Stick to It
Don’t go slip slidin’ overboard. Keep a firm grip on the situation by rejuvenating your nonskid.
There’s nothing I like better than spending your money on expensive projects to maintain and upgrade your boat, but this month is different. We’re going to paint the nonskid areas of your decks and cabin tops. It’s not too expensive, it’s something almost anybody can do and most will make a good-looking job of it. Sticky nonskid will help you keep your footing, maybe preventing you from sliding overboard or falling and breaking a hip, either of which can ruin a nice day on the water. You don’t need high-tech coatings or a spray gun; you can do the whole job with single-part polyurethane paint applied with a roller and a brush. When the job’s done and your nonskid looks like new, folks won’t know you didn’t spring for the big bucks. Let’s get started. (Much of the following is applicable to painting fiberglass in general.)
With the passage of time, nonskid decks are the first thing to go, even while the rest of the boat still looks good. Foot traffic takes its toll on the molded-in micro-pyramids, which lose their sharp apexes and their ability to keep your feet secure. Dirt and stains collect deep in the crevices. A lick or two of grit-laden paint takes care of all this, and choosing a tastefully contrasting color to the rest of the deck can look sharp, too. You’ll have to do a lot of prep, mostly working on your hands and knees, so buy some knee pads and ibuprofen. The finished product is only as good as the preparation, so don’t skimp on this step. When I’m planning a paint job, I figure 80 percent of the time and effort will go into prep.
If the existing nonskid is in good shape, you don’t have to sand it, as long as any paint on the surface is compatible with the one-part polyurethane paint you’ll use for this project. If some yahoo previous owner painted with latex, you’ll have to remove it. If you like spending money and mixing paint and decide you want to do this job with a two-part polyurethane or a high-tech coating like Awlgrip or Alexseal, you’ll probably have to strip any existing paint and start from bare gelcoat. Multi-part paints don’t play well with their single-part cousins.
Get the Wax Off
Whether the surface is painted or not, it must first be thoroughly scrubbed and de-waxed using the cleaner recommended by the paint manufacturer. Even bare gelcoat has wax on its surface, left over from the molding process—builders spray a coating, usually polyvinyl alcohol, on the mold so the finished part will pop out. This stuff sticks around forever. And maybe you’ve added more wax over the years. You have to remove all of this before painting, using lots of solvent, rags, abrasive pads, maybe bronze wool or even a brass wire brush to get into the crevices of molded nonskid. Pettit, for example, says to scrub the surface thoroughly with a stiff brush and their #92 Bio-Blue Pre-Paint Cleaner, rinse the surface with water and let it dry, then apply the paint. Getting all the wax off is a pain, but you have to do it, or your paint will have more fisheyes than a school of mackerel. (Ask me how I know this.)
Let’s assume there’s no crazing, no dings, no holes that need filling; those are topics for another time. If you’re painting a surface in good condition that’s not nonskid, maybe the shiny sections of your deck or cabin tops or your topsides, or if you’re adding nonskid to a formerly smooth section of deck, you usually have to sand the surface—although some polyurethane paints don’t require it: TotalBoat’s Wet Edge, for example, can be applied onto fiberglass that’s been abraded with a Scotch-Brite pad, then wiped clean with their Special Brushing Thinner. (There are Scotch-Brite pads made especially for paint prep, that aren’t the same as those used in your kitchen.) If you must sand, use medium to fine paper, just enough to dull the surface, then clean thoroughly with solvent; some paints require a coat of primer before applying the topcoat. Follow the recommendations of the paint manufacturer.
But we needn’t sand a surface that’s already coated with old nonskid once it’s de-waxed and cleaned. Simply mask off the areas to be painted with care using a good quality tape that can be left on for the time it takes to finish the job (this will be a couple of days at least, since two coats of paint are recommended). Blue 3M 2090 Painter’s Tape is a good choice. and what most pro boatyard painters use. Don’t use cheap tape, and especially don’t leave cheap tape on overnight—let the dew fall on it and you’ll have the dickens of a time getting it off.
Once the taping’s finished, decide how to apply the nonskid. There are three choices. The easiest is to buy paint with nonskid grit already mixed in—you know the mix ratio is correct, and you need open only one can. (Two cans, really, since you’ll probably want to thin the paint a bit.) Roll the paint on with a short-nap or foam roller—many pros prefer foam, as it won’t shred fibers into the paint. Keep a brush handy to break up clumps of nonskid, but there’s no need to roll and tip with the brush like you’d do when painting topsides or glossy areas on deck. Let the first coat dry overnight, roll on a second coat, pull off the tape and you’re done. Wait a few days for the paint to harden before walking on it.
What’s the downside? Premixed nonskid paint comes in a limited array of colors, mostly white and variations, and maybe grey: Pettit EZ-Decks comes in three colors, TotalBoat TotalTread in four, and Interlux Interdeck in five, including blue. You’re also stuck with the nonskid material chosen by the manufacturer, while there are some great third-party nonskid products available (keep reading for more). The grit either sinks to the bottom of the can and has to be dredged up when stirring the paint, or floats on the surface and has to be forced into suspension. TotalBoat claims their Propyltex particles have neutral buoyancy vis-à-vis the paint and will stay in suspension with a minimum of stirring. Otherwise, prepare to stir the paint—a lot to start with—and keep stirring the whole way through.
Your second choice is to add your own grit to whatever color paint you want. Consider adding a flattening agent, too, since most one-part polys are high-gloss, and decks are easier on the eyes in bright sunshine if they’re matte. You can use the grit sold by the paint company or choose something completely different. Old-fashioned nonskid is basically pumice and/or sand, really hard on knees, bare feet and the seat of your shorts—like sitting on coarse sandpaper. Newer products consist of micro-spheres of polymer, still grippy but easier on flesh and fabric. Some experts I consulted with prefer powdered rubber: They say it’s gentler on clothing and skin if folks sit or kneel on it.
SoftSand, from Softpoint Industries, is one of the rubber nonskid additives; it comes in eight colors, and the pigment runs through the granules—some rubber nonskid is black inside, not so attractive when it gets worn. Making things more confusing, SoftSand comes in ultra fine, fine, medium and coarse grits. Which is best for boats? I haven’t used SoftSand myself, but based on what other folks say, and my own instinct, I’d say the best bet is medium. Fine might be too delicate for yachting use, and coarse is probably better for work boots, not Top-Siders or bare feet. Whichever nonskid product you choose, add the appropriate amount to the paint per the directions, stir the crap out of it and apply just like premixed nonskid paint. Two coats and you’re done.
The final choice requires sprinkling the nonskid grit over wet paint; pros call this “broadcasting” the nonskid. It solves the problem of getting the right ratio of paint to grit, which can be tricky. Once the paint’s dry, sweep off the excess grit, then lay on another coat of paint to seal in the new grit. This method leaves a nice, even coat of nonskid. However, while it’s fine for pros painting in a shop, it’s not so good for those of us working outside.
To ensure complete coverage of the wet paint, you have to apply lots more nonskid than you need. While you can use the excess for the next nonskid job, will you have another one any time soon? And, unless you live in the Doldrums, while the paint dries most of the excess grit will be carried off by the wind, and you’ll have to clean it up, maybe from the boats in adjacent slips. At best, you’ll lose maybe half as much as ends up on the paint, which also means some cash gone in the wind. So for all these reasons, I think the broadcast method is not the best for the average DIY’er. Leave it for pros working in a paint shop.
Hey, we’re done already! That wasn’t so bad, was it? And now your decks look great, at least the nonskid areas—next year you can paint the shiny parts—and they’re a lot more grippy, too. For a weekend’s worth of effort, you’ve made your boat better looking and safer, and you didn’t spend much money—at least, not compared to what I usually cost you.