July 12, 2009

How not to paint your boat

This is where you’ll find a new Mainly About Boats column by John Vigor every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday

A FEW WEEKS AGO my boat was out of the water. I had painted the bottom and was busy taking the seacocks to bits, cleaning them, greasing them, and doing my best to put them together in the right order again with no bits left over. It’s not my favorite job because most of these seacocks are hard to get at on my boat and I either end up hanging by my toes from a deck hatch or lying prone on the cabin floor trying to reach around the engine. Either way, I have to have to take a break now and then to ease my cramped muscles and aching bones.

On one such break I noticed a young man and his girlfriend painting a sailboat behind mine. They were rolling and brushing a twin-pack polyurethane onto the topsides. I was surprised to see that the paint was dark blue, because he had previously applied a white undercoat. I naturally assumed the top coat would be white, too. Wasn’t it Herreshoff who said there are only two colors to paint a boat — white and black? And only a fool would paint a boat black.

He was rolling the paint on, and she was tipping it off, brushing vertically, straight up and down. I could see disaster looming and I had to work hard to curb the impulse to go over and give them advice. I have learned, in my old age, that people don’t appreciate unsolicited advice, especially from strangers.

I was right, though. It was a disaster. The next day he was sanding it all off. What were his crimes?

Well, first of all it’s not the cleverest move to paint a boat dark blue if you’re an amateur working out in the open in a dusty, windy boatyard. Colors such as black, blue, and red are traps for the unwary. Their appeal is that they look magnificent when they’re correctly applied over an absolutely perfectly smooth base. But the problem is that they exaggerate every little flaw in the preparation and execution.

White is very forgiving. It doesn’t glitter and reflect with such overt enthusiasm as the show-off darker colors, but it shines with enough modest beauty for most of us, and it covers up a lot of amateur sins. It doesn’t fade in the sun, either, like red and blue. White is good. White is the industry standard.

Nevertheless, if you’re determined to go against the sagest advice and paint your hull dark blue, you should at least make the undercoat grey, not white. The dark blue on the young man’s boat came out blotchy blue because, where the new paint was scratched on thinner in some places, the white undercoat grinned through.

But the biggest crime, and the one that had me gritting my teeth, was that the young woman, coming along behind the roller, was tipping off the wet polyurethane in an up-and-down direction, instead of sweeping lightly in a horizontal direction. When you brush from side to side, gravity helps the paint to level itself better. It spreads itself out more evenly. When you paint up and down, gravity helps the paint to run down and collect at the bottom of the stroke. So they ended up with a blotchy blue bunch of blobs on their boat.

My boat was launched the next day and I’m glad to say none of the seacocks leaked. But I didn’t get to see the end of the blue-boat saga. I hope someone told the young lady she was doing it all wrong. I’m glad it wasn’t me, though. I don’t think I’m brave enough for that any more.

Today’s Thought
Perfection irritates as well as it attracts, in fiction as in life.
—Louis Auchincloss

A few years ago, before President Obama even thought about going to Ghana, a touring Brit entered a restaurant in deepest, darkest Africa with great caution. He found a table without fuss and sat down quietly.

When the waiter came, he asked timidly: “Do you still serve Englishmen here?”

“Yes sah,” said the waiter enthusiastically. “Rare, medium, or well done?”


Aaron Headly said...

As a younger man (46) who, along with his girlfriend, just finished painting a boat, I was at first worried that you had relocated to Lake Erie. But we painted ours with black one-part polyester, so you weren't scolding us directly.

The instructions on the paint (yes, we read and followed them even) indicated that two coats were necessary, so we were a little casual with the first coat. The most comfortable way to brush out the roller marks was with angled brush strokes, but the paint didn't level out so well. There were sags that cured up into sorry looking ridges.

We sanded down the ridges before the second coat, and went with vertical brush strokes (the original suggestion of the girlfriend). The results were impressive (well, we were impressed anyway). The brush marks leveled out just as the literature said they would.

Maybe it was the type of paint that made the difference? I don't know. But vertical saved the day. Here's some pictures, in case you're curious.

John Vigor said...

Congratulations on a great job, Aaron. Your boat looks awesome.
I guess some people just know by instinct how to roll and tip. And one-part paint is much more forgiving.

John V.