Tips for Sailboat Restoration

Ever restored an old sailboat?  If you have, you know how therapeutic in can be.  Have plans to do so?  What follows are my tips to make the project more enjoyable and successful.  (This blog post is adapted from an article of mine that appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Good Old Boat magazine.)

I first got into sailing by restoring a 1972 Helms 25 swing keel.  I'm not particularly handy, nor did I have boat restoration experience at the time.  In fact, restoring a sailboat wasn't "Plan A" for getting into the sailing and cruising lifestyle.  However, sometimes the winds of life (and budgets!) don't blow from behind and we can't sail downwind to our future.  Instead, we've got to trim the sails and figure out how to make progress towards our windward goals.  And so, I picked up a $400 project boat and started to teach myself about restoration.  Hopefully you'll some of the tips below useful for your own project.

Document the process
Take pictures and videos and keep a restoration logbook.  A website or log is a great place to document the process.  You'll track and record your own progress and help countless other sailors learn from your successes and errors.  You'll be amazed at how much feedback you'll receive through the website and/or blog. You may even have blog readers offering unsolicited advice that helps you with your project.  Blogspot and Sailblogs both provide free blog space on the web.  My blog that you're reading right now is an example.  You can dig back to my posts from 2007 in the archives to see snip-its of my restoration.

Join an online sailing forum
I am active on several online sailing message boards (Sailnet and Cruiser's Forum) and get immeasurable advice and help from other members.  I'm also a member of a couple of online communities specific to my sailboat's manufacturer.  Online communities of enthusiastic owners support many makes of sailboats.  By joining one, you are likely to find expertise, new ideas, and hard-to-find parts from other members.

Get your hands dirty
You probably know this already if you're considering the restoration of a sailboat.  I am amazed at the projects that even a novice can accomplish.  All you need is the motivation to begin and the readiness to take your time.  Before I began restoring my first boat, I had never done any fiberglass repair work.  After doing a little research and giving it a try on my boat, I am now confident I can handle other such repairs in the future.  Do your research, grow, and learn new skills.

Visit your local library
Several very good books on sailboat restoration are available and your local library probably has many of them.  Start by checking out Don Casey's books.  They are easy to read, easy to follow, and are generally filled with sound adviceThis Old Boat is a great general reference, and many of his other books give more details.  Some of Don's most relevant books include Don Casey's Complete Illustrated Sailboat Maintenance Manual, Sailboat Refinishing, Sailboat Electrics Simplified, Sailboat Hull and Deck Repari, and Canvaswork and Sail Repair.

Become familiar with sources for parts
We all know a few major stores that carry parts and materials for boating.  However, the big superstores don't always have the best prices or the hard-to-find specialty items specific to your boat.  Look for online and alternative sources.  I've found good deals by posting want ads on Craigslist.  Most ads on Craigslist are for items people are trying to sell.  My approach has been to post ads for specific items I'm looking for.  I'm always surprised at the responses I get from people who have just what I need or something similar.  Many times they didn't think about selling or even know they could sell the item until they saw my want ad.  The online auction site eBay is another great source for deals on hard-to-find parts.  At the very least, try an Internet search to see if you can track down a hard-to-find part.  You might also find hidden gems at boating consignment stores

Be conservative when estimating costs
Despite readily available good deals and free stuff, sailboat restoration is an expensive endeavor.  I think I am being conservative when I plan the restoration of a boat prior to starting, but once I start taking things apart, I invariably find more things that need to be fixed or upgraded.  Also, the more I started to restore, the more I enjoyed the process.  I kept finding more parts to upgrade and more add-ons to improve the boat's utility, comfort, and sailing characteristics.  As the saying goes, "There's nothing more expensive than a cheap boat."  Take your best estimate for the cost of a restoration job and double it.  If you don't spend the full estimated amount, put the savings into your cruising kitty!

Walk the dock
I gleaned many great ideas by checking out other boats at nearby marinas and boatyards.  If you have a problem and need a unique solution or if you want creative ways to individualize your boat, there's a good chance someone on the dock has already applied the solution or added that unique feature to his/her boat.  You'll also run into a few sailors who are happy to show off their boats and share ideas that can help during your restoration.

Go sailing!
Sailboat restoration takes time, dedication, and motivation.  Anyone starting a restoration has a goal of one day sailing the boat that he/she has poured so much of himself/herself into.  So during the restoration process, make sure you sail OPB's (other people's boats).  Ride along with a dock neighbor or join a Wednesday evening race as a crewmember.  There is no better motivation for a sailboat restoration project than getting a taste of the joy the finished project will bring.

Have fun!
If you learn to enjoy the journey that a restoration project inevitably becomes, you will be rewarded with a most memorable destination.  There is real value to had in doing the work yourself.  You will swell with pride from knowing you gave her the care your good old boat deserves - and she will sail better with that knowledge!


  1. Anonymous16 September

    I just bought a 1973 Pearson 30. The Atomic 4 is shot and needs to be removed, I know very little about engines. Any ideas on what I should do would be helpful. I understand that the A4 developed about 30hp and I'm thinking a 16hp diesel would probably suit my needs(I sail on a 43,000 acre lake). Any thoughts?

    1. Anonymous26 September

      16 HP sounds about right. The atomic 4 usually has a small propeller and higher RPM than diesels, so check the max diameter prop you can fit with 10-15% of clearance top and bottom. You may want less of a reduction gear. Also consider engine and fuel weight. "The propeller handbook" by Dave Gerr is a good resource. Most older boats have small props that can't make use of higher HP.


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