How to Paint Sailboat Decks

New Life for Old Decks: A fresh coat of deck paint on your vintage classic-plastic cruiser will make the old gal sparkle and shine.

Painting a sailboat

Tom Zydler

Janet Van Leuwen and Steve Van Wig own a Whitby 42. Looking at their beautiful, well-groomed ketch, you’d never guess it was built in 1982. The name on the stern, Lunacy, may be the only hint of the incredible amount of work that the couple has put into rejuvenating their boat. Bringing the decks and the coachroof top to their present glory was a large part of the project, as these tasks would’ve been on any glass boat more than 25 years old. This is how they did it. And frankly, this is how it should be done.

Before the couple could begin doing any prep work for painting, the deck hardware had to be removed. They needed access to tight spaces where the horizontal deck surface turned into vertical bulwarks, around the masts’ partners, near the windlass base, and so on. (They also removed the chainplates, which needed attention as a separate project.) Out came all stanchions, their bases, various padeyes, winches—anything and everything, in fact, that could obstruct the power sanders required to remove the worn-down, cracking, original nonskid pattern. Steve then used silicon sealant to plug all the fastener holes that would be reused; silicon repels paint, so the fastener locations would be visible when they began reinstalling the hardware.

Donning breathing masks and kneepads, the couple spent days grinding the old surfaces with 80-grit discs. Using thick foam pads on machines running at high rpm prevented any gouging in the laminate. Smaller sanders (both round and square) helped them to negotiate tight turns; at times, they resorted to manual sanding blocks. Working with thickened polyester and epoxy resins, Steve filled several hairline cracks and dings. They then sanded this filler with 80-grit, then 100-grit, and finally 120-grit sandpaper to achieve a smoother surface before vacuuming up all the accumulated dust.


Next, to keep paint drips off teak handrails, the windlass, and the portholes, they masked these with heavy paper and tape. Right after the final wipe with a cleaning solvent, they took two days to roll and brush on two coats of epoxy primer, the base for the final topcoat. Over the next few days, the primed surfaces were sanded with 120-grit paper, followed again by vacuuming and hosing the resulting dust. Afterward, Janet cleaned all the surfaces with non-sticky tack cloths designed for multipart polyurethanes.

At this juncture, Steve identified and outlined the future nonskid areas, then spent a couple of days taping their inner edges with long-life 3M masking tape. At the corners, joining short lengths of tape on tight curves required meticulous care. After they wiped everything with cleaning solvent, they applied the first coat of multipart polyurethane to all the surfaces outside the future nonskid. Two more topcoat applications followed within allowable, 16-hour intervals. After sanding with 220-grit paper, dusting, using the tack rag, and wiping the solvent, they rolled and brushed on the fourth and final topcoat. The solvent-resistant, ultra-smooth, high-density foam-roller covers and quality brushes delivered the best finish. Working in the hot Florida sun required frequent additions of brushing reducer.

After allowing 48 hours to fully cure, they removed the masking tape. Fresh tape was then applied along the outside margins of the nonskid areas. All was ready for applying the nonskid coats. But first Steve spent a few days experimenting. He mixed his own color tints—too dark, and you couldn’t walk barefoot on the sun-heated deck; too white, and the deck glare was intolerable.


Also, he tested paint combined with various nonskid additives on scrap plywood; very coarse grit could damage human skin if a sailor knelt or fell on deck. He decided to combine equal amounts of coarse and fine grit. Significantly, this mixture prevented the coarse grit from settling down in the paint in lumps. On the big day, Steve and Janet mixed the activator with the paint base in a large container, added the correct nonskid grit, poured in the brushing reducer, and thoroughly stirred it all. After pouring small dollops within a taped area, Steve spread it out with a roller with Janet assisting, adding more paint or grit as necessary. She also wiped up Steve’s occasional paint drips with a solvent-soaked rag. The work went quickly and smoothly, though constant stirring of the paint/grit mixture was absolutely vital.

Twenty-four hours passed before heavy, late summer rain rolled in. By then, the paint had cured hard, and the coachroof was finished. They then repeated the whole operation to paint the deck. Nobody said rejuvenating a classic-plastic yacht would be quick or easy. But when the entire project was finished and Lunacy‘s deck sparkled, the two sailors realized that all their meticulous efforts had been well worth it.



1. In preparation for the job, much of the deck hardware, including the stanchions, had to be removed. The remaining gear was carefully and completely covered and masked.
2. All the fastener holes were filled with silicon sealant, and the couple spent days grinding the old surfaces. Then Janet used a solvent wash to ensure a strong bond with the primer paint.
3. After dings and cracks were repaired and sanded, two coats of epoxy primer were applied.
4. Following another round of sanding, vacuuming, cleaning, and taping, the couple rolled and brushed on a fresh coat of Awlgrip topcoat.
5. After four coats of Awlgrip, it was time for the nonskid. First, Steve experimented with colors and grits. Once under way, he poured on a dollop of pre-mixed paint and spread it evenly. Note the paint stirrer, which was used to prevent the grit from settling.
6. Stirring frequently, to make sure the coverage was even in each masked area, Steve worked quickly and efficiently while Janet addressed small splashes with a solvent-soaked cloth.
7. Voilà! Once the masking tape was removed, the fresh decks fairly glistened.

What You’ll Need:
• Hook-and-loop sanding discs, sized to fit the sander pads
• Sheets of sandpaper of grits 80, 100, 120, 180, 220, and 320
• 3M masking tape in widths of 1/2 inch (No. 256), 1 inch (No. 2090), and 2 inches (No. 225)
• Gerson synthetic tack cloths
• Roller frames and roller covers, with phenolic cores: ultra-smooth, high-density 4-inch and 6-inch roller covers (available from Home Depot; for the primers and topcoats) and Yellow stripe 3/8-inch nap (from West Marine; for the nonskid paint mixture)
• Good-quality varnishing brushes
• Cabisil (colloidal silica) thickening agent for making fairing putty with epoxy or polyester resin
• Plastic putty knives
• Interlux Fiberglass Solvent Wash 202 (for cleaning surfaces)
• M.E.K. solvent (for cleaning all brushes)
• Disposable paper/plastic pails of various sizes
• A dozen wooden paint stirrers
• Interlux Epoxy Primekote
• Awlgrip topcoat (with Brushing Reducer and brushing converter)
• Awlgrip Griptex nonskid additive (fine and coarse grades)
• Ryobi and Makita random orbital sanders
• Ryobi 6-inch palm polisher (used with a foam pad as a sander in complex spaces)
• 3M breathing dust masks, ear protection, and solvent-resistant gloves

Longtime CW contributor Tom Zydler and his wife, Nancy, plan on spending this summer exploring the coast of Labrador aboard their Mason 44, Frances B.


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