10 Tips on How to Paint a Nonskid Deck

No matter what materials and methods you use when tackling a deck-painting job, these fundamentals apply to every approach.

15th May 2013.
By Doug Logan

In the lifespan of almost any boat there will come a time when the deck needs a renewal of its nonskid surface – the traction that keeps you and your crew on board. The original deck might be molded non-skid, or painted fiberglass over wood, or painted wood. The paint you choose for the renewal could be oil-based or latex acrylic or linear polyurethane.

Herreshoff deck w. KiwiGrip

When it has to be done just right: The deck and cabintop of this 1938 Herreshoff Marlin have just been sanded and coated with KiwiGrip. Watch the video below. Paul Cronin photo.

You have a choice of non-skid additives, or paints that already contain nonskid compound. Then there’s the choice of roller, brush, or roller and brush. But among all the situations you might face and choices you’ll need to make, there are some deck-painting truths that, to paraphrase Mr. Jefferson, we hold to be universal:

1. It’s all about surface preparation. Any step you skip or effort you skimp on in the preparation stage will charge you double when it comes to the painting stage and finished look. The old saying is true: Proper preparation prevents poor performance.

2. Pick the right environment. This means covering the boat under a shed or a shelter if at all possible. If it’s not possible, pick your weather to minimize the risk of rain, windborne dust and leaves, and boatyard debris that gets stirred up by all the other boat nuts and their cars and trucks. And try not to paint when there are clouds of flies or gnats around.

3. Paint at optimum times of day. If you’re outside, paint in mid to late morning after the dew has evaporated, and in mid-afternoon. Avoid noontime when the sun is overhead and at its hottest, and late afternoon, when evening cooling and moisture can affect drying time and finish.

4. Take your time with the tape. Masking off your job properly will make all the difference in the results. Most painters we know swear by 3M masking tapes, either the Fine Line tape or the less expensive ScotchBlue, both of which use natural rubber adhesive, which helps prevent residue from sticking to the taped surface on removal. Make sure your surface is dry and free of grime, oils, and solvents before you tape, and carefully run your hand along every inch of the paint-facing tape edge before you start painting.

5. Read the… manual. Really, no kidding, read the directions on the cans, on the labels, on the websites of the products you’re using – paints, solvents, and nonskid compounds. The people who make these things have thought carefully about how to use them best. They have a strong interest in making both your work and their products look good. If you think some of their directions are too persnickety to be worth following exactly, you may be right. But when they put something in bold, or say IMPORTANT, you’ll benefit from knowing it.

trim sander

A trim sander with a triangular footprint will let you get closer to mounted hardware than hand-sanding.

6. Sand carefully. Unlike other paint jobs, you don’t need to sand between coats of nonskid paint; the needed grip for the next coat is built in. But you still need to sand the original surface. Even if you decide not to grind down the remains of your molded nonskid, you’ll need to sand it to give it some tooth for the new paint and compound. Random-orbital sanders equipped with vacuum attachments are best for large areas. Palm sanders are fine for smaller areas. To get in close to mounted hardware like cleats, chocks, and windlasses, a trim sander with a triangular mount will actually do a better job than hand-sanding. But there are always a few areas where nothing but old-fashioned elbow grease will do.

7. Let the sander and sandpaper do the work. Don’t bear down on the sander, just guide it with light, even pressure. And don’t try too hard to conserve your sandpaper. Nothing cuts and removes material better than a new piece of sandpaper, even the old-fashioned aluminum oxide kind.  When your sandpaper loads up or starts to lose its cutting power, just change it. Sandpaper is cheap and time is money.

8. Get rid of all the dust. This is easier said than done, especially if you’re working outside, but it’s a vital step – maybe not quite as important as when you’re laying on coats of varnish, but still important for any paint job. After sanding and vacuuming, take a heavy cloth like a bath towel and swat the surface to dislodge dust that might still be clinging. Then sweep and vacuum around the work area again. Then go over the surface with a clean cloth and denatured alcohol or acetone. Then use a commercial tack cloth to swipe up any remaining dust, turning the cloth often.

9. Work one section at a time. Especially when you’re painting in open sunlight or warm weather, but really any time, it’s important not to spread paint over such a large area that your first strokes begin to set before you can get back to them. This makes it impossible to get a wet overlap and, in the end, a smooth, uniform look to the project. If it’s hard to see the edges of the area you’re working on, mark the boundaries with moveable references. Anything can work – putty knives, tape measures, pens, whatever is handy – as long as you know where the overlap area is.

10. Mix only what you need, and keep stirring what you mix. Note the suggested ratio of nonskid compound to paint and only mix a batch big enough to lay on in your intended session, whether it’s one whole coat or just one side of the deck. Nonskid compounds have a way of clumping and settling, so stir it in well in the first place and stir frequently as you paint.

11. Pull the tape before the paint sets. Whether the paint is an acrylic latex or polyurethane, it will set up hard, and you don’t want any of your tape underneath it after that happens. The tape will want to stay put, it will be a bear to remove, and if you aren’t good with a razor blade you might even wreck some of the perfect line you worked so hard to achieve.

Choosing between nonskid compounds and systems is a matter of brand preference, prior experience, and pocketbook. Here are nonskid options from three of the best-known manufacturers of marine paints:

Other options include stick-on or glue-on nonskid sheets like those made by TreadMaster, or the proprietary KiwiGrip Non-Skid Deck System.

KiwiGrip is favored by boats.com’s resident videographer, Paul Cronin, who is also a naval architect and talented boatwright in both wood and fiberglass. Here’s a video from Paul on how to prepare a deck and apply KiwiGrip (on a 1938 Herreshoff, at that).


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About the author:

Doug Logan

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Senior editor Doug Logan is a former editor-in-chief of Practical Sailor, managing editor and technical editor of Sailing World, webmaster for Sailing World and Cruising World, and contributing editor to Powerboat Reports. He is the editor of many books about boats, boat gear, and the sea, and is experienced in both sail and power.
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One thought on “10 Tips on How to Paint a Nonskid Deck

  1. This is great advice, Doug. I would also add that someone redoing their nonskid should research and experiment with samples to make sure they get the level of friction they’re looking for. It’s generally a trade-off between friction and comfort; but a lot of people go with too ‘aggressive’ a finish and end up with chafed skin and clothing.

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