The personal watercraft (PWC) is one of the world’s most popular watercraft. It’s not only the favorite toy of bikini-clad celebrities, but a versatile vehicle for fishermen, coast guards, and even the US Navy.
PWCs are relatively safe, maneuverable, and most of all, fun. But all that time in the sea spray and sunshine can wreak havoc on glossy, colorful surfaces and hulls.
You might be tired of renting Jet Skis and are beginning to look into buying a second hand one and giving it some tender loving care. Or, perhaps your once-new Sea Doo is in need of a touch-up.
As with cars, professional repairs can be costly. So, it’s worth investigating a DIY maintenance option.
Can you paint a jet ski? Yes, you can paint a jet ski. To do so effectively, care and preparation are needed. If you take the necessary precautions and follow best practices you can save a lot of money as opposed to paying a shop to refurbish your jet ski.
A Brief History of the Personal Watercraft
Jet Ski is the brand name for one type of Personal Watercraft (PWC) made by Kawasaki.
Other popular brand names that you might be familiar with are the Sea-Doo (made by Bombardier) and WaveRunner (made by Yamaha).
They are all characterised by the position of the rider, standing or sitting on top of the PWC, rather than inside as is the case with a boat.
Originally called water scooters, these motorized watercraft were first developed in the United Kingdom in the 1950s.
American motocross enthusiast Clayton Jacobson II developed the design in the 1960s, replacing the original outboard motor with an internal pump-jet engine.
This watershed alteration made the vehicle safer to operate around swimmers and led to its popularity with lifeguards.
The first PWC prototype made from fiberglass was completed in 1966. Originally, the hull had been made of aluminum (source).
Today, hulls are usually made from either fiberglass or sheet molded compound (SMC), which are both kinds of fiber-reinforced polymer (source).
Jet skiing began as a recreational activity and is still popular with vacationers, but it is now also an international water sport that includes freestyle (think tricks and stunts) and racing categories.
Whatever your level of skill and obsession, you’re not alone.
There’s a huge community of PWC hobbyists and professionals out there, and for many of them, DIY maintenance and tinkering is a source of huge enjoyment as well as a clever way to save some money.
The Importance of Hull Maintenance
Owning a jet ski is like owning a fast car: you may be tempted to spend hours polishing the hood, but you should never be tempted to sacrifice safety for aesthetics.
The hull of a watercraft is your contact point with the surface of the water, the equivalent of the tires on your car.
You wouldn’t drive around with bald tires on your car, so don’t ride your Jet Ski with a damaged hull.
Damage to the hull can allow water to leak into the engine, causing major expense and trouble further down the line.
In extreme cases, dents might turn into holes and cause the craft to sink.
It’s also worth remembering that a rough, dented hull will have more drag over the water and will slow you down.
A smooth surface on the hull makes your PWC more efficient in moving over the water, and therefore faster (source).
How Do I Know if Maintenance is Needed?
Like car enthusiasts, many PWC owners like to buff, polish, repaint, and vinyl wrap their watercraft regularly.
After all, tinkering is part of the hobby, especially during winter months when the cold weather might keep you off the water.
If you’re a low-maintenance owner whose idea of fun doesn’t involve spending every weekend in the garage, you don’t need to go to those extremes.
But a regular inspection of all important points on your PWC is essential.
PWCs are fast, powerful vehicles and your safety and that of other people depend on your jet ski being in good working order.
Winter is a great time to check for any maintenance that needs to be done. Don’t just stuff your WaveRunner in the garage and forget about it: take advantage of the cold month to get routine maintenance done.
Once the weather warms up, you’re going to want your WaveRunner to be out on the water with you on board, not hanging out under a tarp.
How Do I Refinish the Bottom of My Jet Ski?
First, make sure that this is a time and money investment you want to make.
Although it can work out cheaper to take a DIY your approach to maintenance, it’s nowhere near free of charge. You’ll need to sink some capital into equipment and purchase materials.
If you factor in your time, you may not find it cheaper to refurbish your PWC yourself: it might be quicker and more painless to take it to your local shop.
On the other hand, you might get a lot of pleasure and satisfaction out of doing the job yourself.
If you decide that you’re up for the challenge, start with plenty of preparation and research, and take care with every step of the process.
Rushing the job, choosing the wrong materials, or applying an overzealous hand with the buffer could cost you.
Preparation is Everything
Unless you’re a professional or a true fanatic, you probably don’t want to spend the foreseeable future spraying and respraying your Jet Ski.
You’d probably rather be out riding the thing, so your aim should be to make this paint job last at least a couple of years. This means it’s essential to take your time preparing and making sure you have the supplies you need.
More time spent now means more saved later.
Assess the level of the damage and the size of the job relative to your skill level.
Some surface scratches in the paint are inevitable and nothing to panic about: it might not even be necessary to fix them.
Large dents or holes may be beyond your reach and require professional assistance. Consider consulting your local boat repair shop for expert advice before you begin.
Make sure you have a large clear area to work in, which won’t be contaminated by wind and dust: you don’t want leaves or sand getting stuck in the wet paint and ruining your perfect finish.
Remember that spray painting is messy so you don’t want to do this in your garage next to your car.
Prepare your PWC for its refurbishing by draining the fuel and oil, and removing the seat, battery and engine (if you can) to reduce the weight.
Then carefully flip her over to reach the hull. Make sure the craft is stable and won’t topple or fall while you work. You can also suspend the craft from strong overhead supports as long as no straps block the areas that will be painted.
Know your watercraft
Not all PWCs are made the same. Whether your hull is made of SMC or fiberglass makes a difference in the treatment and materials required.
Polyester resin can be used to repair fiberglass but won’t stick to SMC, which requires epoxy resin.
Fiberglass hulls are often gel-coated. Gelcoat is not a paint, but a resin that adds strength and gloss to the surface (source).
It is possible to paint over the gel coat, but be aware that sanding it can damage the outer layer and make it more vulnerable to weathering.
You can also replace damaged gel coat, but it is trickier to work with than regular paint: you may want to get professional assistance with this.
Gather Your Supplies
The most important piece of equipment you can invest in for PWC painting is a good quality pneumatic paint gun and a small compressor.
Although some people claim success in painting by hand with a paintbrush, you’re far more likely to get a good finish by spray painting.
Next, you’ll need a good supply of consumable items, including:
- Cleaning products, particularly a strong degreaser.
- Tape to cover any areas you don’t want to be painted and to secure protective sheeting.
- Plastic sheets to protect surfaces from paint – look for painters’ groundsheets.
- Sandpaper of various textures, from coarse to very fine – consider buying a sanding block or sanding machine to save your arm and ensure a smooth surface.
- Putty or epoxy to repair minor holes – choose one that will adhere to the material of the hull.
- Primer and paint.
What type of paint should I use?
Since the hull of your PWC spends the majority of its time submerged in water – and very likely saltwater at that – regular paint simply won’t do the job, and will quickly peel off.
It’s essential to select a paint that is below-water certified and (if necessary) marine-rated.
There is a wide variety of paints available for use on watercraft. Hard bottom paint is hard-wearing and suitable for fast watercraft like PWCs and speed boats.
Hybrid or semi-hard paints are hard-wearing but easier to remove if you need to repeat the paint job in the next year or two.
Spend some time speaking to people at your local boat shop and paint shop to see what they think will work best. Check up with the manufacturer of your PWC for recommendations.
How much paint will I need?
The amount of paint you will need depends on many factors including how efficient you are and what brand of paint you buy.
Consult an expert at your local paint store for advice on quantities.
Although it might be tempting to save money and skimp on paint, it’s best to overestimate the amount you’ll need.
You want to buy enough paint to cover your PWC in one go: colors can vary between batches so you don’t want to go back for a second tin.
Getting Down to It
You’ve done your homework and your shopping: now it’s time to take the plunge. Make sure you have plenty of time to complete the work.
If you’re new to Jet Ski maintenance, you’ll need time to practice your skills and work with care. Rushing will only mean you have to come back and do the job again.
Prep your surface.
Start by removing or covering anything that you don’t want to be painted.
Tightly cover the top of the PWC with plastic sheeting and tape it neatly along the line between the hull and the topside, where you will probably want a clean color transition.
After overturning the Jet Ski, thoroughly clean the hull, making sure there is no grease stuck to it, as this will affect the paint’s adhesion. Sand the entire surface gently with medium-fine grit sandpaper.
Don’t sand your way down to the bare hull if you can help it: you are only roughing up the surface to allow the new paint to stick.
Sand over and around scratches you plan to fix with a rougher paper, then fill any minor holes with putty or epoxy that is suitable for underwater use and is designed for the material of your hull.
Bigger holes may need more work and sometimes several layers of repair material. Once the filler is dry, sand again with a fine paper and check with a bright light to make sure the surface is smooth (source).
After all this sanding, it’s a good idea to vacuum out the area you will be working in to avoid getting grit in your wet paint later.
Wipe down the PWC thoroughly with a damp cloth several times until you’re confident all the dust has been removed, then allow it to dry thoroughly before moving on to the next step.
After sanding, check for areas of the bare hull which might be showing around your repaired scratches. If you’ve sanded through to the hull, cover everything with a thin layer of primer before proceeding to your topcoat.
Mix the paint according to instructions and fill the container of your spray gun.
Don’t mix too much paint as it will start to dry and set before you can use it. Practice spraying on a piece of cardboard to make sure the gun doesn’t spatter and you’ve got the hang of making even strokes across the surface.
Once you get onto the hull itself, work in thin coats to avoid the paint running.
You will probably have to apply around four coats, so be patient and don’t expect full coverage with the first one.
Leave enough time between each coat for the paint to become tacky and almost dry (check the product container for instructions on drying time and multiple coats).
Work systematically around and up and down the hull to ensure even coverage.
Be very careful not to touch the wet paint, and stay away from the work area once you have finished, to give your job time to dry without fingerprints.
If you are planning to apply a clear topcoat or wet sand the hull, wait for the undercoat to dry enough first, or you may find yourself starting from scratch.
Rinse and repeat
Stripping down and refinishing your PWC might be fun once, but you might not be delighted at the idea of needing to repeat the experience every year.
So keep that shiny new coat of paint looking new by performing some basic maintenance regularly.
Hose or wipe down your Sea Doo after every use, especially if you have been in the ocean, to prevent corrosion.
Cover the PWC or keep it inside a garage when you’re not jetting all over the bay, to keep it out of the sun and avoid damage caused by UV rays (source). Clean your ski cover once or twice per year as well.
Maintenance is Not Only Skin Deep
Remember that damage you can see, like scratches or dull paint, is only a small part of what might be there.
Like any vehicle, what’s going on under the hood (or in this case, the seat) of a PWC is at least as important as the surface of the hull, and needs regular attention.
Maintain your jet ski’s engine regularly, as you would a car. Every year, you should replace the oil, check for worn or damaged parts, change the filters, change the spark plugs and lubricate all seals and bearings.
Remember to check the fuel levels before every use, and drain the water from the engine after every ride.
If you live in an area that gets very cold over winter, you may need to dry-dock or ‘winterize’ your PWC over the cold months.
Make sure your insurance and license are up to date to protect yourself and others from the consequences of accidents, and always have your fun within the requirements of the law.
For more about PWC maintenance and trouble-shooting, read “Jet Ski Won’t Start Just Beeps”.
Tinkering with your toy can be one of the most enjoyable elements of owning any vehicle, whether on land or on water, and DIY maintenance can be not only a cost-cutter but a great way to connect with a community of like-minded hobbyists online and in your local clubs and stores.
Whether you’re an extreme Jet Skier or an enthusiastic amateur, it’s entirely possible to refurbish your PWC’s hull yourself.
But it’s essential to do your research, prepare thoroughly and take your time; otherwise, your cost-cutting attempts will translate into expensive rework in future.
Painting and repainting is not only a fun way to personalize your PWC but an important part of maintaining its overall health for your safety and that of others.
But remember that maintenance doesn’t stop at the surface: performing routine cleaning, check-ups, and repairs on all the working parts of your Jet Ski will mean your paint job and the rest of your PWC will last for many water-loving summers to come.
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