musings from a boat painter's workshop
thoughts of laser cleaning as an alternative to sanding...
It can be a quiet life, the painting of boats. After the hard work of boat surface preparation is done there is time for quiet contemplation and communing with one’s paint brush. Rather like Mr Miyagi’s instruction of “wax on, wax off”, we spend many hours moving a paint brush from the bottom to the top of a 1 metre cabin side. Paint up, paint across, paint down; all very rhythmic and calming. Some workshops play loud music to fill the hours but, after the din of grinders and sanders, peace and quiet is what we prefer.
So, what goes through our minds as we literally watch paint dry?
Of late, I have been thinking about laser cleaning. I’d seen a couple of YouTube videos and thought – Wow! That can’t be real surely and, if it is, why aren’t we cleaning boats with lasers?
A good paint job is all about the preparation; if narrowboats could be properly prepared, cleaned and de-rusted with minimal mess, minimal effort but maximal cleaning and rust removal narrowboat painting could be revolutionised.
The current options of grinding or shot-blasting are very messy, very labour intensive and are only as good as the effort that is put in.
Laser cleaning vaporises the paint and rust – cutting down the mess, the laser “gun” is not heavy – cutting down the effort and the finish is clean enough for the nuclear industry.
Want to know more?
I took the time (so that you don’t have to) to make further enquiries, attending a symposium on the applications of laser cleaning.
Laser cleaning equipment is used in many industries. Artworks from the Old Masters benefit from laser cleaning. The depth of the laser penetration can be very finely tuned so centuries of dirt can be removed without any damage to the painting. At the rougher end of the spectrum, laser cleaning was adopted for the cleaning of concrete walls on Dublin’s Harbourside as more standard, but more aggressive, methods of cleaning such as shot-blasting was not permitted.
Laser cleaning has been used in high tech industries for around 30 years. As a boat painter, the most relatable for me was the use of lasers for the pre-cleaning of metal prior to welding. This is done for the welding of car components and nuclear waste containers (where the strength of the welds is super important!). Typically, lasers are used in conjunction with robotic systems. The “laser robot” will clean the metal plate seconds before the “welding robot” does the weld. Cleaning the contaminants seconds before the weld increases weld penetration making the bond stronger.
But, I hear you cry, weld joins only cover a very small area; it would take forever to clean a boat with a laser beam of 0.02 mm width. Fortunately, beam width and laser power have been increasing with developments within the laser industry. Laser heads now exist that are a suitable proportions to work with narrowboat sized objects.
I have seen the technology with my own eyes on my own dirty, rusty, painted piece of steel, you will have to trust this YouTube clip
Can your boat be cleaned by lasers?
Yes! But, as a small business owner, I have to say it will be no time soon. For laser equipment of a suitable size to clean a narrowboat it would cost around £500,000. That’s a lot of boats to be cleaned before it pays for itself.
But who knows what the future holds. Today, we each carry more computing power in our hands than could have been bought with £500,000 forty years ago. Laser technology is constantly developing and being adopted by different industries. Maybe in time it will be affordable enough for every boat yard to have their own laser cleaning equipment.
Willow Boat Painting is a great little team operating out of Swanley Bridge Marina in Cheshire. We are headed up by mum and son Sally and Alex with much able assistance from Charlotte Seabrook. We are dedicated to high quality coach painting of narrowboats and take enormous pride in our work. We approach each narrowboat with a firm plan for how to provide a durable paint job and every attention is given to ensure our boats are meticulously well finished.