Marine Paint Part 1

Part of the process of owning a wooden boat is yearly maintenance. I have written about this before on this site, but I have not gotten specific about two fairly big aspects of wooden boat keeping; paint and varnish.

Protecting wood from the weather is a major part of keeping a wooden boat healthy. However, if you have to paint an entire boat every year the amount of work can be overwhelming, even on a small boat. Two ways to make annual painting more manageable are to use high quality paint that will last several seasons, and to get the boat on a rotating painting schedule.

There are a number of good paints on the market, and a number of paints that do not hold up well. The paint you choose will depend on several factors including what you have had good experiences with in the past and what has failed you. What you choose will also reflect what chemicals you are prepared to handle safely. There is a misconception that any idiot with a paintbrush can put on paint, and that this is an area of boat care that does not take any special skill or knowledge. The reality is that painting is not a simple job, and even choosing the right coating for a given part of your boat can be complicated. For example, some paints adhere better than others to certain species of wood. Preparing the surface for paint can be very complicated as well and involves, among other things, thoughtful preparation and a long term plan for limiting your exposure to unhealthy materials and appropriate disposal of paint chips and sawdust.

When we took on the stewardship of our friendship sloop ten years ago, part of our plan was to develop a long-term strategy for the care of the different parts of the boat. The painted parts of the boat are on a three-year rotation. Every part of the boat is carefully assessed and repainted, or at least touched up, every three years. We use several products but the fact that these products perform well for us is no guarantee that they will work as well on someone else’s boat.

Kirby Paint

For paint I have always liked Kirby’s paint made by the George Kirby Jr. Paint Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Kirby’s makes a very traditional paint in traditional colors (some of these colors I have not seen anywhere else except museums). I have found that the paint wears very well, and typically, on our boat at least, an area can go three seasons before it needs attention. A couple of caveats; if you have never been taught how to apply paint properly, this may not be the best choice for you; Kirby’s makes a very old fashioned paint, it is very viscous, can need cutting with Penetrol, and takes skill and practice to apply a coat so that you get the finish you want. Having said this I will say that I like the finish I get with Kirby’s and I like the fact that the paint feels like, and smells like the marine paint that I knew as a child. I prefer to apply Kirby’s with a large, round, sash brush. I find it loads and distributes the paint better and brushes out better, than it does with oval or rectangular brushes.  I should also warn readers that Kirby’s paint has lead in it, and if that freaks you out: don’t use it. But the reality is this: every paint has some bad stuff in it, finding out what the risks are and what precautions you need to take is part of responsible maintenance. When I am doing my prepwork, I wear a mask, coveralls and gloves. I use an expensive, but highly efficient dust collection system with sanders, and the paint chips and sanding dust is collected and bagged to go to the hazmat collection day each Fall. For me the extra care I take to limit my exposure to what lead is in the paint and to dispose of the chips is worth it for the longevity of the finish. To be honest I take greater precautions and am more concerned about long-term exposure to many other types of paint that don’t have lead in them, but which can render one unconscious or even do permanent damage from the fumes. Given the toxicity of some of the two part paints that are on the market, I am more comfortable with Kirby’s paint, lead and all.

This is what the paint looked like last fall after four months in the North Atlantic.

There is a trade off with everything. With a wooden boat, your initial expense in the purchase price may be much lower than with a fiberglass boat, but you are committing yourself to either a larger annual maintenance budget, or to a lifestyle where you collect information about types of paint, the proper disposal of paint waste, and a lifestyle that revolves around good painting weather.

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3 Responses to “Marine Paint Part 1”

  1. oldsalt1942 Says:

    Very interesting article and digging into your blog will definitely make the regular morning reading over a cup of coffee in the mountains of Panama much longer.

    I spent most of my adult life working on boats either as a captain or in repair and restoration work mostly on classic boats. I’ve spread veritable 55 gallon drums worth of paint and varnish in that time.

    When I bought a small sailboat years ago that I took on a nine-month hiatus to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, I estimated it would take me a good working week a year to maintain the toe rails, hatches and other wood areas of the boat. Basically lazy sort that I am I could think of quite a lot of more enjoyable ways of spending that time, so this is how I managed it.

    I stripped of the old varnish, prepped the wood and laid down a coat of sealer and three coats of varnish to protect the wood. I then covered that with two good coats of a single-part polyurethane paint that accented the color scheme of the red hull and white top sides. Five years later and zero maintenance time other than washing when needed, the wood area of the boat still looked great and I’d save about a month’s time for more enjoyable (to me at least) pursuits.

    If the next owner cared to spend the time varnishing all they needed to do was strip off the paint and the varnish beneath protected the wood from soaking up the paint.

    I look forward to reading your past posts and the ones to come.

  2. SHARI KIRBY Says:

    Hello! I am one of the Kirbys, of George Kirby Jr. Paint Co. Thank you for the nice mention in your informative article! I see that it was written some time ago, but I just ran across it. We are honored that you use our products. I just want to make readers aware that there is NO lead in our paint. We make one lead-based product only. All other products are lead-free. Thanks again for your support!

  3. Marine Paint Part 3 | Dovetails Says:

    […] wrote in Marine paint part 1 about why I like Kirby paint, (you can read more here) but I commented that it contains lead. It turns out that Kirby paint has not contained lead for […]

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