Stripping a Boat

or The Beginning of a Fresh Start

by Sherwood Heggen

Restoring boats involves some very dirty, messy jobs. Fairing a boat comes to mind as one of those horrible jobs. That is the job where you create endless clouds of dust with sanding machines and sandpaper with the by-product being a boat that is fair and smooth. Also, being covered in wood chips while routing new topside planks is not the most pleasant experience. But, the dirtiest, smelliest, and most disagreeable job of all is that of stripping the finish off of a boat.

Let me walk you through the typical stripping process. The effort involves slapping on a slimy, smelly, semi-thick liquid to the topsides, deck, and/or bottom of the boat, waiting for it to soften the finish and stain below, and then scraping the resulting mess off. Generally, the stripper will soften perhaps a few of the top coats of finish with additional stripper required to get to the finish coats below. While it is softening the finish, you notice that the stripper is also drying up and not working anymore, so more stripper must be constantly applied. You have to scrape off the softened finish before it dries up and keep up with the stripper that still needs attention. That process goes on until all that remains is the stain. More stripper is necessary to get the stain to leave, but it just won’t go away easily. You will notice that the stripper has a very strong overwhelming odor. If you did not wear a chemical charcoal mask, you will notice that you become used to the odor. If you were to step outside to get some fresh air, you would notice that the air has an ammonia-like odor to it. You realize then that your body has been permeated with the fumes from a methylene chloride based stripper that is not considered friendly to the body. The warning on the back of the can mentions something about the possibility of damage to the nervous system, cancer, and some other stuff like that is probably as serious as the first two just from using the product. Also be sure to have a bucket of water and a clean rag to wash off any stripper that might contact the skin because it is, again, not friendly to the body. You will know what that means the first time you feel the burn as it eats away at the skin where it landed. Rubber gloves are a good idea, but they make your hands clumsy.

Here is a quick, true story about the dangers of using methylene chloride based strippers: It was after supper one cool, fall evening and I was determined to completely strip the bottom and topsides of a sixteen foot utility during that evening. With the boat upside down in my two-car garage, I poured the stripper on all over the boat and spread it around with a cheap bristle brush. The stuff smelled pretty strong but soon I was used to it and it no longer bothered me so I kept on working. I didn’t want to open the overhead garage door because I didn’t want to be cold and I was making great headway. I kept working for many hours, determined to finish the task. I looked up at the clock to see the time and was confused by what appeared as light blue air in the garage. Was there smoke coming from somewhere? Or, wait, maybe I am being asphyxiated by the fumes from the stripper. I headed outside and couldn’t smell the fresh air for the stench of the stripper. It wasn’t until the next day that I could smell fresh air again and my headache subsided. Why the air appeared light blue is unknown to me other than my body was definitely being overcome by the chemicals in the stripper.
I have continued to use this type of stripper more cautiously after that but have not enjoyed the process. I have tried the “safe” strippers with poor success for various reasons. Some of the advertised “miracle” strippers might do the job but have adverse effects on the part being stripped.
What would be ideal is to have a stripper that works quickly, has no effect on the project being stripped, and doesn’t destroy your body during the process of stripping the finish.

Last summer at a boat show, a gentleman was in a booth demonstrating a methylene chloride-free paint stripper. Having an interest in the stripper because of business needs, I started asking questions about the product. He made the product look so easy to use and effective, so I was a little skeptical how easily his product would take the finish off. He had applied some of his product earlier to an old stained and varnished dashboard and it was eating away at the finish. With a scraper, he easily removed the finish. Then he sprayed a thin liquid on the area he had just scraped clean, scrubbed it with small scratch pad, and wiped the loosened stain with a cloth. The area was clean! Wow! My interest was piqued! As I asked some more questions, I saw he had stripper on his hands with no immediate ill effect. Now that is something you don’t want to do with a methylene chloride stripper unless you enjoy chemical burns! But, that is not the case with this stripper. It does not burn the flesh. Before I left he had a sample kit of his stripper in my hands.

Long story short – a few weeks later, I arranged to have this gentleman, the owner of Star 10 stripper, Phillip Pennington, come to demonstrate his product on a boat in my shop. I had to see this product under shop conditions. I had a runabout, with a finish that could not be repaired, serve as a perfect test subject. On one side we would use the Star 10 product and other the other side we would use the methylene chloride based stripper. This would give a good comparison of what we would experience regarding time required, effort, and effectiveness of each product.

The morning of the demonstration, I prepared myself with proper dress of the oldest shirt, jeans, and pair of work shoes I owned. There was no sense ruining better clothes before their time was truly up. Phillip showed up that morning dressed in a casual oxford long-sleeved shirt and dress slacks. He unloaded his clean equipment and set up to do this “messy” job. At least, I was dressed for the job and figured I would be doing most of the work. But, no, he said he was comfortable with his dress and would show me how clean and easy a job this would be. Yeah, right!

We proceeded. I had prepared the boat by masking off the areas not intended for stripping. Phillip loaded his airless sprayer with his product while I got the camera out to record the process. Moments later, Phillip was spraying the first part of the product called Phase I stripper onto the side of the boat to a thickness of about a dime as seen in the picture below.

Phase I has the consistency of whipped cream and clings to the surface. Though the stripper was applied with an airless sprayer, it can also be applied with a large disposable bristle brush. After he coated the side of the boat, we did the opposite of watching paint dry. There was nothing more to do than wait and watch it eat away at the finish. Now, if this were the typical stripper I would be very busy keeping the stripper wet by reapplying more stripper and scraping that area that was ready to scrape. The stink would be nearly unbearable and I would be wishing the horrible job was finished. Phillip and I talked about the product while we stood there watching the varnish begin to crinkle creating a yellowish appearance. I learned that the product does not have to be reapplied to strip down to the wood. It stays wet and eats the finish down to the wood. In fact it stays wet for hours. You can go in and have lunch while the stripper is working without fear of it drying out. The lack of methylene chloride makes it a “safer” stripper. There were no overwhelming fumes. Yes, the product does have an odor, but nothing really unpleasant to most users. Ventilation and other health protecting precautions are always wise as with any product of this nature as you see fit.

Given sufficient time, the finish had crinkled and softened so it was time to remove it. My method is
to use a four inch wide putty knife. Phillip recommends a small scraper with a very sharp edge to it. With that, he proceeded to remove the finish right down to the wood!
What remained was some filler stain in the wood.

He then he sprayed the surface with Phase II stripper using a hand-held spray bottle. Keeping the surface wet with the Phase II, the remaining stain was scrubbed out of the wood with a small Scotch-brite pad and wiped clean with disposable terry cloth towels. No rubber gloves were used, although you might wish to use them if your skin is sensitive to any chemicals and if there is prolonged
exposure to the stripper. With a little effort the wood was clean and dry and ready for the new finish! In most cases you might want to sand the surface to give the surface good “tooth” for the new stain and varnish. The process was amazingly clean and pleasant. It was fun to take the scraper, which Phillip recommends and sells, and remove the finish right down to the wood. It took less than an hour for the stripper to soften the finish enough where it could be scraped off. It took about another hour
or so to scrape and scrub the surface clean of varnish and stain. Phil’s and my clothes stayed clean. We used about 1 ½ gallons of Phase I stripper and less than a gallon of Phase II for the one side. With two people working, it is reasonable to have a nineteen-foot runabout stripped in about four hours.As a comparison to the Star 10 product, I later did the other side of the boat with the typical methylene chloride based stripper. The stink was horrible even with an open shop door and ventilation. I was constantly busy applying more to keep the surface wet and working. After scraping off the softened finish, it was disappointing to see I wasn’t down to wood and had to apply additional stripper and do the scraping process again.

Compared to Star 10, things did not go well although I did get down to the stain eventually. I tried my usual method of a thin coat of stripper to soften the remaining filler stain followed by a wash of 50/50 mix of denatured alcohol and lacquer thinner scrubbing with Scotch-brite. About halfway through the job of removing the stain, I was frustrated with how slow things were going and got out the spray bottle of Star 10 Phase II stripper. The job went quicker from that point on. I spent between three to four hours of constant effort from start to finish on one side. It was not a pleasant job.

The advantages of using Star 10 stripper products were obvious. I hadn’t been overcome with stripper fumes, I was clean, the wood was clean and dry, and it was almost fun! There was some mess on the floor, but the next day I scraped it up and disposed of it in the garbage. The cost is a bit more than methylene chloride based stripper, but who cares? When something works this well and is considered safer, I can’t help but want to use it again.

If you would like to know more about this product you can go to the web-site at or call 800-726-4319. Also, check out the Star 10 ad elsewhere in the Boathouse.
Restoring our old boats should be fun. There is a lot of hard work involved in any restoration project so it is good to find a way to make things easier and safer. Star 10 is a product that fits the bill.

So, as I have said many times before, don’t destroy it; restore it. Also, protect yourself in the process by using equipment and products that are more user friendly. If you have any questions regarding restoration of your project boat, don’t be afraid to call me at 715-294-2415 or e-mail me at I would be glad to discuss your project concerns with you.
Now get out to the shop and get to work. Your boat is calling you.