Tips on Painting Your Peeling Mast

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Chips and scrapes in a carefully painted mast start out as a cosmetic issue. But as moisture intrudes and corrosion takes over the paint blisters and hard metal becomes powdery aluminum oxide. Left unattended, especially in damp, salty areas, such as in the bilge or underneath mast hardware, this corrosion process can destroy metal and impair the integrity of the spar.

Corrosion is often exacerbated by other alloys that are in direct contact with an aluminum spar. They create a galvanic interaction between the two different metals. The stainless steel hardware in the photo below is a good example of how oxidation and galvanic corrosion conspire to destroy aluminum. Notice the paint blistering around the perimeter. There is no sign of either a dielectric plastic gasket or bedding compound separating the two metals. Dissimilar metal corrosion takes place when one material is significantly more noble (less corrosion-prone) than the other. In this case, the 6061-T6 aluminum spar behaves like a sacrificial zinc you put on your hull, corroding due to its contact with the more noble stainless steel hardware.

Spot Repairs

Spot paint repairs can be done and are always a good idea as long as the remainder of the painted spar is in good condition. Otherwise it may be time to un-step and go through a complete strip, prime and paint process. The best approach is to start with a top down inspection tallying up the bad spots.  Minor coating damage without any deep pitting can be considered cosmetic. But in areas where there’s extensive blistering and deep pitting, structural concerns may be warranted.

There are two common, and distinctly different levels of paint failure. In the first, there are random scrapes and corrosion spots on the spar. These are indicative of minor cosmetic corrosion and are fairly easy to spot repair by following the steps listed below.

The corrosion seen around the perimeter of the stainless steel fitting shown in the adjacent photo is a more serious problem. Before tackling the paint failure, the fitting needs to be removed by drilling out the pop rivet heads. Carefully clean away all aluminum oxide using white vinegar and a stainless steel wire brush. Inspect the underlying aluminum, noting any cracks, deep crevasses or extensive pitting around the pop rivet holes. If there’s any deformation of the spar wall itself, it’s time to have a rigger take a close look. This is especially true if the hardware handles tensile loading from standing or running rigging.

The prep/paint process begins with removing corrosion and returning the area to bright, shiny aluminum. Use the wire brush mentioned above to remove oxidation from pitted regions. Sand with 80 grit paper to achieve a smooth but “toothy” taper from the good paint to the damaged area. Wipe with an alcohol or acetone and a clean cotton cloth. The next step is to etch prime the surface and follow up with a two part epoxy primer or single part primer depending on what type of top coat is being used. Before top coating, sand with 120 and 220 grit paper.

Most painted masts are white and there are so many shades of the color that a perfect match is all but impossible. The best answer is to purchase the exact paint used the last time the spar was painted. If not, an “almost the same” color will look just fine and more importantly, corrosion will be halted dead in its tracks.

Ralph Naranjo is a Practical Sailor contributing editor whose specialty is safety and seamanship. During his 10-year stint as the Vanderstar Chair at the U.S. Naval Academy, he augmented safety and seamanship training and played a key role in the development of the Navy’s 40-foot new sail training sloops. His sailing background includes a five-year family voyage around the world and the management of a full service boatyard. He and his wife Lenore have made two other lengthy cruises aboard Wind Shadow, a 41-foot sloop the Naranjos have owned for over three decades. During the past 15 years, he has moderated US Sailing Safety at Sea seminars across the country, and now is an adjunct lecturer at the Annapolis School of Seamanship. His newly developed courses on weather routing, seamanship, and celestial navigation are among the most popular in the school’s lineup. He is the author of Wind Shadow West, an inspiring account of the family’s five-year voyage, and The Art of Seamanship: Evolving Skills, Exploring Oceans, and Handling Wind, Waves, and Weather, a comprehensive textbook aimed at the advanced cruising sailor. For information about his virtual or in person seminars on a range of topics contact the editor at practicalsailor@belvoir.com.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Great article Ralph. I really appreciated the discussion about the remedy. I am curious what approach to bedding and galvanic isolation of fasteners you would take. I’ve had great success with Tef-gel on threaded fasteners. Would you recommend that on rivets? 4200 under the stainless fitting?

    Thanks and hope life is treating you well!

    Dave Nielsen

  2. Last year I took my Coronado 35 to a boat yard for new standing rigging.I did not like the way the mast looked cosmetically and wanted it painted. Boatyard says strip the aluminum mast. I did. Mast was stripped and all new h/w put on. So now i have a bare aluminum mast. Mistake? I need to go back and take abd rigging off again and prep and paint it?

  3. The sideways migration of corrosion can be prevented by the application of a thin coat of chromate primer or treatment with Alodyne prior to applying other non-chromate finishes. In addition, you don’t want to delay between the final grinding or grit blasting – especially in a salt air environment. For smaller pieces that will fit in a plating tank, hard anodize is the best protection.

  4. I’ve got a black anodized aluminum mast on my Olson 911 that is in need of restoration. The bottom 8′ were painted years ago to address various cosmetic issues, but now the entire mast is really in need of restoration. There are signs of galvanic corrosion at fittings, especially in the painted section. These fitting were caulked when first installed after painting, but the caulking seems to have been an insufficient way to isolate the aluminum from the stainless steel fittings, as the fasteners were large in some instances and tapped into the aluminum, not pop riveted. A rubber or plastic gasket was used in some locations, but the corrosion seems to start at the fasteners, which have direct contact. Perhaps coating the threads prior to final install in addition to a gasket would do the trick? I’m thinking of welding custom aluminum pads at each fitting location to deal with the existing corrosion, prior to painting – does that seem sensible? We would then tap the pad for the fasteners and avoid penetrating the mast section.

  5. Instead of paint, I used two-part Permalac (https://permalac.com/) which is clear and used on applications such as bronze statuary. I also applied it to my bronze tillerhead as an experiment to test its durability, since the tillerhead is frequently exposed to seawater. After four years, the tillerhead is still bright and shiny bronze without any patina.

    The advantage of using a clear coating is: when it gets old, it doesn’t look nasty like deteriorated white paint.

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