Vinyl wrapping is the process of attaching a vinyl film (essentially a giant ‘sticker’) to a boat over the existing paintwork or gel coat. This approach is commonly used with cars, but there is an increasing demand for vinyl wrapping in the boating world as well.
Whilst certainly not for everyone there are some really great reasons to choose a vinyl wrap as the finish to your boat.
If you’ve got a penchant for elaborate graphic designs or you use your boat for commercial purposes, a wrap is the fastest and easiest way to decorate your boat with logos and graphics, so this would definitely be my recommended approach for elaborate, detailed designs.
On the other hand if you’re restoring a historic barge or vintage wooden hulled sailing yacht, a vinyl wrap probably won’t work on a functional or aesthetic level.
How Does a Vinyl Wrap Work?
Quite simply vinyl wrapping involves using a large sheet or sheets of vinyl film, cut to the exact size and shape specifications of your boat, and gluing it onto the hull. The process is much the same as is carried out on cars, the only major difference being that the grade of the vinyl and adhesive used tends to differ slightly to cope with the demands of a marine or freshwater environment.
When we talk about ‘vinyl’ what we’re usually referring to is a plastic called PVC or poly vinyl chloride, this is the most common plastic used to make vinyl films, although LDPE (low density polyethylene) and LDPP (low density polypropylene) are also used.
In the boating world there are many vinyl films available, one of the most widely used is 3M Wrap Film Series 1080 – A hugely popular product in the automotive industry that is also suitable for boats. This product is available in a massive range of colours and metallic finishes
One important thing to remember is that although wrapping is a far quicker, cheaper and easier process than painting, it is nonetheless still a job best suited to a professional. Trust me the frustration of having to try and iron out creases and air bubbles isn’t worth it!
When it comes to vinyl with graphics printed onto it the job gets even harder because you have alignment issues to contend with, so I would advocate even more strongly for professional intervention. The good news is this isn’t usually hard to come by, with sign writing/graphic design companies typically being well versed in vehicle wrapping these days, although you’ll certainly want to check they have experience of working on boats in particular
What Are The Advantages of Boat Wraps?
By far the greatest thing about a wrap compared to gel coat is the ease of maintenance. There is no careful washing, sanding and waxing to worry about; indeed washing with clean water alone is about the only thing you’ll ever need to do to keep your wrap ship shape.
The other thing of course is the detail you can get from having what is effectively a giant sticker on your boat: the design possibilities are endless, and whether you choose an off the shelf design or something customized to your own specifications, you’ll be able to get much cooler looking results than you ever could with a brush and pot of paint.
From an environmental and safety perspective wrapping a boat is arguably better because there are no toxic paint fumes to worry about during application, but on the flip side producing PVC is considered to be an extremely environmentally unfriendly process with a lot of nasty byproducts produced. However, vinyl wrap can be recycled and reused, so as long as you are diligent about recycling it properly once your wrap reaches the end of its useful life, your conscious can be clearer than the owner who paints their boat with non-recyclable paint every few years.
How Long Does A Boat Wrap Last / What Are The Disadvantages of Boat Wraps?
Wrapping your boat can be a great way to rejuvenate the look of the boat without having to go to the trouble of painting or touching up the gel coat. The downside is that it isn’t permanent, and indeed if you’re unlucky (or careless) enough to snag the hull on anything then you stand the risk of tearing the vinyl and ruining the wrap altogether.
That being said, for a wrap that stays intact you can expect it to last about 5 to 7 years before it begins to disintegrate or peel, which isn’t bad going for a ‘temporary’ finish as opposed to something widely considered to be permanent such a gel coat which might only last 10 years.
If you want to try and extend the life of a wrap further than 5 years then you can get good results from boat polishes that are tolerant of vinyl, such as Poli-Glow. This is a water based polymer that doesn’t require any buffing or polishing once it has been applied, and offers an extra layer of protection against accidental knocks, so it’s well worth it if you’re liable to strike a pontoon from time to time!
Besides the fragility of the vinyl material, the only other potential concern is deterioration from sunlight. Whilst sunlight will ultimately always be a contributing factor that determines the lifespan of vinyl wrap, if you can avoid exposure to it as much as you can when the boat isn’t in use then you’ll be able to eek out more life from it before having to get it wrapped again.
Bare in mind also that flat colours tend to have more life in them than metallic finishes which will deteriorate far more quickly.
Cost to Wrap a Boat
As you might expect there are quite a few variables that determine the cost of a wrap, from the quality of the vinyl used, to whether to choose an off the shelf design or something to your own design.
The cost also increases depending on the coverage, as you might expect a single ‘go faster stripe’ down the side of your hull is going to be significantly cheaper than a full wrap.
As I say costs vary greatly, but you’re looking a $1000 minimum for full hull coverage of a single colour on something like a 20 foot cruiser, and anything up to $5000 for a 40 or 50 foot yacht.
Bear in mind that a polyurethane paint job can easily cost twice what you would pay for a wrap, so there is a big saving to be made by opting for vinyl over paint.
Installation Considerations of Vinyl Wrap
So even with the toughest vinyl known to man and 6 coats of Poli-Glow on top, the risk of damaging your boat wrap is difficult to avoid, particularly when it comes to loading and unloading it from a trailer when contact with rollers or pads is inevitable.
To mitigate some of this risk it is worth installing a keel guard once the wrap has been applied. If you’re not familiar with a keel guard it’s essentially just a tough but flexible plastic strip about 6 or 7 inches in width that conforms to the V of the hull, thus protecting the most vulnerable part of the hull from damage when in transit.
Removing Old Vinyl – Does it Damage Gel Coat?
A legitimate concern you may have regarding vinyl wrapping is whether it will do any damage to an already fragile gel coat. After all, just because you are choosing to wrap it for now, doesn’t mean you won’t wish to go back and do rework on the paint or gelcoat surface below.
The good news is that there is no inherent risk of damage to the underlying surface as long as removing it is done correctly, and even then the only real problem you’ll be faced with is adhesive residue or small and fiddly bits of vinyl left behind if the vinyl isn’t removed properly.
Whilst I would advise getting a wrap removed by a professional just as I would suggest having them fit it. For argument’s sake however, let’s assume you did want to remove it yourself, the most important things to remember are:
- Vinyl that is warm will be softer and peel away more easily. Heat the vinyl to 120°F (50°C) either with the careful use of a heat gun, or better still with the heat of the sun
- Carefully peel the vinyl away from the hull using both hands spaced apart so as to remove as much at a time as possible. Peel at a shallow angle to prevent the vinyl from accidentally tearing
- Should any adhesive be left behind firstly clean the area with soapy water to avoid any scratches developing as you try to remove the glue, then heat the glue using the same method you used to remove the vinyl, however take extra care with a heat gun or else you may accidentally bake or melt the gel coat or paintwork.
- Finally gently remove the softened glue with the aid of a piece of card or plastic. If the glue proves to be really stubborn then you can resort to acetone (most commonly found as the main constituent of nail polish remover) taking all necessary personal protection and ventilation precautions whilst doing so.
Alternatives to Boat Wrapping
It’s fair to say that a lot of people go down the vinyl wrapping route because of the poor state of their gel coat, and the desire to rectify the problem easily and cost effectively. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this of course, however it might pay to preempt the damage to the gel coat in the first place so that even if you do choose to wrap the boat someday, it won’t have to be for a while.
The simplest solution to this? A decent boat cover that protects the gel coat against UV damage and the inevitable ‘yellowing’ that comes with it is the way to go, especially if you don’t use your boat all that often.
Indeed even with your boat wrapped it will pay to keep a cover over it for the same reasons.