Four Solvents for Nearly Every Boat Job

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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

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

Four Solvents for Nearly Every Boat Job
The solvents we tested during our 2019 report on solvents (see PS November 2019, Making Sense of Solvents) were kept stored in an enclosed metal cabinet.

We recently revisited the topic of solvents in search for substitutes to brand name solvents that manufacturers insist to be used with their coatings. As a result of that test, we wound up with more solvents than we’d normally have on hand and a storage problem. A familiar problem, no doubt.

The typical sailor’s 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.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on marine products for serious sailors for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising or any form of compensation from manufacturers whose products we test. Testing is carried out by a team of experts from a wide range of fields including marine electronics, marine safety, marine surveying, sailboat rigging, sailmaking, engineering, ocean sailing, sailboat racing, and sailboat construction and design. This diversity of expertise allows us to carry out in-depth, objective evaluation of virtually every product available to serious sailors. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser with more than three decades of experience as a marine writer, photographer, boat captain, and product tester. 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.

22 COMMENTS

  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.

  7. What about a solvent to clean winches. I recently rebuilt mine and found a Painters Solvent at Home Depot that worked reasonably well – much less messy/smelly than Diesel which had been recommended.

  8. A nit-witted kid I paid to clean my boat left a lot of masking tape stuck to the fiberglass coachtop to bake in the sun before I realized it was there. I’ve tried several recommended solvents from Fisheries Supply in conjunction with a variety of scrapers, but nothing really works. What I really don’t want to do is mar the surface. Any suggestions?

    • Allan,
      I removed 30 year old adhesive (boat name) with Goo Gone, a plastic razor blade, and a heat gun.
      John

  9. I know this great article was about solvents, but a favorite general“cleaner” is Clorox spray cleaner for spider, bug, smug removal.

  10. Darrell, so your article starts out naming for solvents that we certainly must have on board. Then there is a title “foundational four”. Then there is a photo with caption which includes these four: butyl cellosolve, paint thinner, xylene, and isooctane. None of these are the four you mentioned except that mineral spirits and paint thinner can sometimes be synonymous. What was the point of the caption under the photograph?

  11. This article is very helpful. One question though. Can I use Xlene to remove the adhesive after I removed non skid pads in the cockpit of my boat?

  12. Daryl,
    In my boat, and workshop it has always been Alcohol, Acetone, Naptha (or odorless Paint Thinner) and Lacquer Thinner. I keep a 1/2 gal container with a good screw top for discarding old solutions, and have often allowed them to settle and filtered the remaining solution with cheese cloth as rough brush cleaner. I saw this done regularly in boatyards back in the 60’s to save for first bath in brush cleaning and honestly it works surprisingly well.

  13. Odorless paint thinner is also sold as lighter fluid for charcoal grills.
    There are environmentally friendlier options coming to market.

  14. Vinegar is great unless you own an aluminum boat. Then it needs the be kept far away. A great substitute, is denatured alcohol. Though it is flammable it doesn’t create the deadly dues of most petroleum products and won’t go threw your skin and do long term damage.

  15. Just beware: There is a HUGE difference between some “Odorless Mineral Spirits” and what we USED to be able to get “Mineral Spirits”. We learned this the very, very hard way. The odorless product, when used to wipe down wood before varnish, will cloud your varnish. From what I understand, it has alcohol in it now, which of course, absorbs water from the air. In particular, avoid the “Green” version of the products. Again my understanding: The best alternative to what we used to use as mineral spirits, is now “Paint Thinner”. Ugh.

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