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Old 11-05-2000
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Tom Wood is on a distinguished road
Removing Old Names

How do I remove a painted name from the transom of a fiberglass boat without damaging the gelcoat and leaving a "shadow?"

Tom Wood responds:

Now's the time you wish the previous owner had used vinyl graphics instead of paint. A heat gun and some cleanup with an orange-based tape remover gets those off in a heartbeat.

Paint requires a little more work, especially since a new owner never knows what type of paint was used to apply the old name—some soft paints come off easily, while a good-quality polyurethane can be like removing concrete. Basically, all paints and coatings must be taken off with either a chemical stripper or by abrasion. Let's take them one at a time:

  • Use strippers made specifically for gelcoat surfaces—never the paint removers that you find at the local home improvement store. Try a little patch first. If the paint is very hard, paint stripper made for fiberglass surfaces may not touch it. I have had even the mild strippers made for gelcoat distort the surface, so pay attention, go slowly, and work in small areas. Frankly, I would probably never do this to my own boat.
  • Abrasion is a word with many different degrees of meaning—certainly we don't want to start with 60-grit sandpaper. Use the finest abrasive you can find first, and for my money this is toothpaste—any type will do and you don't need fluoride or a mint flavor. Believe it or not, toothpaste will remove many soft paints and stains, and polish the gelcoat underneath at the same time. For removing a name this way, a high speed polisher, buffer, or grinder with a soft "sheepskin" cover and a little water to keep the surface moist (not wet) is the best method. Doing this by hand almost certainly guarantees sore elbows if the name is writ large.

If the paint is hard enough to resist toothpaste, try a fine polishing compound. Rubbing compounds are often designated as fine, medium, or coarse—start as fine as you can and work up the scale to the coarse grit only if you have to. If you've gotten to coarse rubbing compound on a high-speed wheel, and it still isn't coming off, the name was undoubtedly applied in a two-part polyurethane paint, which is highly unusual but not unheard of. In this unhappy eventuality, you will literally have to move to sandpaper—600 grit wet/dry on a foam sanding block by hand, keeping the surface running with water and very light pressure.

The only good thing about this process is that if you did have to go all the way to the sandpaper stage, you now have all the various grits of polishing compounds in your tool kit to start repolishing the surface. Work your way back down the scale to fine using a new sheepskin bonnet for each grit. Skip the toothpaste, using a good quality paste wax as the final step.

Unless the gelcoat was very porous when it was initially painted on, the name should now not even be a shadow of its former self. One caveat though: if the gelcoat was badly oxidized and chalky, or was a dark color that faded, you will now have a brand new transom on an old-looking boat, or a bright red transom on a dull pink boat. No problem—you just have to do the rest of the hull too.

I have also used this procedure on boats painted with Awlgrip and Imron. Names painted onto these sometimes do etch themselves into the surface of the hull paint, requiring the removal of the surface layer of paint. This takes more care, but the results can be just as good.

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