Four Solvents for Nearly Every Boat Job


As with cleaners (see One Bucket Cleaning Kit, May 2017) its easy to be over-specific with solvents. Pretty soon, we end up with a zillion cans in the paint locker. While we would probably pay extra for the magic vendor-specific blend for a topside paint job, we’d not be so selective for every single small varnish, fiberglass, or similar job that comes up. For these everyday jobs, a few generics can do the trick.

The Foundational Four

Hidden in the back row, from left to right are butyl cellosolve, paint thinner, xylene, and isooctane. We store them in a metal locker.

Mineral Spirits. Good for thinning varnish and enamels, cleaning brushes, wiping up stray polyurethane sealants, and general cleanup.

Xylene. Reduces most topside paints, bottom paint, removes smudges, and is just the thing for removing fender and black heel marks from the topsides and deck.

Acetone. Nothing dries faster, works well with polyester resins.

Vinegar. Don’t use epoxy without it. This is very effective at cleaning up tools and skin. It may take few minutes of soaking to soften the epoxy so it can be cleaned away with scrubbing.

Paint and Solvent Storage

The typical sailors garage would give an inspector from the local fire department plenty to recommend­. An officer from OSHA (Occupational and Safety Hazards Administration) would also have an ample input of admonishing words . Cans are spread around on open shelving, where they can fall off and spill, are vulnerable to sparks, and can turn a small fire into something deadly in minutes. Clean this mess up.

The expensive solution is an explosion-proof cabinet of the sort required in industry. The price tag will make you faint on the spot. However, any sort of enclosed metal cabinet with a door that latches and a floor that contain some spillage addresses many of our concerns.

The cans cannot fall out and spill, they are protected from sparks, and should a small fire start, it will buy you time to either put the fire out or get out of Dodge, without exploding solvent cans adding to the danger.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


  1. Being a an owner of a day sailer, I bought a couple of 6 gallon oil waste cans with a foot pedal. I buy my solvents in pint cans and usually have no more than 4 to six tins on hand.

  2. I really like, and appreciate, short informative articles like this. But one question, what is vinegar used for with epoxy?

  3. Vinegar – This is effective at removing cured or uncured epoxy adhesive when it comes into contact with your skin and you want to avoid harsh chemicals. Put some vinegar on a cloth and, then soak the area with the epoxy. Once it begins to soften, apply abrasion and then wash with soap and water.

    • Thanks for stepping in Erik. Going to fix the text to make this clear. Obviously, we don’t have staff to respond to every comment and question we get, so we appreciate the support from the PS fleet here.

  4. For both safety and as a way to double the life of the product in a partially used can, I suggest that you put them in ziplock bags. Even spray paints. It keeps the volatiles in and the air out. Vegetable bags with a ziplock seal allows you to save on what are expensive purpose-bough bags. too.

  5. I might add brake parts cleaner to the list. Nothing blasts old grease to bits better and evaporates almost as fast as you can spray it.

  6. De-bond is really helpful to debond 3M 5300 marine caulk. It was a life saver as I have to remove/replace some bulk- heads in a fiber glass kayak (head in a hole right by work area). It is citrus based so no VOC.


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