Chemical Nightmare Muck

On a crisp Spring morning in April I faced the task of preparing my little sailboat Dolphin to go back into the water after a winter on a grassy knoll in a corner of my yard.  Around here the months of April and May are all about getting ready for Summer.  The warm season is short but sweet, and no one wants to miss a day of it.  So all the toys have to be tuned and lubed and painted over the course of a very hectic month or so.  For me, the largest job is getting Dolphin ready, and the biggest part of that assignment is getting a fresh coat of bottom paint on her hull. Think "wallowing in chemical nightmare muck," and you'll have a good idea of the task.

I've noticed that mentioning my sailboat evokes the oddest range of responses from people I meet.  Other sailors, fishermen, surfers, or generally sporty types usually work their way into a techie type review of the make, model and gear comprising the boat in question, while those of a more whimsical bent wax rhapsodic on the freedom and blissful joys of dancing across the waves borne along by the dulcet breeze.  Conservatives seem to want to compare the size of my boat with their own – boat size being a rough measure of net worth or something that helps them place me firmly in their taxonomy of socioeconomic meritLiberals on the other hand worry about having the right clothes for sailing. They have a great time on the water, but they feel deeply guilty afterwards.

So, by way of introduction, let me simply state that this isn't about sailboats, or sailing, or even remotely about politics.  It's about paint, and painting and workmanship. And passing on some of what you've learned.

A Short history of antifouling 

Modern bottom paints are the product of a long evolution of products and techniques intended to prolong the life of boat hulls by protecting them from the destructive effects of marine organisms.  For as long as there have been boats, the battle has been waged to protect them from Toredos worms (toredos navalis) and keep the barnacles and seagrass down to a minimum.  Originally, the useful life of a boat was determined almost entirely by the length of time it took for the hull damage from these ravenous critters to let all the water come in. Besides eating your boat, these pests slow it down.  A 10-micrometer (1/1000 of a centimeter) increase in the roughness of a ship's hull can result in a one percent increase in the amount of energy needed to drive that hull through the water.  

The discovery by the ancient Phoenicians that some metals, notably copper and tin repelled these uninvited guests, led to ship hulls being sheathed in thin copper plating for protection.  This was better than nothing, but was still very costly to install and difficult to maintain. The 20th century brought relief to this ancient problem in the form of paints impregnated with copper or tin in solution.  

By the mid 1900's this war against microscopic marine organisms had evolved and become more sophisticated. In the 1950's organometallic compounds containing tin and copper revolutionized the field. These had the advantages of being very effective and relatively easy and inexpensive to apply. By the 1970's bottom paint chemists had pulled out the stops and antifouling biocides typically included DDT, phenylmercury, pentachlorophenol, organolead, copper, and arsenic compounds.  Basically the worst stuff you can think of.  These "self-polishing" paints were formulated to slough away over time so that fresh toxins were always presented to the marine fouling organisms.  Triorganotin (tin-based) compounds, such as TBT , were used to create "miracle" paint formulations that lasted up to five years. In 1988, the United States banned the use of TBT-based bottom paints on non-aluminum vessels less than 25 meters in length, though they are still the bottom paint of choice for commercial ship owners world-wide.

The small boat owner is faced with the prospect of choosing among the second tier of bottom paints in terms of effectiveness.  This is probably a reasonable compromise given that large shipyards have the skills and oversight procedures necessary to allow their use of the very toxic TBT-based products, while the average boat owner can make do with less noxious substances.

Currently, there are three main classes of bottom paint available to small boat owners:

  • "Hard" bottom paints contain biocides such as metallic copper that are released slowly from the hard paint matrix over the course of the sailing season to discourage marine growth.  Their effectiveness slowly decreases as the biocide is depleted and the hard paint film is left behind. Technically these are known as "contact leaching" paints and the primary advantages are general effectiveness and a good resistance to the bumps and knocks of normal boat usage.  Their main disadvantage is the gradual buildup of the paint residue from each season and, periodically, the hull must be well sanded prior to the application of the next coat.
  • Ablative Copolymer coatings or "Soft" bottom paints combine the effective action of biocides with a paint film that wears away slowly as the water passes over it.  This ensures that fresh biocide is always present at the surface of the paint and, since the thickness of the paint is slowly being reduced, there is no residual paint buildup when it's time to recoat.  The disadvantage of this approach is that it depends on the motion of the boat through the water and the effectiveness of the paint is significantly reduced when the boat doesn't move much.  Sadly, most boats spend most of their time sitting at a dock or mooring, so this can be a real problem. These paints also rub off easily if the hull touches anything solid.
  • Teflon®-based bottom paints represent the most recent approach to antifouling.  Rather than discouraging marine growth by the presence of toxins, they attempt to present a surface that is simply too slippery for marine growth to get a hold on. This is accomplished through the addition of substances like PTFE (Polytetra-fluoro-ethylene) as a primary ingredient instead of biocides.  As an added bonus, the reduced hull friction means that less energy is needed to drive the boat through the water.  Hence, less fuel used by powerboats, and sailboats sail a little faster. Another important, but as yet unproven, advantage is the reduced impact of teflon-based paints on the environment.  The disadvantage of teflon-based paints so far is that they just don't seem to work very well, especially on slower sailboats, or any boat that doesn't move very often.

Painter's Toolkit

Many of the important people in my life have been mentors of one sort or another, people who have something to teach me.  One of my most closely held tenets is, "Work Smart." and I've found that there usually is an easier way if you take the time to look for it.  Consequently, I've always looked for shortcuts and tricks of the trade. Finding a better way to do something fills me with delight and I hoard these common wisdoms like a miser's gold. I'm getting to the point in life where mentors are harder to find.  That makes me appreciate them all the more when I find them.  It also makes me want to share some of the things I've picked up along the way.

Painting is one of those activities that any old fool can do, but you really have to try hard if you want to master it.  Like anything, painting has a few tricks and shortcuts, some special tools and most importantly, an attitude that makes the difference between a proper job and a train wreck.  If you are already an expert painter, please bear with me and remember that once you didn't know all this stuff either. 

The right tools for the job

Here's a list of things that probably won't be suggested to you by the average hardware store clerk.  If possible, I'd suggest finding a real paint store to do your shopping.  They will have the "real thing," rather than the one that costs half as much but breaks the first time you use it. The price tag for all these items may seem a little steep at first (estimate $150 U.S. without the two power tools) but when you consider how much painting you will do in the course of your life, it's a soul deal.

Brushes and rollers fall into two distinct classes: good, or cheap.  Unfortunately, there isn't much in between.  Professional-quality camel hair brushes, and deep nap wool rollers are a joy to use, but they cost a small fortune and require very careful cleaning and storage.  Unless you do a whole lot of painting it's difficult to justify the high cost.  So I'm going to break with tradition here and suggest that, you learn to work around the limitations of inexpensive brushes and rollers so you can just pitch them when you finish up.  I know this may seem wasteful, but consider that it takes on the order of ten gallons of fresh water to properly clean a professional roller, and several ounces of a nasty volatile solvent like acetone, or paint thinner to get a brush clean after using it with an epoxy paint.  I've tried both methods, and on balance, I think the cheap throwaways are easier on everyone.  

That said, your painting toolkit should include a complete and redundant selection of the various width brushes.  The brushes I've come to prefer are the grey foam models with round wooden handles.  They hold up pretty well, spread paint better than you'd think and don't shed bristles on your work.  Buy three each of each width and each time you use the second one, put that size back on your shopping list.  This way you'll never run out.  Buy rollers that are one grade more expensive than the cheapest the store has to offer.  The really cheap ones will shed fuzz all over your work and generally drive you nuts.  Get a few medium and long nap rollers for painting heavily textured surfaces like rough-sawn wood.  Buy one of the knobbly ones labeled "Textured," just so you can experiment with them sometime and see if you like the spackly effect.  Also buy a half dozen of the foam rollers made of the same stuff as your foam brushes. These will be your main roller for most jobs.

Roller Trays, Roller Handles and Extensions are the workhorses in your painter's toolkit. Buy two of the large metal roller trays and a stack of the plastic liners that fit them.  Having more than one tray will allow you to have more than one type of paint available at the same time, and using the cheap plastic tray liners shortens the cleanup time and makes the trays last forever.  If you do large jobs with any frequency, consider buying several plastic five gallon paint buckets and the roller frames that are made to fit inside them.  This will allow you to pour a couple of gallons in the bottom and dip your roller directly into it.  When you take a break, just put the roller in the bottom and pop the lid on the bucket.  

Buy the best roller handles you can find, usually indicated by nice oak handles and, if you're really lucky, ball bearings. Get several widths of roller handle, say, 2", 6" and 10".  Also buy several roller handle extensions.  Handle extensions are little broomsticks that screw into the roller handle and allow you to easily extend the reach of your roller without using a ladder.

Protective Gear pays for itself the very first time you save a nice shirt or pair of good pants from the inevitable drips and spatters. A white Tyvek "gooch suit" is an inexpensive way to save your real clothes and keep the paint where it belongs.  They are reusable virtually forever if you take care of them, and they're the ultimate in geek chic.  Wear them to Halloween parties in the off season!  Get the type with the hood built in to protect your hair.  Latex gloves are a good thing to have around the house anyway, and a must when you are handling toxic substances like bottom paint, epoxy or urethane.  If you are lucky, you may be able to talk your dentist into giving you some of the free samples that their office receives from vendors.  

Dropcloths are cheap insurance against drips and spills.  Buy several as they last forever, cost a pittance and have many uses in the course of our messy lives.  Try and purchase a few different sizes so that you'll have one that fits the space you are painting.

Paint Stirrers are critical to your success.  Modern paints are incredibly sophisticated chemical systems that depend on being thoroughly mixed for their success.  You cannot properly mix a gallon of latex paint with that chickenshit little stick they give you at the paint store.  There are two solutions to this problem, either you get the paint store to mix your paint on their jiggly machine just prior to using it, or you fork over the hard earned cash to purchase a drill motor and a set of "eggbeater" paint stirrers to go with it.  If you can afford it, option two is by far the best.  The drill motor will be useful for a bunch of common tasks, and you'll be independent of the paint store clerks and their silly jiggly-mixer machine.  

To cut to the chase, if you can afford it, purchase a Makita 6227DWLEX 3/8 12V Cordless Driver-Drill (about $120 U.S.).  Also get one of each size mixing rod.  They'll likely have a little one for quart cans, a bigger one for gallons and perhaps a really big one for five gallon paint buckets. You'll own an amazingly versatile tool that will last you the rest of your life and impress the hell out of your friends.  If you can't afford it, don't feel bad, just make nice with the paint store clerk and his jiggle-mixer.  Consider skipping a few Starbucks Mocha Lattes to plush out your tool fund in the future.  

Masking Tape is a vastly under-appreciated technology.  Duct tape gets all the glory these days, but masking tape has made all the advances.  Even if you don't need it for the job at hand, purchase a few rolls of the following products just to have them on hand.  

  • Fineline, a thin and very flexible tape that can follow the sinuous contours of smooth curves and tight corners.  This is the stuff that pinstripe artists used back when it was all about bitchin muscle cars and wicked metaloflake paint jobs.
  • Scotch/3M 2090, a true marvel of technology.  This tape is sky blue and looks a little like crepe paper.  It comes in several widths, all of which will come in handy sooner or later.  The wonderful part about this stuff is that it has an adhesive that sticks to anything enough to do the job, then releases without pulling the underlayer off.  
  • Scotch/3M 192, is designed to handle highly textured surfaces like stucco.  It fits into your toolkit for those special jobs where topography rather than surface area is the primary factor. It's bright red and looks very techie.

Paint scrapers, sanding pads and electric sanders are all different approaches to the problem of removing old and failing paint.  Paint Scrapers sound pretty mundane, but are, like many tools, highly evolved for their purpose. They are also inexpensive, so add one of the ones with a semi-circular blade at the end of a long wooden handle, and several of the "putty knife" varieties to your toolkit.  

Electric sanders fall into the same category as the Makita drill motor discussed above.  If you have one, you'll find loads of uses for it over the course of time.  They come in a bewildering array of types and styles, but if you are only going to buy one, I'd suggest the Bosch 1295DVSK Random Orbital Sander (about $90 U.S.).  This gizmo represents the highest evolution of sanders to date.  It sands like a fiend, doesn't leave any marks on the surface, and has a place to attach a vacuum to eat the dust.  Buy one and bask in the warm glow of quality.

Ladders are a serious conundrum for the amateur painter.  They are expensive and space consuming to store, but you need them for almost any painting job.  My suggestion is that you purchase an aluminum six foot folding ladder that will fit in a closet when you aren't using it.  Rent the larger extension ladders you'll need for other jobs from an equipment rental place when you need them.

Tricks of the trade

Here are a few things that you might not stumble onto on your own.  If some of them seem obvious, it's because they are, at least once you know them.  I'm not a professional painter, but I've worked with a few masters and I treat what I learned from them with the utmost respect.  Here are a few nuggets that I gladly pass along to you.

A proper work area is literally the first step to ensuring a successful outcome.  But you'd be surprised how often most people skip this step.  If you are going to paint a room, move everything out of it.  Everything.  If that's impossible for some reason, move the stuff you can't remove to the center of the room and cover it completely with a drop cloth.  If you are working outside, cover the shrubs and deck and sidewalks with a drop cloth.  The temptation is strong to just begin working and move stuff as you go.  Resist it. 

Opening the paint can is another one of those deceptively simple operations.  Most people pry the lid free with a screwdriver, warping it in the process so you can't ever seal it again.  Then they start stirring it with a stick, immediately slopping paint over the edge and onto the floor, where, in the excitement of getting started, they forgot to put down a drop cloth. Yikes! 

Here's how to do it right: spread a section of  newspaper on top of your drop cloth and put both the paint can and the roller tray on top of the newspaper.  This ensures that if you spill, you can just wad it up and toss the mess.  Now, open the can using the paint key, that the friendly kid at the paint store gave you just because you knew to ask him for one.  The paint key opens the can by reaching all the way under the rim and if you work your way around the rim instead of just prying in one place, you can avoid warping the lid.  Before you do anything else, take a hammer and a 16 penny nail (about 3mm) and punch three or four holes in the little groove in the top of the can that the lip of the paint can lid fits into.  These holes will allow any paint that slops over the rim to drip harmlessly back into the can.  When you put the top back on, the lid will seal over the top of the holes.  

Next, carefully pour an inch or so of paint into your roller tray.  This will give you plenty of room to stir the paint without making a mess.  If you are lucky enough to have a drill motor, put the paint stirrer in the drill chuck and stir the hell out of it.  Stir for three full minutes minimum with the electric stirrer and twice that plus a bit if you are doing it by hand. Now pour the paint you earlier put in the tray back in to the can and give it another good stir to mix the new stuff in.  

Using a brush or roller is really the heart of the matter, isn't it? Every painter develops their own style, but here's a step by step guide to the basics.  Let's start with brush painting:

Dip the brush deeply into the paint.  Get it really saturated right up to the metal ferrule, if you are using a bristle brush, or a quarter inch of the top of the brush if you are using a foamie.  Now gently wipe the excess paint off each side and the bottom.  When you are finished you should be able to hold the brush horizontally without any drips.  Practice loading the brush like this until you are confident that you can load it with paint and move to the surface you are painting without dripping.

Place the upper side of the brush (the surface you didn't wipe) gently against the surface to be painted and draw a smooth straight line with the full surface of the brush touching the surface at a low angle.  If you are painting a vertical surface, it's easiest to control drips if your first stroke is straight up. Keep a steady stroke going until the brush begins to drag, then bend your wrist and brush back the way you came to cover the same area.  Brush back and forth over the same area slightly expanding the length or width of the painted area with each stroke.  

You should end up with a section that is evenly coated with paint.  The size of the area will vary depending on the surface, the type of paint and brush you are using, but once you see how much you can properly cover with each loaded brush, remember it and try to duplicate it each time you reload.  If there is a single most important secret to painting it's probably this technique of learning how much you can cover and sticking with it patiently until the whole surface is covered.  It really is all in the wrist.

Painting with a roller is surprisingly similar, though you wouldn't think so to look at it.  My painting guru once informed me that "a roller is just a circular brush."  I didn't get it at the time, but now it makes perfect sense.  Here are the steps:

Completely saturate the roller by pressing it down into the bottom of the paint tray at a point where it is about one third immersed.  Now roll it against the bottom toward the shallow end of the tray, pushing a wave of paint up the slope and coating the other two thirds of the roller evenly with paint. Gently roll it down the slope a few times, to even things out and push the excess paint back down into the trough.  When you are done, you should be able to hold the roller horizontally without any drips.

Move to the surface to be painted and paint a long straight block by rolling gently along the surface.  It's important that you press evenly along the entire roller.  If you favor one end or the other, you'll drip on the favored end and starve the other.  As with a brush, on a vertical surface, paint straight up with the first stroke to minimize drips.  Keep going until you start to run out of paint, then roll back towards your starting point a little more firmly.  Roll back and forth over the same area, expanding it each time in length and width until you end up with a section that is evenly covered.  

See, circular brush, natch.

Cut in first, then roll.  If you watch a professional painter work, you may notice that almost invariably they will first use a brush to "cut in" all the edges and corners and electrical fixtures before they bring out their rollers or spray gun to cover the rest of the room.  In many cases, they'll even put two coats on all the tricky bits before bringing out the rollers.  There are several reasons for this, but the biggest one is the time you'll save not trying to switch back and forth between brush and roller every time you come to an electrical outlet or whatever.  Work your way methodically around the room cutting in everything that the roller will have trouble with.  Cut in a generous border around each  problem area with your brush, so the roller can easily paint around it with the roller. 

Reusing brushes and rollers. To keep a brush or roller from drying out and becoming unusable in between coats, you need to keep it thoroughly saturated with paint, and away from air.  The best way I've found to do this is with brushes is to first dip the brush in the paint to get it really saturated, then put the whole thing into a ziplock bag large enough to fit the entire brush and handle in. Squeeze all the air out then seal the bag shut.  Most brushes will stay good for several days when they are stored like this.  

The treatment for rollers is similar.  First completely saturate the roller with paint in the paint tray, then slip the tray, roller and handle into a large heavy duty plastic trash bag.  Finally, press the bag down gently onto the wet paint so that it seals over the tray, and roller. This will keep the air out and should save the roller for another day. When you are ready to start work again, just carefully lift the bag off the wet paint, remove the tray and pitch the plastic bag.

Painting in the rain is a bad idea, but sometimes you get caught out and have to just deal with it.  If you are painting a vertical surface, there's a simple trick that may allow you to rescue the job. Use that beautiful bright red, two inch wide Scotch/3M #192 masking tape to tape a line along the top of the wall or hull or whatever you are painting.  Press the top quarter inch or so of tape firmly down on the surface, then tuck the bottom edge up underneath, sticky side to sticky side so that it forms a little drip edge sticking out away from the surface.  The rain will hit the edge of the tape and fall down harmlessly an inch or so from your fresh paint.  I know it sounds implausible, but it works.

Cayenne pepper is sort of an urban legend additive that is supposed to make bottom paint more effective.  I can't say if it really works, but I think the idea is so quirky that I toss in a handful every year just for good luck.  The consensus is that four ounces per gallon is the optimum dose.

Dolphin's down in Woods Hole now, floating happily with a fresh coat of bottom paint protecting her hull from all evil.  I'm looking forward to a long summer of sailing and I'm feeling some satisfaction at having passed along a few tricks of the trade.  Hope you found some of it useful.



Bottom Paint Environmental Spec Sheet:
Bottom paint toxicity;
Blow your mind! 3M Masking tape selection guide: