How to Paint Cove and Boot Stripes Like a Pro

Ever wish you could repaint your scratched, faded, or worn cove or boot stripes? Have an older boat with a stripe color you don’t like and want to update? New stripes are one of the little improvements that can make a big difference in the personality of your sailboat. You can apply them with vinyl tape, but most boot stripes aren’t the same width from bow to stern and custom cut vinyl can be expensive. Painting them isn’t as hard or as expensive as you might think. In this post, I’ll guide you through painting new stripes that look like they were done by a pro.

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Beauty that’s more than skin deep

A cove stripe is the one at the top of the hull near the deck joint. A boot stripe is the one at the waterline. The cove and boat stripes of many fiberglass sailboats are made of colored gelcoat applied to the inside of the hull mold before the white gelcoat is sprayed over it. The result is stripes that are literally cast into the hull. That’s why they’re so tough and they cannot be simply sanded off. You would have to sand all the way to the fiberglass mat to remove them. By painting new stripes, you apply a coat of paint over the top of the old stripes. The bad news is, if you ever scratch through the new stripes, the old color will show through but that’s true even with vinyl. The good news is, if you don’t like the color of the new stripes, you can sand them off and change colors or even revert to the old color, same as with vinyl. I can’t imagine ever wanting to do that but it’s an option, nevertheless.

Only her hulldresser knows for sure

I’ll start off by declaring unequivocally that I hate to paint anything whatsoever. I think it’s because I had a bad experience as a kid helping my stepfather paint our house. I’ve never liked to paint since. Psychological scars notwithstanding, I was looking forward to this project.

The chocolate brown stripes and brown plaid cabin cushions were among the only things that I didn’t like about Summer Dance when we bought her. The rest of her was in good shape and I’m not one to be a stickler for colors so we bought her anyway. I figured I’d get used to the color and it wouldn’t be impossible to change. I did get used to the color but I never liked it and thoughts of changing it grew more and more frequent as time passed.

BEFORE - Brown cove stripe covered with a new patch of white gelcoat
BEFORE – The brown cove stripe is partially covered with a new patch of white gelcoat

The first phase of the transformation happened when I made new cabin cushion covers out of blue Sunbrella canvas. I gradually expanded that theme with more blue canvas for the bimini and lifeline cushions. The blue flood continued with a new mainsail cover, foredeck sail bag, engine cover, and other canvas projects. Scoring a used blue and green cruising spinnaker in excellent condition sealed the fate of the brown stripes. How could I keep them then?

The second phase happened when I ordered blue Interlux VC 17m for the new bottom paint job. Then the only brown left on the boat was the cove and boot stripes. Since part of the starboard cove stripe was overcoated with new white gelcoat to repair a major scratch during our storm damage repairs, I decided to bite the bullet and paint them blue.

The boot stripes in particular had a lot of deep scratches in them. At some point in her past, a previous owner didn’t take care to protect the topsides while sloppily sanding the bottom with very coarse sandpaper. After I polished the topsides with buffing compound, they looked pretty good from a distance but they still showed the abuse up close.

Closeup showing heavy scratches
Closeup showing heavy scratches as Bob masks the bottom barrier coat

I had a pretty good idea of how to do this project when I started, but just as a reality check and for some good tips, I consulted Don Casey’s Sailboat Refinishing. By the way, I’ll be doing a review of that book in the future similar to the review I did of his 100 Fast & Easy Boat Improvements.

Mask twice, paint once

As with any paint job, the quality of the result depends heavily on surface preparation before you apply the paint. The first step is to sand only the old stripes so that the new paint will make a good mechanical bond in addition to the chemical bond. Mask off the stripes with tape to within no less than 1/32″ of the stripe edges. That lets the sandpaper get right to the edge of the old stripe but it leaves the adjacent white gelcoat untouched.

Masked and sanded
Masked and sanded

With the white gelcoat “field” protected, use 220 grit sandpaper on a sanding block to rough up the stripes and remove any light to medium scratches. Be careful to sand precisely to the edge of the masking tape to help prevent the new paint from coming loose at the stripe edges and chipping or peeling over time.

Masking tape removed where new gelcoat blended into old
Masking tape removed where new gelcoat blended into old

After sanding, remove all the masking tape and wipe everything down well with acetone to remove any remaining adhesive and sanding residue. You want to start with a perfectly clean surface. If you leave the masking tape in place, it will transfer sanding dust that was embedded into it by the sandpaper to the paint and result in a poor finish.

Another reason for masking twice is to use professional auto finishing masking tape like 3M Scotch Fine Line Tape 218. Use a thin width like 1/2″ to follow the hull curves. That kind of tape is more expensive but it leaves a laser sharp edge compared to blue or green painter’s tape. It’s also made of soft plastic that bends around curves better than paper tape. If you use fine line tape instead of paper tape for the sanding step, it will get nicked, scuffed, and still hold sanding residue. By masking twice, you sacrifice one tape job so that you can save the best masking for only the paint step.

When you mask the second time, you want to be even more careful than the first time. This time will determine the accuracy of your final stripes. If they don’t look good in tape at this stage, they won’t look any better in paint at the end and probably worse due to the contrast of the stripe next to the hull.

To get the best results applying tape, keep the tape roll a couple of feet away from the contact point at all times. Make small, gradual adjustments and slowly slide a finger along the tape edge to make the tape contact the hull. If you plan to spray the paint, after you have the fine line tape laid down, mask above and below the stripes with paper and 1″ regular masking tape from a masking paper and tape dispenser like the 3M M1000 Hand-Masker. If you will roll or brush the paint on, an additional layer of 1″ paper masking tape alone is sufficient. When that’s done, wipe the stripes down thoroughly with a tack rag to pick up any remaining dust or residue so it doesn’t get into the paint.

Any color so long as it’s blue

In case you hadn’t guessed already, I painted the stripes on Summer Dance blue. I chose one-part polyurethane Interlux Brightside in Flag Blue which is a dark, navy blue. It’s a classy color that contrasts really well with the white hull, teak woodwork, and blue bottom paint and it complements the lighter blue canvas. I chose it instead of a two-part polyurethane like Awlgrip because it’s more economical (this is The $tingy Sailor blog, after all), easier to work with, and I take good care of Summer Dance. Under different conditions, I might have chosen differently. I also did not apply a primer coat first.

You can paint stripes either with spray equipment or the roll and tip method. I’ll give you an overview of the both techniques below.

Spray your way to perfect stripes

Spraying paint produces the smoothest possible finish. It takes more preparation time to mask areas that aren’t painted but the application time is much faster.

Two half pint cans is enough paint to spray three coats of cove and boot stripes on a C-22 with good results. For spraying, I thinned the paint a little less than 15%. Interlux specifies their Special Thinner 216 that can cost $28 per quart at West Marine. For this entire job, I only needed one ounce so no thanks, Interlux and West Marine! The primary ingredient in Special Thinner 216 is Xylene, which you can buy at a big box home improvement store for $7 per quart and it works just as good. You can use the remainder as a general purpose solvent without thinking twice about its cost.

To apply the paint, I used the same trusty and economical Harbor Freight Touch-Up Air Spray Gun that I use to paint guitars with. It’s solidly built, lightweight, easy to control, and it does a nice job on small areas like this project. Adjust your air compressor to the lowest pressure that produces a fine, even mist without spattering.

For the boot stripe, adjust the gun to a vertical fan pattern slightly wider than the stripe. For the cove stripe, adjust the gun down to its smallest spot pattern. With both patterns, hold the gun close enough to the hull so that the pattern fills the entire stripe and you can coat it in one pass.

Boot stripe
Port bow boot stripe drying

Move the gun just fast enough to create a wet spot without puddling. Any slower and you’ll get runs and sags. Any faster and you’ll create a rough, “dry” finish. Always start and stop the spray while the gun is moving. Start at one end of a stripe and work your way to the other end, always extending the wet edge. Don’t go back and try to fill in a dried section, wait until the next coat. Several thin coats work better than one or two heavy coats.

Cove stripe
Starboard bow cove stripe drying

Sand between coats

After each coat fully dries, block sand it with 320 grit open coat sandpaper. A sanding belt cleaner can help to remove paint buildup and extend the life of your sandpaper.

Masked and painted
Masked and painted in the main bay at Stingy Marine Services

Rockin’ the roll and tip method

If you don’t have access to an air compressor and paint gun, a high quality paint skillfully applied with the roll and tip method and fastidious sanding in between coats can produce an acceptable finish. This method requires more attention to environmental conditions, though, since you will be working the paint longer than spraying. Less than ideal temperatures, humidity, and wind can all adversely affect the results.

First, use a three or four inch wide roller frame with a foam cover to apply an even coat of paint. Roll paint onto one 12″ to 18″ section at a time. Use only enough paint for full coverage. Too much paint will lead to sags. Pay attention to even coverage and don’t worry about the smoothness of the finish. You fix that with the brush tip next.

Buy the best 1-1/2″ to 2″ brush for tipping that you can afford and keep it very clean and dry for best results. Tip the wet rolled paint immediately before it begins to skin over. Use a very light touch to drag just the ends of the dry bristles through the paint to remove any bubbles and to smooth out the texture created by the roller cover. Work quickly but don’t rush and keep a wet edge.

One coat of paint applied with the roll and tip method. Notice the two layers of masking tape.
One coat of paint applied with the roll and tip method. Notice the two layers of masking tape.

For thinner stripes like cove stripes, use just the tip of the roller to apply the paint first and then tip normally with a smaller brush or the same brush held on edge. Using a brush alone to apply the paint won’t produce the results you want.

Keep a paper towel and acetone handy to clean up any stray paint. Don’t dip the brush in the paint can. Transfer some paint to a disposable cup first.

La pièce de résistance

After the third coat is dry to the touch but not yet cured, slowly peel off the masking tape by pulling it slightly sideways away from the stripe edge and slightly back over itself at the same time.

Port bow cove stripe unmasked. The stripe looks almost black due to photo adjustments for a cloudy day.

Now is when you’ll be glad you used the fine line tape. You couldn’t cut a sharper edge with a razor blade.

Port stern boot stripe unmasked.

For a perfect shine

Depending on the paint you use, after it has cured completely for at least two weeks, wet sand the stripes progressively with 1000 and 1500 grit sandpaper. Follow up with a good quality rubbing compound like 3M Marine Super Duty Rubbing Compound on a slow speed circular or dual-action buffer. Follow that with a high quality glaze like Presta Ultra Cutting Creme polished to a high gloss. Interlux advises against this step with their Brightside paint, which was fine with me. The new stripes look awesome already.

Closeup of finished cove stripe

Last, apply a high-quality Carnuba-based marine paste wax like Collinite Paste Fleetwax 885. Your stripes should shine like glass. This same sanding, buffing, and waxing process works wonders to restore dull, oxidized gelcoat, by the way, but you might need to start with 500 grit sandpaper on a badly neglected boat.

Summer Dance looks like a completely different boat now compared to when we bought her. She went from frumpy and dated-looking to a class act for a little more than $60 in materials. The only brown on her now is the original teak brightwork that still looks better than new since I refinished it last year.

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. Richard says:

    Thanks for the advice on painting the cove stripe. On my boat, the paint has flaked off in some spots. The paintless areas are a bit “deep” in some areas so that sanding them will not result in a smooth finish. The voids will show through the new paint, I think.

    Could you suggest a filler (I assume a filler would be needed here) and technique I could use to smooth out these patches? I plan to use the roll and tip approach to painting.

    1. Hi, Richard

      I think a filler like the U-Pol Dolphin Glaze I used in Refinish your swing keel for best performance – Part 3: Fairing would work for you. Be sure you pick off any loose flakes, roughen the underlying gelcoat, and clean thoroughly with Acetone first. You don’t want your repair to flake off too. Then I would mask up to the edges of the stripe with a tape the same thickness as the paint, fill the flaked areas, then sand them down to the same level as the surrounding paint using the tape as a thickness guide before stripping it off and replacing it with fine line tape. Paint over the fillings when you apply the stripe and they should disappear.

    2. Ed Bachmann says:

      Isn’t that the truth…retired for 5 years and my boat is still not back in the water! Dry dock for 20+ years is so sad!

  2. Austin says:

    I’d suggest one addition to the rolling method: Clean your roller brush thoroughly before use. use painters tape sticky side up and running the roller up and down. otherwise, even on good brushes tons of lint comes off and stays in the paint, so this helps mitigate it. Additionally, the 3M painters tape is so much better at coming off cleanly than other tapes, which have left a host of residue that is difficult to remove.

    1. Ed. Bachmann says:

      Does $tingy Marine Services do work on other’s boat? 🙂 I have some hull refinishing to do!! Thanks for the write up & tips on the cove & boot stripe process.

      1. If you can bring your boat here, leave it indefinitely, and you can afford me (I’m only stingy with MY money), then sure!

        Truth be told, I’ve got too many projects to do around the house right now that I don’t have time to work on my own boat 😦


  3. Jeff Clark says:

    I really appreciate your work! But how did you do the stripe job for $61.00? Paint alone will cost me that? Any suggestions? Thank you!
    81′ Catalina 22 swing keel

    1. Hi, Jeff

      You can buy 1/2 pint cans of Interlux Brightsides for under $20 each and 2 cans should do the whole job. The rest is masking tape, sandpaper, and solvent, some of which you might already have on hand.

      What’s your ’81 hull number? Mine’s 10330.

  4. BoatingList says:

    Thanks for the article! I always thought that I was not capable of any work with my hands, but after reading your article, I’m inspired to go repair my Albemarle boat right now.

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