How To Paint A Sailboat: A Complete Guide

How To Paint A Sailboat | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

Whether you’re new to owning a sailboat or not, you have likely put some thought into painting your boat yourself. It is important to keep your boat well painted as it can save you a lot of money in the long run. It can also save you a lot of money if you choose to paint your boat yourself.

Whether or not this is the first time you have painted your boat, you will still find this article useful. It has lots of tips and tricks for making sure you get the job done and get it done well. Hiring a professional may be easier, but there is a sense of pride and accomplishment in doing it yourself. If you use this article as a reference, you can’t go wrong.


Table of contents

Why is it important to paint your sailboat?

Painting your boat is not just an excuse to put some creative flair into your boat, it is an important process in keeping the boat safe. Safe from salt, safe from barnacles, and safe from damage. The paint acts as a vital protective layer, without it your boat will be vulnerable to all kinds of damage. If you have a wooden hull, this protective layer will keep the wood from rotting. It can also plug any minuscule holes that might allow sea life and salt to make its way into the body of the boat.

There is also, of course, the added benefit of having a boat that looks good. A boat is a point of pride and should be treated as such. Having a glossy looking boat is something to be proud of. Most boats are not painted far above the waterline, so it is even an opportunity to make your boat stand out. Some people also believe that painting a boat brings good luck. Unless of course, you paint it green, green is thought to bring bad luck. Whether or not you believe that is up to you.

What are the benefits of painting your boat yourself?

When it comes to painting your boat there are only two options. Hire a professional boat painting contractor, or bite the bullet and do it yourself. They both have their pros and cons, of course, but there is so much more to be gained by doing it yourself. First of all, painting your boat yourself is just as fun as it is difficult. Learning to paint is a valuable life skill that you won’t regret learning as early on in your sailing career as possible. If you can learn to paint your boat now, you will save yourself a small fortune in the long run.

Hiring a contractor is expensive, to say the least, it may be faster and easier overall, but the extra cost can make it simply not feasible. Or simply unappealing. If this is the first time you are painting your sailboat you will need to make a one-off purchase of all the equipment needed for prepping, painting, and finishing the boat. After these one-off purchases are out of the way, you will only need to buy paint and new rollers the next time. Even if you need to buy all the equipment brand new, it can be cheaper than hiring someone else to do the job for you.

How often do you need to paint your sailboat?

The general rule of thumb for painting your boat is that it will need bottom paint about once a year. This is when you will need to take the boat completely out of the water and give it a fresh new coat. If your boat spends all of its time in the water, it certainly needs painting at least once a year. The saltwater is so corrosive that you shouldn’t let your boat go without a fresh coat of bottom paint for more than 2 years. Even if your boat only spends half its time in the water, and the other half on land, you will find that its best to keep its coat topped up.

The top paint, or the above waterline paint, doesn’t need painting anywhere near as often. It isn’t in direct contact with the seawater so it simply isn’t going to get eroded down as much. The salty sea spray can still be damaging over time so this paint should be re-done every 3 years. It can be more or less frequent depending on use and personal preference. Some people like to do above waterline paint yearly, with the rest of their boat, but it isn’t necessary.

What are the best paints to use for your sailboat?

There are plenty of great brands of paint out there, in various colors and shades, so you won’t struggle for choice. There are some things you might want to look for in your paint. For example, you may have noticed that a lot of boats tend to have red hulls. This isn’t just a fashion statement, and while red is supposed to bring luck this isn’t the main reason either. The reason is that this red/orange paint is perfect for added protection along the bottom of your boat.

This red/orange paint is interestingly chosen because it is, of course, traditional; but mostly because of its copper. The copper is actually what gives the paint its red/orange color.

Copper is perfect for the bottom of your boat for several reasons. First, copper acts as a biocide. It stops worms from making their way into the hull if your boat is wooden. If it is metal or fiberglass, it still has the benefit of stopping barnacles and other sea life from attaching themselves deep into the hull of the boat. Copper is also strong enough to hold up to scraping.

Scraping is when you scrape barnacles and other sea life off the hull of your boat. Scraping is an important part of keeping your boat in good condition. It is important to check with the marina or port authority whether or not you are allowed to scrape. If you scrape without permission you may find yourself on the receiving end of a hefty fine. The reason is that they don’t want you introducing invasive species on to the marina floor. This is mostly a problem when you are coming from somewhere vastly foreign, not sailing from New York to Chicago for example.

How many coats of paint does a sailboat need?

When painting your boat it’s a good idea to think about how many coats of paint you are going to need. There is no exact number that is needed, it is mostly to do with how well protected your boat needs to be and how much time you have on your hands. Every coat takes time and attention to detail.

If you choose to do four coats of paint it is going to be time-consuming but very well protected. That being said, the minimum number of coats is two. One is not enough. If your boat only spends part of the time in the water, two to three coats are plenty.

If you are someone who lives on their boat full-time, or at least most of the time, you may want to do more coats. Three, maybe even four, might be ideal here. The reason is that first, your boat is going to experience way more wear and tear than one that is just an ocean part-timer. And second, taking out your boat (which is also your home) is a giant hassle. It is a tedious process, so doing it as infrequently as possible is probably in your best interest. More coats last longer. When you are sailing from place to place, finding somewhere to take your boat out of the water and perform this maintenance is inconvenient. You want to be doing it as little as possible.

What safety precautions do I need to take when painting my sailboat?

All paint can be toxic when inhaled. Even if it is “non-toxic” paint it is going to be harmful to your lungs. They aren’t meant to inhale anything but air, even non-toxic paint is going to be bad for them. This is why it is important to wear a face mask.

Your mask should be specifically for painting, not surgical masks or other cheap medial masks. They are not going to be strong enough, with a fine enough air filter. Whether you feel the need to wear eyewear is up to you during the painting process.

Before the painting begins, when you are scraping and sanding, it is a good idea to wear some goggles to keep debris and splinters out of your eyes. It is also a good idea to wear gloves. You don’t want to rough your hands up too much, they need protection from not only the paint but splinters and sharp pieces of metal.

Painting a boat can be dangerous work. Without taking the proper safety precautions you are putting yourself at unnecessary risk. This safety equipment costs just a few bucks and is equally important as any of the other tools needed to paint your boat.

What tools do I need to paint a boat?

There is more to painting your boat than just using paint and a brush. You will also need tough sandpaper, potentially an angle grinder or welder, paint, primer, brushes, paint rollers, paint thinner, and solvent. You will need to make sure you have all of these things before you start painting. You can pick any of these items up at a boating goods store.

It is a good idea to bring some buckets with you for filling with water, both for rinsing off your boat and your brushes. All of your safety equipment needs to be brought too.

If this is your first time painting your boat yourself, you may find you need to buy all of these things at once. That can be a lot to stomach when its all in one go, luckily, most of these tools and equipment can be reused. Besides, it is still going to be far cheaper than hiring someone to do it for you. All of this equipment is an investment in your boat.

How to paint a sailboat

Whether this is the first time you have painted your boat or not, you may find some of the tips in this next section useful. Painting your sailboat may be tricky at first, but over time you will get the hang of it. The problem with painting your boat is that it can be a very expensive mistake if you get it wrong.

It is important to read this guide carefully, take your time, and make sure you do the job properly. It may be slow going at first, speed will come over time. Once you have gathered all of your safety equipment and tools you are ready to get started.

The workspace

First of all, you need to ensure you have the right workspace. You cant paint your boat in the water so you are going to need to find somewhere to do your work. This is easy enough if you don’t live on your boat full time, take the boat to your house and do your painting on the driveway. If this isn’t an option because you don’t have space or live on your boat full time, you are going to need to rent somewhere. There are typically places affiliated with the marina that you can use. In some cases, these even come with a majority of the equipment you will need. This, of course, drums up the price a bit, but that’s unavoidable.

Your workspace needs to be well ventilated, or you risk making yourself very sick. Both from paint fumes, rubbing alcohol fumes, and fine matter from when you sand the hull down. This means painting your boat in your garage, if it even fits, is not always the best idea. If you do decide to paint outside, it is important to consider the chance of rain. Of course, your boat is pretty waterproof, but once you begin sanding rain might damage the wood if left to sit there.


Before you do anything else, it is important to look your boat over fully from top to bottom. You are looking for any bumps, scrapes, cracks and general damage. This damage is not going to be noticeable while the boat is in the water, so just before you paint it is one of the only times you get to have a close look. Once you have made note of all this damage, it is time to get to work repairing it. Depending on just how severe this damage is, you may want to get help with this next stage.

All of this damage needs to be repaired before anything else can take place. Painting over these damaged areas is just going to hide the problem temporarily, the next time it comes to painting you will find they are far worse. If you don’t deal with this now, they are going to snowball into complicated and expensive repairs.


After your repairs are done it is time to start sanding. This is very time consuming as you need to do it three times. Per coat. First, take the 600 grit sandpaper and make your way around the boat. It is best to use electrical tape to mark out a section at a time so you don’t keep losing your place. After you have finished with the 600 grit sandpaper, it is time to move on to 800, then 1200. This process is important so you will be painting on as smooth a surface as possible. It is then a good idea to wipe the surfaces of the boat down with a damp cloth to remove any of the dust and flakes of metal/wood. Otherwise, you end up painting over them.

You could wash the boat down with a hose but you want to avoid getting the boat unnecessarily wet now that the hull has lost its protective layer. If you are sanding down a boat with a copper paint bottom, you may find the sanding process difficult. Just do your best, it doesn’t need to be 100% perfect. It is important to get as much of the old paint off as possible. Your new paint won’t adhere to the old paint as well as it would to the boat hull itself.


Putting on a layer of primer is not 100% necessary but it is recommended. The idea is that you want your topcoat to adhere to the boat as well as possible, a layer of primer can help you do that. The primer needs to be painted on evenly all over the boat. If you only feel like doing below the waterline, that is fine too. It will save you a lot of time. Putting on the layer of primer is not the most time-consuming part, it is mostly the sanding down that you will have to do. You will need to sand down using the 600 grit paper, then the 800, then 1200. Just like last time. Your layer of primer needs to be as smooth as possible for the maximum adhesion.


Now comes the paint. It is recommended to do at least two layers of paint. One undercoat and one top. Some people choose to go as far as two layers of primer, two layers of undercoat, and three layers of topcoat. This is going to be very time consuming, remember you will need to sand down three times between each layer of paint. You can paint using a brush if you like but is far easier to use a roller. It is also far easier if you employ someone to help you with this stage. It could be your spouse, child, friend, or anyone. It doesn’t need to be a paid professional. It can take a long time to go through this process. Especially if you are effectively doing 8 layers of paint (including primer).

The fastest way to paint, especially if you are on your own, is to use a sprayer. They are easy to use, with a little practice. If you haven’t used one before you may find that you struggle to get an even coat. You should always paint in vertical stripes, not horizontal. Additionally, it is a good idea to have someone following after you with a small brush doing small touch-up jobs. Any unevenness will need to be sanded down and repainted. The whole painting process can take a week if you aren’t efficient.

Take pictures

It is a good idea to take pictures throughout the whole process. This is for future reference. For example, if you take pictures of the boat when you are assessing it for damage, you can compare them to after you have repaired or sanded the trouble spots down. If you cant see the trouble spots still, great! If you can, it will help you keep an eye on them after you have painted too. It’s a good idea to catalog all of these areas if they start to become regular problems you may want to have your boat looked at by a mechanic. You might also like to have a before and after picture for your blog, or just as a personal memento.


Hopefully, you now have all the theory needed to paint your boat. There is a lot more that goes into painting your boat than simply grabbing some paint and a brush. It takes planning, practice, and attention to detail. If you follow this guide you will have no trouble at all. If this is your first time painting your boat, don’t be disheartened if it takes a lot longer than you expected. Speed will come with time, it is far more important to get the job done right than get it done quickly. If you put the work in you will be painting like a pro in no time at all.

How To Paint A Sailboat: A Complete Guide
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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