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Vinyl wrapping: is it a viable alternative to painting?

There comes a time in the life of a GRP boat when the gelcoat will no longer respond to polishing and you’re faced with the option of accepting a faded, dull, scratched, stained or chalky finish, or doing something about it.

As a boat owner and as a yacht captain, I’ve been on the receiving end of quotes to respray the topsides and superstructure and have winced at the cost on more than one occasion, as well as pondering the time involved and the challenge of booking a slot in the yard’s spray facility that doesn’t eat into the sailing season. At that time i’m usually inclined to think that there must be a better option!

I’ve been aware of the possibility of vinyl wrapping since meeting one of the early adopters back in 2010. Since then i’ve also been involved in several vinyl refinishing projects from a professional standpoint, where an owner has decided that the pros outweigh the cons and have opted for vinyl instead of painting. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons in turn.

Vinyl Pros

Application conditions: whereas every stage of painting requires controlled application conditions, for control of potentially harmful dust, paint mist and vapours, to ensure correct temperature and humidity and to keep dust from settling on wet paint, the application of vinyl just requires a favourable weather window, without rain, without too much breeze and within a wide range of temperatures (12 degrees C and up is OK).

Cost: conservatively, vinyl comes in anywhere between 30% and 50% of the cost of spray painting a boat. Indeed for larger yachts are too big to be placed in a shed, the cost of vinyl refinishing can sometimes cost

Time: a good part of the reason for the lower cost is that vinyl can be so much quicker to apply than paint. There are no overcoating times to wait for and no build up of layers, coat after coat. With vinyl, the speed of the transformation is impressive. I said ‘can be’. The fairness of the surface to which the vinyl is to be applied is a key determining factor. As with painting, the secret to a good finish is in the preparation, and vinyl is no different: a poorly presented surface will need to be filled and faired, just as it would for painting, and this can add to the total time required.

Right first time: there’s a long list of terms for paint defects…..runs, curtains, orange peel, aeration, to name but a few. From my professional experience it is rare to get a perfect paint job with no defects. And the larger or more technically challenging the job, the more likely you are to have paint defects that will need to be rectified. Although the cost should be covered by the warranty, the additional yard time and consequent loss of use is not. By contrast, vinyl should go on right first time, every time. I’ve actually witnessed arguments on the dockside about whether a boat was newly painted or newly wrapped, with ‘experts’ swearing blind that the vinyl they were looking at ‘could only be a paint job’!

Consistency: because vinyl is a uniform film of a carefully controlled thickness, manufactured to deliver a specified level of gloss and colour, you can be certain that the finish should be the same all over the area to which it is applied. By contrast, even the best operator will see variations in paint thickness and gloss levels that will particularly show in strong sunlight, especially with dark colours such as Awlgrip’s Flag Blue.

Vinyl Cons

Poor resistance to rubbing forces: the idea is that the adhesive that bonds the vinyl film to the substrate sets so as to create a bond between the film and the substrate every bit as durable as that between the final topcoat and the layers beneath it. This should make it resistant to shear forces such as exerted by rubbing fenders. From my professional experience, this is not the case, as i’ve seen waves of vinyl gathered up in ridges where a hull has been pressed hard against her fenders during strong onshore winds.

Poor edge strength: ropes and lines inevitably pass over coamings, coach roof edges, transom edges etc. For a well applied paint job this shouldn’t pose a problem, with good resistance to chafing. By contrast, even light chafing by a line has the potential to break through vinyl applied over exposed edges.

Softness: even where crew are disciplined in keeping fender socks clean (and fender socks are an absolute necessity with vinyl) even a tiny piece of wind blown grit or dust can get trapped between fenders and the hull and can quickly perforate the vinyl.

Poor resistance to staining: keeping boats in busy harbours and marinas, especially those in the Mediterranean, inevitably results in a build up of a black oily film along the waterline. Above the waterline in the way of engine and generator exhausts, soot staining is usually an ongoing problem. Despite claims that vinyl is less prone to staining by hydrocarbons than paint, my professional experience is the opposite: not only does vinyl stain just as easily as a paint finish, it can prove far more difficult to remove the staining once it has built up, due to the very limited range of cleaning products that can be safely used on vinyl without running the risk of damaging it.

Hard to keep clean: the manufacturer’s instructions are to clean with a soft cloth and not to use strong detergents or abrasive cleaners of any kind. As outlined above, this makes it very hard to keep the vinyl clean if there are the usual problems of sooty exhausts and oily waterlines from sitting in dirty harbours. An experience vinyl fitter recommended using a very diluted polishing compound, but with the softness of the vinyl, this will inevitably degrade the surface finish of the vinyl.

Hard to apply to awkward shapes: good vinyl technicians will be able to cope with moulding vinyl around some fairly challenging shapes, helped by the ability of vinyl to deform by 10-15% before loosing it’s ability to recover. However complex compound curves and the intersection of different edges can pose a challenge that even the best vinyl technician will be unable to meet. From my professional experience, vinyl looks best when applied to large, consistent, non complex surfaces. Once things get too complex, the only way that vinyl can be made to fit is by cutting, with the end result prone to look like an experiment in origami.

The joins: rather like wallpaper, vinyl comes in rolls of a certain width. As the primary commercial use of vinyl is currently in vehicle wrapping, the largest single surface is usually a car bonnet. As a result, vinyl rolls are usually 120 cms and sometimes 150 cms. So if the drop from your boat’s toe rail to the waterline is large than this, you are going to need to find a way of hiding the joins by careful use of boot stripes and cavetta lines where possible. And if they can’t be hidden, you’ll just have to live with them.

Summing up…

Paint vs vinyl: there’s nothing quite as jaw dropping as a beautifully high gloss paint job……nor anything as hard, or as expensive, to achieve. By contrast, vinyl can facilitate a rapid transformation at a very reasonable cost. It’s drawbacks are a lack of durability and the challenge of keeping it looking good.  If time and money are no object, then i’d recommend painting each and every time. But time and money usually are a consideration, and for that reason, if you accept its limitations and are realistic about getting what you pay for, vinyl is a viable alternative.

Maybe over time we will see the arrival of better, stronger, more durable, higher gloss vinyl films. And over time ever tighter environmental legislation will tend to erode paint’s advantages, as current highly effective (and often highly toxic) formulations have to be reconfigured, whilst the cost of painting inevitably rises due to health and safety measures affecting both preparation and application. So perhaps one day the gap between paint and vinyl will close, reducing or possibly removing the present cost/quality trade off. Time will tell. But as of today, if you want a finish that will last, paint is your best option.

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