Painting your narrowboat is an art form and there a few important things you need to know before taking it on yourself.

We speak to specialist narrowboat painter John Barnard to get his top tips on everything from essential tools to common mistakes to avoid.


Before they even start painting their narrowboat, what are some of the essential factors a narrowboater should consider?

The first and most crucial thing you need to do is decide where you’re going to paint your boat.

Painting outside entails various problems, such as paint drying too quickly because of the wind – the more air movement there is, the faster your paint will dry. So, if you’re in an area that is susceptible to breeze, you should avoid painting your narrowboat there at all costs. You should find a location where you can paint to the best of your abilities.

If you wanted to strip your whole boat down for a complete back metal revamp and decided to do this outdoors, it wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be very difficult. It would involve a lot of time and money – you’re looking at £1,500 of paint alone for an average narrowboat. So, if six months later the paintwork goes bad due to too much moisture and humidity, you’ve wasted your time.

You need to be undercover if you’re going to complete your repaint to a high standard. If you can’t find somewhere indoors, you need to allocate enough time for your project. Painting your narrowboat isn’t like painting your house – you can’t just work on weekends and evenings. There are times when you need to paint continuously so that you don’t have to rub down between coats.

You also need to understand your products. You might get advice from other narrowboaters which is well-intended but inaccurate as painting products are changing all the time. For example, certain additives which used to be in paint have now been removed and paint recipes have changed.

Therefore, you need to understand how they work. Just because narrowboaters have done things a certain way for a long time, it doesn’t mean this approach still works.


What should narrowboaters do with their fixtures and fittings before painting their boat?

The first step is to take everything out. At John Barnard Ltd, we take off every fixture and fitting that we can as a matter of course. Windows, mushrooms – everything.

It’s much easier to paint a boat this way and it’s also safer because you don’t know what’s going on behind your fixtures and fittings until you remove them. You might discover rust six months after painting your narrowboat and feel very disappointed.

My other piece of advice is to label absolutely everything. Your labels need to be detailed, too – for example, you shouldn’t just have a label that says ‘door hinge’ or ‘door catch’. You need to know which door it came off, whether it was port side or starboard side and what orientation it was. If the painting process takes five or six weeks, you’re not going to remember how your doors were fitted.

Photograph everything as well. If you’re disconnecting cables, take a picture so you know how everything is configured and can put them back in the right place once your project is complete.


What should narrowboaters do if they notice rust on their boat before painting?

Rust is always an issue you need to deal with urgently. There are many ways to remove rust – you can use wire brushes, wire wheels and angle grinders. These tools will help you return your narrowboat to a shiny steel state.

There are a lot of rust converters on the market and I would recommend narrowboat owners purchase one if they haven’t already. So, if you’re in any doubt as to whether you’ve removed rust from your narrowboat through your actions, then applying a rust converter will do the job.

But, as with everything, it’s down to you to read the instructions and apply the products in line with the manufacturer’s guidelines. If you don’t, you might find that the product you use hasn’t achieved what you hoped, and the rust may return.

Once you’ve dealt with the rust, you need to protect the entire steel surface of your narrowboat, not just the areas affected by rust. So, applying primers and undercoats is essential. Without those paints, rust will come back.

If anyone is unsure of what to do, I run a painting school which instructs people on the products they should use and how to apply them.

If they’re carrying out a full repaint, what steps should narrowboaters take?

If you’re going to put the time and effort into carrying out a full repaint, you need to strip all of the paint off so that your boat is back to steel.

You always run the risk of overpainting the previous painted surface when you don’t know what’s underneath that surface. You’re trusting that the previous painter or manufacturer did a good job. For this reason, I would never rely on someone else’s work and remove all doubt.

If you decide to paint over existing paintwork, then your boat needs a very thorough wash. You need to remove as many previous polishes as you can because if you don’t you’ll encounter a lot of adhesion problems further down the line.  

The cleanliness of your boat’s surface is paramount before you even consider doing anything with your paintwork. Before you apply your first coat of paint, you need to go over the entire narrowboat with a degreaser. If there’s anywhere you suspect may contain a silicone sealant, then you need a silicone remover.

If you consider your windows or any other fixture or fitting – they’ve usually got some sort of sealant, and nine times out of 10 this will be silicone. If it is and you don’t get rid of it, the paint won’t adhere and you’ll end up with “fish eyes” whereby spots or bubbles appear in your paintwork. So, cleanliness is essential in order to avoid this.


What protective measures should narrowboaters follow when painting their boat?

If you’re using mechanical equipment such as a needle-gun, then you need eye protection which is designed to use alongside power tools. When you’re using a needle-gun on a narrowboat, paint chippings could be flying off in all directions. If you’re not wearing proper eye protection, you could be in serious trouble.

As for your hands, a pair of gardening gloves don’t cut it. Make sure that you’ve got proper protection and that they’re adequate for their intended use. Doing your homework is vital.

You also need to have a fundamental understanding of the area in which you’re working and consider the people around you. Just because you’re wearing adequate eye protection, it doesn’t mean that somebody coming over to see how you’re getting on is also wearing protection. You don’t want the people around you to be endangered by your actions.

Ideally, you should lock yourself away so that you aren’t putting other people in danger. But, if people are going to enter the area you’re working in, good signage is vital if you want them to avoid serious injury.


What are some of the common mistakes narrowboaters make when painting their boat and how can they avoid these mistakes?

As we’ve covered, not using the correct safety equipment is one of the top mistakes narrowboaters make when painting their boat.

Another big mistake – which I notice quite often – is going into a project with insufficient knowledge. For example, someone might think of it along the lines of ‘Well, I’ve painted the front room numerous times, so this time won’t be any different.’ It will be different, because the products have changed, and you might need to use products and machinery which is alien to you.

If painting a boat is not your normal line of work and you haven’t got much knowledge of the products you’re using, you’re putting yourself at risk. That’s why there are thousands of DIY accidents in narrowboats.

I would recommend seeking professional advice and help if you’re not sure what you’re doing, otherwise you don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for. It doesn’t need to be a case of ‘do it yourself’ – our philosophy is very much ‘do it together’.


In terms of personal preferences, are there any brands of paints or brushes that you recommend?

Quality is most important – as far as paints are concerned, you want to go for internationally recognised brands which produce high-quality products. One brand I recommend is Craftmaster Paints. The more reputable the brand, the better. Stick to what you know and don’t cut corners, because you’ll end up disappointed.

In terms of brushes, I use Purdy brushes almost exclusively. I find them easy to use and that makes a big difference when you’re trying to complete a project on time. You might end up forking out around £20 for a good paintbrush, but better that than pulling bristles out of your paintwork and not getting the finish you were hoping for.


John Barnard Ltd offers a comprehensive range of narrowboat painting services, including training courses for beginners. You can find out more and get in touch with John here