Workboat Finish

Workboat Finish

By Preston Larus



My grandfather was a Chesapeake Bay sailor all his life until he got too old to handle sail (this was before aluminum masts, power roller-furling, and high-output alternators). A chancery court judge with a proletarian taste in boats, he then bought the Lady Jane — a 50 foot deadrise workboat with a whole lot of cabin built on top. Some purist sailors might opine that he sold out, but I say he got to keep messing about and cruising up and down the Bay for another 15 years or so.


My uncle inherited the Lady Jane, who always said that one of the great things about her was her decidedly non-yachty, workboat finish. You didn’t have to agonize over every scratch or ding or even crunch – you could always patch and paint. The way he put it was, if you needed a place to hang your hat aboard the Lady Jane, all you had to do was drive a nail.


We just bought a 20 foot Nelson Silva replica of a Simmons Sea Skiff over Thanksgiving. I’ve wanted one for years. I saw it in the MAIB classifieds and a couple of days later, my wife and I cancelled our holiday plans and set out for Maryland, 1,000 miles away, to buy it, with money we could have used elsewhere (“But we’ll sell the old boat so the new one will only wind up costing $X …”).


Now the Simmons is home, and I am messing with it as messers must do.


The Awlgrip finish on the foredeck and washboards is past its prime, showing cracks and checking here and there. That lets in the weather, and I don’t want it to get out of hand. I had a second-hand Bolger Diablo once and I can tell you, once it gets away from you, moisture moves mighty fast through plywood. One day I grabbed the gunwale of the Diablo real hard and about put my hand through it. That boat is still in the backyard, mostly gone except for the fiberglass sheathing. The Lady Jane, for that matter, eventually succumbed to deferred maintenance and was disposed of by burning. I’m not having any of that on the Simmons.


So, I set about to decide what to paint it with and what color and so on.


A few years back, I restored a 1963 Glassmaster 19 foot weekender, fiberglass but with some cracking gelcoat on the decks and cabin top, and that sucker taught me a thing or two. We had no money for expensive finishes but we wanted it to look good, and I did lots of comparisons on the cost of this material versus that until my West Marine and Defender catalogs were dog-eared.


Spraying was not an option. No compressor, no paint gun, no money to buy them and no friends to borrow them from — and then there are the lethal fumes to consider — so it was going to have to be brush or roller. I am a decent mechanic and can fashion stuff out of wood, fiberglass or starboard passably well if I can just overcome my impatience to go boating – but I am just lousy with a paintbrush. Even if I could have afforded Awlgrip and all the required thinners, solvent washes, and whatnot (which I couldn’t), my skill level was definitely not up to all that. Maybe it’s a birth defect.


Next we looked at the one-part polyurethanes and the traditional alkyd paints. Even if I could handle that roller-and-brush business where you tip the paint with a dry brush (!), the cost was still a little out of reach.


The local fiberglass supply place where I was buying all my resin and cloth turned me on to another possibility: gelcoat. Cheap, durable as hell, and, so they said, no big deal to apply with a brush. Just make sure you apply a thick film so that you can sand down any imperfections and then polish it to a high gloss. Sounded good.


Worked bad. It was very hard to lay down smooth with a brush, so I laid down a lot “so I could sand it out.”


Turns out, gelcoat sands like iron. It was such a fiasco that once I got all that crap sanded back off, I was off looking exhaustedly for another solution, ‘cause gelcoat sure wasn’t it. I’ll admit the possibility that a skilled hand maybe could do it like the folks down at the fiberglass place said, but we’ve already established that I am not a skilled hand.


It was starting to look like I would just have to pony up to the cash register at the West Marine store and get some one-part polyurethane, though at this point I was none too confident that even that application was within my limited ability. Then I met a fellow messer at a boat show who introduced me to DTM.


He said DTM was a Pittsburgh Paint acrylic enamel used for industrial applications, like repainting cranes and bulldozers, with a decent gloss. He said that it could be sprayed with an airless paint sprayer like the ones they sell to homeowners for doing louvered doors and cane chairs and stuff, if I would thin it first about 10% with Floetrol. He said it was cheap and easy to use, and that if I let it cure fully (about 3 weeks) it would be plenty hard and would not wash off in the rain. Man, I was off in a hurry to find a Pittsburgh paint store that was open on a Saturday, and I found one, too.


I got a Wagner sprayer at a yard sale for 10 bucks, erected a tent of clear plastic (this project was outdoors) and did just what he said. I had to use a little more Floetrol than he recommended but the job came out not-half-bad. In fact, it looked great. The eggshell finish it had right after spraying actually self-leveled as it dried and it looked like somebody knew what they were doing (sshh). There were a few spots where I messed up, but since observers seldom scrutinize the finished product as pitilessly as the messer himself, I got more than a few compliments on it.


Some years later, I read a piece by Dave Carnell which talked about the joys of using regular latex house paint on boats. By that time, Dave’s point of view made a lot of sense to me.


Back to the Simmons … I was a little dismayed to learn that it had Awlgrip on it. I mean, are you actually going to cover Awlgrip with a latex paint? Doesn’t Awlgrip sort of require you to keep maintaining it to that lofty standard? I thrashed restlessly contemplating the responsibility of owning an Awlgripped boat, but here’s the fact: the only way a boat of mine will get Awlgripped is if I pay a pro to do it, and that, besides costing almost as much as a new boat, goes against my grain. Once I reached this conclusion, I rested easier and could calmly consider the alternatives.


So I talked to the Pittsburgh Paint folks again. Seems PPG bought out Porter Paints, which has a heck of a lot of stores, so now you can get DTM just about everywhere, even on Saturdays.


I wanted to talk to a DTM expert about what kind of surface prep my weathered, cracked Awlgrip might need, and so the store guys gave me the cell phone number for the District Manager. They said he was a boater, so he would know a lot, just call him Monday morning.


Call him I did, first thing Monday morning. The first thing out of his mouth was that DTM had no place on a boat, nor did any other water-based paint. I gasped for breath. Pressed for recommendations, he said … (wait for it) … go on down to West Marine and buy what they tell you to buy and sin no more. I was crushed. All of my intelligent messer questions about surface preparation evaporated.


That was this morning. I spent some of the day wrapping my mind around one-part polyurethane: color chips, surface prep, price and availability, and so on. Too bad about the pallette – just 25 “popular” colors available and none of them really what we want, but what can you do?


I read the application instructions online: sanding, solvent wash, then primer, then sanding and solvent wash and a second coat of primer, then sanding and solvent wash, then first color coat, then sanding and solvent wash, followed by (sweet Jesus) the final coat using, oh yes, the familiar but suspect roller-and-brush tipping method. Paint and primer would be about $125, and better add $50 more for the special solvents, thinners, sandpaper, tackcloths, and on and on (better make that $100 more).


And the time involved! It’s a full day between each coat. If it’s cool or humid (like it always is in December in southwest Florida) then it might be even longer.


But even if it’s not really the color I’ve been dreaming of, it sure will be pretty, as long as a leaf doesn’t fall on the work while it’s wet. This is another outdoor job after all, but I’ll tarp up a temporary roof in the yard. Then I imagined a gnat or an ant flailing in my perfectly-applied finish, and felt the frustrated, jugular-busting rage … after all that work!


My temples throbbed and I began to perspire, thinking, “How long will I have to endure this effing project just so I can go boating again?


That’s when the whole house of cards collapsed. What happened to messing? What the heck do I care what the District Manager says? What happened to my decision to Do As Dave Does and just paint the thing and get on with it? What’s more important: using this boat or bragging (oh, probably by April or May) about the almost flawless finish (“Yep, I did it myself.”)? What would my grandfather and uncle say about all this? All good questions.


Then, a dim memory flashed on and brought instant clarity: When I was a teenager, my father was about to cut a hole in a huge, authentic oriental rug so he could get an extension cord to reach the table lamp. My mother said something along the lines of that being no way to treat such a fine and expensive rug. My father didn’t look up, but replied that the rug was worthless if he couldn’t actually make use of it, and commenced cutting (and here endeth the lesson). 


I tell you, it was a near-miss for my messing career, but I snapped out of it and not a moment too soon.


This evening I just got back from Home Depot with a whole gallon of Glidden’s best exterior gloss housepaint, tinted to the perfect color. Also in the bag: a quart of Floetrol, some foam rollers, and a quart of Coverstain oil-base primer for the (marine) Bondo spots (“Bondo and paint’ll make it what it ain’t,” says my pal Tom). Total, $48.


I’ll have the job done by the weekend, it will look just fine, and it will keep weather away from the wood like paint should. When I ding it on the dock, I won’t weep – I’ll touch it up, wash up with soap and water, and go for a boat ride. I’ll paint it again when it needs it, however long Glidden’s Best lasts (and in any damned color I please, I might add).


That was a close call, but I’m fine now, thanks.

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