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How to Paint a Boat Trailer: A Step-by-step Guide

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on July 28, 2021. In

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Boat trailers are highly underappreciated pieces of equipment. They’re often relegated to background status. But their role is essential. And they can often cost thousands of dollars. That’s a big investment, so they deserve maintenance and care. Let’s take a look at some tips for painting that boat trailer. Even an old, rusty boat trailer can be fixed up like new with a coat of fresh paint. This will ensure it not only looks good, but stays in good shape to help you haul that fishing boat everywhere.

Painting Your Boat Trailer Step by Step

Painting a boat trailer does take some work. It’s not a fence, after all. You can’t just slap paint down and walk away. The procedure can also change based on the kind of trailer you have. That means both in terms of what it’s made of and how it’s put together. Some trailers have more parts than others, after all. Let’s cover the basics.

  • Get your trailer on jack stands or blocks. You want to make sure it’s safe and secure. You’ll need to have it up high enough for you to paint the underside.
  • Get your protective gear ready. You want gloves and eyewear at the very least. You’re going to be sanding and grinding here. Safety is always job one, so be careful.
  • Start by removing the bunkboards. If they are in bad condition, you’ll need replacement boards. If you’re seeing cracked and warped wood, it’s best to toss them. New boards are important for keeping your trailer secure and safe. You may also need to cut them off of an older trailer. Or one in bad condition. The bolts could be so badly corroded you need to grind them down.
  • Remove all hardware. That means rollers, lights, wheels, jack and so on. If you don’t intend to paint it, take it off.
  • With everything removed, sanding can begin. You need a protective mask and gloves for this to be safe. You don’t want to breathe in old paint or rust particles. Take off all the old and peeling paint from the trailer. Then you can focus in on harder spots where rust has built up. You need to remove rust before any new paint goes down. If there are any parts that you find too hard to manage by hand, try using an angle grinder. Just use a light touch and a flap disk. Sandblasting may also work well here, but it all depends on condition. Don’t overlook the wheel wells. Sand or brush by hand in those hard to reach areas.
  • You can use a very fine sandpaper to get rid of oxidation spots or other uneven areas.
  • Give the trailer a visual once over now. If anything needs repairing, now is the time when it’s stripped down. Check all the welded components. If any welding needs to be done, this is the best chance you will have. Likewise, any fittings need to be returned to working order. Bearings should be inspected as well.
  • Once everything is repaired, the trailer needs to be cleaned. You can start the process with something simple, like an air compressor. That will get rid of the bulk of the dust and sanding debris on the trailer. Once that has been completed, the whole trailer needs to be wiped down. You should use something like mineral spirits here. A mildew retardant solution will work as well. This will ensure a clean surface for the paint. It gets rid of all that fine dust.
  • Now you are ready for painting. You want to start with a primer. This is always a good idea, especially with metals like aluminum or galvanized. They can really resist a paint job if you don’t prepare for it. If you don’t prime a steel frame, you’re basically asking for it to rust right away. Save yourself the trouble and don’t skip this step.
  • Once you have the primer down, it’s time to put on the first coat of paint. Again, make sure you have goggles and a mask here. Ventilation is important!

  • The best way to paint is with a sprayer or roller. Brushing can work, but you need to be confident in your skills. You don’t want to leave ugly streaks from the brush fibers.
  • Use enamel paint on steel. You may need a different kind of paint if you have a different kind of metal. We’ll cover that further down. Enamel spray paint can be found almost everywhere. It’s pretty affordable.
  • Spray or brush your paint on in one full, even layer then allow to dry. Follow the instructions for whatever kind of paint you chose. It can be easy to get impatient here. If you want it done right, you want to wait. When the paint is dry, you can apply a second coat. Three coats is not unheard of, but that’s up to you. Too many coats can be a problem though. We wouldn’t recommend too many more than three. It can start peeling if it’s on too thick.
  • Paint your wheels separately. Make sure you remove the nuts first. More than one person has learned too late that the nuts were glued in place with paint. Pulling them off again looks pretty ugly. Get the spare wheel as well, which is easy to forget.
  • Apply a layer of sealer. This can help protect your trailer for UV rays and water damage. Make sure you are buying the right kind though. If you boat in saltwater, you need a sealer that can handle that. Many sealants can produce intense fumes. This is another reason you want the best ventilation you can get. Also, they tend to be pretty sticky. Don’t cheap on your brush here or you’ll have bristles stuck in your trailer’s paint job. Let the sealant dry completely before moving on.
  • Before you reattach your hardware, give your wiring a quick inspection. This is vital if you’re repainting an older trailer that you haven’t tested fully. Make sure your lights are going to work properly. If not, the wiring will need to be addressed. It’s easier to fix that before you attach all the hardware again. Boat wiring can go bad faster than you might think. Many times the wiring in a trailer is not set up to handle a lot of exposure to water so corrosion is a big issue. Now’s your chance to inspect it. If it needs to be replaced, get some marine grade stuff in there.
  • Check your wheel bearings while you have everything off the trailer. You’ll want to get any loose bearings fixed.
  • Now it’s time to attach new hardware. If you cut the old boards off, you may need to make some new ones here. You can buy them or cut them yourself. It depends on your own skill level or what you feel most comfortable with. If cutting them yourself, just use the old boards as measurements. Make sure to varnish the wood. Ideally you want some bunkboard carpeting attached as well. That will be less harsh on your boat when it’s on the trailer.
  • Get the rest of the hardware attached. Rollers, wheels and lights can all go back in place. Test to make sure things are in good working order. Replace all the broken components.

Boat Trailer Paint Tips

Now that you have the painting process down, some tips are a good idea. Boat trailer painting doesn’t have to be hard. But you can make it easier! And safer, as well.

  • Always paint in a well-ventilated area. For something the size of a boat trailer, outside is always best. Obviously that is a weather permitting situation. If it’s a bad day, maybe put the painting off for a day. The process of painting a boat trailer takes time. You don’t want to be enclosed for hours with paint fumes.
  • If you are inside, make sure you have sufficient space to move around. Sometimes it can be hard to maneuver around a big trailer. Keep your space well ventilated if it’s indoors. Windows open, garage door open, that sort of thing.
  • Take the opportunity to repair any dents or scrapes if possible. It’ll make the final paint job look that much better.
  • Use a wire brush for sanding. It does a better job on metal and won’t wear down nearly as fast. Wire brushing can be time consuming but it’s necessary.
  • Make sure you use a metal primer. It’s pretty easy to spot the owner of a painter boat trailer who didn’t use a primer first. Depending on the metal your trailer is made from, that paint could come right off again. It’ll need to be cleaned, sanded, and primed correctly.
  • Something like Corroseal rust converter metal primer is a great choice. It helps restore metal surfaces and makes your trailer last longer. The formula is water based so you can clean a trailer primed with it easily. Soap and water will do just fine. Because this is a primer and paint, you don’t need to apply a different primer first. But do be aware of the cost. Compared to most paints, this still will hit your wallet. But it’s also a bit of a cost benefit situation. If it makes your trailer last longer, then you could be saving money.
  • Choose the right tools for the job. Don’t use a brush here, it’s going to leave that texture in your paint and look awful. At the very least, apply your paint with a roller. You can also try an electric paint sprayer if you have access. These don’t have to be too pricey. In fact, you can get a good quality paint gun for under $50. Check some reviews online and see what will meet your needs.
  • Once your boat trailer is painted, wait at least a week before getting it near the water. Is it overly cautious? Maybe. But if you have a $2000 trailer, you don’t want to ruin it needlessly.
  • Take extra care if you boat in saltwater. Whenever you’re done using the trailer, rinse the saltwater off. This will help slow down future corrosion.

What Is Suitable Boat Trailer Paint

You can’t just pick up any old paint to paint your boat trailer. If you want it to last and look good, make the right choice. Often, the best paint for a boat trailer is the same paint you use on a boat. There are companies that make things like aluminum boat paint. This topside paint is designed to stand up to the elements. Specifically, it can handle water. Your trailer shouldn’t be submerged on the regular, but it will get wet. Going up and down the ramp, trailers end up in the water now and then. Not to mention hauling a wet boat sometimes. Give it the best chance it can have with paint designed for that specific purpose.

This kind of paint is ideal for a trailer. It stands up to pressure washing and harsh weather. Remember,the right paint doesn’t just look good. It has to be up to the job. Often people will skimp on their paint. They spend all that time restoring metal surfaces and then use cheap stuff. High quality paint is needed now or what’s the point?

Something like TotalBoat Aluminum Boat Paint is good for all around. It can handle aluminum trails and galvanized as well as regular steel. You can get it in a good deal of colors too, it’s not just light gray. Army green, black, khaki, white, there are a number of choices. You can cover 100 square feet with a quart. Factor in the price, which is reasonable, and this is your best bet.

One of the best parts about this paint is that it cleans easily, too. Soap and water should get your trailer looking as good as new any time it gets dirty.

There are some other paints that are up to the task as well. Marine topside paint of any kind is ideal and not aluminum specific. Rust-Oleum makes a marine topside paint that dries in about two hours. It’s durable and fast, which is great for this job. It can stand up to abrasion as well. That’s a real bonus for a trailer. It’s almost impossible to not have something rub against your trailer’s paint job, eventually. If not the boat, then some bushes, the ramp, you name it.

Rust-oleum paint is oil based. That means the application process is typically very easy. It paints on smoothly and tends to be even as well. You shouldn’t have to worry about any irregular or ugly patches.

If we had to pick a downside for this kind of paint, it would be the smell. This is a strong product. It can be overwhelming if you are not taking proper safety measures. Make sure you have the windows wide open for this one. Make sure you have a mask on as well. This stuff will make you feel woozy and nauseated quickly in poorly ventilated areas.

Truck bed coating is a decent paint for this job as well. This stuff is usually pretty cheap and you can find it at Wal Mart or any similar store. It’s meant for painting the inside of a truck bed. That means it’s meant to be exposed to the elements and handle a little abuse. A few more coats on a boat trailer work really well.

When all else fails, a durable enamel paint may do. The upside to this kind of paint is that it has many uses. If you have leftovers, you can store it and probably find a reason to use it some other time. On the downside, enamel paint is not fast drying. You’ll have to wait quite a while for this to set up. Just make sure it’s good quality. Like we said, cheap paint leads to cheap results. No sense putting all that time and effort in to ruin it by picking bad paint.

Be Environmentally Cautious

Paint made specifically for boats and marine equipment is ideal. These are formulated for that specific environment. But as we said, sometimes an all purpose paint can suffice. This comes with a serious caveat. Make sure it is safe for marine use. That’s different from being up to the task. You don’t want paint that can harm the environment in any way. If residue or flakes get into the water, you don’t want it harming wildlife. It may be a seemingly insignificant amount, but that’s the insidious nature of pollution. One person dumping one thing isn’t a big deal. That is until one million other people feel the same way.

If you’re a serious boater, you don’t need us to tell you how bad it gets in some places. You’ve probably seen trash, oil and other junk clogging waterways and marinas. We all have to be responsible to keep the water clean and clear. That way we all get to keep enjoying it for years to come.

Part of this involves making sure your paint is suited for your water type. Some paints are not able to stand up to saltwater. Make sure you have the right stuff to keep the trailer and the water looking good.

Not All Boat Trailers are The Same

Remember, not every boat trailer needs to be painted. If you have an aluminum boat trailer, paint is not necessary. That isn’t to say you can’t paint an aluminum boat trailer. But, for the most part, you don’t need to. It’s not like your aluminum fishing boat which is in the water all the time.

There are a couple of good reasons why you want to avoid painting an aluminum boat trailer. To start with, aluminum does not paint well. The nature of the metal does not lend itself to painting. For that reason, those kinds of paint won’t stick to it. You can buy certain spray paints and others that have been designed for aluminum. We still don’t recommend it though.

Paint highlights aluminum flaws very easily. Any glossy finished paint will make dents and scrapes stand out like a sore thumb. The result is that your newly painted trailer looks worse than when you started.

If you do want to paint an aluminum boat trailer, use a matte or satin finish paint. You’ll want acrylic or latex paint. Be cautious still that it may not hold well. Any dirt or imperfections on the aluminum will make the bond weak. The paint could easily chip off later.

Aluminum trailers stand up to weather fairly well. That’s why painting them isn’t typically necessary. Again, it can be done but often doesn’t need to be.

A galvanized steel trailer also does not require paint. Like aluminum, the trailer is already made to handle the elements well. There is oil on the metal that helps prevent corrosion. That is going to make the process of painting difficult. Worse, even if it looks like you bought the right paint, it may still come off later. The metal is not designed for paint. As a result, it really doesn’t take to it well.

In order to paint galvanized steel you need a lot of prep work. You’ll need to clean and sand the entire surface. A wire brush has to be used over the entire surface. This will remove rust and build up. You can get all that loose paint out of the way. Something like a trisodium phosphate cleaner should do the job next. This helps remove that oily layer the metal was treated with. You’ll need to rinse it off and allow the whole trailer to dry.

A galvanized metal primer needs to be laid down next. Follow the directions for how long this needs to dry. Then you will probably need a second coat. After that, you can use paint designed for metal. Again, follow those directions. Apply a coat and allow it to dry as recommended. Then apply your second coat.

As you can see, this is a much more labor intensive process. And, for many trailers, it’s not necessary. That said, there are times when it might help.

Older trailers will obviously succumb to rust. If your galvanized trailer has started to rust, then maybe paint is the right answer. Also, if you’re committed to a look, then why not? If you really want the trailer to match the boat, you’re free to paint it as well.

If the trailer is in good condition, we wouldn’t recommend painting it. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not necessary. So that also means there’s no harm in doing it. It’s just going to take some time, money, and effort to get done.

Things to Consider Before Painting

Any painting job is going to take some prep work and planning. Keep all of this in mind before you commit to anything. It’ll make the process a lot smoother.

  • Cost. We mentioned some of the paints are very reasonable. Some are not. More expensive doesn’t always mean higher quality. Compare some brands if you aren’t sure about what is best.
  • Time. We mentioned that Rust-Oleum dries pretty quickly. Other kinds of paint can take hours to properly dry. You may need to be keeping that boat trailer away from water for the better part of a week. Keep that in mind. This is not a job you want to rush through. Not if you want it to turn out well, anyway.
  • Ease. Some paints can pop right in your sprayer and go on smooth and easy. You want paint that is designed to be simple and straightforward. The harder it is to paint on evenly and smoothly, the longer it’ll take. There’s nothing worse than an ugly paint job. We’ve all seen those things that look like a grade school art project. You want to avoid that at all costs.
  • Effectiveness. We mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Make sure you choose paint suited for the environment you’re in. If you boat in the ocean, you need saltwater-ready paint.
  • Durability. Some paints are incredibly resilient. This can handle scrapes and bumps and not show them at all. Your trailer is meant to be a rugged tool, so buy paint to match. If it chips the first day, what’s the point?
  • Safety Concerns. This goes back to your goggles and mask. Do you need a ventilator to use this paint? Is it best to do it outside? What happens if you start feeling sick when using it? Make sure you know all the answers to these questions before you start.
  • Variety. Some marine paints are, historically, bland. You can get gray or white or brown. But your boat trailer should be any color you want. Shop around to find what’s going to hit the mark for you. There’s no need to settle for ugly paint if you don’t have to.

Things to Do After Painting

Now that your boat trailer looks great, how do you maintain it?

  • Just like your car or truck, your boat trailer needs to be washed sometimes. This is doubly true if you boat in saltwater. Wash it after every trip to salt water. A thorough rinsing may suffice. But you want that salt off.
  • Practice road safety. Don’t push that trailer harder than you need to on the road. Keep the wiring clean and working properly.
  • Store it during the office season. Too many people just park a trailer and forget it. The new season comes around and it looks like it has aged 20 years. If you can’t store it indoors, make sure it’s well protected from the elements when not in use.
  • Inspect it at the beginning and the end of each season. Look for rust, cracks, scrapes and more. Check the lights and wiring.
  • Keep up with your tires. Don’t let them wear too thin. Don’t let them deflate, either. Check the treads and the PSI before you head out to ensure the smoothest, safest ride. Park on concrete whenever possible or get plywood under the tires.
  • You need to do an annual check of your wheel bearings. Make sure they’re in good order and replace them as you need to.

Be safe, have fun with it, and enjoy your boat!

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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