Education

How to Remove Boat Decals

Boat Registration Decals

Did you know that around 975,000 pre-owned boats were sold in 2019 alone? If you’ve experienced the allure of having a boat, chances are, you aren’t surprised. Getting a new or “new to you” boat is always an exciting adventure. And when you buy one pre-owned, you can sometimes get a really good deal.

Of course, the downside to getting a used boat is that it will have signs of wear and previous ownership. You’ll usually want to remove boat decals and stickers that were left by the last owner.

Fortunately, with this guide, we can help you remove boat decals from your pre-owned watercraft.

Whether you have fiberglass boats, aluminum boats, or even wooded ones, keep reading to learn everything you need to know about removing unwanted vinyl decals from boats.

Decal Removal Instructions: Three Ways to Remove Boat Decals

If you do some research on decal removal instructions, you may notice some conflicting opinions. The fact is, there’s no one way to remove boat decals that works best for everyone.

To make this guide as clear and helpful as possible, below, you’ll find instructions for three separate methods of decal removal. These include using an eraser wheel, using a heat gun or hairdryer, and using a hot water pressure washer.

Use an Eraser Wheel

An eraser wheel is a tool that you connect to a drill to remove decals and stickers. It’s frequently used in auto body shops to remove pinstripes and old bumper stickers off of cars.

If your boat has an out-of-state registration sticker, a decal you don’t like, or stripes you want to remove, an eraser wheel is probably your best choice. Some consider it to be the easiest method of removing unwanted decals and stickers.

Another benefit of using an eraser wheel is that it doesn’t involve any high pressures, intense heat, or harsh chemicals. The other methods in this guide do involve these things, although that should be fine if you’re careful. Still, using an eraser wheel means you don’t have to take a chance on potentially damaging your boat’s finish.

When you use an eraser wheel for the first time, you will notice that it leaves a residue behind from the decals you’re removing. The effect is similar to how pencil erasers smudge and distort writing on paper. These tiny particles can easily be removed after you’ve finished using the eraser wheel.Getting Rid of Adhesive Residue

For removing the adhesive residue leftover after the eraser wheel has done its work, you have a couple of options.

Some people recommend using acetone solvent, which is often sold as nail polish remover. You can apply a little solvent to a clean rag, making it damp but not soaked, and wipe it over the glue to soften and remove it.

However, acetone is a harsh substance and can damage your boat’s exterior if you aren’t careful. As an alternative, you might use 90% concentration rubbing alcohol.

We’ll outline some specific ways to remove sticker residue at the end of this article. For now, keep reading to learn our second recommended method for removing boat decals.

Use a Heat Gun or Hairdryer

Our second method for removing decals and stickers in the boating industry involves using a heat gun or hairdryer to loosen them. Then, you’ll use a scraper or razor blade to gently peel away the decals.

As we mentioned briefly earlier, though, you must be very careful if you use a heat gun for this. Although it’s very effective for removing stickers, it can also damage your boat. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to avoid this, you should use a hairdryer instead.

To use this method, you will start by warming the surface of the decal you want to remove. Continue warming the surface area until the decal becomes more flexible. If using a heat gun, be sure and use a very low setting to avoid damage.Scraping Off the Decals

Next, use your scraper or razor blade to scrape off the vinyl from the boat’s surface. Be very careful if using a razor blade, because you can easily create ugly gashes in your boat by mistake. A plastic blade tool is generally a much better option because of this.

After you’ve removed the vinyl labels, you’ll need an adhesive remover to get rid of any glue that was left behind. The general purpose adhesive cleaner by 3M is usually a good choice.

Always be sure to spot test your adhesive remover in an inconspicuous area before applying it all over the surface. Again, we’ll go into more detail for getting rid of glue and sticker residue later on.

Use a Hot Water Pressure Washer

Our third and final method for decal removal involves a hot water pressure washer. This method is effective because the hot water helps soften and loosen the stickers. The high pressure also helps clear away the residue normally leftover after decal removal.

Although hot water pressure washers use a lot of force to remove boat decals, this is exactly why they’re so effective. However, you should start in a small, inconspicuous area and watch carefully to make sure the high water pressure doesn’t cause any harm to your boat.

To remove stickers and decals with this method, simply start up the pressure washer at a low to mid setting. Spray on and around the decals to heat and dislodge them.

Precautions and Considerations

Although using a hot water pressure washer is effective and relatively safe, it might not be the best option for everyone. This is largely because most people won’t have one lying around somewhere. You might need to find a rental model from a nearby hardware store.

On the other hand, the tools you’d need for the other methods on this list are fairly commonplace. Most households have a hairdryer, and you probably have a few razor blades. And you can get an eraser wheel and scraper tools for very reasonable prices at any hardware store.

Whichever way you choose, any one of these methods should work to remove decals from your boat. This applies whether you have an aluminum boat, a fiberglass boat, or even a wooden one.

That said, if your boat is made of wood, you should be extra careful with the methods involving heat and pressure. You might want to avoid them completely and use the first method with the eraser wheel.

Dealing With Residue and Shadowing

Once you have the decals themselves removed, your task is almost done. At this point, you’re probably getting excited to customize your boat to your liking now that the old stickers are gone, by adding your own decals or even boat location trackers.

However, you may find some lingering residue or “shadows” where the decals used to be.

The next part of this guide will tell you how to deal with that.

How to Remove Sticker Residue

You may notice some unsightly adhesive residue leftover after removing the old decals. If left alone, this residue can attract debris, possibly trapping moisture and leading to rust or mold.

Even if you can’t see any residue left, it’s a good idea to give the surface area a good cleaning after getting old decals off. This is because there will always be some residue from old stickers, even if it’s invisible. Cleaning it with some high-quality adhesive remover is a must to keep your boat looking great going forward.

To remove stubborn, noticeable residue, you’ll need a solvent of some kind. We mentioned that the general purpose adhesive cleaner by 3M is a good product to try. You might also use Release Adhesive and Sealant Remover by BoatLife.

The Release remover product should be safe to use on all boat materials. Still, you should remember to spot test it on a small area first. Make sure it doesn’t cause any damage or discoloration in an inconspicuous area before using it on the full surface.

Other products you can use to remove residue include isopropyl alcohol and WD-40.Instructions for Removing Residue

After spot testing, spray your preferred residue remover all over the decal area. 

If you’re using WD-40, you should first warm up the surface using a hairdryer to loosen the adhesive. You might use a rag to rub the product into the residue. Then, use a scraper tool to scrape it away.

You can repeat this process as many times as necessary to get rid of the adhesive residue. You might leave the residue remover sitting on the surface for a moment before rubbing or scraping at it. This may help to break up the residue more effectively.

After you’ve gotten rid of the sticker residue, you should clean the area with a boat cleaner solution. This helps remove any invisible adhesive that may be left. You can use any name brand boat cleaner, as long as it’s safe for your boat’s material.

What to Do About Lingering “Shadows” From Old Decals

Once you’ve scraped away the old decals, thoroughly removed any residue, and cleaned the surface with boat cleaner, you should be ready to customize your boat the way you want it.

However, if you’ve gotten to this point in the process, you may have noticed that the area where the decals were is colored differently from the rest of your boat. This shadowing happens when decals have been on a boat for a while, particularly in sunlight.

If the shadowing is very slight, it probably means the decals weren’t on the boat for very long before you got it. This is good news, because it means that more sun exposure should cause the entire surface to return to the same color.

However, if the decals were there for several years or the boat was exposed to extreme sunlight, it may take more to eliminate the shadows left behind.What Causes Shadows and How to Remove Them

This shadowing happens in the first place because the petroleum in the decals’ adhesive fuses together with the petroleum from the boat’s gel coat. This causes the gel coat underneath the decals to swell, resulting in the discolored or uneven appearance.

If sun exposure doesn’t get rid of the shadowing, your next best option will probably be to wet, sand, and buff the area. This will give it a flatter surface and should partially or entirely remove the shadows that you see.

If you aren’t comfortable wet sanding and buffing out your boat yourself, or if you don’t have access to the right tools, a boat detailing service can do it for you.

Continuing Your Journey: Where to Go From Here

If you’ve read this entire guide, congratulations! You now know everything you need to effectively remove boat decals. Once you’ve removed all residue and taken care of any shadows, you can wipe the surface areas down with denatured alcohol to prep them for your own stickers and decals.

Of course, if you’re new to boating, this is just the beginning. The boating lifestyle is exciting and rewarding, but it comes with many challenges. To get the most out of boat ownership, having the right information is paramount.

That’s where Boating Scout comes in. From important boat safety information to informative guides like this one, Boating Scout has the information you need.

To continue learning about boat ownership and maintenance, check out this guide comparing aluminum and fiberglass boats.