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Restoring Old Boats:
Fundamentals of
Restoration Projects

Part I   Part II

During my three decades as a marine surveyor, I've always been amazed about two aspects of restoring old boats what, in the marine trade, is known as a refit.

First is that the people who can best afford to do them, usually don't. Followed by those who can't afford such projects are usually the ones that attempt them. Such projects usually go wrong because the owner failed to appreciate the costs, and to estimate them in advance. There are no good deals on fixer uppers with boats. There is just expensive and more expensive. Money is the name of the game, and if you haven't got it, then it's a mistake to think that you can do a refit on the cheap.

Even so, the fact is that taking a good, well built, but aging and clapped out older boat and restoring it can be the most cost effective way to get yourself into a good quality boat that you would not otherwise be able to afford. It is possible for the economics of such a venture to work out because a lot of the investment is going to be good ole "sweat equity."

In fact, if you watch any of the many home improvement shows on cable TV, you'll see this very same thing done all the time. It requires a homeowner with at least a reasonable degree of manual skills, along with the time and commitment to get the job done. And most importantly, if you tune in to some of these programs, you'll hear architects and contractors giving some real straight talk about good intentions versus the actual ability of the homeowner to complete the jobs he intends to accomplish. Indeed, most of the same principles you hear discussed on these shows apply directly to old boat restoration or refits.

Primary Ingredients

Here are the primary ingredients of old boat restoration or refits:

  • The boat you start with must be basically sound, and not require extensive rebuilding of  structural elements.

  • Stylistically, the boat remains highly desirable on the market. It's got that certain "something" that boaters love.

  • Close consideration must be given to refit cost versus resale value.

  • A complete cost estimate should be made prior to acquisition.

  • You have the money available to complete the job.

  • You have sufficient time and ability to provide about 25% of the cost in sweat equity.

  • You permanently banish from your mind all thoughts of buying cheap materials and components.

  • You automatically understand that every job takes 4 times longer than you thought it would.

  • It never crosses your mind that any little job will ever be easy.

  • Patience and persistence are your strong points.

  • It never occurs to you that the lowest priced contractor will do a good job. Rest assured, he won't.

If you can meet these requirements, then, and only then, are you (1) likely to complete the project, and (2), end up in a financially sound position with a boat that can sell for significantly more than you paid for it.

Not all boats make for good projects. In fact, most don't. The ones that do are those that have enjoyed an excellent reputation, and are sometimes referred to as classics, or just have that certain "something." we can't name. A well-known example would be a 31 Bertram. Just because a boat is old, and you can get it for next to nothing, doesn't mean that it's a good subject. What makes for a good subject is a boat other people would want to pay good money for when you're finished. Basically, this means the high end boats that most people can't afford when these boats are still high on their depreciation curve.

This is easily determined by researching the resale values of similar boats. For example, if you search for old Bertrams on the boat sale sites, you'll find dozens of them at very respectable asking prices. If you do a similar search for old Carvers or Chris Crafts, the result will not be the same.


If you think you can buy an old boat and fix it up with the leftovers from your weekly paycheck, you are mistaken. Old boat restoration is very costly, and no one who is employed full time has sufficient sweat equity to be able to complete a project in lieu of significant cash transfusions. These usually come in the form of hiring professionals to complete some of the more technical jobs. This is where most people who attempt such projects go wrong. They think they can get the job done for next to no money if only they can work hard enough. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. If you doubt that, just take a tour of the back lots of boat yards and observe all the failed attempts. The best you can expect for you sweat is about 25% - 35% of the total cost. The remainder you will pay to someone else.


If you are capable of producing a reasonable estimate of the cost to complete the job, then you are probably qualified to attempt it. If you're not qualified, but are willing to pay someone who is to make an estimate for you, then you are also likely a suitable candidate for the project. Smart people who lack certain skills are not unwilling to pay people who have what they lack, and thereby save themselves a lot of grief in the end.


Planning is another major ingredient, a major key to success. A typical planning failure is attending to the cosmetic appearance of the boat first, while neglecting the more important systems. Surveyors see this all the time: the outside and interior looks great, but when he opens the hatches he is greeted with thousands of dollars worth of worn out systems that render the effort little more than a pretty wreck that can't be sold.


While you may not need a high degree of technical boat knowledge, there are necessary prerequisites. Some of the better ones are people from the building trades, engineers or other trades involving the creation of things. People who know and understand materials, systems and things mechanical and electrical.


The ability to estimate the amount of time to complete a job is the other major factor in most project failures. If it took 2000 man hours to create a 30 foot boat, ask  yourself how many man hours it will take to restore it. Bear in mind that it  takes more time to undo something and then restore it, than it took to create the thing in the first place. Re-creation always takes longer than creation. It is said that God created the world in seven days. That's probably because He didn't have to clean up anyone's mess first.

The trick to selecting the right boat for such a project is to find one in which the major problems involve more cosmetics than major, costly systems. For example, a boat on which the wiring, plumbing and engines are all shot is not a good candidate because these are amongst the most costly systems to replace. Conversely, the better subject is one for which these systems need more in the way of repair, and less in way of replacement.


The difference in cost between engines that need to be replaced, versus those that can be rebuilt, is around 60% to 70%. A pair of gas engines may be rebuildable for $8,000 but replacement cost is $22,000 including installation, a difference of 67% or $14,000. The best candidates are always going to be those boats with engines that can be rebuilt.


Some people make the mistake of thinking that they can put bigger, heavier engines in a boat that was originally designed for x- amount of power. Before you do this, you need to find out whether the structure can withstand greater speed and heavier engines. Often times it can, and a major structural failure occurs. The time to do this research is Before you buy.


There are few things that can make an old boat look nearly new than to paint the worn out gel coat finish with a urethane paint. But, as we know, urethane painting can be very expensive. Yet much depends on the complexity of the boat involved. Painting a fly bridge sedan costs vastly more than an express or open type boat. It also makes a huge difference in the amount of clutter on the boat, meaning all the things that have to be painted around or removed first. The simpler the boat, the less the cost to repaint it.


Our final and one of the most important factors. The rule is this: the larger the boat, the more systems and complexities it contains, and therefore not only will the absolute cost be higher, but the cost will be proportionately higher than smaller boats. The difference in cost between restoring a 40 footer versus a 30 foot can be on the order of magnitudes. Generally, we would not recommend that anyone but an expert attempt to restore a boat bigger than 35 feet.

A Brief Picture

So what does a reasonable restoration project look like in terms of money? Here's a typical example. A run down 30 foot "classic" FRP boat is purchased for $25,000. The cost to rebuild engines, and hire tradesmen to make necessary repairs and restorations is another $25,000. In addition, the owner invests another $10,000 in sweat equity, for a total investment of $60,000. The new replacement cost of the boat is $125,000; the resale value of this boat upon completion is $40,000, giving him a 2:3 return on investment. This is pretty good since no one makes money on the sale of used boats except brokers. Thus the owner ends up with a boat that is in nearly new condition for a shade over half the price of a new boat. Yet the other part of the payoff is the satisfaction he gets from a job well done, plus all those head-turning glances at his "new old boat."

Needless to say, such projects are not for everyone. But for those that have requisite skills, time, money and determination, such projects can be extremely rewarding. The ultimate trick to being successful is to treat the task like a business proposition.

Part II - Structural Issues
-Electric Systems
-Other Major Systems
-Inboard Boats
-Interiors and Leaks

Originally posted June 20, 2000 at

Additional Reading:
- MARLIN MONROE Bertram 42 Convertible:
Making an Old Boat New

- All About Buying Used and Older Boats:
There are Great Values in Used Boats, But the Cost is More Than Just the Price

David Pascoe Power Boat Books

Buyers' Guide to Outboard Boats Surveying Fiberglass Power Boats (2E)

David Pascoe - Biography

David Pascoe is a second generation marine surveyor in his family who began his surveying career at age 16 as an apprentice in 1965 as the era of wooden boats was drawing to a close.

Certified by the National Association of Marine Surveyors in 1972, he has conducted over 5,000 pre purchase surveys in addition to having conducted hundreds of boating accident investigations, including fires, sinkings, hull failures and machinery failure analysis.

Over forty years of knowledge and experience are brought to bear in following books. David Pascoe is the author of:

In addition to readers in the United States, boaters and boat industry professionals worldwide from nearly 80 countries have purchased David Pascoe's books, since introduction of his first book in 2001.

In 2012, David Pascoe has retired from marine surveying business at age 65.

On November 23rd, 2018, David Pascoe has passed away at age 71.

Biography - Long version

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