Ready to Paint

For the novice, boat building is a series of small, stressful decisions. Most are made at the very beginning: What kind of wood should I use? What is the best glue? In my case, these questions led to hours of research, which resulted in even greater confusion since there is no one “right” answer. Some say plastic resin glue is just fine. Others insist that it’s foolhardy to use anything but epoxy. The debate is endless:

“Plastic resin!”

“Epoxy!”

“Exterior grade plywood!”

“Okoume, you fool!”

My lovely painting assistant hard a work.

The opinions are shouted back and forth, ringing inside my head. Eventually, I make my choice and try to move forward—but there really isn’t any peace to be had since I can’t immediately know whether or not I made the right choice. Sure, the glue works in the garage, but what really matters is what happens in the water—and that won’t be revealed for months or even years. I glued my keel sixteen months ago; that’s a long time to wonder about the strength of plastic resin glue. To remain sane, I just try to put the doubts aside.

But there is always something new to worry about and the latest conundrum concerns paint. When painting my house, I only worry about color choices; when I want to freshen up my living room, I look at some chips and then pick from the available stock of latex paints at the home center. But when it comes to boat building, color schemes are the least of my worries. My secret fear is that my paint will dissolve on contact with water. I need something that not only looks spiffy, but will also hold up in the Chesapeake Bay.

The safest route is to buy marine paint. But these are very (often very, very) expensive and I summarily rejected this option. Instead, I am attracted to builders and designers who insist that a good quality exterior house paint is just fine. It’s the choice of Dynamite Payson, Jim Mikalack, and—not surprising—Pete Stevenson, my boat’s designer.

I should have been happy with this trilateral endorsement, but I wanted more information, so I went online trying to find answers to a long list of more specific questions, including:

1. Do I need to use a primer?
2. If so, what is the best brand?
3. Is oil based paint better than latex?
4. Is one brand better than another?
5. How many coats is enough?

To each question there were a dozen opinions, most contradictory. Many builders use primer and there are many references to a common brand called Kilz II. But others argue that it’s unnecessary to prime over epoxy. I’m torn, but I then come across information from West System, the epoxy manufacturer. They tested several “over the counter” primers and declared that one brand, Zinsser 1-2-3, has especially good adhesion and durability. Since I was also worried about adhesion of the paint on my epoxied hull, this information tipped the balance and I bought a gallon for about $15. One problem solved.

But the question about oil or latex paint was equally troubling. Both have their champions. Latex is user friendly and dries quickly. Oil based paints are easier to remove and more flexible. There is a third faction that swears by Rustoleum. I go back and forth but finally decide to use oil-based porch and floor paint from my local Ace Hardware, mostly because I had recently used it on my front porch and was impressed with its durability.

While the boat was still upside down, I recruited a couple of willing helpers—my oldest son and my daughter—to help paint two coats of the fast-drying primer, followed by two coats of paint on the keel and bottom. The work was easy and wonderfully stress-free after so many days of ‘glassing and sanding.

As an experiment, I also put small dabs of paint directly on the unprimed hull sides, deliberately choosing spots that were sanded and unsanded. I wanted to test the adhesion of paint on various surfaces. Over the next week, I scratched and picked at the paint as it continued to dry and I decided that the portion painted over sanded epoxy did, in fact, stick slightly (but only slightly) better than paint on unsanded epoxy. I also decided that the paint held well without primer and, in fact, it might even have better adhesion without the primer. My methods were not very scientific, but I decided, based on my findings, to stop using primer and simply slap the paint over the sanded hull and cabin. Again, that’s what the Stevenson’s recommend.

In this and other small ways I am starting to view this boat as one big experiment. Over the past year, I have actually used three different glues and now it seems that I will experiment with several different methods of painting. Later on, I even plan to leave a few small areas of the cockpit unfiberglassed just to see how quickly and badly plywood will check when it is protected with nothing more than paint. It’s all part of a increasingly philosophical approach to this project, one that is built on the conviction that this boat is only the first of many boats to come and that I will succeed no matter what happens simply because, once it is finished, I will have finally learned how to build a boat.

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