Choosing Colors That Help Your Boat Look ‘Classic’

by Marty Loken - Nordland, Washington- USA

“As appeared in Small Craft Advisor

See my previous article on paint.

If you own a vintage boat, or want to help your contemporary hull achieve a more “classic” look, you can do a lot with paint colors, certain varnish products and oils.

As mentioned in the adjoining article, we prefer satin finishes (vs. high gloss) for most of the traditional-design boats we restore or build. While we often custom mix our own paint colors, we also work with smaller paint companies like Marshall’s Cove Marine Paints or Kirby’s Marine Paints (whose owners will cheerfully mix any shade you come up with in a color swatch—in anything from Gloss to Semi-Gloss, Satin or even Flat). We also love the traditional color palettes offered by those two companies, and also by Epifanes, the paint and varnish company in the Netherlands, whose products are widely distributed in North America.

Let’s talk about some specific opportunities to make generic-looking boats appear more “classic” or “traditional.”

Example: White Fiberglass Sailboat

There’s nothing more common that generic white gelcoat, the result of mass production in fiberglass boats. While your white or off-white fiberglass boat might be modeled directly after a classic design, or at least feature some traditional design elements, it’s still a white mass of resin that can be made more interesting with application of some traditional paint colors.

Exhibit A is shown in the adjoining photos. A customer brought us his older Herreshoff America 18-foot catboat, designed by Halsey Herreshoff. The hull’s original white gelcoat was oxidized and badly gouged from docking adventures, with areas of pitting, spiderweb cracking and rust stains. In other words, a typical early-fiberglass boat whose previous owner had accepted the “maintenance-free fiberglass” sales pitch, ignoring the poor boat until the teak guardrails were literally falling off, other wood trim had lost all evidence of finish, deck hardware was corroded and the steel-plate centerboard had grown enough rusty scale that it could no longer be raised or lowered in its trunk. A real mess!

Fortunately, the new owner had paid littlefor the boat. Recognizing it wasn’t ready for the water, he asked me to get the old girl back in prime condition.

Our goal was to make repairs, repaint and revarnish, but also to transform the white blob of gelcoat into something that honored the original catboat design. In other words, to make the fiberglass hull look more like a traditional wooden catboat, using color to achieve the illusion.



In the Before and After photos, you can see that by merely custom-mixing some traditional varnished-wood paint colors, and purchasing other stock colors made by our favorite paint companies, we were able to achieve the look of a wooden boat—at least when viewed from 50 feet. If you own a white-gelcoat sailboat of even semi-traditional design, you can do the same thing yourself.

My personal ground rules for traditional-looking boats: 1) Only use “appliance white” on your Frigidaire; 2) Stay away from straight primary colors—red, blue, green, orange or yellow; and 3) Lean toward satin “work boat” finishes over high gloss.

Here, then, are some particular off-the-shelf paint colors we love to use on traditional boats…or to make contemporary boats look more like classic designs:

DARK RED MAHOGANY (when you want to simulate a rich, dark-stained look) — Marshall’s Cove #16 Barn Red or #17 Deep Red. Kirby’s #8 See Red or #21 Rich Red. Epifanes #35 in their Bootlak alkyd line, or #3233 in the company’s Mono-Urethane.

LIGHT MAHOGANY (for something resembling an unstained mahogany color) — Epifanes #33 or #11 in Bootlak enamel. Pettit Easypoxy #3510 Brightwork Brown

TRADITIONAL DEEP RED (vs. the standard bright red that isn’t very “vintage” or appropriate on traditional boats) — Marshall’s Cove #15 Junk Red, or #16 Barn Red. Kirby’s #21 Rich Red.

CREAMY DECK COLORS (personal favorites) — Marshall’s Cove #42 Schooner Spar Buff, or #5 Deck Khaki. Kirby’s #31 Putty. Pettit Easypoxy #3520 Grand Banks Beige.

GRAY DECK COLORS — Marshall’s Cove #7 Light Gray. Kirby’s #25 Light Gray or #34 Slate Gray. Epifanes # 27 in Bootlak enamel.

GRAY HULLSIDE COLORS — Marshall’s Cove #8 Puffin Gray. Pettit Easypoxy #3706 Pearl Gray. Interlux Brightside #4205 Seattle Gray.

OPEN-SKIFF OR SAILBOAT INTERIORS — Marshall’s Cove #4 Tender Interior Cream or #42 Schooner Spar Buff. Kirby’s #32 Sand, #31 Putty or #9 Cream. Pettit Easypoxy #3518 Sandtone or #3520 Grand Banks Beige. Interlux Brightside #4217 Grand Banks Beige.

GREEN HULLSIDES — Marshall’s Cove #18 Martha Green. Kirby’s #1 Green Gray or #7 Green. Epifanes #62 (very dark green) in Bootlak enamel.

BLUE HULLSIDES — Kirby’s #19 Blue. Marshall’s Cove #32 Grey Blue or #29 Light Blue. Epifanes #206 in Bootlak enamel.

CREAM-COLORED HULLSIDES — Pettit Easypoxy #3518 Sandtone. Marshall’s Cove #3 Cream. Kirby’s #32 Sand. Epifanes #25 or #26 in Bootlak enamel.

TRADITIONAL SPAR COLORS – Marshall’s Cove #42 Schooner Spar Buff or #41 Spar Buff. Interlux Brightside #4237 Sundown Buff.

BOOTSTRIPE COLORS (these, of course, vary depending on the adjoining hullside, as well as the bottom-paint color) — Marshall’s Cove #12 International Orange, #10 Verite Yellow or #41 Spar Buff. Kirby’s #28 Reddish. Epifanes #48 (green) in Bootlak enamel. Interlux Brightside #4248 Fire Red.

FOR BILGE AREAS — Interlux #YMA 100 Bilgekote in Gray, not White. (Durable flat-finish product for rough bilge areas that might become grimy or oily.)

PRIMERS FOR TOPSIDE ENAMEL — My go-to primers are Interlux #4280 Pre-Kote in Gray, and Pettit #6149 EZ Prime Topside Undercoater.

VARNISH — Epifanes Wood Finish Matte, followed at a distance by Epifanes Gloss and Pettit’s Z-Spar #2015 Flagship Gloss.

TRADITIONAL OIL FOR BARE WOOD — Custom “boat soup” brew: Approximately 40% spar varnish, 40% boiled linseed oil and 20% pine tar. (Pine tar can be reduced to about 10%, boosting the others to about 45% each.)

BOTTOM PAINT (expressly for boats that live mainly on trailers, out of the water) — Pettit VIVID, a hard and durable paint available in a wide variety of colors…although I usually go with #1861 Black, #1361 Green, or #1661 Red.

This story was reprinted from a recent issue of SCA and for more informative features you can subscribe here.


  1. The finish on a boat is one thing; the performance of the boat is another. Keep this in mind: The boat itself will see you through a foul day at sea, not the depth of the varnish or the freshness of the paint or the polish of the brass.

    Light colors make a boat look larger.
    Dark colors make a boat look smaller
    Avoid dark colors as they absorb the heat of the sun.
    The most practical overall color is white; shade pure white, if desired, with a light-colored tint.
    Blue and green tend to fade over time.
    Gloss paint accentuates unfairness in a hull; semigloss and flat do not.
    Varnished hulls are difficult to maintain and look terrible if you don’t maintain them to the highest standards.
    Accentuate a beautiful sheer by painting the sheer strake in contrast to the hull, or adding a gilded cove stripe below the sheer.
    Improve a poor sheer by painting a cove stripe below it to a better line.
    To de-emphasize a large house, paint the topsides white and the house light gray or light blue.
    To emphasize a small house, reverse the above color scheme.
    On deck use colors that will help identify objects and areas in the dark. A light deck is easy to see at night as are bulwarks painted white on the inside.

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