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Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.


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8

Painting A Narrowboat

I’ve just painted my narrowboat. I haven’t achieved the same finish the professionals manage, but I’ve saved thousands of pounds and I’m very pleased with the result. Here’s how I did it and a list of the materials I used and how much they cost me.

Before you read this, please let me emphasise to you, I am not claiming to be a professional or even a good boat painter. This was my first attempt at painting a narrowboat. The coach lines aren’t straight and there are more than a few runs that I didn’t manage to sand out. But I’m happy with the end result. I’m particularly happy that I didn’t have to spend £6,000+ that I haven’t got in order to get James into a reasonable shape. If you fancy having a go yourself, and you want to learn from my mistakes, please read on…

On Saturday 14th April James came out of the water so that I could black the hull. I did most of the work on the Saturday, but finished the job on Sunday morning. On Monday I took James into one of our covered docks to paint her.

The guide price for a professional paint job these days is about £100 per foot, or £6,200 for my 62′ narrowboat. I didn’t have anywhere near that amount of money to spend but the boat had to be painted so I decided to do the work myself. In November last year (2011) I had a steel cabin fitted over the existing Masonite (oil treated hardboard). I didn’t have time to paint the boat when it came back from the boat builder, so I just put an undercoat over the primer sprayed on by the contractor to get me through the winter.

Sanding James (for the third time!)

Sanding James (for the third time!)

When I say that I put an undercoat over the primer, I really should point out that some of the lads at Calcutt Boats did it for me because James was delivered back to Calcutt Boats after the steel work when I was on holiday for a few days in Snowdonia. There was no space in any of the covered docks to leave James until I returned so it was all hands on deck to apply a quick protective coat.

The lads who did the work paint our hire fleet on a regular basis but they wouldn’t class themselves as professional narrowboat painters. I don’t know why because the coat they put on was perfect. Not a run, not a smear, not a drip anywhere. I didn’t realise how good their work was until I applied my first coat.

It was awful.

Paint is nasty vindictive stuff. It doesn’t like staying where it’s put. It loves exercise. It loves to run. I was given a little advice before I started. I was told that it is essential to keep checking the paint that I had just applied to make sure that there were no runs. I didn’t realise quite how often I should have checked it, or how sparingly I should have applied the paint in the first place. I also didn’t realise that it is almost inevitable that, unless the coat is slightly thinner than gold leaf, paint applied to the underside of any window will wait until you’ve gone for a tea break before surging down any beautifully flat recently coated surface. It was very frustrating.

James, freshly painted, back on its mooring

James, freshly painted, back on its mooring. Do the coach lines look straight to you?

I also learned very quickly that the name of the game is not to try to apply enough paint to immediately cover the undercoat. All that I achieved was a coat of paint full of ripples and sags and runs. Little and often is the way. It’s better to have to apply an additional coat than try to rectify the imperfections in a coat that has been applied too thickly.

I was almost in tears when I came to the end of the first coat I put on. Especially when I was told that the only way to deal with the runs I had caused was to wait until the paint dried and then to sand the imperfections out, almost back to bare metal.

The first coat on the second side was easier. The result was better but still a million miles off perfect. I still made the mistake of applying too much paint to the underside of each window and suffered more runs.

Consequently, I had to do a great deal of sanding before applying the second top coat. I didn’t actually do enough sanding. It was hearbreaking watching most of the painstakingly applied paint disappear as the orbital sander passed over it.

The second coat went on much easier and much more quickly. I learned from my mistakes so consequently achieved a much smoother finish and far fewer runs. Sadly the imperfections that I hadn’t managed to sand out from the first coat were very evident but I knew I was going to have to live with them.

Coat three, the final top coat, was almost a pleasure to apply. I shaved off a little more time from coat two’s total and almost halved the time I took to apply the first coat.

I painted the sides in Toplac Mauritius Blue with inset biscuit (cream) panels. Biscuit is a colour mixed for Calcutt Boat’s hire fleet so you won’t find that for sale in any other chandlery that Calcutt Boats’. To cover the join between the two colours I had a choice of either using masking tape to define a 2″ line and then paint it in, or apply an adhesive coach line. As the masking option required a fair amount of skill, I decided to apply adhesive coach lines. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that there was a degree of skill needed here too. The first twenty foot log horizontal strip of red tape that I stuck on looked like a child’s drawing of a roller coaster. At least my efforts amused the staff here.

As with the painting, I became more skillfull as time went on. The last of the eight horizontal coach lines was almost straight. Purely by chance, the worst side is fortunately hidden from view when James is on its mooring. As that’s just about all the time at the moment, I’ve just about got away with it.

So James is back home now. I have to say, now that I’m not looking at everything from a distance of six inches, the result doesn’t look bad at all. I’m looking forward to painting her again. I know I’ll achieve a much better finish next time. Roll on 2017!

Here’s the equipment and materials I used. It’s only a guide because some of the materials and some of the paint was courtesy of Calcutt Boats (Thank you Roger!) so I’ve estimated the prices. The total cost and the total time taken though isn’t far out so you can use it as a guide. I could have achieved a better finish by using a better quality paint. The paint I used was OK, but the best available is Craftmaster. It’s easier to work with and covers the previous coat more effectively.

New cabin paint, new hull paint. Lovely!

New cabin paint, new hull paint. Lovely!

Equipment

  • Orbital sander
  • Scraper
  • Stanley knife
  • vaacuum cleaner
  • 2″ paint brushes x 4

Paint

  • Red Dambolene 750ml x 1 – Front and rear deck £17
  • Ryland Signal Red 750ml x 1 – Cratch rails, pole, plank £21
  • 700ml Toplac Mauritius Blue gloss x 7 – front and rear bulkheads, cabin sides, bow, cratch, stern, pole, plank £147
  • 5L Biscuit/cream gloss x 1 – roof and side panels £160

Total paint cost £345 (Please note that this does not include the coat of primer or the undercoat that were already on the boat before I started painting)

Consumables

  • 2L White spirit x 3 £15
  • sanding disks x 100
  • Blue roll x 3 £10
  • masking tape x 6 £12
  • high density foam rollers x 15 £20
  • paint trays x 3 £3

Total consumables cost – £60 plus the cost of the sanding discs. I used the ones we have in stock at Calcutt Boats. They are bought in boxes of 100 but I can’t find a price for them online.

Facilities

  • A covered and watertight paint tent; preferably one that is temperature controlled. The tent that I used wasn’t totally watertight. There was some very heavy rain while I was painting on a couple of days which resulted in rain water dripping on my new paint. The tent was also quite dusty which resulted in a fair amount of dust settling on the still tacky paint after each coat. The professionals advise damping down the inside of the tent before each coat is applied to prevent this from happening. As the tent that I was using covered a double dock and there was another boat often in the dock with me I couldn’t do this. £30-£40 per day

Time

  • I spent three weeks applying three coats, but I was doing my normal work for part of some of the days. In total I spent 150 hours (seventeen nine hour days) either painting or preparing

Total Cost

Paint £345
Consumables £100
Facilities £500+

Grand total roughly £1,000 plus three weeks of your time. You can halve the cost if you paint your boat out in the open but with the inconsistencies of the UK weather, do you really want to take the chance?

Tips

  • Remember the six “P”s – Proper Planning Prevents P*** Poor Performance. Make sure you have all your paint and materials to hand for when you need them
  • Early morning is the best time to paint. As the day advances, the temperature increases and the paint dries more quickly leaving you with little time to work on that perfect finish
  • Make sure that your sander fits the sanding disks that you buy. The sander I bought has a diameter of about an inch less that the majority of sanding disks available. The result is less control when sanding because of the overlap. I had to borrow another sander to fit the sanding disks properly.
  • Lightly sand (400g discs) between coats to key the surface so your paint actually sticks to the layer beneath (I understand that some professional narrowboat painters suggest that you can apply the next coat without sanding providing that you apply it within twenty four hours of the previous coat. Bear in mind though that this will only work if you have a run free finish on the previous coat).
  • Use masking tape to protect areas where you don’t want paint.
  • Remove the masking tape while the paint is still tacky. If you remove it when the paint is dry, you’ll either pull the paint off, leave bits of masking tape embedded in your lovely new paint, or both.
  • Use a small, high density roller to apply the paint; use a 2-3″ brush to carefully stroke the bubbles out of the paint. Little and often is the way. Roll paint onto a section no more than 12″ wide and then brush the bubbles out immediately.
  • Make sure that your roller is evenly and thinly covered in paint before you apply it.
  • Watch out for runs! If you are getting runs, you are putting too much paint on your roller. Keep checking back over your work while the paint is still wet enough to work with. If you let a run go tacky, you’ll need to wait until it’s dry before you can sand it out.
  • Don’t rely on my tips alone. I’m a beginner. These guys aren’t though. Here’s some advice from the Craftmaster professionals

Summary

By doing the work myself, I now have a better looking and completely weatherproof boat. I found the work very frustrating to begin with but, as with everything else in life, practice makes perfect. I don’t consider myself a particularly “hands on” sort of guy. I don’t have a natural flair for general maintenance but I don’t mind hard work and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty. By the time I reached the last coat, I was actually enjoying myself. I learned from my mistakes and each coat was quicker to apply and more even.

The most frustrating part of the whole process for me was applying the adhesive coach lines. I just couldn’t get them completely level. However, most of the people who have looked at the boat since it’s been painted have told me that I’m being too critical. They say that they can’t see the irregularities. I think they’re just being kind.

I have saved myself somewhere in the region of £5,000 though. Admittedly a professional painter would have achieved a much better finish and would have included the signwriting in the price (anyone know a good signwriter?) but I’m satisfied with what I have done. And that is what counts.

 

Useful Information
Entertainment
Summary
Paul Smith
 

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia now wander Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 32' Dutch motor cruiser.

Comments
  • monique Sunday,13 May, 2012 at 8:39 am

    Thanks for sharing this experience. I enjoyed reading it! Now of course you are going to add castles and roses aren’t you? lol!

     
    • admin Sunday,13 May, 2012 at 8:47 am

      The very thought of trying any arty painting fills me full of dread. The last time I tried to paint a picture was during my art “O” level in 1976. I’ll leave roses and castles to the professionals.

       
  • Lady Emily Sunday,13 May, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Thanks for the good advice. I need to paint Lady Emily soon, but it seems even more scary now. Maybe I’ll paint the doors and work up to it……

     
  • towrope79 Monday,14 May, 2012 at 11:51 am

    Fair play, you’ve done well and should feel justifiably satisfied, not least to have it all protected before this April’s so-called showers! After endless problems with our roof (the paint kept flaking off) we had it done professionally at a cost of £1k, but one can still see all the roller marks, so can only assume they didn’t finish off with a brush, assuming that’s what should have happened. Could recommend a sign-writer but you’d need to take your boat to within an hour’s drive of the G & S, which I get the feeling is unlikely to happen in your case!

     
    • admin Monday,14 May, 2012 at 1:11 pm

      Thanks for the signwriter off but I’ll go for one a little closer!

       
  • Davercee Thursday,17 May, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading you experience painting your narrow-boat,I painted the stern bulkhead of my boat and got runs so thanks for the tip.As for sign writers there is a man named Keith at St Marys marina in Rufford who I would recommend.

     
  • Gary Thursday,5 March, 2015 at 11:04 am

    I noticed you were quoted 500 pounds for signwriting ‘James’ and an email address on either side of your boat. I’d be very interested to see what you get for that money. I wouldn’t expect to charge much more than half that for such a small job. I put a query on this forum a while ago asking whether there would be any casual work around for a signwriter and it looks like there is quite good money to be made!
    Gary

     
    • Paul Smith Thursday,5 March, 2015 at 1:11 pm

      The price quoted is the going rate for a well known high quality sign writer with decades of experience painting narrowboats. Yes, there is good money to be made. There are many boat owners who, like me, are happy to have a go at painting their own boats, but the sign writing is a bridge too far. I would rather pay the going rate than try and do it myself and make a mess.

      Have you done any narrowboat sign writing yet? Do you have any examples of your work?

       
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