Paint takes a real beating on a beachfront home. The keys to a
lasting coastal paint job are careful preparation and top-quality
I've been painting houses on the island of Martha's Vineyard,
Mass., for 25 years. Most of my work is on new "trophy" homes for
the rich and famous. Their owners aren't just wealthy; they're also
extremely demanding. They expect perfection. There's no tolerance
for work that's not done right or that has to be redone in a few
Those expectations present a challenge for any painter, but what
makes my job even more extreme is the fact that nearly all of the
homes I paint are on the ocean. Getting meaningful life from an
exterior paint job — one that will bear the brunt of intense
summer sun and salt spray blown by winter storms — takes
extra consideration here. Over the years, I've learned what
procedures work to get the most out of a coastal paint job.
BUY THE BEST PAINT
Paint, by its very nature, is a somewhat temporary covering:
Eventually, it will need to be redone. The question is how soon.
The minute you apply a coat of paint, the sun's ultraviolet (UV)
rays start to break it down. Next to the water, where few trees
offer shade, UV light is stronger than in wooded areas, and it
breaks paint down much faster. The only real solution is to use the
best-quality paint you can find. Don't buy an economy-, or even a
contractor-grade paint if you expect it to last. Go with the
premium lines (see "Top-of-the-Line Latex," page 46).
I'm a diehard traditionalist, so until recently I wouldn't even
have considered using anything other than an oil-based paint. In
fact, I still use an oil-based primer because it seeps into the
wood better than latex. For topcoats, though, I've become an
acrylic convert. Some paint company reps I've spoken with say that
the formulas used to make oil-based paints haven't changed much
over the years, but my experience is that today's oil-based paints
don't stand the test of time as well as they used to. Twenty years
ago, I could confidently guarantee oil-based topcoats for ten
years. Now, they look faded and mildewed after only three years. By
contrast, acrylic latex paints have gotten better, and I can
usually coat a house with acrylic and not have to worry about
coming back for five years.
USE THE RIGHT WOOD
You can't talk about paint durability without talking about wood
choice. How long a finish lasts has as much to do with what you put
it on as it does with the finish itself. When I started in the
business, most of the homes I worked on were trimmed with pine.
Today, I'm happy to report that almost all of the waterfront homes
I'm painting have cedar trim and siding.
Cedar stands up to the weather and holds paint much better than
pine. It's more dimensionally stable, which means it doesn't expand
and contract as much with changes in humidity. That means caulk
joints are less likely to crack, and the paint itself will last
longer because there's less stress on it.
What pine I do see these days seems to have more knots and other
defects than the clear boards that were used to trim older homes.
It's not unusual, in fact, to see sap marks bleeding through a
recently applied finish on new homes. So if I have to paint over
pine, I start by hitting the knots with pigmented shellac. I
usually have to put on three coats, as the shellac doesn't cover
very well. I seal the knots first with two coats of the stuff, then
prime everything with an oil-based primer. Then I prime the whole
job again with the shellac before moving on to my two acrylic
topcoats. The process is expensive and time consuming, and can
easily offset any savings the owners tried to realize by using pine
rather than cedar trim.
DO EXTRA PREP
Prep work is also key to a quality paint job, especially on the
coast. A lot of painters skimp on prep work, but by doing so they
reduce the life of the paint job, no matter where the house is
located. On coastal homes, the prep work includes a few more steps
than it does inland.
Before recoating, the author washes all trim with a combination
of trisodium phosphate (TSP) and bleach to remove any salt film.
This also removes surface mildew that may have collected on homes
that are a few years old.
Wash down the surface. The most important
of these steps have to do with salt and mildew. Mildew, because it
thrives in high humidity, is a bigger problem near the water than
it is inland. To make matters worse, many of the homes I work on
have irrigated lawns and bushes planted close to the house. In this
environment, even an acrylic with a mildewcide additive will start
mildewing after a couple of years. (I know of at least one
mildew-proof paint, but most of my customers want a refined-looking
finish, and this product looks too much like plastic.)
Salt is constantly attacking seaside homes, too. Fierce winds whip
up ocean whitecaps and send spray through the air and right up
against the house. Once the spray dries, it leaves a thin coat of
salt on the wood. My experience is that any coating applied over
salt won't adhere very well or for very long.
A good wash will take care of both problems. I wash the salt off of
any surface I intend to coat, and I usually figure on coming back
to a home a few years after it's coated to take care of any mildew
that has started to grow. For both purposes, I dissolve powdered
trisodium phosphate, or TSP, in a half-and-half mixture of bleach
and water. (How much TSP I add depends on how dirty the surface is.
I recommend starting with a small amount, then adding more if
I coat as soon after the wash as possible — I prime with an
oil-based primer the next day if it's new wood, and if it's a
second or third coat of acrylic latex, the paint goes on an hour or
so after washing. I also keep a close eye on the weather forecast:
It takes only one good storm to cover the house with a salt film.
If there's a blow between coats, I wash before putting on the
Back coat. I actually do a lot of
painting before the trim ever goes up. The intense sun on the beach
tends to suck any moisture that does get behind the trim right
through the wood, where it will push against the surface coating.
To keep water from getting into the wood in the first place, I not
only back-prime all trim boards, but I put a coat of finish paint
on the back of them as well.
Seal the end grain. Another problem area
is the end grain, which soaks up moisture like a sponge. On older
homes, I see a lot of trim boards rotting near the end grain. To
keep this from happening, I completely seal all end grain on new
trim by applying a coating of West System epoxy, a two-part epoxy
manufactured by Gougeon Brothers (www.westsystem.com; 866-937-8797) and available from
marine supply stores.
Sealing end grain with a marine-grade epoxy prevents the wood
from soaking up water.
Sand between coats. I take time to sand
every surface between coats. A lot of painters skimp on this step,
but it's one of the most important things you can to do in any
location to help a coat of paint adhere to a surface.
All this prep adds time and money to the job, of course, but the
payoff is worth it: My paint jobs last longer. I see many nearly
new homes with peeling, blistering paint. Recoating these homes
requires a lot of scraping, sanding, and stripping. By contrast, I
can come back in a few years and touch up the surface with a light
sanding and a wash. So while my clients pay more the first time,
they save over the long run.
Richard Conover is a painting contractor from West Tisbury,