yacht Graphx president Jerry Berton, the company’s products are aboard more than 40 percent of the world’s top 200 superyachts, along with thousands of smaller boats.

Yacht Graphx letters are comprised of a laser-cut surface layer sandwiched onto a satined acrylic backing; the surface can be a simple layer of color, or colored acrylic, lacquer resin, carbon fiber, stainless steel, or a combination. Julian Rasolo, a Yacht Graphx project manager, says since all the letters are custom made, you can have just about anything you want—any size, any font; about 90 percent of the orders he gets are for stainless steel. If you want backlighting, however, you’ll have to order at least 5-inch letters, says Rasolo, but anybody shopping in this market probably wants the letters quite a bit larger, anyway. (Berton says they have made letters as big as 9 feet tall.)

The Yacht Graphx website has a Design Wizard that lets you play with materials and colors, and shows what your name will look like both by day and by night. There are seven choices of backlight color; RGB (red, green, and blue LEDs combine to create a full spectrum of color, like on your computer monitor) lets you select a color to match your mood, change it whenever you feel like it, or cycle through all the colors for your own light show. Backlighting is by cool-burning, energy-efficient LEDs, custom made for this application. The acrylic backing is engineered for maximum light diffusion to produce even illumination around the letters.

Yacht Graphx provides a template that, according to Berton, makes installing the letters easy: The template shows where to drill the holes and where to place the letters. It’s like a puzzle, he says—you just drop the pieces into place. They’re self-adhesive, so on a flat surface no fastenings are needed; curved surfaces require mechanical fastenings and standoffs. Yacht Graphx provides an installation package with everything you’ll need, including a surge-protected power supply and a remote control. Rasolo says any competent boatyard can install the system.

While some folks say it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness, I think it’s better to light up your boat name and wait for company to arrive. Calypso, it seems to me, will look good in Mediterranean blue.

Still deciding on a name for your boat?
Try our Boat Name Generator ▶

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.