how to remove boat decals

How to Remove Boat Decals, Stickers, Lettering (3 Methods)

Hey, brand new boats can be expensive. And if you're walking on the side of practicality, then there's really no shame in buying an old or secondhand boat if you're looking to enter the wonderful world of boating. You can score serious deals on the used boat market, winning yourself a fairly clean boat in good working condition. It's expected though that your pseudo-new boat might have some signs of previous ownership.

While a scrub here and a wipe there might get rid of most stains and discoloration, decals and stickers are a completely different story. Leaving sticky residue and pieces of vinyl in their wake, decals can be tough to get rid of. So if you're looking to make that secondhand boat look brand new, here's how to remove boat decals so it looks like they were never there in the first place.

Remove Boat Decals with an Eraser Wheel

eraser wheel to remove boat decals

The eraser wheel might just be one of the easiest ways to remove decals from your boat. To use the eraser wheel method for removing vinyl, you're going to need the following tools:

With all of the necessary tools and materials at the ready, you can get started on the decal removal process. Here's how to do it:

Attach the Eraser Wheel

Your eraser wheel should have a bit that's compatible with most drill tools. Attach the eraser wheel to your drill and test it out. It should spin every time you hit the pulse.

Place the Eraser Wheel Against the Decal

With the eraser wheel ready, place the edge of the wheel against the dry decal you're trying to get rid of. Gently start the drill so that the wheel rubs against the area.

Remove the Residue

If there's any residue of glue left behind on the surface of the boat after you've removed the decals and you're without adhesive remover, you might need to remove it with acetone-based nail polish remover or 90% rubbing alcohol. Just add a little amount to a clean microfiber towel - just enough to get it damp - and then wipe and rub the target area. Make sure to dry when you're done.

Most boat owners prefer the eraser wheel because it doesn't require the use of too much pressure, friction, heat, or harsh chemicals. Although some other decal removal methods might call for them, the process of the eraser wheel just makes sure that you don't end up damaging or scuffing the finish.

Remove a Decal with a Heat Gun

using heat gun to remove boat decals

If you're not in the mood to go out and buy a new tool for the decal removal process and you want to do the job with just the items you have at home, you can give the heat gun method a try. Here's what you'll need:

The process of using a heat gun for removing vinyl decals can be pretty delicate, since you could easily damage the finish on your boat by using too much heat. Then of course, razor blades can also cause damage on the finish with the sharp razor edge.

So unless you're absolutely confident in your ability to keep a steady hand and pay attention to what you're doing, it might be better to check other methods. On the other hand, if you're not too worried about your heat gun skills, here's how to complete the process:

Heat Up the Decals

It's best to work in small areas. Point the heat gun or hair dryer at the decal and heat up the area, and that should do the trick. You'll know that you've gotten it hot enough if the vinyl decals are becoming softer and more flexible.

Scrape the Edge

With your scraper tool, start scraping away the edges of the decals to peel them off. If you're using a metal razor blade scraper to remove them, it's best that you practice extra care and caution since you can pry the paint job off with the sticker. There are scrapers that use plastic razor blades for a gentler removal.

Get Rid of Residual Adhesive

Once the decals are removed, you'll have to work with the adhesive. You have the option to go with the same strategy as the previous method, and you can also choose to use a glue remover solution on a rag. Just follow the instructions on the label, and don't forget to do a spot test first on an inconspicuous area of the boat before you work on the adhesive patches.

Remove Boat Vinyl Decals with Hot Water Pressure

removing boat vinyl decals with pressure washer

Here's another delicate method for removing boat decals. But if you're out of options and you're not looking to add another tool to your boat maintenance and repair arsenal just yet, then maybe this method might be up your alley. Here's what you'll need:

Just like the heat gun, removing decals with hot water delivered through a powerful pressure washer will require a steady and careful set of hands. If you think you're up for the challenge, here's how you can remove those stickers with hot water:

Heat Up Some Water

It's important that you use hot water for the strategy, since heat is what's going to soften the vinyl sticker and the adhesive. Boil up water so that it's hot enough to soften the decals and not just warm.

Test It Out

Before you actually work on the decals, you might want to spray a small area of your boat first. Pressure wash an inconspicuous part of your boat to make sure the hot water and pressure don't damage the finish.

Pressure Wash the Target Areas

With the hot water loaded, you can get started on pressure washing the decals. Spray the vinyl until it softens and peels at the edges.

Pull the Decals Off

When you're done spraying, you can actually try to pull the decals off if they're softened enough. The hot water from the pressure washer should also be enough to get rid of any glue residue. Otherwise, you can always clean up with your glue remover.

Tips to Remove Sticky Residue

adhesive cleaner

The sticky residue left behind after you remove the decals might be some of the most stubborn glue patches you'll ever encounter. Lots of boat owners can even end up damaging the fiberglass hull trying to remove the stuff. And if that's your present problem, then these handy tips might help you with removing the glue without sacrificing your boat's exterior.

Use a Solvent

A solvent is intended to dissolve things like decal adhesive residue. You can buy some at your local hardware store, or even online. The 3M General Purpose Adhesive Cleaner should be a good choice to use even for a gel coat. You could also try the Rapid Remover formula that's been tried, tested, and proven effective for cleaning up boats that are riddled with remaining sticky residue. You might even be able to use it to peel off the sticker itself.

Try Other Alternatives

If you're not keen on buying a solvent, you can use the stuff you have at home. As previously stated, you can spray hot water or even nail polish remover (also called acetone.) Some boat owners have also found 90% rubbing alcohol on a rag, or scraping with a quality scraper tool or a razor blade to be particularly effective.

Should you decide to go with any of these alternative methods, you're going to want to make sure you've got a pair of careful hands that work gently. It's can be easy to damage your boat fiberglass hull surface or gel coat with scratches when you use strategies that teeter on the DIY side.

Remove Adhesive Even If It's Unnoticeable on Gel Coat

Once you remove those stickers and you're left with a very faint adhesive residue, it's still important that you run over the surface with a remover. The reason is because there will always be some residue left. And if you don't wipe it off, dust particles can stick to the surface and discolor the patch where the vinyl decal used to sit.

What About Shadows?

buffer polisher

If old stickers and decals have been on the surface of your boat for several years, then you'll notice that once you remove the vinyl and adhesive, there will be shadows of their shape left on the fiberglass hull gel coat. Actually, the area where the decals once were will likely be lighter than the rest of the boat. This is called shadowing, and it happens when an old boat is exposed to sun while the patches under the stickers are protected from UV rays.

If you want to get rid of old shadows, you can clean and buff the fiberglass hull. You can use a standard buffer-slash-polisher with a polishing compound intended for your boat's material. Start with a generous layer and use your buffing tool to rub away and remove the decal shadows, and that should do the trick.

We recommend the Dewalt Buffer/Polisher along with the Star Brite Premium Marine Polish.

But if you polish and buff your boat for hours and the faint shadows are yet to be removed, you can always bring your boat to boating detailing services who should be able to clean the entire fiberglass hull and make it look brand new for a reasonable price.

Good as New

That secondhand boat can give the showroom line-up a run for its money with the right care and cleaning. And while vinyl decals might be a total eyesore, there are a bunch of ways you can work them away of them at home. So if you were worried that you didn't know how to remove boat decals without calling in a pro, these tips and strategies should start you off in the right direction and those decals should be removed in no time before you choose new decals for your boat.

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