Herman Melville had quite the way with words, but maybe you can relate:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.Herman Melville, Moby Dick
In my case, I needed something simple and tangible to work on for a few days. Alone. And Jacie Sails needed some TLC.
The white gelcoat on the cabin top and in the cockpit had been turning to powder for years—to the point that whenever we’d sit in the cockpit or on the cabin top, our clothes would look like we’d been touring a chalk factory. In some places, the bare fiberglass of the boat peeked through where the gelcoat had completely worn off.
Also, everywhere the teak “eyebrows” above the port lights were screwed in was a potential entry point for water to get into the wooden core of the cabin. Ditto for the teak handrails on the cabin top, where they were screwed in.
And as I discovered with the port lights already,
Water + Wood = Bad
For a long time, when I’d return to the vessel, I would find brown stains on the galley countertop, which I attributed to rainwater making its way through the cabin top, via those damned screw holes.
Besides the fact that the upper part of the boat looked like s—…I was worried the cabin top might start to rot within its fiberglass skin.
Work needed to be done, and I needed to work with my hands. The forecast showed a string of days with low chance of rain; so I figured this was my chance to make some progress.
I didn’t think of this as a substitute for throwing myself on my sword like Cato; but there were times under the blazing sun when the former seemed preferable. And when I discovered how much work the wrong advice had cost me, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t have “pistol and ball” handy.
But please forgive the digression, dear friend, and let us proceed to…
How Not To Paint Your Cabin Top
I came down on a Thursday, as best I recall, and spent the next day consulting with Maxi (who was in Cairo) on the final edits and mix(es) for Episode 22 of the podcast. Then I took Cliff and Laurene sailing on Saturday, and one more solo sail for good measure on Sunday.
I figured those outings would be my only time on the water this trip; and I was right.
First thing Monday, I set out for the local distributor for all things fiberglass, resin and boat paint…who shall remain nameless for now, as they are generally a decent place to purchase such supplies.
There at the distributor, a “helpful” fellow provided me with epoxy resin, fumed silica filler, and a tiny container of catalyst; two expensive quart cans, which when mixed purported to make “primer” paint; and a fair number of plastic quart paint buckets, little plastic cups which looked the right size for a urine sample, cheap wooden tongue depressors (for stirring small batches of resin), and whatnot.
Insanity and Reality
Back at the boat, the first brilliant thing I did (no, seriously) was…lower my expectations. Not of the quality of the outcome; but of how much I might be able to get done. In the end, I did get ‘er done…but not without help. (It still took nine days.)
What I decided was to focus on just one thing: Getting the cabin top leak-free and painting the white parts.
The hard part was deciding what exactly was “cabin top,” and where to cut it off. I decided to attack any white parts of the cabin top itself, plus any exterior vertical surfaces of the cockpit coaming that rose up from deck level.
In other words, which parts can other people see, which currently make us look like vagabonds?
If I could actually complete just those parts, I’d be happy. The cockpit interior (where we’d still be getting white gelcoat powder all over our clothes) and the gray non-skid areas on the cabin top and side decks would have to wait.
Filling The Void(s)
The first thing I did was to remove the teak eyebrows above the windows—er, port lights (permanently), and the handrails on the cabin top (temporarily).
I mixed some of the resin stuff with some of the fumed silica filler stuff and some catalyst (wear a mask!); and after stirring it well, started filling in where the screw holes were for the teak eyebrows.
(No, wait…I think I sanded and wiped everything with acetone first. There was a lot of sanding and a lot of wiping things down with acetone. A clean and well-prepared surface is the goal.)
Anyway, I applied just enough resin to fill the screw holes and any spider cracks emanating from them, and scraped the excess resin flat with a little piece of flat plastic, so there’d be minimal resin to sand later. (For larger cracks, I was advised to ream them out a little larger before cleaning with acetone and filling with the epoxy resin.)
Then I did the thing which I’m still waiting to see if it will work.
I wanted to keep the cabin top handrails, but without water leaking in through the screw holes. So what I did was to carefully(!) drill some bigger holes right where the old screw holes were. (Substantially bigger diameter than the original screw holes.) Then I filled the holes with the epoxy/filler stuff, squeezing the mixture into the holes with a syringe.
The thinking was this: I’d paint the cabin top, then replace the teak handrails…but this time, they’d be screwed into solid epoxy resin. (But first, I’d need to drill some new pilot holes the same diameter as the screw body, or else the resin would crack.)
And the short story is…I haven’t put the handrails back on yet, and didn’t drill the pilot holes. Since I had to leave the boat, having a nice watertight(?) cabin top is better than having one with a bunch of new pilot holes drilled in it.
Okay, here’s where the “pistol and ball” threatened to make their presence known.
After letting the resin cure overnight, I sanded everywhere I’d filled in the cracks and screw holes, and wiped ’em again with acetone. Then, I opened up the two quart cans of “primer” components, and started to stir them up.
One of the two cans was particularly hard to stir. The top layer was kind of a brown liquid, and the rest of the can was like peanut butter—but much thicker. The other can contained some kind of white “base,” according to the label. It wasn’t as hard to mix, but still could use some help…and the can of brown stuff would take all day. It felt like my paint stick would snap at any moment trying to mix the damn stuff.
I called the distributor and asked of they could shake up the cans in a paint shaker. (Yes.) It was a 20-minute drive to the distributor, but I figured that was better than trying to take the stuff into Home Depot.
At the distributor, nobody commented on the two cans I’d brought in; or why they didn’t shake ’em up to begin with…or why I even was using those two particular products in the same job.
Yeah. You see where this is going…
Back at the boat, I mixed up a small batch of “primer” from the two quart containers and started to work.
The mixture in the little plastic paint bucket looked whiter than I’d expected from the components; but it took on an unfortunate beige or dun tone as I painted it onto the cabin top.
It was also thicker than I expected, and really showed the brush marks. Still, I finished the port side of the cabin top, and figured I’d finish “primering” the following day.
Since I figured the first quarts of each component ($60 each) wouldn’t be enough, I headed back to the distributor the next morning with my receipt, so I could be sure to get the exact same two products.
And that’s when the proverbial human waste product hit the spinning air-moving device.
Guy #1 wasn’t there, so I spoke with Guy #2. (Besides buying more stuff, I wanted to confirm that everything was normal with my results: the brown color, the thickness, the obvious brush strokes…)
Guy #2 had a fit.
“I don’t know why in the hell he sold you this s—!” he bellowed. Then he launched into a tirade: how Guy #1 was on great terms with the higher-ups, but didn’t know what he was doing…how Guy #1 constantly ignored Guy #2’s instructions on which things go together… On and on it went.
And then he gave me this news: “You’re going to have to scrape all that stuff off and start over.”
It’s never going to cure, he told me. It’ll probably remain like tar. Well, okay, there’s a very small chance that it’ll cure and you might be able to sand it off. But you might as well go back, try to start scraping it off, and let me know how it goes.
Then Guy #2 started to outline a couple of different options on what products to use after I’d removed the first stuff…which, after the gratuitous diatribe against his coworker, only served to further overload my brain.
“Um…okay, I’m just going to go start scraping, before I buy anything else,” I told him, backing carefully away. (continued…)
Listen to the Audio Podcast
I did not just start scraping, though.
I located the number to the AwlGrip tech rep for the region, who returned my call quickly.
“I just wanted to run this by you, since I don’t trust my sanity at this point,” I told him.
He confirmed that the two products I’d been sold to mix as “primer” do not go together…officially. After a minute, he did allow that “some people” do actually use the mixture on purpose, and call it “High Five.” Which is absolutely not recommended by AwlGrip. (And I can see why.)
So after checking on the “primer,” finding it was dry and sand-able, I made an executive decision…well, almost.
First, I called my friend Rick over. He did a little sanding too, and thought it was workable.
“It’s actually sanding really nice,” he said.
“Okay, I’ve decided,” I said. “I’m gonna finish priming with this stuff. I don’t want to try to strip it off, and I don’t want to do something different on the other side.”
“I’ll help you with the sanding,” Rick said.
Man, was that an unwise offer.
Are We There Yet?
So the short story is, I went back to the distributor and bought more of the wrong stuff…on purpose.
“This time, let’s shake it up,” I said. “And let’s go ahead and get the topcoat paint. And shake that up, too.”
I’d made up my mind. With Rick’s very kind help, I was going to finish the “priming” and sanding; and—weather permitting—get some actual AwlGrip Cloud White topcoat paint on the boat.
It was starting to look dicey. The forecast called for possible afternoon rains, and I had to return to Atlanta pretty soon, regardless.
a gallon of AwlGrip topcoat paint is about $300, and the half gallon of stuff you have to mix with it is…$349! Then there was the brush reducer stuff…and the accelerator. So, yeah, about $800 just for the stuff that makes topcoat paint. But I’ve only used about 1/6th of it so far. I sealed it very carefully and hope to get my money’s worth from the rest of it soon.
What could possibly go wrong?
I finished “priming” the starboard side that day; and then spent two days, with Rick’s help, sanding. And sanding. And sanding…
I couldn’t believe Rick’s perseverance…and generosity.
“Couldn’t get it done without ya,” I’d say.
“Well, I kinda enjoy it,” he’d say.
“You’re a strange fella. But I appreciate it greatly.”
The “High Five” concoction was ridiculously thick and hard to sand. I worked mostly with an electric sander with a fine grit, and Rick worked old school: just a piece of sandpaper in hand, or wrapped around a sanding sponge.
Did I mention it was hot? Yes, it was hot. I went through a gallon of water a day, before beer. Being surrounded by all those white boats all day long, with a mostly cloudless sky, was…”quite special,” as my drummer friend Derryl might say.
The Great White Whale
Finally, on the Monday a week after I started this mess, I surveyed the sky and the forecast, and had Rick take a look at the cabin top.
“I could keep going on this,” I said. “But I think we may be at a point of diminishing returns.”
“I think you’re right,” he said. “This oughta do pretty well.”
So I got to work applying the actual top coat. It was pretty sweet right off the bat. I had to do some math to figure out how much “brush reducer” and what tiny portion of accelerator to add to the mix; but I was pretty damn careful this time.
And now, instead of that crazy dun-colored mess, a nice white cabin top began to appear. There may be a little drip here or there, as I got used to the paint—but don’t tell anybody. (I was able to sand away most of those errors after the first coat.) I finally figured out how to “tip and roll” with brush and roller, and got faster at it.
Tip: don’t use cheap brushes or rollers, even though you’ll have to throw ’em away with each little batch of paint. Trying to pluck brush hairs and bits of roller from the wet paint was not fun. (Also, wear some disposable nitrile gloves. You WILL get your hands into wet paint, and you don’t want to keep spreading it around!)
Also, after learning my lesson with the “primer” coat, I taped off everything I didn’t want white paint on—like hatches and other hardware. This, like filling in the cracks, priming, and sanding, was time-consuming. But must be done, if you want the result to look good.
I managed to get a top coat on everything that Monday. But would it rain in the evening? And would that mess up the paint job? And would I be able to get a second coat on Tuesday? I had to drive home Wednesday, so it would be what it would be.
It didn’t rain.
Tuesday, I finished up my early afternoon. The accelerator seemed to be working well—I’d added a wee bit more for the second top coat—and by late afternoon the second coat seemed dry enough that maybe I could take off the painter’s tape without messing anything up…hopefully. I gingerly pulled up the blue strips of tape, starting with the parts I’d painted earliest in the day, and…
It was beautiful.
No, it doesn’t look like gelcoat. It’s paint. But it’s pretty awesome paint. For a change, now the cabin top looks like something we can be proud of. Well, except for the eroding non-skid. And the missing handrails, which I still need to reattach…the next time I “quietly take to the ship.”
Okay, really quick recap:
- RTFM First! (“Read The Friggin’ Manual”…)
- It Will Take Longer Than Expected
- Preparation Is Everything
- This Stuff Is Expensive
- This Stuff Is Toxic
I don’t think I have to (re)explain most of these things. You’ll need to do your own homework, anyway. Since the primer and paint—plus all the catalysts, thinners, accelerators, resin, filler, and whatnot—are pretty spendy, you’ll want to make sure you get the right quantities of the right stuff the first time.
That means doing some homework. Sorry about that.
And the thing that will take most of your time—if you want it to look decent—is preparation. Sanding, cleaning, filling, sanding, priming, sanding, cleaning…
Be sure to use painter’s tape to protect stuff you don’t want paint on, and remove any parts that aren’t a pain to remove. (And don’t leave the painter’s tape applied to your boat for weeks in the hot Florida sun. Not that I’ve ever done that…)
Finally, I didn’t mention it before, but you can’t miss all the health warnings on the labels of these products. Be sure and wear a proper mask when sanding or working with the silica filler, and any other times the instructions suggest; and don’t be mixing up epoxy resin indoors or breathing it in unless you want a third arm or something.
And if all of that didn’t put ya off from putting some new paint on your vessel, well God bless ya…
…and keep me posted.
What’s YOUR Story?
So what’s your boat-painting nightmare story? (Or triumph story. They’re often the same.) Has anybody ever steered you wrong on a boat project? Let me know in the comments below!
*Super Big Thanks to Rick for the very generous help. Without your help, I’d still be looking at this job like a cow looking at an airplane…!
Also, big thanks to Brian from BoatBistro.com for the advice! Brian’s cabin top is a masterpiece. Just wow.