On newly built boats paint is a frequent area of dispute. At least that’s what we’ve been told.
There’s no real art to the application of modern high performance exterior paints to steel boats. The process is laid out in minute detail in the paint manufacturers’ instructions. If the application instructions are followed rigorously, the result is an attractive, durable finish.
Experts will tell you that in the end, paint problems almost always comes down to applying the paint system improperly. There is rarely an issue with the paint itself as the manufacturing process is subject to a high level of quality control. Though there are cases where manufacturer has produced bad lots of paint, it is not common. And if there is a problem with a paint batch, the problems will be seen on multiple boats; it is easy to trace back to the production lot.
Thus if an individual boat has paint issues it is not likely that the paint itself is the problem. Most likely the application and surface preparation are at fault. There’s a lot that can go wrong. Was the steel prepared correctly? Was the timing of the primers and paint application correct? Was the environment dust-free? Were the surfaces carefully and completely cleaned prior to the application of the coating? Was the temperature and humidity within the proper range? With all that can go wrong, it is no wonder why some boat builders go to a considerable expense to make sure that the paint is applied under ideal conditions.
Though there’s no mystery about the steps required to produce a perfect paint job, it does require great attention to detail. The underlying paint chemistry is exacting. If there’s a deviation from the paint manufacturers directions problems can later develop. An improper paint application can look acceptable at launch but later peel and rust through.
As we’ve learned with Wanderlust, serious paint problems come with serious costs; the estimates we’ve received for the repair of our barge’s paint are in the region of 1/6th the price we paid for the new barge. That’s a hell of an expense after just two and half years of use.
Wanderlust’s paint problems were not entirely unprecedented. After Wanderlust’s construction began barge owners told us about paint problems on our builder’s barges in France. The canals of France were ripe with stories of paint problems on the builder’s boats. Indeed, during Wanderlust’s build a boat came back to the plant and was stripped down to the metal and repainted over a period of months.
All told we know of nine of our builder’s barges that have had serious paint problems.* And it is likely that our count is far from complete. Nevertheless even nine barges is a high percentage of the boats our builder produced. Most troubling is that there does not seem to be a single easy-to-rectify cause to all of the paint problems.
After hearing the stories and seeing a barge return back to the plant we asked the builder about the paint problems. We were told that the steel plates had become coated with salt while the deck of a ship as it traveled to the UK. Or maybe it was the salt used during winter in the plant’s lot where the plates sat after delivery. We were assured that the problems weren’t the result of anything that the builder had done incorrectly. It was an odd statement, as the paint manufacturers often specify that the steel plate should be cleaned with freshwater, a step that should remove salt. Further, the builder told us that the paint problems were now understood. There would be no further problems. What else could they say?
Time would tell whether the builder’s paint problems had been resolved of not. But with Wanderlust already in the build there was nothing that we could do. Ever optimistic we hoped that our builder had learned their lessons by the time it came to painting Wanderlust. Clearly if they were busy resolving expensive paint issues on numerous boats they must be fully motivated to do an extra careful, proper job. And perhaps they were motivated, but they still got things wrong.
The first issue with the paint seemed to be an annoyance more than anything else. Since launch we’ve fought rust spots on the top deck. The problem was reported to the builder within weeks of launch.
After our complaint the builder replied back saying that the rust spots on the deck were probably just from small metal fragments or swarf. We were told that this swarf was likely the consequence of work done by a vendor that we had contracted to make Wanderlust’s rear deck cover.
The explanation made no sense. The rust spot problem we reported was on top deck forward of the wheelhouse; the rear cover was installed on the back deck, several meters away. It would be hard for the metal fragments to get the four meters from the rear of the boat to the even the nearest portion of front deck. It is harder for the metal fragments to move back in time. The builder blamed the rust spot problem on work that was done by the cover installer a week after we reported the rust problem.
If the swarf issue were confined to a few spots it would be an annoyance. But it isn’t a just few spots, it is hundreds of spots. Worse yet, we realized later that the problem is not just surface swarf. There are hundred’s of bits of metal caught between the primer coat and the top paint. With time these trapped bits of swarf emerge from the paint and rust. It is continual effort to remove the rust spots and metal fragments from the deck.
At the time we reported the rust spots we also mentioned that the deck looked permanently dirty. No matter how hard we tried, we just couldn’t get it to look clean. We emailed the builder, “It looks like it [the top deck] needs a coat of paint which is crazy after a month of occupancy.” It turned out that our comment was correct.
Early in 2016, during a routine cleaning, a patch of the deck paint peeled up off of the primer. The primer that had been exposed beneath the paint showed hundreds of tiny rust spots, much smaller than the swarf we had been fighting. It was concerning. We hoped that this problem was isolated. But that did not turn out to be the case. Within months more of the deck paint had peeled up in a dozen or so places. Worse yet, there were areas where the paint and primers came completely off exposing the raw steel beneath. The coatings were not adhering to the steel, usually a sign of improper surface preparation. It’s hardly something you’d expect on a virtually new boat.
After the paint problems developed we’ve had a handful of experts visit Wanderlust, including some from the French branch of Wanderlust’s paint manufacturer, International. The experts told us that the tiny spots of rust that had been exposed when the paint peeled were likely the consequence of “pollution.” Pollution in this context meant that there was metal dust caught in the paint and primer. The most straightforward explanation is that at some stage Wanderlust’s surface had not been completely cleaned properly.
The experts also agreed that the deck paint looked thin. And indeed it is thin. The paint thickness was measured later using a specialized tool. It was typically below 200 microns. In many spots the thickness measured at 75 to 85 uM. The primer itself was thin, less than 50 uM, where the paint first came up.
How thick should the paint have been? The experts from International have recommended build-ups that result in final thicknesses from 340 to over 500 microns. To be fair, the expert’s recommendations could well be overkill. A yard owner in France explains saying, “…there is an interest of selling paint…” In other words, the paint manufacturers are naturally motivated to sell as much paint as they can.
Yard owners and builders, on the other hand, are motivated to use as little plaint as possible. Paint is expensive. They want to use as little paint and primer as possible to save costs. But if they go too far and the paint is too thin, paint problems will develop later. It’s penny wise and pound foolish to save $700 in paint costs and risk a $50,000 problem down the road with all the negative publicity that comes with it. There has to be some margin for error built in.
Wanderlust’s top deck paint thickness is in many places well less than half what it should have been per the manufacturers’ minimum recommendations. Also concerning is the variability of the thicknesses. The measurements ranged from 75 uM to over 200 uM indicating that a uniform coat was not applied. Indeed, in places the primer is visible through the thin topcoat. That’s clearly not correct. It explains why we thought the deck needed a coat of paint soon after launch: Another coat of paint was needed.
We understand that builder believes that the manufacturer’s procedures for the application of the paint and primer were followed and documented. This includes measuring the wet and dry film thicknesses during the application. In the absence of information to the contrary, we can believe that the builder’s painters did make spot thickness checks. The problem is that it is too time consuming to measure the thickness of the paint everywhere. With paint you can’t afford to miss a few spots. It all has to be done correctly.
It is not just Wanderlust’s top deck where there are problems. In June of 2014, after three months of use, we reported to the builder that the gray paint on the gunwale decks was peeling off. Underneath the gray paint was the shiny Oyster White paint that was used on the cabsides. At first there were just a few spots. As time evolved the problem became widespread.
Despite our written complaints there was never a response. In fact even after we showed the side deck paint problem to the builder in person there was no comment. The builder did not want to deal with it. On our end, we hoped that all of the paint that was going to peel had peeled and it would not be a big problem. That did not prove to be the case. Even today the paint continues to come up.
Recently I looked back at photos I took during Wanderlust’s build to try to understand why there was an issue with the side deck paint. The pictures showed that the areas where the gray deck paint is coming up are in places where there is overspray of the Oyster White cabside paint.
Researching the paint manufacturer’s application instructions I found the following statement:
“AWLCRAFT 2000 topcoats which have been allowed to cure more than 24 hours must be sanded before recoating.”
From the pictures I can see that the gray deck paint was applied more than a week after the Oyster White over spray occurred. In between the Oyster White paint had cured hard. Per the manufacturer, it needed to be sanded before the side deck paint was applied. But as we and everybody else can see, the Oyster White paint that is emerging from beneath the deck paint is perfectly shiny. It clearly has not been sanded.
The builder simply did not follow the manufacturer’s instructions. As a consequence the gray paint was not adhering to the deck. It is simple as that. The cause of the problem was so obvious that the experts who visited just glanced at problem and moved on to the more interesting topic of the peeling top deck paint. It didn’t take an expert to understand what had happened on the side decks.
There are other issues with Wanderlust’s paint but I won’t detail them here. All of the problems, including the ones above, seem to all come from that same root causes:
- Incomplete preparation of the welds prior to the priming: This is most likely the reason that the paint and primer are lifting off of the weld. The builder did not grit blast after the welding.
- Inadequate surface preparation: Surfaces needed to be roughened before paint or primer was applied.
- Failure to fully clean the surfaces prior to the application of the paint and primer. Consequentially Wanderlust has problems with trapped swarf and “pollution”, as the French experts say. The builder does not have a dedicated painting facility, which means that paint and primers are applied in the steelwork and finishing shops. This comes with the risk of contamination.
- Insufficient and inconsistent amounts of paint and primer were applied as verified by paint thickness measurements.
Unfortunately, as we are now finding out, it is far easier if the paint is applied properly in the first place than to fix things later. Repairing Wanderlust’s paint will be expensive and time consuming.
* Verifying the stories of the paint problems has proven difficult. We wonder whether non-disclosure agreements were signed in the process of resolving the disputes over the paint. Nevertheless we’ve found pictures of eight of the nine boats that we know have had problems. The ninth boat was the one taken back to the plant and stripped down.