Spar Finishes

Finishing an aluminum mast by The Rigging CompanyToday’s spars are usually made of composite carbon fiber or aluminum extrusions. Both of these mast materials, just like old wooden masts, require a finish. Whereas wooden masts were typically coated with a clear varnish, they could also be found painted. These more traditional finishes were typically brush applied or rolled and tipped. Spray finishes became more popular towards the end of the wooden spar era. The paints and varnishes of old were also oil-based instead of being polyester-based, like many of the high end finishes found today in the marine or aeronautical industries.

  Today, Carbon fiber spars use either a clear urethane or one with a pigment, typically black or white, and are applied via spray-gun. Aluminum masts are also typically finished using the same pigmented polyester-based polyurethane and applied through spray Painting carbon fiberapplication. Aluminum however, always requires an epoxy-based primer before applying the top-coat to the aluminum spar. The epoxy primer provides a superior moisture barrier as-well-as, a surface to improve the adherence of the urethane, which is crucial for UV resistance. Although it can’t hurt, a carbon spar does not require an epoxy primer as the epoxy used to laminate the carbon fibers (along with a good etching) ensures quality adhesion by default. Using a clear urethane on a carbon fiber or wooden spar gives the mast a really unique and glossy look that magnifies the patterns within the laminate or the grain. However, this type of finish is more tedious to execute, requires more maintenance and has a shorter life span than its pigmented counterpart.

Aluminum masts can also be found in a black or clear-anodized finish, which is preferred due to its durability, but may not always be available. Aluminum spars are also most often painted, typically in either black, or some shade of white/cream. Although rare, aluminum spars can be powder-coated, which has also proven to be a fairly durable finish. We have found powder coating to be the least preferred method for spar finishes.

Wooden mast refinishedNew wooden spars

So why does one need to have a finish on these various types of spar materials? Wood will deteriorate from moisture and sunlight. Carbon fiber by itself, does extremely well in a high U.V. environment. However, the epoxy used to laminate the fibers is very sensitive to sunlight and will break down. Unfinished aluminum can be highly corrosive. Carbons, salts,  and electrolytic activity in combination with dissimilar metals are some of the factors that can help accelerate this corrosion process.

Mast ready for paintMast that has been media blasted

Here are some thoughts regarding our preparation methods to ensure a finish is properly applied:

  • All types of spars (PRE-PAINT-PREP) should have the hardware removed, cleaned, inspected, and replaced if necessary (don’t cheat yourself in leaving on any hardware). Note: remember that the purpose of a refinish is to refurbish and preserve the spar material and the associated hardware.
  • Carbon-fiber spars (PAINT-PREP)  will simply require a good etching with a medium-fine grit paper, such as a 220 or 320. Follow that with a good rinse (with a de-greasing soap) along with a chemical wipe just before painting.
  • Wooden spars (PAINT-PREP)should also be finish-sanded to a medium-fine grit, such as a 220. You can then use wood bleach or oxalic acid to brighten and clean the wood if applying a clear finish. Be sure to rinse the this acid with vinegar to neutralize it and remove any residue that may conflict with the finish adhering properly. A tack cloth should be used just prior to applying the finish to remove any remaining unwanted dust and/or particles.
  • Wooden and carbon-fiber spars (CLEAR COATS), when applying a clear finish to either, you should take extra care to remove all of the old finish, otherwise this could lead to a “spotty” finish.
  • Aluminum spars (PAINT-PREP)should be sanded to a rougher, medium grit of 120 to give the metal a well-etched surface for the primer to ‘bite’ into. Any highly corroded areas should be spot treated via media blasting. The metal should then be washed with an acid solution to combat the basic nature of the corrosive process. This process will also remove any grease, oil and dirt from the surface, for the primer and the topcoat to adhere properly. A good chemical wipe or tack cloth is also a good idea right before applying the primer.
Refinished sparsFreshly painted mastPainted Mast

After the spars have been painted properly, you should take extra care to ensure that all of the hardware gets installed using new fasteners and sealant. This step will provide a seal and a barrier between the hardware and the spars.

Maintaining these finishes will ensure the longevity of the spars and is achieved by re-coating the spars within the time period recommended, as per the paint manufacturer’s requirements. When re-coating you should also remove, re-bed and refasten the hardware associated with the spar. If the existing base coat is intact and meets the manufacturers adhesion requirements, these finishes can typically be dulled with a medium-fine grit like 320 and red Scotch-Brite. Then follow the aforementioned rinsing methods (for Carbon Fiber) and apply another series of coats, as needed.

Carbon fiber clear coat

In conclusion, typically (at least in the middle-Atlantic type regions), one can expect pigmented polyurethane finishes to last 7-10 years or longer; non-pigmented polyurethanes may last up to 5  years.  In most cases, these finishes could be re-coated within those periods. Granted, these are generalizations and are dependent upon the product used, the geographical location and use, as well as the method in which they were applied. As always, please seek the help of your local rigger or marine painter for specific instructions on dealing with your spars particularly.

Want to inquire about having your spars refinished? Leave us a note below or reach out to us via our Online Work Request Form.

Thanks for the read.


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Views From Aloft

A beautiful day in Friendship, Maryland

Chesapeake Bay from Friendship MD up the mast. Aloft
Click the image for a better view!

We went aloft on this completely re-rigged Beneteau 411 to cover tang holes.

Bene 411 from aloft. Up the mast

The birds were making their way-in and building a nest. Who wouldn’t, those are some big holes that make a great front door. “Come on in”

Beneteau 411 from aloft

We used black preservation tape and prepped the area to ensure good adhesion. This very strong tape is apparently no match for a beak. Attempt number one was a fail!

Covering tang holes on US Spars, Beneteau 411 Z spar bird hole. US Spars how to keep birds out of my mast.

But we’ll be back with custom made aluminum covers which we will drill and tap. “That oughta hold ’em”

Hopefully I won’t have to dig out the family and their nest next time…eeeek!

Who can name this Marina?

Herrington Harbor south

Thanks for taking a look at the view!

Jimmie Cockerill. The BEST sailboat rigger.


Posted in Annapolis Sailing, Baltimore Sailing, Cruisers, Home is where the heart is, Modern Yachts, Rigging, Views from aloft | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Which Radar Reflector?

Rigging radar reflectors. which radar reflector to choose.A radar reflector is used to help make your vessel more identifiable by other boats and ships that use radar to scan for vessels as well as other obstructions. In the world of radar reflectors there are many, many options. For sailboats the options are narrowed down a bit, but there is still much controversy over which ones are the best, in what conditions and why. What makes a radar reflector good in our eyes is: #1 how well does it reflect or bounce back a radar signal in varying conditions and circumstances, #2 how practical and sturdy is it to install on a sailboat mast. Clearly there are many factors in how a radar reflector performs; wind, rain, heel, elevation, type of signal, I am sure there are even more. Here are a few articles (click here, here, and here) that get into the science of it all. In terms of performance you will need to do your own research to see which reflector suits your needs the best. I would like to take second and talk about the reflectors we have installed the most of and their pro’s and con’s in terms of rigging. Mobri Radar. RAdar REflector. Mobry

Mobri – A favorite radar reflector of ours for a long time mostly from an installer’s point of view. When properly mounted, they are neatly tucked out of the way of the sails and rigging. This is why we like them so much. Yes, these don’t have the best performance, I’ve come to find out, but we always rig these in pairs (which may improve the performance results?), one on the port stay and one on the starboard stay. This of course makes the reflector twice as expensive. We only recommend these for boat’s with at least two sets of spreaders so that they can be mounted to the intermediate or D2 shrouds. We will use seizing wire to properly seize them to the stay 12″-24″ up from the spreader. Tri lens radar reflector. TRILENS. TRYLENS radar

Tri-lens – From what I understand this radar reflector offers some of the best all around performance for the price. Typically you will see these mounted to the face of the mast. This presents an inherent problem for us sailboat riggers; it is in the path of the jib which is inevitably going to try and wipe it off of the front of the mast. This is especially a problem on boats which utilize overlapping headsails, don’t have forward lower shrouds, don’t have a mast mounted radar and guard (as pictured above), have aft swept spreaders, or use a permanent Stay-sail stay to help protect this vulnerable part from getting knocked off. These reflectors have recently been modified with a second mounting bracket on top for a sturdier mount (not pictured). This second bracket has made us more confident in installing these, as there is a big difference in how sturdy the unit is. Keep in mind the plastic cover of these lenses are well built and therefore very heavy. You’ll want to make sure that you have taken every precaution to ensure that it won’t come crashing down on your head! Davis Echomaster Echo Master – The most tried and trued of all of the reflectors. Many will argue that even though this isn’t the “fairest of them all”, it works pretty darn well. Especially when mounted in the coined “catch rain position” (pictured above), using Davis’ Echomaster Hanging Mount, optional. The problem is how do you mount the thing without it flailing about like a wild, out-of-control disco ball. See the gallery below for how we achieve a good way for these to be mounted beneath the first set of spreaders…

CLICK HERE AND ZOOM-IN TO GET THE BIG PICTURE! ~note: this is not the preferred "catch rain position!

Firdell RAdar Blipper. Firdel blipper Firdell Blipper – This is probably our least favorite radar reflector that we install. It is another face-of-the-mast mounted design which uses very flimsy mounting brackets. These brackets are almost always bent, damaged or missing. We only recommend using these if they are guaranteed to be well protected from the effects of a tacking jib. Although these are much lighter than the Tri-lens you still don’t want it to come crashing down on deck! On top of that, this reflector seems to be one of the weakest reflectors of the bunch according to the product testing sources linked above.

Although there are many more products out there worth researching and we will gladly always explore new products and options, these are the brands that we have had most of our experience installing. Need more information or help installing a radar reflector? If in doubt, don’t forget to Contact your local rigger for assistance.

Do you have any experiences with radar reflectors? Don’t forget to Share your thoughts below and thanks for the read.


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