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Shine Up Your Superstructure

When the shine of your boat’s topsides starts to fade, consider a new coat of paint. To help in the decision, we weigh the pros and cons of attempting the job (or some of it) yourself.


If your boat’s no longer as shiny as you’d like, I’ve got a solution for you. A lick of paint can do wonders, but painting decks and superstructure (anything inboard of the gunwales) to make them gleam like new can be a costly endeavor at best. As the job progresses and gremlins pop up, you can find yourself spiraling down an expensive rabbit hole faster than you can say “Stephen King.” If you’re of an excitable nature, and/or especially unlucky, you might end up as mad as a hatter by the time the job’s done.

Under a shiny, newly painted surface are hours of nitpicking, knee-crunching, back-breaking, finger-flensing prep work. My advice is to pay the professionals and enjoy the finished product. Your boatyard manager will thank you, and you’ll save hours of mind-numbing toil that will suck up your leisure time weekend after weekend, while other folks enjoy their boats. The yard will do the work during the off-season when your boat’s hauled and indoors, where it’s clean and warm for the work crew. A pro painter will spray on the topcoat—you can’t beat a spray job. Sure, your bank account will ache for a while, but not for long. So, unless you’re into maritime masochism, stop reading now and move on to the nearest Bill Pike article to have a couple of laughs.

Still here? OK, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Painting a boat can cost beaucoup bucks, so it’s understandable that many owners want to do it themselves and save a few. Painting decks, cabin trunks, cockpits, flybridges and other superstructure is way more complex and time-consuming than recoating the topsides. There’s no rule of thumb to predict the cost, since each boat has unique characteristics that affect the time it’ll take to do the job. What’s the state of the existing finish/gelcoat? Any repairs needed? How much hardware has to be removed? What about hatches and windows that need masking? Are there accent stripes or other complex design elements? Are there radars, satcom antennas and/or other electronics that have to come off? How much nonskid is there, and do you want it in a contrasting color? And so on. It takes a skilled paint pro to work up an accurate estimate, and when they hand it to you, you’d better hope there’s a defibrillator nearby. It’ll probably be scarier than The Shining.

You can achieve a very nice finish with a roller and a brush, but take some practice strokes on a smaller dinghy first to get the hang of it.

You can achieve a very nice finish with a roller and a brush, but take some practice strokes on a smaller dinghy first to get the hang of it.

Speaking of shining, why do boat owners love shiny surfaces so much, especially on deck, where secure footing is important? Whenever I spot a fancy sportfisherman, one whose long, gleaming foredeck is totally devoid of nonskid, I wonder what it’s like to navigate that glistening surface when offshore with a bit of sea running. It’s likely there’s also no bow rail to ruin the lines of the vessel, so if you lose your footing there’s a good chance you’ll end up overboard. I don’t know about you, but when I’m beyond swimming distance from shore I prefer to stay aboard the vessel.

There are 20- and 30-year-old boats on the water functioning just fine despite faded gelcoat that’s never tasted a brushload of paint. As long as it’s protecting the underlying fiberglass laminate—UV rays are especially damaging—gelcoat’s doing its job, faded and chalky though it may be. Protect the gelcoat with wax or some higher-tech coating from day one and the stuff will last a long time, even if it looks a bit bedraggled. If you’re DIY-ing the job, consider doing it piecemeal, over a couple of seasons. It won’t be so mind-numbing, and you’ll need less physical therapy. I’d rejuvenate nonskid areas first; it’ll improve safety, it’s less of an ordeal than painting the entire between-the-gunwales enchilada, and fresh nonskid looks pretty good, too. (For more on sprucing up nonskid, see here.)

Think About Part-DIY

Before you start the paint project, hire a qualified surveyor to check the entire superstructure to make sure you won’t be applying good paint over bad structure. Water seeping under fittings in cored sections often does serious damage. This is common around ports in cabin sides, which are sometimes cored with plywood for added stiffness and to take the fasteners for the ports. Eventually, the fasteners leak and the plywood rots. Repairing damaged core takes precedence over painting; it’s an expensive job, but it’s got to be done.

If the structure is OK, remove as much deck hardware as is feasible; mask only the things you cannot remove. Do this yourself and you might discover stainless-steel fastenings destroyed by crevice corrosion, a clue that the bedding has failed and let water seep in. Realizing that the cleats you’ve depended on to hold the old ark safely in the slip, or the bowrail you’ve leaned against so confidently, are held in place by corroded nuts and bolts is frightening, and will make you pay more attention in the future. Yearly inspection of all fittings from the underside of the deck should be part of your maintenance schedule.

You must de-wax and rough up the gelcoat before starting the primer and paint.

You must de-wax and rough up the gelcoat before starting the primer and paint.

The good news is, deck coring doesn’t carry all the way to the gunwale; it stops several inches short, leaving solid glass in the area of the hull-to-deck joint. Most deck hardware near the gunwale is therefore bolted through solid fiberglass. Leaks under fittings that are stressed, such as bow rails, cleats, chocks, etc., don’t usually damage the cored laminate. When the paint’s dry, reinstall the hardware with fresh bedding and new fasteners. Never re-use fasteners, even if they look OK. Replacing them costs a pittance compared to the overall ticket for the project.

Any boat old enough to need decks painted will surely have stress cracks and crazing. This is another DIY-worthy chore that’s not too difficult but will save you a pile of money vs. paying the yard to do it. Decide if the damage is cosmetic or structural, and repair it so it doesn’t happen again. Even if the cracks are only cosmetic, they need repairing; don’t count on filling them with paint, although minor crazing can sometimes be cured with a high-solids primer. Cracks will eventually let water seep into the laminate and cause more trouble, so nip them in the bud. (There’s a lot of info on how to repair cracks and crazing on this website as well.)

The Misery of Prep

Now it’s time for the really hellish part. Preparation is 80 percent of any refinishing project, and most of it takes very little skill, other than perseverance. At typical boatyard labor rates, every hour you spend in painstaking, mind-numbing, soul-sucking scrubbing and sanding will save you about $100 vs. having the yard do it. I’d bow out here and pay the piper, but maybe you have a higher threshold of pain and/or boredom. It makes me shiver just thinking about it.

Prep work will make or break your paint job. Address any repairs before you start to paint.

Prep work will make or break your paint job. Address any repairs before you start to paint.

First, scrub and de-wax the gelcoat. Use boat soap, water and a Scotch-Brite pad, and be thorough. All wax, polish, acrylic or whatever protectants applied to the surface have to be removed. You might have to invest in a proprietary cleaner; consult with the manufacturer of the protection you’ve been using. Scrubbing with a Scotch-Brite pad also roughs up the gelcoat surface, so you might not have to sand before priming. (You’ll have to sand the primer lightly before topcoating, though.) Specifics of prep and application depend on the paint system you use. Follow the directions exactly—don’t listen to dock-walking kibitzers, and don’t try to save a few bucks by using primers or solvents that are “just as good” as those the manufacturer recommends. When applying the topcoat, most DIY’ers use the roll and tip method: Apply paint with a short-napped roller, then feather it smooth with a brush. Unless you’re very good at tipping, you won’t get the finish of a spray job, but it’s shinier than chalked gelcoat.

I’ll say this one more time: Saving money is nice, but if you want the best results call in a professional marine painter to spray the finish. There’s no comparison between an amateur roll-and-tip job and an expertly applied spray finish. A pro has the expertise and the equipment, and can lay on a super-glossy topcoat using top-quality paint that’ll last for a decade or more. It’ll cost you money but save your back and knees and give you the finish you want. And if you plan to do some of the prep, talk to the painter first before busting your butt. They might insist on doing the prep themselves, since they will take the heat if the topcoat’s not perfect, and poor prep can ruin the job. Even so, spraying is worth the cost. Think of it as an investment.

Now here’s some good news: Unless you keep your boat way longer than most people do, you only have to go through this ordeal once; you’ll typically be trading up, down or sideways before the paint job goes flat. You can kick back, enjoy your shiny, like-new boat, and wait for Stephen King to publish his next book. Once you’ve endured painting between the gunwales, it won’t seem at all scary.

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.