Posts Tagged ‘marine paint’

Marine Paint Part 3

March 7, 2017

The lead is gone….

It is March, and that means that the process of preparing for the next boating season has already begun. It is in February and March that I start ordering materials and looking at the work that needs to be done before the boat(s) go back into the water. I have written about this before, but I wanted to write an update on this subject of yearly maintenance because I got a nice comment from one of the Kirby’s regarding their paint.

I 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 over twenty years. They still put warnings on the cans because sanding old paint that might have lead in it can still present a health hazard.

It is great to know that there is one less toxic hazard to face when preparing for another season.

One of the things that I like about wooden boats is that when they are looked after and well maintained, they can last and incredibly long time. We have several friends who own Friendship sloops that are over one hundred years old, those boats are still sailing and are still in good shape.

The key phrase there is “looked after and well maintained”, maintenance that is messy, 8px910qlhbe7m81y94ijvlkj93ohojkeinvolves dangerous chemicals, or results in cleanup of toxic ingredients are typically the first things to get dropped from a maintenance schedule because they are too much of a pain. And few things are more discouraging than doing all the hard work of sanding, fairing, cleaning and tacking and then applying paint, only to have that paint not hold up to the environment, fade, or peel.

A wooden boat is a living thing, and like all living things they require regular care and when a problem develops that might affect the health of the boat, it needs to be dealt with or the boat will start down the road to the burn pile. But it is getting harder to find good quality wood and good reliable products to care for a wooden boat. Good paint that gives consistent results and that does not change its formula or color chart can be even harder to find, but good quality paint is also critical, it provides an absolutely vital barrier to the elements and contributes to the longevity of a wooden boat.

As I have said before on this blog, I like Kirby’s paint, we have used it on our boat now for sixteen seasons and are pleased with the results, and now that we know that it does not contain lead, we like it even more.


Marine Varnish

July 2, 2010

Continuing the theme of marine paint, I thought I would expound a bit about marine varnish.

As is the case with marine paint, a big part of getting a good finish has to do with thorough preparation. Equally important is the species of wood that is being varnished or finished. Some types of wood hold up well under traditional finishes, others need special treatment. As I wrote in the marine paint post, the best advice I can give is if you find something that works stick with it.

Oils verses varnish.  I have used deck oils and so called “fisherman’s finishes” and my take is this: if you do not mind the wood getting progressively darker, and you do not mind adding coats several times during a season, they do work very well. One thing you will need to consider is drying time. Most deck oils are just that, oil. With out a drying agent such as Japan Dryer, they take a long time to dry. Technically, some never really dry, but just become more solid. As a result it can take a while for a coat of oil to “dry.”  An exception to this is the use of heat to change how the oil and wood combine. I know of sailors who take the shells of wood blocks, parrels, lizards, and wooden cleats and boil them in linseed oil. The resulting finish is soft to the touch, bonds extremely well to the wood, and are fairly long lasting, but I will also say boiling linseed oil has it’s own perils. If this sounds like something you want to try, be very careful; the risks of boiling oil without a spill, burns, and a possible fire, may be why you do not hear of this being done all that often any more. I would certainly never try to do this while on a boat, or in a crowded boat-yard. The other thing I will say about oil finishes is that not all oils are created equally. I have used the products by Deks Olje, and they make for a more varnish-like finish, but I use a respirator when applying them, because of the fumes, and based on my own experience I would recommend three days drying time between coats. That adds up to more drying time than we typically have in New England in a given painting season.

For me personally, once the boat is in the water, I don’t want to work on it, I want to sail it. That means I need to strike a balance between creating a manageable workload in the spring and being able to enjoy the beauty of the occasional piece of bright work. I would like to stress the word occasional because although I like varnishing, I don’t want to spend all of my time on it. One of the first things we did when we took over the stewardship of our friendship sloop was to cut the amount of bright work on deck in half. There were plenty of surfaces that look just as good painted as varnished and those areas that we left bright stand out more, and I am more inclined to keep them in tip top shape.

Main hatch and sky light

So that leaves classic oil-based varnish, polyurethane, two part urethanes, and acrylics. I am not an expert on any of this stuff, and the only reason I am writing this is that I have read just about everything out there on the subject of varnishing and what I have found from personal experience has been different from a lot of what I have read. In some cases, very different.

My bias: I don’t like synthetic finishes. I don’t like them on land, on furniture, or on boats. Despite what I have read, and what I have heard from some of the furniture building geeks on TV, I have had very poor results with polyurethane. This may be because I have used a lot of other finishes and have something to compare them to, or, it may just be me. But, I do not like the way polyurethane looks on wood (like plastic), I don’t like the bleached look of the wood either. Contrary to what I have been told, I find that polyurethane scratches easily, and have found that where it does scratch water gets in and lifts the finish. Now having ranted about synthetic finishes, I should say that I am no purist, and there are a few places on our boat where we use them. Our toe-rails are made of locust, for example. Very hard wood that has a unique color, is very rot resistant, and is also very hard to get finishes to adhere. For this surface I use a two-part system called Bristol finish. I use the amber kind (again I don’t like that “just poured plastic” look and the amber has some coloring in it). It is a tough finish that bonds reasonably well to such a hard-to-finish wood, and you do not need to sand between coats, and I can put on three coats in a day. However, it does not hold up as long as advertized, in fact I have to do some maintenance to it every year if I don’t want it to fail. I do use a respirator, and you need to be very careful handling this stuff. I would also point out that I have had a very high failure rate with Bristol Finish anywhere that there is a seam or joint in the woodwork. So large, or long sections of wood uninterrupted by seams are where I do use this finish, and again only on a few select areas of the boat.

I do like oil-based varnishes. Yes they are fussy to apply, yes you need good brushes, yes you need to keep the work area immaculately clean, and yes you have to sand between coats, but nothing else looks like real varnish, and in my experience at least, few things last like it either.

One of the problems with oil-based varnish (what we used to refer to a “glovers” varnishes in my youth) is availability. The craft word is so awash with new products, or “new and improved” (and by the way, I have always wanted to know how something can be both new AND improved, it has always seemed to me that a product is either new or improved) that it can be hard to find a source for a consistent oil based varnish. I use the word “consistent” because on several occasions in my varnishing career, a product that has always worked flawlessly suddenly behaves very differently. On both occasions, when I did my research I found that the company that produced the product I was using had changed the formula. The end result is that I had to find a new product. I have been using McCloskey Man O’ War varnish for over ten years on our friendship sloop. It is a fairly simple tung oil based varnish. They changed their formula a few years ago to a “clean air” formula. I don’t know what that means, except it takes longer to dry and needs to be strained more carefully. Le Tonkinois also makes a tung oil and linseed oil based traditional varnish that I know many people swear by.

Wood species is an important consideration with varnish. Some species of wood can be particularly problematic. For example, teak can be particularly difficult to get varnish to adhere to because of the intrinsically oily nature of the wood, and it has never seemed like a rational approach to bleach out the natural oil of a wood in order to get a different oil to adhere to it. As a result, I prefer to use teak on the few parts of the boat that I am going to leave unfinished, lizards, or cleats for example. However, teak is a rather obvious example, less obvious examples might include white oak, which can be surprisingly difficult to get a varnish to adhere to.

Keeping track: if you have a small boat you will probably remember what products work best on which parts of the boat. If you have a larger boat, it is a really good idea to keep a maintenance log that lists what products you applied, in what quantities, and on what dates. This makes it much easier to chart what works, and to re-order products in the right quantities.

Where we do have a lot of varnish is below. This made sense because we had managed to score a supply of recycled mahogany for bulkheads and trim, and it seemed a crime to paint this beautiful wood, so we have a lot of bright work below. This also made sense because the varnished areas below have needed very little maintenance in the last decade since they are out of the elements. One caveat here on interior maintenance of varnished surfaces: sun block. I don’t know what is in sun block but we have run into several flavors that work as very good varnish strippers. Now whether you chose to put something on your skin that is capable of stripping varnish or not, is your business, and guests aboard our boat usually bring their own brand of sun block. However, part of my cleaning after every cruise is to wipe down anything that looks like it might be a smudge left by sun block on the varnish. I just use lemon oil and a paper towel; it only takes a few minutes and keeps the varnish looking good below.

In my experience part of the varnishing process that can lead to a poor finish is application. In short, it is much more complicated than is usually represented. The correct viscosity is needed to get the kind of result you are looking for, drying conditions do matter, and in order to get the desired finish you may need to modify specific coats of varnish, either thinning them for initial coats, or adding drying agents for top coats, in either case effecting the way you need to apply or brush out the coat of varnish. Again, the best advice I can give is experiment, keep track of your results, and stick with what works for you.

I am saddened by the number of people who see our boat, make ooh and ahh noises about the varnish and then immediately harp on how much work it is. I feel badly for them because they clearly have confused work with doing something worthwhile. I won’t argue that varnishing takes a lot of time, practice, and skill, but then those people clearly do not know the pleasure of getting up early and rushing down to the shop to see how last nights coat of varnish came out. Nor are they familiar with the lush, tactile feel of varnish when it flows properly off the brush, or the spectacular visual effect that fresh varnish has as it settles on new wood, or new sanded old wood. Being able to sit in the cockpit at the end of the day and enjoy the beauty of sunlight on a few select pieces of carefully chosen and skillfully varnished pieces of trim, or in the event of damp and inclement weather, to sit below with the stove lit and light from the oil lamps reflected off the bulkheads, well these, for me, are some of the joys of cruising on a classic wooden boat. I get as much pleasure out of them as I do when I get the topsail to set well in the right breeze.

Cleaning the head is work, pulling up the cabin sole and vacuuming the bilge is work, cleaning out the icebox is work, removing a cutlass bearing is work. To me, varnishing is just part of the yearly life cycle of the boat and a rite of spring, to refer to it as a lot of work seems to miss the point. You might as well say sailing is a lot of work.

Boat Paint Part 2

June 7, 2010

Bottom paint is a thorny issue for every boater because some of the most effective formulas are toxic (it is part of what makes them effective). Again the choice of paint will also be influenced by how you use and store your boat. A wooden boat can require a very different paint than a fiberglass boat. A wooden boat that is in the water year round may require a different paint from a boat that spends half the year in a boat yard or boat shed. A boat that is sailed regularly, or is moored in a strong current, can make use of ablate paints that require regular movement through the water to be effective. This wearing away process helps keep marine growth from attaching to the paint and it also does away with paint build up on the bottom of the boat. Clearly the paint that wears away has to go someplace, it does not just disappear, so one of the costs of ablate paint is environmental. This may not be a big cost if you consider the size of your boat and the size of the ocean, but it is still a cost, and the effect in a crowded marina or anchorage of many boats can be measureable. On the other hand softer bottom paints that have to be removed every so often due to build up have the disadvantage of having to be handled when you apply them and handled when you remove them, and then you need to dispose of the paint chips or combination of old paint and stripper.

The bottom of the boat

There is a range of paints available and choosing which one to use can be confusing. The temptation is to choose the most toxic available to keep the bottom of your boat clean, but the price is much higher for the environment and for those people who are going to have to work with the paint. Finding an effective paint that is the least toxic to the environment and to people seems to me to be the ultimate goal. Bottom paint requires careful handling, either have professionals do this work for you, or if you are going to do the work yourself, err on the side of caution. If you are not sure whether you need to wear a respirator, wear one. If you are not sure what would happen if you get the paint on your skin, wear coveralls and gloves. This stuff can be dangerous and it plays for keeps.

If you do need to strip paint from the bottom of your boat, there are some new alternatives that are safer to work with than the strippers of years past. Since I don’t strip the bottom of our boat, I can’t speak from first hand experience about these products, but I can say that Soy Strip, made by Franmar has an excellent reputation for getting the job done and leaving as little toxic mess as possible. (I have used it to remove Bristol Finish, two-part varnish and it worked well, I have just not tried it on bottom paint.) If you would like more information go to for more information.

In our case the boat spends better than half the year in the boat shed, the hull is cedar planked with white oak garboards and the keel is made of Benghazi with a lead shoe. Although our boat does not dry out much over the winter in her shed with a dirt floor, the bottom paint needs to be flexible enough to move with the boat for what drying does occur. The planking was primed with red-lead primer and over this we use Hydrocoat by Pettit paint Company.

Hydrocoat is a ablate paint, which means that it is designed to wear away slightly over time as the hull passes through the water. This means that there is minimal paint removal that needs to be attended to, but there are always some areas that need attention. I place rubberized, heavy-duty drop cloths in the work area before I start to work on the bottom of the boat and wear a full array of protective clothing, from full-face respirator to spray sock, coveralls and gloves. I use a vacuum system with any sander that I use and I vacuum those drop cloths when I am done working. Any waste chips that are collected go to the HAZMAT collection day at the local transfer station and are clearly marked. Having said all that, Hydrocoat is considered to be more environmentally friendly, and user friendly than a lot of bottom paints. It is water-based for a start (don’t ask me how that works, it just does) and has a lower release of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) than many bottom paints. However, it does contain cuprous oxide and therefore still needs to be handled carefully.

Most bottom paints function by using cuprous oxide as a main ingredient. Some paint manufacturers add something called a biocide. When I was growing up around boat yards the conventional wisdom was that the higher percentage cuprous oxide, the better the bottom paint. However, it is also classified as a hazardous material, and as dangerous to the environment. Further some of the paint formulas use drying agents that are highly evaporative and this combination makes for potentially dangerous fumes while the paint is drying.  At the very least read the Manufactures Safety Data Sheet and follow the recommendation for safe handling.

I have read about a new bottom paint created by a company called E-paint that works on a different principle than using oxides of copper and other heavy metals. The technology has to do with a different type of chemical reaction. “Photo-active technology where visible light in the water column is used to photo-chemically generate hydrogen peroxide around the boat hull by combining water and dissolved oxygen molecules; the hydrogen peroxide deters the settling of hard-type fouling larvae such as barnacles, mussels and oysters.”* However, I have yet to meet anyone with a wooden boat, sailed in salt water, that has used or tested it. If you have tested one of the E-paint products, please leave a comment, and let me know what your experience has been.

*From the E-Paint website:

Marine Paint Part 1

May 20, 2010

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.