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Applying New Graphics to your Boat

Capt. Eric Grubb

With the arrival of the warmer weather, many of you find yourselves trading boats. With each trade comes the chance to pick a new name and outfit the new boat in your own particular way. Following are some tips to help save you money and get the best looking results with vinyl graphics.

Nothing personalizes a boat like the name. Once you've picked a boat's moniker, you can also choose how it presents itself on the transom. Even if you're not a wizard on the computer, it's simple to fire-up your favorite image editor, type in some names and look for some fonts that you like.

For a canvas, scan used boat ads to find a transom shot of a similar boat. If there's a name in place, you can color over it, giving you a clean start to try-on the fit of different names and styles. In the case of this Sun Deck, the owners settled on the name "Duck Racer" and liked the font "Cooper Black."


Above, a screenshot from Photoshop Elements

The next step is to measure the transom for the graphic. For this 21'er, the owner determined that a letter height of 5" worked well to fit under the ski tow hook, and wanted a width of 26." Once you find what works, you can visit your favorite graphics store to see the layout on their computer before committing.

For the state numbering, please consult with your state regulations for requirements pertaining to the proper size and display of the numbers and registration decal. In Kentucky, for example, numbers must be no less than three inches high and the decal must be located no more than six inches aft of the numbers. Obviously, they should be contrasting and clearly legible. The font "Arial Black" works well because it is so easy to read. The easier the numbers can be read, the less likely you will be to attract the authorities.

Above, measuring the transom of the vessel, in this case a 21' Sea Ray

Already familiar with the designer and the process, the owner simply phoned in a request for "name: Duck Racer, Cooper Black font, 5" high, 26-28" wide, black with gold drop shadow to the lower right. Numbers: KY 1234 AB, 3.25 in. black in Arial Black font." They happened to catch their favorite shop on a slower day, and were booked for installation that afternoon.


To remove the old vinyl graphics from the previous name and state registration, start by softening a corner with the application of a little heat. Pictured is a hobby-style heat gun used for shrinking vinyl graphics. A home hair dryer will not focus enough heat to be effective. Make sure not to overheat an area, as you can easily burn the gelcoat.

A little heat on a corner will help you start to peel the graphic, and a shot of heat over a wider area will help the rest of the detail come off as the adhesive softens.


The application of heat to soften the graphics for removal


Once you've removed the old graphics, you'll most likely have some ghosting. If you think about it, the area under the graphic was protected from the dirt and UV while adjacent areas were exposed. You can start the clean-up process by rubbing the area with a little acetone. The acetone will also strip any adhesive as well as your wax. This is not a problem, as you'll need the wax gone before applying the new graphics, and you'll wax the area again at the end of the project.


Above, the ghosting from the old lettering

With the adhesives removed, you may still have a stark contrast on the gelcoat. Some rubbing compound and wheel is just the ticket for evening the finish. Just like with the heat gun, be careful not to spend too much time on one spot as you could burn and discolor the gelcoat. After compounding, some more acetone will remove any residual wax products so that the graphics will adhere.


Above, compounding the surface, and the finished result below



Note: This is the point I'd recommend that you rely on a professional! With the area prepped and stripped of wax, the application starts with a dry placement of the graphics. Vinyl graphics are cut at the shop, then extra material is peeled away. A masking layer is applied over the graphics, then they are attached using a double transfer method. That is, the backing is removed, they are positioned on the boat, then the top masking layer is removed.

To start the process, position the graphic in place with a piece of tape across the top. Once the position is correct, peel off the bottom paper layer, exposing the adhesive on the back of the graphic. Slightly wet the surface using a light solution of soapy water. Starting from the top, rub each graphic into place, being careful not to bend or fold the vinyl. Next, squeeqee out any moisture from under the graphic. Lastly, with the graphic adhered in place, peel back the top masking layer.


Above, the installer hangs the product, then makes cuts between each letter to account for compound curves on the surface. Below, the 2nd layer is squeegeed to smooth the finish and remove air bubbles and the wetting solution.


Common errors are wetting the surface too much, making it hard for the graphics to stick enough, or not wetting the surface enough, which could make it difficult to make small positioning corrections and to smooth out any bubbles. A warm surface is much easier to work with than a cold one. The professionals have other tricks, such as cutting between each letter to better go around compound curves.

As an option, you can order graphics online. With experience in transfering model airplane decals and graphics, I felt comfortable tackling the project myself in the past. The issue with boats is that the gelcoat is very slippery, making it very easy to wrinkle or crumple the graphics. By the time you re-order, which I have had to do myself a few times, you would have been further ahead letting an experienced professional do it just once in the first place.

Above, Josh from Custom Signs and Graphics of Crestwood, KY with the finished product. You will notice how much the final product looks like the initial Photoshop rendering.


Based on my personal experience, my recommendation would be to leave it to your favorite professional for the best results. You can save time at the shop by designing some on your own, then take your ideas to the graphics designer. You'll find that the professionals have robust graphics software and more choices in vinyl colors than you can imagine.

The newest thing on the graphics front is "boat wraps." Just like some of the cars and trucks you see on the road, you can come up with a multi-colored digital graphic and have fully applied to the gelcoat or painted surface of the boat. As you can imagine, the possibilities and budget are endless.

Disclaimer: The above is informational only and does not represent an advertisement or endorsement of products or services offered by third parties.



Eric Grubb
Founder, Port KY
Licensed Master

Eric grew up around boats, trading summers on board his parents' Sea Rays for many man-hours of swabbing the decks. He grew up by the little town of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, overlooking the the Dashields Locks and Dam. He has traveled the Great Lakes, Lake Huron's North Channel, Gulf of Mexico and several rivers to include the Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela, Kanawha, Mohawk (Erie Canal), Tennessee, Tombigbee, Black Warrior and Mobile Rivers.

As a commercial pilot, Eric flies jets and is a flight instructor. He has owned recreational boats ranging from PWCs to most recently, a flybridge convertible that he keeps in a Louisville marina (MM 590). You can also find him with his family on the "Escape Pod," an 18' fishing boat. His most memorable journey was aboard the J. S. Lewis, a 155' towboat in service since 1931.

Eric is a USCG Licensed Master with a Commerical Tow Assistance rating, and is a member of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Riverman and the Louisville Sail and Power Squadron. After moving to Louisville, he conceived the idea for Louisville's Port KY website while searching for information to help him become a safer and more knowledgable local boater. He has worked hard over the years to educate other boaters by promoting safety classes through Port KY and by hosting captain's classes and related events.




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