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Easy Removal of Old Boat Lettering and Graphics

By William Agreste

I am often asked, "What is the best way to remove old boat lettering and boat graphics?" Perhaps you wish to change the name of the watercraft, or perhaps you just want to upgrade your lettering to a new style with matching boat lettering graphic accents and accessories.

Or perhaps you just want to sell your boat and you wish to save your boat name for a future boat purchase. No matter what the reason, the result is the same, be prepared to scrape that decal and lettering off your boat and come equipped with plenty of elbow grease! Unless of course, you wish to use a little more removal technique and a little less elbow grease. First determine what kind of surface you are working with. Removal from a painted hull is dramatically different than removal from a fiberglass gel coated craft. In either case, you can use a scraping and soapy watery method on any surface. There are several methods to choose from but scraping and soapy water is usually safe for most surfaces and it gives you a chance to stop if you discover you are damaging your boat topcoat. You will need a scratch free plastic scraper (really good ones are very rare) and a solution of 1 cup of water and 5-10 drops of Palmolive dish washing liquid. The dish washing liquid serves two purposes.

First it's a lubricant to help insure you don't damage the top surface with thousands of scrape marks caused by any two dry objects being rubbed against each other. Secondly, it prevents the adhesive from re-bonding to the boat once you are able to lift it. A plastic - scratch free - scraper will likely come from your local professional paint retailer. Speak to them about your project and an appropriate scraper. . You might receive an offer for hardened plastic razor blades... -don't waste your time on these. They do not work well. A good quality suitable scraper will have a very hard sharp edge on it, almost fine enough to cut with. Anything that's blunt edged or unlike a knife edge is a waste of your time.

The very best scraper I have found is a device called the "Lil Chizzler". Call your local paint stores and you might find it in stock. These are fairly cheap; around $1.00 each and you will likely need several to complete the job. There are copies of this scraper around but they are not marked "Lil Chizzler" if you find a generic brand of this scraper it is best to avoid it. All of the generics I have tried fail to last for more than a few minutes. Be sure of what you are looking for.

Technique 1 Scraping: Spray the decal with your mixture of soapy water. Hold the scraper as close to flat against the boat surface as possible and start slicing across the butt edge of the decal where it meets the boat. Imagine trying to slice roast beef so think you can see through it. This is how you should approach the edge of the decal as you try to lift it off. With a little luck, you might find the decal lifting in such a way you can actually strip it off the boat by hand. If it breaks as you pull it up, then keep trying. The worst case scenario is that you'll have to remove the whole decal by repeating the slicing action over and over and pulling off small sections with each lift. Just be sure to keep the work area well saturated with the soapy water solution to aid in removal and to help protect the boat surface. In some stubborn cases, application of moderate heat, hot but not to the point of burning skin, will soften the decal and cause a reduction of adhesive bond. Heat can help persuade off a stubborn decal.

Once you have removed the decal, you will need a solvent to remove the trace adhesive. There are many solvents that work fine, but you should pick your solvent under the advice of your local paint store expert. You need a solvent that dissolves adhesive but does not affect whatever the finish coat is on your boat. Some fiberglass boats can withstand even strong paint removers which allow you to simply wipe on and hose off the decal, but this must be verified before you use any dissolving method chemicals. There is an old story about gasoline being an excellent adhesive remover. Fact is, gasoline will remove most adhesives but it does so at a great risk for your personal safety. Gasoline can poison you or worse yet; explode right in your face causing death or severe burns or both. Don't use gasoline. I know it's tempting but it is just way too dangerous to use as a solvent.

Once I have the decal and adhesive removed, I usually like to hit the whole surface with a nice buffing compound which helps blend the oxidized exposed area to what could be new looking hidden areas under the former decal. You will likely see an imprint where the decal was removed but fortunately this will become less noticeable over time. Use of a non scratching scraper is important. There may be other non scratch scrapers available but I've only had good results with the Lil Chizzler.

You can see a photo of the Lil Chizzler here: http://www.streetglo.net/decal.installation.removal.kit.html (the almond colored sample is the LIl Chizzler).

William Agreste is president of StreetGlo reflective decals and graphics, a division of Cobra International, Inc., Norfolk, Virginia USA

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