The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Boat Restoration

The prospect of saving an older boat and restoring her to her former glory is an alluring and romantic one. It has seized many an individual, and offers emotional, spiritual, and sometimes practical rewards, to those whose wisdom and skill are up to the task. There are tremendous differences between new boat costs and used boat costs. This, combined with the backing of such publications as WoodenBoat Magazine and the appreciation of older boats which they have created, has made the climate right for restoration projects in all materials.

Unfortunately there are pitfalls in the restoration scenario, and the inexperienced amateur should get some well-founded professional advice before embarking on a large-scale project.

The most commonly forgotten aspect of boat restoration is resale value. Whatever they may plan at the outset, most people don’t keep a boat for their whole lives. When it comes time to sell, they can get a reward for their efforts if they keep the future buyer in mind while planning and executing a restoration.

Too often romance and emotion so sway a person's judgment that they forget one of these common principles of a good restoration:

1.) Get a survey before you buy. A good survey is always a list of faults, so a boat doesn't "pass" or "fail". The survey will shape the game plan for your restoration. The surveyor should be able to prioritize the faults he finds, and help you to distinguish between things that must be fixed before the boat can be used, and those which can be put off. The survey may help you to avoid buying a boat that needs more work than you want to tackle. Most often, the list of faults will not reduce your desire to own the boat. However, it may well reduce what you are willing to pay for her, and it may convince the owner to sell for less. Get a professional, reputable surveyor. His fee will be repaid to you many times in the most practical ways.

2.) As a general rule, buy the smallest boat that will provide the kind of room and sailing you need. An increase in size not only increases materials costs for a restoration, but also the labor time for that restoration and the fixed expenses such as storage, mooring fees, etc. Remember that every item of rigging, deck hardware, or engine related machinery will be bigger and more expensive the larger the boat is. The smaller boat will be finished in less time with less money, and will in most cases be easier to sail with a smaller crew. You should have some idea where the money needed to restore the boat is going to come from. Saving a little up front by buying a smaller boat is a really good place to start. Note that long-term liveaboards tend to have smaller boats with fewer "systems" than those just starting out--a good clue as to what is really practical.

3.) Be certain you are putting your time and money into a fundamentally good design. The value of the boat will be much higher when you are finished, and she may be easier to sell promptly should that need occur. A successful boat from a well-known designer, well built to begin with, will be a much better start on a restoration than most others. This is a very good thing to consult a professional about, because the trained eye will perceive a lot about the fundamental worthiness of the boat you are considering. Make changes to the original design with the greatest caution. Seek professional advice and probably drawings from a Naval Architect, if the changes are to be in areas more major than simple accessories. When in doubt, restore to original. The higher you hope the value of your boat will become, the more likely you are to be selling her to a connoisseur of boats, to whom details and authenticity may have great importance.

4.) There is no doubt that the most efficient way to restore a boat is all at once. The overall cost will be lower due to the avoidance of duplicated labor and inflation. The overall time frame will be shorter. Some of the frustrations will be less because you can often remove physical obstructions to your work instead of working around them. However, we strongly recommend that you not take this approach unless you know you will have the time and money to complete the project. A boat which is largely taken apart and is months away from sailing may represent a great deal of time and money to you. However, to a prospective buyer she will have practically no value at all. While the boat is being disassembled, the market value will actually decline rapidly to almost zero. It will remain there until the boat is obviously approaching completion, whereupon if you have done good work it will of course rise again. But the worst time to sell a boat is when she cannot be put in the water and sailed. She doesn't look like a complete unit, and is lacking much of the appeal and personality she will have when complete.

If you do take the all-at-once route, don't stop maintaining the parts of the boat you are not working on, or you'll have to put more work into them later. As you complete repairs to an area, apply the finishes to them, so that the "done" areas look "done". You'll feel better about everything, and if you do have a change of plans and have to sell, the value retained in the boat will be much more evident to the buyer. Make sure everything you have removed but are saving for re-use is labeled, organized, and protected from the weather. Consider a "sailing restoration" as discussed below, as an alternative to the full-scale, all at once restoration scenario.

5.) Even if you are not a professional, you should try to produce professional results in your restoration work. Take time to plan the results you want, and the techniques and materials you will use. Most amateurs can achieve professional results. The only difference will be the speed with which you can accomplish them. Get advice on how to make each repair, and don't forget to mention that you want the repair to maximize the value of the boat when you are done. Usually this will mean repairing in a manner that duplicates, or improves upon, the original construction. Avoid solutions that cover up problems rather than fixing them, or which add structural members without removing damaged ones. Make your repairs good-looking and well finished, even if they are in areas you wouldn't normally see. The Buyer will look there!

6.) Boatyard labor is virtually all handwork and is not subject to savings by dividing into repetitive tasks or automation. Due to the inefficiencies of repair work as opposed to new construction, a large-scale professional restoration on a badly deteriorated boat could cost more than a new boat. Remember the new boat price is clearly the absolute ceiling of the market value of any restoration. Price these things out carefully. If you have the budget it may very well be more practical to transfer reusable portions of the original boat to a new hull and deck than to repair the old boat. In any event you are unlikely to get all of your investment back from a broad scale professional restoration if you have everything done. However, you may pay a great deal for the last 20% of perfection, and an 80% professional restoration may well pay for itself at resale. It may be most practical economically to leave some things undone. If the yard will allow you to do whatever work falls within your level of skill and available time, you can save a great deal. Painting and varnishing are vitally important to the resale value, but they are also a high percentage of the costs in a restoration. The same goes for removal work, cleaning, wiring, plumbing, and hardware installation. If you learn to do a good job of these things yourself, it may tip the balance toward economic justification of the restoration.

7.) A small percentage of people actually purchase boats for the restoration project itself, and we say more power to them. However, for most of us, a restoration is a way to get sailing at a feasible cost level, or to get a really nice boat for the price of a mediocre one.

If the point is in fact the result more than the process, we strongly suggest what we call a sailing restoration. That is the restoration work is executed in projects small enough that they can each be completed during the winter months. The boat is launched for a season's use every year. There are multiple benefits to this approach. Getting use out of the boat each year keeps the enthusiasm level way up, and the focus practical. In many cases a boat in this type of program seems to be fixed up faster than others because this yearly infusion of energy keeps the project from stalling. If the boat is always close to being ready to sail, her value stays up and gradually improves. It never takes the big dip mentioned above in connection with full-scale restorations. Materials costs occur in smaller lumps spread over greater time periods, and are easier to justify when they follow on the heels of a nice sailing season. Routine maintenance of the boat as needed for seasonal use will keep the boat as a whole from declining while the focus of the restoration is in one particular area. If a yard is doing the work the costs will be much easier for most people to deal with, as they are spread over time. Last but not least, spouses, children, and partners who are more enthused about sailing than boat work will continue to support your efforts and understand their value.

We urge people who are sailing their restoration to be a little more relaxed about their boat's appearance than they might otherwise be. That new-boat look will come in spots, and with time. There's no denying the grandeur of a polished gold-plate yacht. Certainly the new fiberglass boat every few years crowd may look at your unsightly areas and shake their heads. However, we maintain that there is a special look to a sailing restoration that commands respect and offers its own particular rewards. In the early stages only you may notice that your bilges are dry and the interior no longer smells musty. However, next year your friends will notice that your topsides have suddenly become smooth and fair, or that your brightwork has regained its former color and shine. It may take an informed eye to perceive where you've fought a holding action and where you've advanced, but those are, after all, the eyes whom we all most care to impress. While probably nothing can match the satisfaction of building a new boat, or a full-scale restoration, this reversal of the aging process over time has a valiant quality all its own. For most people we feel it is the best approach.

8.) In most cases there is a lot to be gained by using your project boat before you either make changes in her or begin a broad-scale restoration. Very often the virtues of a boat as she was designed and built are not obvious at first, and some feature you think you will hate may actually turn out to be desirable. When you purchase a boat you may feel that a certain problem is the most important item to attend to, but after sailing her other problems may seem more urgent. Even more importantly, you may find you don't like the boat for some reason or that your needs are different than you first thought, and this will guide you toward a different project. The most common version of this scenario is when a couple with little sailing experience decides they will move aboard and go voyaging. Some actual exposure to the day-to-day aspects of the experience reveals that one of the people actually hates offshore sailing, or living aboard of any kind. In some ways this makes the future choice of boats easier in that they can be restricted to smaller inshore boats or day sailers. Unless, of course, someone selects a new spouse to go with the present boat! In any case it is well if these realizations occur before a lengthy restoration, not after.

When selecting a vessel for restoration, one of the earliest considerations must be the construction material. Usually the concept of restoration implies that the boat is made of wood, that being the type of older boat which is usually regarded as a classic type worth repairing. Most people find that wooden boat work tends to be more enjoyable than that involving other materials. Because of the replaceability of their individual parts, it is easy to envision a wooden boat lasting indefinitely under proper care, and this adds to the appeal of the process. Wooden boat values appear to be stable and predictable, whereas fiberglass boat values are currently shaky and the future of those prices is uncertain.

When fiberglass boats first came out everyone, including us, thought they were immune to deterioration of any kind, and would last indefinitely. This has now proven to be a serious misconception. The cruelty of that misconception is born out by the many instances in which we have had to inform owners that the small problem they think they have is actually a massive problem with no practical solution. Ironically, a large part of fiberglass's problems has to do with a certain incompatibility between it and the element in which it sits, namely water. It turns out that boats built of polyester resin and glass fiber actually absorb water, which later causes problems such as blistering, which is not restricted to the gelcoat layer and may well involve serious damage to the laminate. Decks are frequently built with balsa or plywood cores. We are seeing problems where water has entered around deck hardware, causing deterioration of the core, or the cores have separated from the fiberglass skins due to inferior construction. Often with balsa and foam cores the problem starts with inferior engineering or wishful thinking on the part of the core manufacturer. While there have been some understructured wooden boats built over the years, their relative strengths are easy to judge. Poor craftsmanship usually displays itself first on the exterior as a failure to resist weather and normal wear and tear. Fiberglass boats are always smooth and usually fair on the exterior, because the finish is provided by the molds in which they are built. This makes it much more difficult to judge the quality of their construction. Laminates may be of good quality, but too thin. Laminates can be thick, but of poor quality. A boat may be rigid due to the use of core materials, but not strong due to poor core shear strengths.

A peculiarity of the fiberglass boat market is that while wooden boat purchasers are somewhat used to looking through deteriorated finishes to the underlying structure, fiberglass boat buyers tend to see the appearance as everything. So the ideal fiberglass restoration project would be a good boat in good condition, which looks bad. A good paint job, refinished brightwork, and new upholstery, and you may be done. Unfortunately many fiberglass boats are styled after racing types which are now widely regarded as obsolete and undesirable, and most are so under-structured that they are restricted to very short life spans, so you must choose very carefully.

A factor in predicting the life span of a fiberglass boat which is still poorly recognized, is the fact that fiberglass fatigues rapidly when it is flexed. Every time it flexes it is a little less strong and has a little less resistance to flexing. This means that in order to have a long life span the boat must be either very lightly used, or built heavily enough so she cannot flex. Unfortunately many builders have elected to use lightweight low strength cores of foam or balsa. While they do reduce flexing when initially built they have strength problems. They are prone to a host of problems themselves. These include water entrapment, deterioration of the core from stress or chemistry, or failure of the core where it is bonded to the fiberglass skins.

There are relatively few small steel vessels in this country, although their popularity is increasing. In the past steel vessels have had the reputation of being the most expensive to maintain, due to the lack of any very effective means of preventing rust, other than very frequent painting. The use of epoxies has largely overcome this. The big advantage of steel is that a good structural repair can be made using readily available skills and materials. Also, with steel's popularity on the rise, a fully renovated and upgraded steel boat may be easy to market to those disillusioned with fiberglass but not willing to purchase a wooden boat. Most older steel boats will have round bilges and compound curves, with the result that if large areas need to be replaced, some ingenuity will be required to shape the plates. Another problem is that flammable interior joiner work, wiring, etc., must be removed from areas adjacent to welds, and this may render some large projects impractical.

Aluminum has never been a very popular construction material, and has generally only been used where its engineering advantages make up for its high costs. As a result the reader is not likely to encounter many aluminum vessels when looking for a restoration project. The principal advantages to aluminum are the fact that it doesn't rust when exposed to air, and its light weight. Unfortunately paint does not stick well to aluminum, and the metal will corrode heavily under peeling or bubbling paint. Also aluminum reacts to many other common marine metals, wood, and most bottom paints. It requires strictly professional labor to weld.

Ferrocement boats may be available at rock bottom prices (pun intended), and as such may have some appeal. However, they are not really candidates for restoration in our opinion. Their resale value is minimal even when they are in good condition; and their structures are prone to severe problems that are not repairable in any practical sense.

The feasibility of all restoration projects has been revolutionized in recent years by the advent of epoxy resins. Epoxy will adhere strongly to almost any properly prepared material. It is compatible with most paints and varnishes. It is a nearly absolute moisture barrier, especially with special additives. The user can also easily modify it to form sealants, glue, structural putty, and easily sanded fairing putty. It can be used when laminating fiberglass or other reinforcing fibers. It has applications in the restoration of vessels in all materials.

Wooden vessels benefit most broadly from epoxy, which makes many common repairs much simpler than they were previously. Many curved members can be laminated from thin wooden strips. Most importantly some members, which would previously require total replacement if they were partly deteriorated, can now be only partially replaced. Employing scarphed-in inserts does this or our own invention the "Scotsman" laminated insert, can be used. It is described in detail in a reprint available from us called "Healing the Break". Epoxy can be used to seal wooden members, which will prevent them from absorbing moisture or deteriorating in any way. The ability to make easily sanded putties that have some strength of their own and will adhere strongly makes many minor scrapes and dings quick and easy.

However epoxy is also terribly abused.  Most marine epoxies are intended primarily for building wood structures that will not shrink and swell.  This means that if you are repairing traditional wooden boats that actually rely on swelling to keep them tight and stiff you must have real expertise to use these epoxies in a manner that is appropriate to the particular construction.  If you must use epoxy where the parts to which epoxy is applied are going to absorb moisture you must use special marine epoxies that are somewhat different than those developed for modern wood and epoxy construction.  These epoxies must have far more elasticity to absorb the stresses of shrinking and swelling.  Proper repair using epoxies should only be attempted with the advice of very experienced professionals.

Epoxy is a virtual necessity when repairing fiberglass boats, as it is the resin to use whenever new fiberglass is to be laid up over old. This is because the polyester laminating resin is not good for adhesive bonding to older polyester, whereas the epoxy is. Epoxy has many other applications such as sealing fiberglass hulls against water penetration, sealing core materials where fastenings pass through, distributing strains via structural fillets, etc.  We try very hard to get our custom design clients who are building in fiberglass to use epoxy resins exclusively.

The maintenance of steel vessels has been largely revolutionized because of epoxy's unique ability to both adhere strongly to the bare steel, and form a moisture barrier, preventing rust. While this may not have much effect on a restoration project, per se, it does tremendously reduce the cost to keep a steel boat, and this has greatly increased their desirability.

We use and recommend Gougeon Brothers WEST System™ epoxy exclusively for new wood epoxy construction and some restoration work.  It is also a good choice for general repair work on glass boats and coatings on steel boats.  For new fiberglass construction we specify Gougeon Brothers Pro-Set(tm) laminating epoxy for all glass lay up work.  Where shrinkage and swelling are factors in restoration factors, or where dissimilar materials are to be bonded, you should consider Gougeon Brothers G-Flex epoxy.

One of the most critical aspects of a restoration is the sequence in which the work is to be done. In the case of a broad scale total rebuild this may be fairly obvious in that everything which is deteriorated or in the way will probably be removed almost immediately for the sake of convenience. The primary considerations will be the avoidance of duplicated effort, and taking care not to weaken the vessel such that she will lose her shape while she is being rebuilt.

In a sailing restoration, decisions concerning sequence may be much more complicated, and so many factors are involved that we cannot cover all possibilities here. However, there are some basic guidelines that may be worth mentioning. In nearly every case, the first priority must be to arrest deterioration. In many boats this is a matter of halting deck leaks, increasing ventilation, upgrading finishes, and treating deteriorated areas.

Within obvious limits it is better to have a leaky hull than a leaky deck. At least bilge water is in the bilge. Rainwater leaking through the deck is the enemy of everything inside the boat and creates a perfect climate for rot. This is to say nothing of the misery a deck leak can cause when it's over your berth or the corn flakes.

Ventilation helps to counteract all moisture-related deterioration within the boat, and it would be hard to have too much. We have seen dramatic results from the installation of solar-powered ventilators with integral batteries. We strongly recommend them for all boats, with the sole caveat that the ones we have encountered do make a slight noise. You can get ventilators with brass housings. This may eliminate any negative visual impact on traditionally styled boats.

The importance of cleanliness is often overlooked. If a boat is filled with mildew and dirt then the circumstances are obviously perfect for rot. Rot is itself a spore-transmitted fungus. A good scrubbing with Lysol and soap on at least a yearly basis will go a long way toward halting deterioration.

We have noted that Cuprinol wood preservative will usually halt the progress of rot in a wooden member, if generously applied. In older boats where one is concerned that there may be rot taking place which may not be noticed, we suggest liberally applying Cuprinol to the bilge area and any other areas of bare wood inside the hull. This is especially good in areas that may not be directly viewable, such as behind non-removable interior hull sheathing. Use clear Cuprinol in iron or stainless fastened boats, and green in all others. Note: Since the above was written, clear Cuprinol has been replaced by a water-based product which appears to be useless for this purpose. If the reader knows of a non-copper-containing oil-based wood preservative on the market, we would like to know about it. Green (copper containing) Cuprinol appears to be unaltered. In the meantime, our best suggestion in ferrous-fastened boats would be to use a penetrating oil as described below.

In younger boats where the need to directly kill rot spores is not felt to be of primary importance, we would apply an oil mixture instead of the Cuprinol. The oil should be absorbed by the wood to good effect and probably has a beneficial effect on metal fastenings. Use tung or linseed oil cut about 50/50 with turpentine, or Deks Olje # 1.

We apply either the Cuprinol or the oil mixture about every other year. This should be done after the surfaces to be treated have been cleaned, if possible, and dried.

It would also be well to remove any rot that can be found from the boat. Rotten wood has no strength anyway, so it might as well be gotten out of the boat before it can spread, rather than leaving it in just because the affected piece looks better whole.

Another form of deterioration, which should be checked for and halted, is electrolysis due to stray electrical currents or dissimilar metals in electrical contact. This is too broad a subject to cover in detail here, and we refer the reader to the very good WoodenBoat Magazine articles on the subject. In general it is a good idea to remove any kind of central bonding systems which connect hardware together with wires or copper straps. It is important to have proper zincs protecting those items made of the least "noble" metals in your boat. Beware of battery chargers or other items left permanently plugged into marina power, as current can leak through moisture or other contacts, and electrolysis problems can be greatly accelerated. Don't forget that wood can be deteriorated by electrolysis too, so it may not be only your hardware that is at risk.

Next on the restorer's list should probably be hull leaks which are caused by flexibility of the hull or misalignment of planking. The causes are usually deteriorated fastenings or cracked frames, and the priority areas are usually those near the mast step, in the tuck, or near the turn of the bilge where strains are concentrated. Leaks not caused by flexibility or misalignment of the planking may very often be completely cured by simply replacing the seam compound. We usually use two-part polysulfide over polysulfide primer. Do not disturb the caulking or add caulking unless you are absolutely certain it is necessary, and hire a professional caulker if possible. Nine times out of ten more caulking will hurt the boat rather than help, and a bad caulking job can make things even worse. Contrary to popular belief it is very rare for a boat to require generalized re-caulking.

In fiberglass boats, halting deck leaks around hardware is likely to be the most urgent matter, for the protection of the deck core material. Even if water is not getting through to the interior, it would be well to remove the hardware, seal the core and reinstall the hardware with proper bedding compound. Even if the bottom is not showing blisters, have the hull tested for moisture absorption. If it is dry, a good preventative measure would be to remove the bottom paint and epoxy seal the bottom against future absorption. If it is not dry it needs to have the gelcoat removed and to be dried and epoxy coated as soon as possible, to prevent future problems. Leaks should be found and eliminated, as the laminate can absorb water from the bilge as well as from the outside.

In metal boats electrolysis is the most urgent deterioration to halt, followed by the finishes and associated rusted areas.

The restoration sequence from here forward depends completely on the individual case. We are happy to consult with you on these matters, and have many ideas and some innovative procedures, which may be of use to you.

Whatever material your project boat is constructed of, we can help you plan a restoration that suits your individual needs. We are constantly on the lookout for new technologies, innovative repair methods and sequences, and new combinations of established techniques, specifically aimed at restoration projects.

The reader is urged to email, call, write, or fax anytime, for advice.