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Paint a wooden boat

Listed under Blog, Boats, Painting Posted Jan 11 2012


In 2007, I had the pleasure of reviving this 45 year-old Angelman wooden ketch. The boat’s mahogany hull, and spruce masts and bowsprit were stripped back to bare wood and restored to their former glory with high specification marine paint and traditional materials. This is how I did it.

No pressure, but it has to be a perfect finish – and totally leak proof! This was the most demanding painting project I have ever undertaken.


All paintwork was burnt off with a hot air gun and the mahogany planking was sanded back to its original state.

One of the trickiest challenges was to find a comfortable working height. Scaffold likes to go in straight lines, but the curve of the planking on this boat in particular is extreme, both top to bottom and along its 34 feet length. Also it is a perpetual struggle to get your scraper or sandpaper at the right angle because the surfaces seem to change slightly every 6 inches.


The joints were raked out, primed and then caulked with cotton. Then a pliable seam compound is applied before the real painting work begins. There is one compound for below the water line and a different one above. They aren’t interchangeable.

Cotton caulk? There is no acrylic caulk on this boat! When the boat is back in the water, the planks swell, and crush the cotton in the joints. This is the low-tech way to form a water-tight seal, and it works. Surprisingly, with all this movement going on, the seam compound keeps its shape too.


To make this mahogany hull shine and remain water-tight and rot-free for many years you need a pretty extreme paint specification compared to anything needed for around the home. 2 thinned coats of primer (lead-based paint, if you can get it); 3 coats of oil-based undercoat (rubbed down and filled between coats with a marine quality linseed oil filler.) 3 top coats of Epifane marine enamel, rubbed down with wet ‘n dry sandpaper between coats.

The easiest paint to apply was the blue bottom paint, where I used a roller. On the downside, it is copper-based, a gallon weighs about 30lbs, and it is environmentally unfriendly to marine life and humans. ie very bads news if it spills on your skin and gets absorbed into the bloodstream.

On the inside of the hull, we stripped off all the paint and soaked it in several coats of “goop” – a technical term for a traditional mix of linseed oil, pine tar and turpentine. This tried and tested concoction feeds the wood and lets you see exactly what condition the planks are in. And it smells good too. The only paint I would use to protect the inside of a boat would be white lead primer, otherwise anything else (in my opinion) will eventually flake and trap moisture and cause more harm than good.


The two spruce masts, about 34′ long, were stripped to bare wood, repaired and painted with 12 coats of Epifanes clear varnish. All steel brackets were galvanised, etch primed, undercoated with 2 coats of chlorinated rubber paint and finished with 3 coats of enamel. The bowsprit was coated in a product called Coelan. I will get round to explaining that another day.

With one quick maintenance coat every year, the wooden masts should stay perfect for at least 10 years in all weathers.


The finished result! It took about 200 man hours to restore the paint work on the hull and 100 hours to restore the masts. When it was dropped in the water, it took on half a pint of water in the first week ie to all intents and purposes, no leaks. 18 months on, the hull was still tight and the paintwork in perfect condition, apart from a section on the rear port side which shows a couple of blisters – thanks to the neighbouring boat that caught fire and sunk to the bottom of the marina!

In summary

An abiding theme in painting a wooden boat is the sheer physical effort involved: 7 days straight burning off the planking, days on end wielding a caulking hammer… I have been involved in painting for 30 years, and not even the most demanding work for residential painters – redecorating a listed building that has fallen into disrepair- comes close to wooden boat painting.

In the summer of 2009, I was contacted to prepare the hull of a similar Angelman in San Francisco. That too was burnt back to the bare mahogany and primed. Due to a bizarre yard policy, I never had the chance to apply the top coats. At least that gave my thumbs a chance to recover from holding the scraper!

Traditional wooden boat specialists

During this project I met some great traditional craftsmen and gleaned so many useful tips and tricks. I also heard a lot of fud too, which didn’t make sense, and made me see the “irony” in the saying

Painters required, boat owners need not apply!

Looking around the yards, there aren’t too many painters offering the standard of workmanship these beautiful structures deserve. And I don’t see the logic in not doing this kind of work right first time.

It is such an experience to meet up with the few remaining masters from a whole different world of repair and maintenance. Squarerigger Jamie and Courtenay, and small boatbuilder, Helder… they possess lots of skills that are dying in the USA. And the greatest thing is to hear them talk about their craft.

History has proven that for non-racing wooden boats, the traditional skills and techniques of yesteryear work so much better than the techniques and materials that have crept in (nay surged) in from the rarified modern world of high tech fiberglass yachts. You will know what I mean if you have been dragged into the never-ending debates from modern boat guys about for example, Sikaflex this that and the other caulking compound. Traditionalists go straight for the putty or tar! They know their olde worlde stuff won’t last forever, but at least they also know they can repair the boat easily rather than face the nightmare of removing a space-age indestructible compound with a chain saw.

Jamie once told me, he is happy to rely on the techniques of sailors who rounded Cape Horn 37 times during their career. Having applied that thinking and used top quality prep and boat paint products, and seen the enduring and easy-to-maintain results, I agree.



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5 comments to “Paint a wooden boat”

  1. Frederiq

    What a write up, so great and inspirering. So many real métiers are dying out. And here’s an ambassador that keeps it proven alive.
    Thanks for letting me follow your path in doing up my wooden properties.
    Frederiq Ries

  2. Traditional Painter

    Appreciate your comment, Frederiq. In the boat world it is generally full steam ahead to the next greatest techno product, but some old skills persist – riggers, shipwrights and even painters without spray guns.

    What are your projects?

  3. acmasterpainter

    [watch out!] Paint a wooden boat – via #twitoaster https://traditionalpainter.com/re-paintin

  4. Simone

    Any additional info on where I can purchase Cotton caulk? I can’t find anything about this. Thanks for the help? Ps I love the Wooden ketch!

  5. Andy Crichton Andy Crichton

    Simone, chandlers should carry it

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