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Paint a wooden boat – Cornish Pilot Gigs

Listed under Blog, Boats Posted Feb 10 2014

At first glance, to paint a wooden boat, specifically Cornish Pilot Gigs, might not have much of an obvious connection with painting kitchens, but both require skill and hard work to bring out the best in beautifully crafted items.

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painting Cornish Pilot Gig

I have been painting Cornish Pilot Gigs (a traditional rowing boat used for competitive racing) for a number of years for Brian Nobbs Gig builder. Our association started with his other business: Crossgreen-Woodworks, painting bespoke shaker-style country kitchens.

Two boats came in for repairs, and both need a repaint. The boats were both built about 10 years ago, and should provide many more years of service, but are getting a little rough around the edges and could do with a facelift.

rough paintwork on boat

The first boat is owned by a North Devon club and is in pretty good condition and just needing some minor repairs before painting. The other boat belongs to a North Cornwall club and is in a bit of a state.

cornish pilot gig beforePlastered in sand and mud, I’ve found coins, bottle-tops, ear-rings, and all sorts of jetsam floating in the sludge in the bottom.


So to start, everything is severely scrubbed with a solution of Krud-Kutter Original and hot water and the resulting rinse-off slurped up with a wet-n-dry vac to get rid of all dirt, grease and salt.

I left alone for a week while Brian did some structural repairs, which included replacing many ribs on the North Cornwall boat.


Next job is a very thorough rub-down to key the old gloss paint to receive the primer.

mirka ceros sanding hull of boat One problem with a lot of these boats is that the clubs like to save money, and one way to do this (in their eyes) is to do the painting in-house.

The logic is that painting is not rocket-science, so get it done “mob-handed” by club members on weekends and evenings and save a fortune. The end result is frequently sloppy cut-in lines at colour changes, paint full of sand and brush marks, drips and runs, skimping on the rubbing down, and corners full of dried pools of gloss paint: all a recipe for cracking and flaking paint.

I’ve completely stripped the coatings off a couple of these in the past, and I can assure you it’s not a job to be taken lightly. With new boats costing upwards of £25,000 it is an investment that deserves better.

So the first task is to rake-out all the flaking paint before sanding every surface – including all those hard to reach bits! This is made a lot easier using the trusty Mirka Ceros random-orbital sander fitted with a sponge Interface pad.

All the planks of the boat are riveted with copper rivets, so using the sponge pad means I can sand over nearly everything while extracting the dust to a machine. Getting into the corners still needs doing by hand to ensure everything is completely sanded. The outside of the boat is far more straightforward sanding the planks with the Ceros.

Prime and paint

After a thorough vacuum of all dust, it’s time to paint. All bare areas are spot-primed before a coat of primer/undercoat is applied.

Boat paints seem to have escaped the 2010 VOC regulations for now, as the paints behave more like traditional undercoat and gloss. Also, all paints used are “topside” boat paints, rather than specialised anti-fouling or water resistant paints, because these boats do not spend their lives sitting in the water and only get wet when out training or racing.

Spray and brush

The inside is sprayed with an HVLP spray gun, using a brush to “tickle” the paint into all the cracks and corners the spray-paint can’t reach. The outside is painted by brush in the traditional manner.

cornish pilot gig after

Top coats in the club’s colours complete the job, ready for the championships in the Isles of Scilly in the spring. I would love to say I had done the sign-writing, but Brian already knows a professional who can complete it much faster and to a higher standard than I could.

Kitchens or boats, the craftsmanship contained in traditionally constructed items is valuable, and demands a proper paint job. It makes all the difference between amateur, and smart.

This is one of Brian’s gigs in the water.

cornish pilot gig

More about how to paint wooden boats

Richard Willott who covers Suffolk and Norfolk kitchens for Traditional Painter and used to be a boat builder and painter. With a run down of the sort of work he used to do, you will get an idea of the flexibility required to work in a boatyard.

Andy Crichton has a couple of traditional wooden boat painting stories too, one of which is painting and restoring a 34-foot Angelman ketch.

And Lee Simone has worked on a barge or two in his time.

A good boaty blog to follow.

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