It’s widely accepted that organic food is better for us and the environment, so it’s not a great leap to reason that organic paint would be just as good for our health, the environment, and the longevity of our boats. When it’s time to think about painting your boat, it’s well worth considering a natural, solvent-free paint. Allback Linseed Oil paint is produced with natural earth pigments and linseed oil pressed from organically grown flax seeds. Plant-based paints are nothing new; linseed oil paint predates today’s petroleum-based products. Modern alkyd resin and acrylic resin paints create a barrier between the wood and the marine environment, but water eventually finds its way into the wood, and the moisture sealed inside by the paint results in wood decay, causing the paint to bubble, crack, and fail. Linseed oil paint preserves the wood by allowing it to “breathe.”

Linseed oil soap, a 7 oz sample of linseed oil paint, and purified raw linseed oilCapt. David Bill at Wooden Tangent, Mattapoisett, MA

Linseed oil soap, a 7-oz sample of linseed oil paint, and purified raw linseed oil

I ordered small samples of Allback’s raw organic linseed oil, their organic linseed-oil soap, and their linseed-oil paint to try out on strips of pine, teak, mahogany, cedar, and walnut. The oil and paint went on smoothly and dried flat without prominent brush marks. The paint dries to a flat or semigloss finish and can be turned into a high-gloss paint, according to the manufacturer, with the addition of some of their linseed-oil varnish. I used the nontoxic linseed-oil soap, rather than paint thinner, to clean the brush and my hands.

Linseed-oil paint adheres to all surfaces—wood, iron, glass, cured epoxy, and previously applied alkyd and acrylic paints—as long as they are clean, dry, and in good condition. Untreated wood doesn’t require a paint primer before finish coats are applied. If the wood is especially dry, a wiping-down with linseed oil, allowed to be well absorbed into the wood, will keep the paint where it belongs: at the surface. Apply at least two thin coats of linseed-oil paint, using a stiff natural brush to spread them out.

Test samples painted in linseed blue linseed oil paintCapt. David Bill at Wooden Tangent, Mattapoisett, MA

Test samples painted in “Linseed Blue” linseed-oil paint

Boiled linseed oil and linseed-oil paint were used throughout the recent restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, the 174-year-old whaleship that is the centerpiece of Mystic Seaport, for both historical and practical reasons. During the restoration, new planking was saturated with multiple coats of boiled linseed oil. Old planking was stripped, water blasted, and then prepped with linseed oil. The entire hull was finish-painted with two coats of Allback’s black linseed oil paint. I spoke with Rob Whalen, the lead shipwright and project foreman for the MORGAN restoration, and it was clear that the Seaport’s research and testing had determined that Allback linseed-oil paint was the best choice for the preservation of the world’s sole remaining sailing whaleship.

I won’t know the outcome of my own paint trials for years to come, but linseed-oil enthusiasts support the manufacturer’s claim that the paint has excellent longevity while preserving the wood. Thad Danielson builds and restores wooden boats in Cummington, Massachusetts. “Prior to learning about Allback paint,” he wrote, “my boat paints always cracked and peeled in places, requiring sanding, filling, and repainting the entire boat every year. Last fall when we hauled SEA HARMONY, a 1937 Albert Strange yawl I’d painted with Allback paint, the yard manager looked at a few small breaks in the paint at plank seams and said: ‘Looks like your paint is peeling.’ I said it had been that way for seven years.  He replied, ‘You have done very well.’  I also painted my Mower dory with Allback’s Old White. It goes on beautifully, and any encouragement to lay raw linseed oil on one’s boats seems all good to me.” Such longevity in a paint finish saves significant effort and expense in the long run.

Allback notes that its paints can take on a matte look over time due to the oxidation that occurs as linseed oil dries. Simply rubbing linseed oil or linseed wax on with a cloth will rejuvenate the paint’s luster.

On a cost comparison alone, Allback linseed-oil paint is pricier, at $0.30 per sq ft than Benjamin Moore SuperSpec at $0.09 per sq ft or Rustoleum Topside at $0.15 per sq ft. But to compare more accurately, dry weight needs to be factored. Linseed-oil paint is 100 percent dry weight: no added solvents evaporate from the paint; the linseed oil transitions from a liquid state to solid. The dry weight of petroleum-based paint is measured only after the water, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and solvents evaporate from the paint. For some petroleum-based paints, only 40 percent of what’s in the can is dry weight. If you take into account the thickness of the film of paint after it has dried, quart for quart you’ll have nearly twice as much paint on your boat per coat of linseed oil paint.

Consider going organic with your next painting project. Using Allback Linseed Oil products will make a healthier, more effective, and—for traditional boats—historically appropriate way to protect your investment.

Capt. David Bill is a Sea Survival Instructor at Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts, and writes about his adventures on his blog, Boats and Life.

Allback’s full line of linseed-oil products is available at Viking Sales.

For more information about linseed oil see “Linseed Oil: Both a primer and a finish” by Harry Bryan, WoodenBoat, September/October 2009.

Is there a product that might be useful for boatbuilding, cruising or shore-side camping that you’d like us to review? Please email your suggestions.