Aluminum boats get used and abused. At some point, it’s time to breathe new life into a boat with a fresh coat of paint. Not everyone gets a shiny new fishing boat and if you’re like us, you may have recently acquired a well-used aluminum boat that has seen better days.
Painting an aluminum boat seems simple enough. Yet, after a quick Google search, it became apparent that helpful information is hard to find. After reading enough conflicting advice and watching some poorly filmed Youtube videos, we soon realized that we’d be figuring this out on our own.
The goal was simple. Turn an ugly, neglected, aluminum boat into a nice looking fishing boat that will last for many years. Most importantly, we wanted to accomplish the task easily and without spending a fortune.
We’ve decided to share our trials of painting an aluminum boat with you. Hopefully, our experience will make your boat project easier. We share our chosen materials and lessons learned in this step by step guide with pictures.
In the end, our boat turned out better than expected and we believe, so will yours. Keep reading to learn how to paint an aluminum boat the easy way.
Before spending the time painting an aluminum boat, it’s a good idea to inspect it for functionality. Look for corrosion and cracks and determine if the transom needs replacing.
Check along the keel and strakes for small holes that may leak and use something like JB Weld to repair the damage. Flex tape also works for reinforcing the keel and other parts not visible above the water line.
This is also a good time to drill out and replace rusted bolts or bad rivets. The important thing is to make the boat as structurally sound as possible before dressing it up with a new paint job.
Materials you’ll need
There are a dizzying array of boat painting products and I am sure most of them work. However, like I said, we wanted an easy painting method that wouldn’t cost a fortune and still produce great results.
That’s why, after a great deal of research and price comparisons, we arrived at this list of required materials:
- Citristrip Striping Gel (1-2 quarts)
- Bristle or foam brushes (2 – 3 inch)
- Protective gloves (1 box)
- Eye and ear protection
- Face mask or respirator
- Plastic or metal scraper
- Wire wheel
- Electric power drill
- Fine steel wool
- Sanding blocks (180 grit and finer)
- Frog tape
- Butcher or craft masking paper
- Drop cloths
- Plastic bags or plastic drop cloth
- Clean rags
- Low odor Mineral Spirits
- Aluminum self etching primer (4 spray cans for bare aluminum)
- Outdoor safe protective enamel or similar paint for exterior (4-6 spray cans)
- Outdoor safe textured paint for interior (4-6 spray cans)
- UV protective clear coat (2 spray cans)
You may encounter different situations as you prep and paint your boat but this list should get you started. The quantities listed are for a 12 foot boat so adjust as necessary for other sized boats.
How much will it cost
The overall cost depends greatly on the materials and tools you already have. It also depends on the paint you choose. We went with spray paint cans for convenience, ease of use and the low cost.
There are plenty of aluminum boat specific paints on the market like Aluma Hawk, Total Boat and Duralux Marine paint. We did not like the limited color choices and the cost of these paints. A single gallon of paint costs about $40 to $80. It adds up fast with a primer and two or more colors of paint.
I also had my doubts about applying paint to the boat with a brush or roller without leaving unsightly brush marks. A smooth paint job with liquid paint would require a spray gun and air compressor. That adds significant costs and complexity to the project.
Spray paint (rattle cans) simplified the process and cut the costs. The result was a reasonably smooth application for about $80 of paint for the inside and outside of the boat. It would be even cheaper if you’re only painting the outside.
With the paint and all other preparation materials, the total cost of painting an aluminum boat is around $150 to $200 depending on the size.
Anything worth doing, is worth doing right. Which for us, meant putting in the time and preparation to get the best results possible.
As you can see, we had our work cut out for us.
To start, find a dry location where you can work on the boat without fighting the weather. Most of the work can be done in a garage. Because of temperature requirements for painting with rattle cans (50° – 90°), we recommend you avoid starting in winter. Nothing puts a damper on a painting project like waiting for temperatures to warm.
In all honesty, painting an aluminum boat is not an afternoon project. It may take several days of steady work from start to finish so setup where you can spare the space.
Once you have the time and space, there’s nothing left to do but begin!
Step 1: Apply paint stripper
If there is one step you should not skip, it’s this one. Paint stripper saved us so much time and made removing the old paint so much easier. After several recommendations, we found that Citristrip stripping gel was an affordable and powerful product for removing old paint from aluminum. It also doesn’t produce noxious fumes. As the name implies, it smells nicely like oranges.
We recommend laying down a drop cloth and placing your boat on wood blocks on the ground. You can certainly do this job on the trailer but it’s difficult to access the bottom part of the boat.
With gloves on, pour the stripping gel into a small container and use a brush to generously spread it on the boat. A 2 or 3 inch foam or bristle brush works. We found that the foam brushes were not as durable though.
Work in manageable sections along the boat. Avoid letting the gel dry out. Once you thoroughly coat a section of paint, place large pieces of plastic directly over the gel. You can either cut a plastic drop cloth or use plastic bags.
The plastic prevents the gel from drying out which allows it to penetrate through every layer of paint to bare aluminum. Paint the gel in small sections and cover with plastic until the entire area of the boat is complete. The longer you let it sit, the better it works. Wait at least 2 to 4 hours before scraping. However, don’t wait too long to scrape as it’s easier when the gel is still wet.
Step 2: Remove stubborn paint
Citristrip is worth its weight in gold but it can only do so much. On some areas of the boat we re-coated stubborn paint with a second layer of stripping gel. For difficult to reach areas and seams, a wire wheel on an electric drill was the fastest solution.
Most hardware stores sell wire wheels for a few bucks and one will last the duration of the project. Just be aware that using it aggressively on aluminum can cause minor pitting. Use just enough pressure to remove the paint.
Any electric drill will work with the wire wheel but a corded drill is more efficient than battery powered drills if your boat has excessive amounts of stubborn paint like ours did.
Always wear a respirator or face mask along with safety glasses and hearing protection. The wire wheel throws metal bristles as it wears out and aluminum dust is unhealthy to breath so please protect yourself.
Step 3: Smooth out imperfections
Once all the paint is removed, the next step is sanding. To ensure better bonding between the metal and paint, evenly rough up areas of the boat you plan to paint with 180 grit sandpaper.
For areas of the boat that you want to stay polished aluminum, wet sand with fine grit paper or sanding sponges. Start with 220 grit and work your way up to the desired level of polish. Sand in one direction.
This is also the time to decide if you want to use aluminum polish with a polishing wheel to achieve a mirror-like finish. This was a step we skipped due to the added time and cost. Wet sanding with 400 grit provided a sufficiently attractive sheen.
As you can see from the photo above, the large top stripe is rough sanded for painting and the lower area and bow was sanded smooth with 400 grit.
Some scratches and marks are impossible to remove by sanding. If you so choose, you can fill major divots or gouges with a filler. We did not find it necessary.
Step 4: Prep the interior
Since the interior of our boat looked just as bad as the outside, it needed to be painted as well. For those of you with a similar situation, here’s what we learned.
First, it is nearly impossible to completely remove all the interior paint as you do on the outside. The corners and angles are hard to reach with a scraper or wire wheel and it was not worth the time.
Second, the original manufacturer’s paint job hold up really well. Why remove a perfectly good primer coat? Any paint that previous owners applied also adheres to the original paint with a solid bond, so just leave it.
Finally, all it took to prep the interior for painting was to remove the old wood benches (if needed) and rough up the surface with coarse grit sand paper. Focus your attention on removing any flaking paint.
For any spots with bare aluminum, give it a quick coat or two with a self etching primer designed for aluminum. Rustoleum Self Etching Primer is the best based on many reviews and I found it to be true as well.
Step 5: Wash the boat
Removing paint and sanding leaves a lot of residue and dust behind. Before painting, wash the boat inside and out with soapy water and rinse well.
Let it fully dry before proceeding to the next step.
Step 6: Paint the interior first
We strongly recommend that you paint the interior surface first. Doing so allows you to move the boat around without risking damage to newly painted surface on the exterior.
Tape off any aluminum that you don’t want painted with a high quality painters tape like Frog Tape. We taped off the entire gunwale and painted everything else on the inside of the boat. Tape off any other parts as needed.
Tape on a skirt of butcher paper about one foot in width to protect against overspray.
An easy way to reach every surface while painting the interior of your aluminum boat is to lean it on its side. Use a fence or side of a garage to support it. Find someone to help stand it up so you don’t get hurt or drop the boat.
It’s now time to paint the inside. The inside of the boat will get walked on, banged on and receive a beating from use. Choose a durable, exterior paint. It’s also a good idea to pick a neutral color like grey or tan that makes touch-ups easy. A textured paint helps hide imperfections and provides a slightly better non-slip surface.
We choose the Rustoleum Hammered spray paint in silver. This all-in-one primer and paint looks good, hides imperfections and has sufficient traction for safely moving around when wet.
Be warned though, it takes some practice to apply this paint. Use slow even coats to protect against drips and get the paint’s texture reaction to occur. Apply 2 or 3 coats and wait about 30 minutes between coats.
The final product looks something like this.
Step 7: Tape and prime the outside
After the inside paint dries, turn the boat upside down on a set of saw horses. You can place it on the ground but it’s easier to paint while standing. Also, make sure to lay down a drop cloth underneath.
Carefully tape of portions of the aluminum that you don’t intend to paint. Once again, use butcher paper to protect against over spray.
Wipe down the bare aluminum using low odor mineral spirits and a clean, lint free rag. The mineral spirits will remove oils and contaminants to ensure the best bond possible.
Once the mineral spirits evaporate, it’s ready to prime.
Use the same Rustoleum self-etching primer or similar primer. Aluminum is notoriously difficult for paint to adhere to and a self-etching primer extends the life of your paint job.
Make sure the temperature is above 50° for best results. In a well ventilated area and away from wind, apply a light coat on the boat. Do not try to get full coverage on the first pass. A light coat will suffice and help you avoid runs on a vertical surface.
Within ten minutes apply another light coat of primer. Repeat with at least 3 coats and let dry.
Step 8: Select the final paint
As long as you have a good primer bonding to the aluminum, you’re free to choose any paint you want. If you decide to use rattle cans like us, then your choices are almost limitless.
In our case, color was the deciding factor since not all brands have the same color palette. From our research, most quality exterior spray paints provide equally good protection for a fishing boat with standard use. It all depends on what the intended use is.
Rustoleum Protective Enamel and Krylon Color Maxx are readily available paints that work well. Both have excellent spray nozzles for smooth application. We tested each brand and found that Rustoleum Enamel tends to cause an orange peel texture more readily. That was just our experience and your’s may differ. Automotive spray paints are another option but we did not test them.
We decided on Krylon Color Maxx in gloss burgundy and we are happy with the results.
Before painting, remove any imperfections in the primer with fine steel wool and wipe the surface to remove all dust.
Like the primer, we applied 3 to 4 light coats with 10 minutes between coats. Using light coats help prevent unsightly runs and gives the boat professional looking results.
Step 9: Use a protective coating
Your boat is going to spend a fair amount of time in harsh, wet environments. Exterior paints are surprisingly weather resistant but an added clear coat with UV protection doesn’t hurt.
Clear coats designed for marine environments like Toon-Brite are excellent options. Toon-Brite can be applied to bare aluminum and painted surfaces to reduce oxidation and maintain a quality finish.
However, our goal was to keep this simple and inexpensive so we applied a coat of Rustoleum Clear Protective enamel with UV protection to the exterior painted portion of the boat. This added some additional scratch protection as well.
Step 10: Remove the tape
With the painting done the boat was left to dry over night. Once you are happy with how it looks, slowly peel off the tape and admire your handy work. Good painters tape leaves clean lines as you can see below.
You can now place the boat back on the trailer but let it sit for several days before using it on the water to allow the paint to fully cure. The final paint job turned out great.
Now the fun part begins. The final stages of refinishing an aluminum boat includes making new bench seats and adding accessories. The more time you put into details, the better your end product will be.
You can can customize your newly painted aluminum boat as much as you desire. Either way, if you follow our easy guide, we are confident that you will be just as pleased with your boat as we are with ours!
How long will it last
Most people who want to refinish an aluminum boat want to make sure their hard work lasts a long time. That’s understandable! However, no inexpensive paint job is going to last as long as the original manufacturer’s paint.
Based on our experience and asking others who have used a similar process, an aluminum boat painted with rattle cans will look like new for 3-5 years. This of course assumes you are careful to avoid damage and protect the boat during storage.
Have the right expectations
The hardest part about refinishing an aluminum boat is having the right expectations. Our boat is intended for fishing not to display in an art museum. You are more than welcome to be a perfectionist but don’t expect to turn a rough looking derelict into a high-end bass boat.
We picked our paint so that we can easily provide regular touchups if damage occurs but we are not afraid to get some fish slime on it.
How to improve on our process
We certainly don’t claim to be boat painting experts and our way is only one of many methods to accomplish the same goal. Undoubtedly, there are some improvements to our process that could yield even better quality and longevity.
The only problem is these methods added too much time and cost for minimal gain. The point was to make it easy and simple to replicate our process.
However, there are a few reasonable ways to make it better.
- Use higher quality paint and apply it with a professional spray gun.
- Add extra traction material to the interior of the boat.
- Polish the aluminum with an aluminum brightener or polishing compound.
- Apply a clear coat to the entire boat.
A note on safety
The entire process of painting an aluminum boat is dangerous without the proper safety equipment.
Any time you are making dust or are creating paint fumes, wear a good respirator and eye protection. Gloves are also a good idea to limit contact with chemicals and metal filings.
Please use common sense and protect yourself from harm.
There are many difficult ways to accomplish simple tasks. That’s why we spent so much time figuring out an easy way to paint an aluminum boat. Hopefully, you find as much success as we did with your aluminum boat painting project!