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Restoring Old Boats: Fundamentals of
Restoration Projects

Part I  Part II

In Part I we discussed what makes for a suitable candidate for a major boat restoration project, both in terms of the boat and the person attempting it. In this part, we'll take a look at how to proceed with such a project, and what you need to consider before you buy.

Make a List

When looking at boats for sale, take a notebook along, and when you find what you think is a suitable candidate, you should begin to make a list of what needs to be done before you make the purchase. You'll basically do the same thing if you already own the boat, except in greater detail. Start first with the major and most costly items which, of course, will be the engines and generator if it has one.

Structural Issues

There will be a limit to what you can economically or physically deal with in terms of things like deteriorated deck cores, or deteriorated structural hull components such as stringers and bulkheads. Any boat that you consider that has deterioration of major structures will dramatically add to the cost and amount of labor. You should consider this issue very carefully before tackling such a project.


Next comes the exterior finish. Is the gel coat in good enough condition that it can be machine polished and restored to good condition? Bearing in mind that the exterior finish is one of the most important aspects of resale value. A boat that is bright and shiny is going to attract far more attention to one that is dull and permanently faded. Can the boat be painted for a reasonable cost? This question is best answered by how complicated the surfaces are, and how much hardware there is that has to be either removed or painted around. Flybridge boats, for example, are particularly costly to paint due to all the convoluted surfaces and tight quarters where it it very difficult to both prepare and spray these areas. Express cruisers without superstructures and open boat make the best candidates for reasonable cost paint jobs.

Check around as to whether there are any painting specialists in your area. In places like South Florida, there are dozens of them where competition keeps prices reasonable. Most will want to look at the boat before they quote a price but they may be willing to give a ball-park cost-per-foot guideline.

Trailerable boats make excellent prospects for repainting due to their portability and  small size. Plus you may be able to find brush-on specialists that don't require the added cost of a spray booth. Should you consider brush painting a boat? My answer to that is that brushing is just fine for smaller boats, say in the 30 foot and under range. There are contractors out there who can lay Awlgrip on so well that you'd have a hard time telling that it was brush painted. This is less true for larger boats with larger surface areas.

Electrical Systems

As boats get older and go through one owner after another, the electrical systems tend to get so jury-rigged with substandard wiring and additions that the basic electrical system is no longer reliable. The thing to be on the lookout for is rat's nests of tangled wiring, and wiring with numerous splices in line, and especially boats where the power demand exceeds the original system design. If all three of these problems exist, chances are that the boat needs to be completely rewired. The smaller the boat, the easier and cheaper this is to do. By the time you get up to a 35 foot cruiser, the cost of rewiring may become cost prohibitive. For the typical outboard or small inboard boat with only a DC system, the cost can be up to $100/ft. For a 35' cruiser with DC & AC systems, figure $300/ft. depending on complexity.

Don't make the mistake of thinking you can patch up bastardized electrical systems. As any electrician will tell you, it's easier and cheaper to start fresh than to attempt untangle an existing system that is full of faults. So, size up the electrical system, and if it looks bad, it probably is.

Other Major Systems

For smaller boats this usually means the fuel tank, steering and controls. Foamed aluminum fuel tanks are usually suspect when installed beneath the deck in the bilge. The cost of replacing fuel tanks is not great so long as the deck has a removable deck plate. If the deck has to be cut out, and then rebuilt, the cost is going to be too high, so that you'd best take a pass on that boat.

Also check the fuel lines, filters, and fill hose to the tank and vent hoses and fittings. If these are aged and cracking, then chances are they need replacement.

Other costly considerations include air conditioning and refrigeration. A replacement AC unit cost about $1800; the typical reefer about $700. A bollixed up head and holding tank system could easily run to several thousand dollars to replace.

Inboard Boats

Inboard boats will generally be more complex than outboards. Not only do you have the entire drive train to consider, but also the rudder packing and steering system that may be worn out. Typically, most old boats will have worn out engine mounts, so be sure to check on those. If the engine compartments are a mess, bear in mind that cleaning them up, including painting, is not easy.

Attempting to paint around equipment and systems is a bad idea. A sloppy engine compartment paint job is often worse than not repainting. I see this done very frequently and what it looks like is a quickly attempt to make a boat presentable for sale. It basically doesn't fool anyone. If the boat is going to be rewired, the best thing to do is plan on removing everything, then steam or hand cleaning the whole area prior to painting. There is no point in trying to paint over rust and corrosion as the corrosion  will continue on beneath the paint, wasting your efforts.

13 year old engine restored

For your restoration project to be taken seriously, this is what your engines should look like. This 13 year old engine was removed, cleaned, painted and reinstalled with all new plumbing.

Detailing an engine compartment is best done by completely stripping it. This is no pleasant prospect, as it means removing everything, including the engines, and putting it all back. Is all this worth the effort? Well, it depends on how exacting you are, and what you mean by "restoring" and old boat. Most "restoration" jobs I see address the cosmetic issues everywhere but the engine compartment. The boat looks wonderful until you open the engine hatches ,at which point it becomes a dead give away that all the refitter cared about was how it looked on the outside. Many such projects don't even pass survey because the most important issues were ignored. Like a 20 year old boat where the sea cocks hadn't been removed and checked for two decades. At best, they've done a "spray can overhaul"

Next to wiring, detailing an engine compartment is one of the toughest jobs of all, but I can guarantee that, when done right, there is nothing more impressive, and more bearing on resale value than doing it right. What a detailed engine space says to the buyer is that the seller cares about more than just the outward appearance. A sloppy, paint-over job signals just that and doesn't fool anybody, indicating that the seller is trying to fool you.

My advice is to take this into consideration when buying the boat. The better shape the engine compartment, the easier the job will be. If there are numerous water leaks and everything in the compartment is rusted, corroded and covered with soot and sludge, you've got a hard row to hoe. If you can't deal with the issue of cleaning up a big mess, then perhaps you ought to pass on it and look for something better.

Interiors and Leaks

As with an engine compartment, if an interior is suffering from water leakage damage, the costs are going to go much higher than if there are no leaks and no water damage. If there is no prospect of finding and stopping the leaks, then during the period you own the boat, the leaks will continue to cause damage, rendering your efforts null and void. Pay careful attention to leaks and what it will take to stop them. The most common problems are ports, windows and hatches, along with leaking hull/deck joints.

Form backed vinyl interior

Sometimes jobs aren't as easy as they might seem. This is the problem with the usual foam backed vinyl interior that leaves a terrible, sticky mess that's hard to remove. If you've never tried to repair something like this, you're in for an unpleasant surprise.

Refurbishing interiors may be the easiest job of all. But a lot depends on the existing materials you have to deal with. The array of available new materials and prospects for renovating an interior are nearly endless, especially if you're good with fabrics and wood. Cost-wise, you can get a lot of bang for the buck if you are imaginative design-wise and can do quality work.


Estimating these kinds of project is not easy, even for professionals who have experience and access to pricing. The first thing to do is get your hands on a marine supply catalogue to use for pricing. Something like the West Marine catalogue will help, but you need something that includes more basic materials. My usual procedure is to go to a boat yard and beg for their old distributor catalogues. They often don't want to part with them, but when I'm persistent, I usually manage to get a good one from a big marine supply house. This is immeasurably helpful. Then I'll come back and try to make a deal with them to make purchases for something less than full retail price. I get them to set up an account for me so that I can just walk into the parts department and place an order.

You'll need to make two estimates. The first is before you buy the boat. This is your "ball-park" estimate that you'll use to decide whether the boat is economically viable. If you decide to buy it, you'll use this to then expand the first estimate after you've taken possession, and have the time to go through the boat piece by piece.

Believe me, making a good estimate is one of the most important parts of the whole effort. In it you need to include more than just the major components you'll need. You'll find that the cost of all those little "incidental" items like pipe fittings, sandpaper and fasteners will add up to a large amount. Include generous amounts for these things that you tend to overlook such as caulking, cleaners and electrical components. If you don't already have a supply of the most commonly used things like nuts, bolts. screws, wire clamps, hose clamps and the like you'll need to stock up. Same goes for power tools; what tools will you need that you don't now have?

Part I

Originally posted 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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