In the lifespan of almost any boat there will come a time when the deck needs a renewal of its nonslip surface – the traction that keeps you and your crew on board. The original deck might be moulded non-skid, or painted fibreglass over wood, or painted wood. The paint you choose for the renewal could be oil-based or latex acrylic or linear polyurethane (for more see our full Boat painting guide).

non-slip deck paint

When it has to be done, make sure your decks are painted just right. The deck and cabin top of this 1938 Herreshoff Marlin have just been sanded and coated with KiwiGrip. Photo Paul Cronin.

You have a choice of non-slip additives, or paints that already contain nonskid compound. Then there’s the choice of roller, brush, or roller and brush. But among all the situations you might face and choices you’ll need to make, there are some deck-painting truths that we hold to be universal:

1. It’s all about surface preparation. Any step you skip or effort you skimp on in the preparation stage will charge you double when it comes to the painting stage and finished look. The old saying is true: "Proper preparation prevents poor performance."

2. Pick the right environment. This means covering the boat under a shed or a shelter if at all possible. If it’s not possible, pick your weather to minimise the risk of rain, wind-borne dust and leaves, and boatyard debris that gets stirred up by all the other boat nuts and their cars and trucks. And try not to paint when there are clouds of flies or gnats around.

3. Paint at optimum times of day. If you’re outside, paint in mid to late morning after the dew has evaporated, and in mid-afternoon. Avoid noon when the sun is overhead and at its hottest, and late afternoon, when evening cooling and moisture can affect drying time and finish.

4. Take your time with the tape. Masking off your job properly will make all the difference in the results. Most painters we know swear by 3M masking tapes, either the Fine Line tape or the less expensive ScotchBlue, both of which use natural rubber adhesive, which helps prevent residue from sticking to the taped surface on removal. Make sure your surface is dry and free of grime, oils, and solvents before you tape, and carefully run your hand along every inch of the paint-facing tape edge before you start painting.

5. Read the… manual. Really, no kidding, read the directions on the cans, on the labels, on the websites of the products you’re using – paints, solvents, and nonskid compounds. The people who make these things have thought carefully about how to use them best. They have a strong interest in making both your work and their products look good. If you think some of their directions are too persnickety to be worth following exactly, you may be right. But when they put something in bold, or say IMPORTANT, you’ll benefit from knowing it.

Sanding to prepare for painting decks.

With non-slip deck painting, you only need to sand before application, not between coats.

6. Sand carefully. Unlike other paint jobs, you don’t need to sand between coats of nonskid paint; the needed grip for the next coat is built in. But you still need to sand the original surface. Even if you decide not to grind down the remains of your molded nonskid, you’ll need to sand it to give it some tooth for the new paint and compound. Random-orbital sanders equipped with vacuum attachments are best for large areas. Palm sanders are fine for smaller areas. To get in close to mounted hardware like cleats, chocks, and windlasses, a trim sander with a triangular mount will actually do a better job than hand-sanding. But there are always a few areas where nothing but old-fashioned elbow grease will do.

7. Let the sander and sandpaper do the work. Don’t bear down on the sander, just guide it with light, even pressure. And don’t try too hard to conserve your sandpaper. Nothing cuts and removes material better than a new piece of sandpaper, even the old-fashioned aluminum oxide kind.  When your sandpaper loads up or starts to lose its cutting power, just change it. Sandpaper is cheap and time is money.

8. Get rid of all the dust. This is easier said than done, especially if you’re working outside, but it’s a vital step – maybe not quite as important as when you’re laying on coats of varnish, but still important for any paint job. After sanding and vacuuming, take a heavy cloth like a bath towel and swat the surface to dislodge dust that might still be clinging. Then sweep and vacuum around the work area again. Then go over the surface with a clean cloth and denatured alcohol or acetone. Then use a commercial tack cloth to swipe up any remaining dust, turning the cloth often.

9. Work one section at a time. Especially when you’re painting in open sunlight or warm weather, but really any time, it’s important not to spread paint over such a large area that your first strokes begin to set before you can get back to them. This makes it impossible to get a wet overlap and, in the end, a smooth, uniform look to the project. If it’s hard to see the edges of the area you’re working on, mark the boundaries with moveable references. Anything can work – putty knives, tape measures, pens, whatever is handy – as long as you know where the overlap area is.

10. Mix only what you need, and keep stirring what you mix. Note the suggested ratio of non-slip compound to paint and only mix a batch big enough to lay on in your intended session, whether it’s one whole coat or just one side of the deck. Non-slip compounds have a way of clumping and settling, so stir it in well in the first place and stir frequently as you paint.

11. Pull the tape before the paint sets. Whether the paint is an acrylic latex or polyurethane, it will set up hard, and you don’t want any of your tape underneath it after that happens. The tape will want to stay put, it will be a bear to remove, and if you aren’t good with a razor blade you might even wreck some of the perfect line you worked so hard to achieve.

Choosing between non-slip compounds and systems is a matter of brand preference, prior experience, and pocketbook. Here are nonskid options from three of the best-known manufacturers of marine paints:

Other options include stick-on or glue-on nonskid sheets like those made by TreadMaster, or the proprietary KiwiGrip Non-Skid Deck System.

KiwiGrip is favored by’s resident videographer, Paul Cronin, who is also a naval architect and talented boatwright in both wood and fibreglass. Here’s a video from Paul on how to prepare a deck and apply KiwiGrip (on a 1938 Herreshoff, at that).