Removing Vinyl Boat Lettering and Decals

A few posts ago, I wrote about how to remove a painted boat name. Vinyl boat names and decals are just as common these days, and removing them requires a different approach. Case in point: I just bought a little-used runabout that I’m going to fix up and flip. The price was too good to resist, and all it needed was a little sprucing up, which included removing some tattered old vinyl decals. But I’m not reaching for a box of razor blades for that chore. No, no, no. That would be like shaving with an axe.

If you try to take lettering or decals off a boat with a razor blade — and you’ve probably looked at a used model on which some had tried this — you’ll gouge up the boat, especially if they’re old decals.

The 3M Stripe Off Wheel does a good job of removing vinyl decals and lettering. The underlying adhesive comes off with lacquer thinner.

3M makes spray adhesive removers, but they’re only good for removing one or two year old decals. Any longer than that and the sun just bakes them on too staunchly for the spray to be effective.

The best trick for removing older decals also comes from 3M: the No. 07498 Stripe Off Wheel. Since it is technically an automotive product you’ll have to go the local auto body supply house to get one. If you ask the counterman for a 3M eraser wheel, he should know what you’re talking about.

That’s really what it is, an abrasive wheel made from eraser material. It’s brilliant and it works like magic. Chuck it into your three-eighths-inch drill, bring it up to top rpm, and rub it along the stripe, decal or lettering. You’ll be amazed how it peels off the vinyl—and it smells just like you’ve erased pencil from paper. Since it’s just eraser material, there’s little risk of burning through the gelcoat — but just to be on the safe side, don’t go nuts with rpm and pressure.

There’s really not much to it. Run the wheel along the vinyl, gauging the pressure you need to use by what you’ve just removed, and you should have no trouble. The eraser wheel will not remove the adhesive, though. That’s where lacquer thinner comes in.

Soak a rag with lacquer thinner and rub the adhesive until it starts to dissolve. Then come back by with your fingernail and take it right off. Do not to use acetone because it discolors gelcoat. If there’s too much material on the boat and not enough fingernails to get the job done, you could try using the edge of a bondo spreader, also available from the auto body supply house.

Once you get the lettering or decals off and the adhesive cleaned up, you might find that you can see raised sections of gelcoat where the decals were. You can feel them, too. Look across where the lettering was and you should still be able to read the name. That’s because ultraviolet rays in sunlight actually deteriorate gelcoat as a boat ages. Of course, if the boat isn’t all that old or it has been stored inside and waxed regularly, the raised sections will not be as pronounced.

Brett Becker


  1. Charles Spear says:

    I am trying to remove vinyl lettering from my boat. The letters are glued onto a colored vinyl base which is glued onto the aluminum boat hull.

    I tried scraping with goofoff, lighter fluid and a heat gun. I ended up damaging the underlying vinyl color layer. What kind of chemical can I use to break down the vinyl letters without damaging the underlying vinyl coat?

    I have been using a scraper and my finger nail, but a very slow process.

    • Doug Logan says:

      Hi Charles. I’ve has good results with an adhesive dissolver called Anti-Bond. You can get it at West Marine.

      Here’s a blog I wrote about it on

      Test it on one letter first — spray it on, let it sit for a minute, then try loosening it with a rag. It should work after 2-3 applications.

      Good luck.