How to Restore a Boat Without Losing Your Mind

How to Restore a Boat Without Losing Your Mind

If you're reading this, you probably have a boat. If you have a boat, you realize they're a labor of love (or love/hate, whatever the case may be). The sheer love of being on the water outweighs the hard work needed to keep a boat in good shape. 

This is what separates us boat owners from occasional sea goers crushing beers on a party boat. We don't mind spending hours fiddling with the engine, finding the source of a water leak, perfecting dock lines or rearranging tight storage. 

When you choose to restore a boat, however, it's all this and more. Many grueling hours are spent working on the boat before you even get the joy to experience it on the water!

Here are my best tips for restoring a boat the right way, without losing your mind.

How to Restore a Boat Without Losing Your Mind

Step 1: Set up a Proper Workspace

When my partner and I decided to buy our own sailboat, we had no idea how to take care of it. A spur-of-the-moment Craigslist deal was too good to pass up. It was a beautiful 1970s Hunter 27.

The owner got an amazing job overseas and had to sell his beloved winter storage, pre-paid and all, in a flash. And it was just cheap enough to require our TLC and personal touches. His loss was our gain!

What we didn't consider at the time was that we were buying a boat stored in an outdoor boatyard an hour's drive away (resulting in two hours driving time every time we wanted to work on it).

This hindered our ability to do as much work as possible before snowfall (and we live in Maine, so it wasn't long before we had to tarp it up, winterize and call it quits for the season).

When the snow melted, we still weren't left with a great workspace. Being in an outdoor storage yard far from home meant limited access to outlets, delayed painting work (due to rain or humidity), no friends nearby who could pop in and lend a hand and many curse-filled trips back to the boat for forgotten wallets and cell phones.

Lacking a private proper workspace also meant we were limited to working certain hours of the day and couldn't leave our belongings unattended. Every time we went back to the boat, we had to haul everything down from the cabin and set it up again. Not ideal!

We learned a lot that first spring about what not to do the next time we're doing significant work to the boat. If you're looking to restore a boat yourself, here are some key elements for setting up a proper workspace and the tools you'll need:

Space Requirements

  • Look for an affordable workspace close to home so you can spend those spare hours getting work done.
  • Coverage is paramount. If possible, store the boat under cover so you can work under any conditions. My dream setup is to have a big tunnel garage in the yard someday when I quit renting and have a place of my own. Access to the boat would never be easier!
  • Have good access to a power source from each end of the boat. Hello, power tools!
  • Of course, you'll want good access to the water.
  • Make sure you have enough lighting to work into the later hours of the day.

Must-Have Tools

  • Ladders (check price on Amazon) - The more you have, the more hands you can get on deck and the more time you can save. Be sure they're light, tall and sturdy. And get two, at least!
  • Flexible Self-Coiling Hose - It's so much easier to coil up and carry around the boat than a traditional hose. When your boat's ready to hit the water, it also folds up neatly for you to take to the marina.
  • Safety Gear - Stock up on respirators, throw-away gloves, and ANSI impact-rated safety goggles - Protect your health when working with dust and chemical-based cleaners and paints. I can't count the number of times we had to stop what we were doing and run off to the store to buy replacement gloves or paintbrushes. Save yourself the trouble and stockpile these essentials before starting the restoration.

Step 2:Inspect the Boat and Make a Master List of Fixes

Inspect the boat and make a master list of everything that needs to be fixed. When I say everything, I mean everything. But first...

Talk To the Boat's Seller

Beyond assessing the boat yourself, take time to discuss issues and general history with the boat's owner. Do this before closing the sale to get valuable details. It'll help you shape an idea of how much work you need to put into the boat. Here are some basic questions:
  • How did the previous owners treat the boat?
  • Where and how has the boat been stored?
  • Has there been previous accidents or damage?
  • What about previous repairs?
  • How often is it used?
  • What type of maintenance has been done? Regularly and throughout ownership?

Restoring a boat is a huge undertaking, so make sure you know what you're getting into. For example, our sailboat's teak was in dismal shape. It was poorly taken care of and generally not cosmetically put together.

When speaking to the owner about maintenance, though, we learned he was an engineer by trade. The engine had all the love and was running incredibly well. Score!

At this juncture, it's important to know your limits and budget. If the hull needs serious repairs, that's a huge project that'll consume most of your time.

If the engine needs significant work, or replacement, it can end up costing more than the boat.

When you immediately see repairs you don't have the skills, time or money for, perhaps it's a boat to walk away from.

Here are some common major repair issues:

  • Rot and mildew (something to look out for in older wooden boats)
  • Engine (Pro tip: buy used boats from an engineer or mechanic and you're much more likely to have a well-taken care of engine)
  • Electrical systems
  • Soft spots in the fiberglass
  • Saturated foam core

Inspect the Entire Boat

After gathering the previous owner's knowledge of the boat's condition, take the time to scan through the whole boat, section by section, and inspect it.

What needs to be addressed immediately? What must be done within the next year?

What are some details that would really make this your dream boat? Write them all down, regardless of urgency, into one big master list.

Get a Second Opinion

If you aren't confident in surveying necessary repairs in any area of the boat, especially electrical and engine, don't be afraid to get a second opinion.

A boat's condition is your #1 consideration. Your life's on the line after all, so take it seriously.

Talk to other boaters in your area, especially at boat supply stores like Hamilton Marine and West Marine, and describe the area of concern. You'll get a lot of great leads on supplies and techniques needed to solve your problem. It's also an effective way to get connected to local surveyors who will inspect areas of concern for you.

You might have to dish out more cash than you'd like to (being a DIYer and all), but it's worth it in the long run to prevent any damage from worsening over time and causing more costly or dangerous problems.

Between the previous owner's records, your inspection and some professional surveying, your master list for how to restore a boat will be put together and you can get to work. 

Featured Boat Care Product


  Interior Cleaning Kit

Check Price on Amazon - Better Boat's interior cleaning kit has everything you need to keep your boat clean and shiny. The kit comes with vinyl cleaner, vinyl protectant, boat cleaning wipes and two microfiber towels.

Step 3: Organize the Master List by Prioritizing Tasks

This is a short task compared to the rest, but I'm dedicating an entire step to this for good reason to get you on the water faster and prevent you from becoming a crazy workaholic who's endlessly restoring your boat.

Look at the master to-do list and ask yourself these questions:

  • What work needs to be done to make this boat run safely?
  • What work needs to be done to make this boat float?
  • What's structural, cosmetic but vital, or just plain aesthetic?
  • What's nice to have done but not necessary?
  • Does work require specific temperatures or conditions in order to be done properly?

These critical questions will prioritize the tasks and work ahead of you. Start organizing your to-do list from most urgent to least urgent.

Focusing on safety above anything, push those dreamy projects like carpet replacement and cushion reupholstery towards the bottom of the list.

If you plan on living on the boat, however, your list might be prioritized differently. For example, a project like refinishing interior woodwork disrupting your living and storage space would be an absolute nightmare as a liveaboard.

If you're only cruising, spending a week on this project isn't such a big deal. Just something to keep in mind!

Step 4: Use Priorities to Set a Work Calendar

With tasks prioritized all neat and tidy, set some realistic dates to motivate you through the challenging boat restoration process.

Say it's October and you want to set a goal to have the boat in the water by June. Sounds nice for summer, right? In this case, schedule the must-be-done work out so it's completed by June and save the aesthetic work for the Fall.

Having clear goals makes big projects like restoring a boat feel less overwhelming and more accomplishable. It'll also allow time to live your life, so you avoid resenting your boat as a project.

This summer, I mistakenly believed I'd reupholster all of the cockpit cushions over my July break. But after about three hours locked in an air-conditioned room, I decided I'd rather be out sailing.

That's the reality of it sometimes. I had gotten to the point where the boat was a chore and not love, and that's a terrible feeling.

Know your limits so your boat can stay your love, not your project. When restoring a boat, it's important to keep in mind why you got it in the first place. And that's to enjoy time on the water!

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize so you can get out there and avoid becoming a crazy person lost in a five-year project who never sees the light of day. 

Step 5: Get to work!

Once your priorities are in line, it's time to get to work and restore that boat! The sooner you start dishing out the blood, sweat and tears to your precious vessel, the sooner she'll be on the water.

Remember to focus on completing necessary structural and safety work on the boat first. Cosmetic tasks like refinishing and polishing teak rails, installing a nice gimbal marine stove, and reupholstering cushions can take a back seat.

If it can be done while the boat's in the water, save it for later (have the kids help you clean the seats and upholstery while you're out on the water). There will be plenty of rainy (or for sailors, windless) days where you can hunker down in your cabin and work.

Just remember to get out on those sunny days and starting enjoying your boat as soon as possible!