Nothing serious. Just some thoughts......

What It Costs to “Paint” a Sailboat’s Sides

Payment Policies


   We love to describe jobs and give set prices in advance for all of our work.  Communicating and setting prices for the painting of topsides and decks is a particularly difficult challenge. This paper is an attempt to make communication possible and disappointment less likely.

     TOPSIDES DEFINED:  For this paper and whenever I am discussing topsides with anyone I am referring to that part of the hull which is ABOVE the waterline and DOES NOT include the deck. I refer to decks as DECK and underwater as BOTTOM. The boat in the photo above is a J-24 freshly  painted on the topsides and bottom. (FYI...It is a really crappy paintjob with lots of little "things wrong" that can be found.. On the other hand it looks perfect from six feet away.)

     We have an old R.S. Means pricing book for the boat repair industry. In 1984 the average price for preparation, application, and materials for a urethane topsides job was described as $100 per foot.  The range was between $80 and $120.  The notes describing that price mentioned that this price reflected the price for a bare gelcoat hull in “good condition.”  A hull with gouges, holes, previous repairs, failing paint, fittings and hardware or other complications requiring additional labor would cost more money.

     The $100 per foot paint job from 1984 probably would cast about $200 today.  Material prices have more than doubled since 1984. The US dollar is only worth about half what it was in 1984.

     The $200 per foot paint job is a very nice, nearly flawless, paintjob.  We would expect to repaint the hull if there were runs, repairs that showed through, insect marks, places that just had too much orange peel or generally didn’t look “right.”

     Most of our Lake Travis customers have boats that are 20 years old or older. Reality and current boat values say that very few people are so concerned about appearance that they will invest $5,000 in a geriatric 25 foot toy.  We also understand that old boats rarely have scratch and repair free gently faded sides.  In fact, most boats that are brought to us for paintjobs really NEED a paintjob.

     Your question: If placing a wonderful paintjob on a good old well-kept boat will cost $200 per foot, what percentage of the national debt describes the cost of painting my beat up toy?


Now that we have you thinking properly, we begin to describe that which is possible and reasonable.

     Assuming that we are competent, the quality of the finished product is absolutely related to the quality of the materials and the amount of time we spend.  (If you believe that our painting skills might even possibly detract from the finished product, you need to take your boat to someone you trust. Do not bring your toy to anyone with insufficient skills.)

     We have great facilities, a decent amount of experience and a very limited amount of talent to bring to the task. Although the materials necessary to apply a urethane paint job are expensive, there are corners which can be cut and many dollars that can be saved.  We can offer significant discounts if we are also allowed to present a less than perfect product. Please bear in mind, we have limits about “just how bad a job can look that also has out name on it.”  We know that our customers are absolutely NOT going to proudly announce, “Every flaw in the paint job on my boat is a direct result of my decision not to spend the necessary dollars to fix that flaw.”


 What really happens in the production of a urethane paintjob, and which cut corners cause what uglies?

    Every single flaw that can be found just before the last urethane topcoat is applies WILL SHOW in the finished product.

    Urethane topcoats are super shiny, there will be additional flaws which become visible only when the urethane topcoat is applied.

    As a rule, any flaw can only be removed by repairing the flaw, priming the area, sanding the spot primer, priming the entire hull, spot repairing 50% of the still visible repairs a second time, priming the entire hull again, sanding the entire hull, spot priming any areas sanded through, priming the entire hull again, top coating the entire hull and if any of the repairs still show, sanding and top coating the entire hull an additional time. 

     The preparation for any coat of primer or paint tends to cost between $10 and $20 per foot.  We have to move the boat into the work area, cover it, tape the edges of the area to be painted and then begin to actually work on the preparation of the structure. Repairs of individual scratches or re-fairing of old repairs takes between 10 minutes and 10 hours for each individual spot. Generally, we fix everything we can fix, and then prime the boat to "make it all one color so we can see what we are doing."

     The more obvious it is that the boat needs a paintjob and the more chunks and scratches have to be repaired, the less likely it is we can create a decent paintjob by priming the boat only one time. Absolutely wonderful paintjobs are achieved by priming over and over again until the surface is "perfect enough' to coat with a urethane paint.

     The material for a coat of primer on boats under 25 feet costs about $7 per foot. The FINAL layer of urethane topcoat and related thinners costs about $12 per foot.

     Every boat has to be primed before a urethane topcoat can be decently applied. ( No!  We will not even try to paint a boat without priming it first. DON”T ASK!!) There is absolutely no possible way to paint the sides of any boat using less than $20 per foot of fillers, primer, and urethane topcoat.  When the price of sandpaper, thinners, air mask cartridges and tapes are included, the bare minimum material cost in 2006 dollars ( when gas was still well UNDER $3 per gallon) cannot possibly be lower than $25 per foot on a boat under 25 feet. Boats larger than 25 feet have more surface area per foot and the material cost grows geometrically.

     The per foot labor involved in a bare minimum prime and paint job includes $20 preparation and prime, and $15 per foot sand primer and  $20 paint topcoat. 

     Translation: We cannot possibly paint your boat for under $50 per foot no matter how many corners we cut, but we may have a product that is available for less than $200 per foot.

     More of your questions: What is the $85 per foot paintjob?  $85 per foot is real money.  Should I bother? If I am going to spend $2000 to paint my 25 foot boat how bad will it suck?

     The answers are based upon distance from the paintjob. Urethane paint is very shiny and very durable. If you are 100 yards across the water, your boat will look just as pretty with a $80 per foot paintjob as it will with a $200 per foot job.  In fact it my look perfect from as few as ten feet.

     As you lean closer to the surface the imperfections will start to appear. The first and most obvious are the waves and ripples in the hull. Those waves can be taken out. The process includes, grinding, filling, sanding with long boards, filling more, sanding, priming, sanding, priming, sanding and priming until the waves are difficult or impossible to find.

     The gouges and patches that were not thoroughly faired into the hull will show up next.  As a rule, any scratch in which you can catch your fingernail, will not become invisible until it is repaired with putty, sanded, spot filled, sanded, primed, sanded, and primed again. Depending on the actual depth of the scratch, it may still show and need additional labor and materials to make it invisible.

     Imperfections larger than fingernail scratches take more time, material and DOLLARS to remove.

     Close inspection of the $80 per foot paintjob will reveal every scratch, ding, or repair that has ever violated the surface of your boat. In fact, a $80 per foot paintjob will have a visible shadow where any boat name, registration number or other decal has ever been stuck to the surface. 

     Most paintjobs we have seen floating on Lake Travis are of the quality level we would expect to produce for under $100 per foot. We can find many flaws in the finished product without spending much effort.  We also recognize that the boats will be used, bumped, scratched and exposed to the sun by their owners.  Although we love to produce our version of perfection and will happily give perfection our best shot, we have only rarely met the boat owner who has had the desire to establish and maintain a floating showpiece.  (Two thirds of our showpiece boats have been finished in polyester gelcoat. We recommend that material for boaters who plan to continue to use their show piece toys as the material is more possible to repair.)

Summary:  If your topcoat paintjob budget is under $100 per foot of boat length, you must plan to be satisfied with a finish that is all one color, shiny and durable. From across the yard, it will look fabulous. If you need to crawl around the boat and inspect every square inch and you believe that a $100 per foot paintjob will satisfy you, you really have not been paying attention while reading this document.

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