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How to Letter Your Transom

Letter Perfect

Yeah,you can buy some plastic stick-ons at your local marine store. Or, you can order a computer-cut vinyl boat name online. or, you can take a way more intriguing and artistic route.

Over the years I’ve personally affixed names to boats in a variety of ways. During my youth, I simply painted the letters on with a child’s watercolor brush. The results looked okay, I suppose, and at least got the job done. Then, as my tastes and circumstances evolved and I began frequenting chandleries and marine discount houses, I transitioned into plastic letters (black, mostly, but sometimes white) with peel-and-stick adhesive on the back. Again, the results looked okay, I guess, and the job was serviceable enough when complete. A decade or so ago, I acquired a vessel with three salty, varnished-teak nameboards, and hired a fellow to replace old letters with new, all dressed up in glowing, gold leaf. Gorgeous? Heck yes, but also just a tad stodgy.

Hand lettering a transom

Artist Larry Dillon positioned the boat’s name on her transom by eye. When he checked for accuracy with a ruler, it was PERFECTLY centered!

Earlier this year, after purchasing the latest in a long line of vessels I’ve been lucky enough to own during a lithe and lively lifetime, I decided to go with an altogether different approach—I had the boat’s transom sanded clean and spraypainted (seeGhost Bustersin the November 2016 issue ofPower & Motoryacht), thereby turning it into a tabula rasa of sorts, and then hired a “real boatyard Van Gogh,” as he was described to me by some of my waterfront buddies, to apply the name: Betty Jane II, using the method said Van Gogh deemed most long-lasting and appropriate. And oh, this artist was to apply the hailing port of Jacksonville, FL., as well.

“I can either paint the name on,” suggested Larry Dillon of Signs By Dillon in Jacksonville, Florida (, “or I can use vinyl. One or the other … it’ll cost you just about the same.”

But was one approach just a smidge better than the other? The question elicited a couple of specifics that I paid serious attention to, given that they came from a guy who’s been putting names on boats from Bar Harbor to Key West for more than five decades, including all the Fairform Flyers that the Huckins Yacht Corporation has built since 1975.

For starters, Larry said that paint was likely to last longer than vinyl—a good bit longer, if well cared for. Then he explained that distances between letters using vinyl would reflect what he calls “mechanical” or computer-generated spacing, while distances between letters using paint would reflect “optical” or artist-generated spacing, which tends to look better from afar, although it may not be strictly, mathematically correct. And then finally he added that because most vinyl names are produced in pancake-flat fashion, they cannot be made to appear absolutely horizontal when applied to a curved surface.  

“So vinyl may look a bit off on a bowed transom like yours,” he concluded, while making a minute but definitive adjustment to the rake of his immense straw hat.

Being an unabashed perfectionist when it comes to all things boaty, I of course decided to go with paint. And the little photo essay that follows should help you see how a real professional, with years of experience as well as a highly descriptive sobriquet, goes about applying a treasured moniker to a treasured transom with chalk, transparent adhesive tape, a couple cans of old-timey paint, and a whole fistful of pricey paint brushes.

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