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Don Casey
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How to Paint Your Own Deck

This article was originally published on SailNet in June of 1999.

A newly repainted deck not only enhances a boat's appearance, but it can also offer improved safety with upgraded non-skid.
In an earlier column (A New Shine for an Old Hull), I offered up a modicum of advice about restoring gloss to topsides by rolling on a coating of linear polyurethane. Now I'll turn my attention matters above the toerail, but I'll forewarn you, refinishing a deck is somewhat more challenging than painting the topsides. Every piece of bolt-on hardware is, simply put, in the way. The new, slick finish must not be allowed to compromise footing, so differing painting techniques are required for the deck's smooth and textured surfaces. And sailboat decks can sport as many plane changes as a staircase, preventing a linear application of the coating. Still, refinishing the deck to a very high standard is certainly within the capabilities of almost any motivated boat owner.

The first consideration is what paint to use. There is a good argument for using traditional, oil-based enamel. Enamel air-dries so it has a long pot life for brushing. That allows you to apply the paint around hardware and under handrails, for example, and still have plenty of time to brush the surface out to a uniform film thickness. Properly thinned, the flow characteristics of enamel are quite good—not unlike oil-based varnish. If you use the roll-and-tip method on wide areas, and apply the paint with a first-quality brush where roller application is impractical, you can expect an excellent finish. As with varnish, the level of excellence depends a great deal on the skill and care of the person doing the job as well as the preparation taken.

Removing all the hardware is really the best way to repaint a deck. In this case, the owner has removed the portlights so that he can also paint the cabin house at the same time.

It is worth pointing out that getting a glass-like finish is desirable only for a small percentage of the deck's total surface area. Most of the deck should have an antiskid texture where neither paint selection nor application technique will have much effect on the initial look of the refinished surface.

Aside from ease of application, enamel is also the least expensive choice for painting the deck. But it also has the shortest life, losing most of its gloss on horizontal surfaces in as little as two years. Some sailors consider this a plus, since high-gloss deck surfaces are hard on the eyes when sailing in the sun. In fact, if you want to use enamel, a semigloss exterior house paint—alkyd enamel, not latex—will provide an equally durable and more eye-friendly coating at a fraction of the cost of "yacht" paint.

Most of us, however, prefer to be dazzled. For a finish with about twice the gloss retention of regular enamel, consider a single-part polyurethane. One-part polyurethanes have less pot life than enamel, but still enough to allow brush application around hardware. Most exhibit excellent flow characteristics and a dry to hard, abrasion-resistant finish. The exceptional gloss should be a source of pride to almost any boat owner, and it can last for several years, depending on the climate and the wear and tear it's subjected to.

"For the highest gloss and longest durability, the paint to use is a two-part linear polyurethane."
If you want the highest gloss and/or the longest durability, by a significant margin, then the paint for you is a two-part linear polyurethane. But successfully applying a two-part polyurethane to the deck requires some specialized techniques. Even if you elect to use enamel or one-part polyurethane, these application techniques will improve your results.

The first step is to plan the project. If you are painting the deck a single color, you might be able to paint the entire deck in a continuous application, but not without careful planning. Because of the short pot life of two-part paint, you will want to work with a single wet edge—the line where the painted surface meets the unpainted surface—and if its length exceeds about four feet, you will have insufficient time to blend the next roller load of paint into that already applied. Instead your brush and/or roller will leave tracks in the thickening paint. For example, on most boats, if you start painting at the bow, by the time you reach the middle of the foredeck your wet edge will already be too long.

With most boats, it makes good sense to paint the deck in sections, and this is particularly true if you're using a two-part linear polyurethane paint due to its short pot life.
With boats that have a modest beam, you might be able to tape the centerline of the boat and paint down one side, then remove the tape and paint the other side, all in a nonstop operation. However, you will be less likely to get into trouble if you divide the deck into manageable segments and paint one segment at a time.

Working out an irregular checkerboard pattern can allow you to paint several segments in one operation—painting the red squares on the checkerboard first—then returning the next day to paint the black squares. Or you can simply paint convenient portions of the deck on successive days or weekends until the entire deck is finished.

If you want to give the textured antiskid surfaces a color (light colors only if you want to be able to walk on the deck in the sun), the process becomes more fractured, but no more difficult. In general, you should map out the smooth strips so you can paint them with a single wet edge. If you start painting the smooth part of the deck willy-nilly, as it branches around the textured areas, you will soon be dealing with several wet edges. One solution is to paint only the smooth strip around the perimeter of the deck, separating this strip from intersecting cross strips with Fine Line masking tape. When the perimeter coating is dry, you move the tape to the painted side of the line between painted and unpainted, then paint the cross strips one at a time. Lines between sections will hardly be noticeable and you will have avoided the disastrous problems of multiple wet edges.

The owner of this boat has taped off the perimeter of the deck near the toerail. He'll leave that area smooth and add non-skid to the paint on the main body of the deck.
Once you know what portion of the deck you are going to paint first, remove as much of the hardware from that area as possible. Removing the hardware has four major benefits. An uninterrupted surface is easier to paint with reduced potential for brush marks and other surface flaws. The paint extends under the reattached hardware, eliminating exposed edges (where paint failure begins). Rebedding on top of the painted surface assures a leak-free seal. And removing the hardware provides you the opportunity to examine the deck core around every fastener penetration and to seal properly any exposed core with epoxy.

The painting process, from dewaxing to roll and tip, is the same as I described in my earlier column about topsides, with a few additional twists. Tipping the textured surfaces is not necessary, but you should counteract the paint's slickening effect by using an antiskid additive. You may also elect to skip tipping the deck's smooth, white surfaces. A slight texture diffuses reflected light, making the paint easier on your eyes without compromising the gloss.

For the narrow, smooth strips between textured portions of the deck, saw a roller cover into appropriate-width sections. Three-inch cages (handles) for such trim rollers are readily available. You will still need a small brush for the areas your roller cannot reach. If you are using two colors, always paint the smooth areas first because masking them last gives a sharper line. For a satisfying result, follow these tips, and if you're ever uncertain, test your technique and the flow characteristics of the paint beforehand on a small section plate glass. Doing so can save you time in the long run, and that's time that you can enjoy when you're back out on the water and sailing.

Choosing and Applying Paint

Keep the following in mind when preparing to repaint your boat's deck:

Paint Choices:
1. Two-part linear polyurethane has the highest gloss and longest durability, but it also requires a special application technique and has a short pot life.
2. One-part polyurethane has twice the gloss of enamel and excellent flow characteristics, but a shorter pot life than enamel. It will also last for several years.
3. Enamel, oil-based paint has a long pot life, ease of brushing, and good flow characteristics (with proper thinning). It is the least expensive paint, but its gloss will only last for two years.

Application Methods:
1. Due to the short pot life of the paint, work with only a single wet edge that's less than four feet.
2. Break up the deck into natural sections and paint each individually.
3. For combination smooth and textured decks, paint the perimeter deck strip first, separating off the intersecting cross strips with fine-line masking tape.
4. Remove hardware from one area at a time.
5. While hardware is off, check the deck core and seal any exposed core with epoxy.
6. No tipping is necessary for textured surfaces, but use an antiskid additive.
7. Use a sawed-off roller for the narrow, smooth strips between the textured potions of the deck.
8. If you're using two colors, paint the smooth areas first.

Suggested Reading:

Installing Treadmaster Nonskid by Sue & Larry

Renewing the Nonskid by Don Casey

Mounting Deck Hardware by Tom Wood

SailNet Store Section: Sandpaper and Abrasives

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