According to the ancient Greeks, there are six different ways to describe love. But I’m sure ancient Greek boaters had a word for “boat love” and a separate, even more sophisticated word to describe “trailer love.”
After I finished renovating my boat, I noted my trailer was looking a bit shabby. There was some surface rust on the steel frame, one of the tail lights didn’t function properly, the spare tire no longer held air, the carpet padding was stiff, and the trailer tongue jack was beat up. It was time to show that trailer some love.
The first rule of trailer love is to do no harm to your boat. You’re going to be grinding and hammering and painting, and the last thing you want to do is mar the finish of your pride and joy, so it’s best to empty the trailer first. I hoisted my boat with a chain fall attached to a beam in the garage, and then rested it on a padded sawhorse.
The trailer was wheeled outside where I removed the fenders, wiring and lights, spare tire, and those tired carpeted trailer bunks. Everything that came off the trailer was placed in an old plastic Tupperware container so I didn’t lose any parts. All fasteners, even those that were old and ruined, went into Ziploc bags in case they were needed again.
Remove the paint
If your trailer was built from steel and it has surface rust, job one is paint removal. A friend who is an engineer recommended a cup brush, and it was very effective at removing paint, but be warned: it also has a nasty habit of shedding stainless steel wires and throwing them toward your manhood at such a velocity that they become embedded in your trousers.
Jack up the trailer and put it up on jack stands, or saw horses, in order to reduce the amount of bending required. Then grind, grind, and grind some more until you’ve removed all of the loose paint and any rust.
At the end of your grinding session, look over the entire frame to see if any welds are cracked and need repair. (I found one where the tongue attached to the front of the frame.) Add any you find to your work list.
For minor pitting or corrosion, clean it with acetone and then fill the space with thickened epoxy. While the epoxy is kicking, vacuum the rest of the trailer and wipe it clean.
Prime the trailer
The next step is priming, which is best done under cover. I rolled the trailer back into the garage, but first I covered the floor with plastic; that made clean up much easier.
Before you get out the primer, loosen the lug nuts on the trailer wheels, jack the trailer up on jack stands, and remove the wheels.
After you don some old clothes, you’re ready to prime the entire trailer . I used Rust-Oleum Rusty Metal Primer. You want to get the primer on every surface of the trailer, and this is a dirty job. To make it more pleasant, I used mini paint rollers and then tipped out the paint with my favorite sash brush, which is 3” wide. You can also use the spray cans, but you’ll need a lot of them.
I’m fond of my lungs and breathing is an activity that I enjoy, so I wore a good respirator while priming and painting the trailer frame.
After the primer dries, call a local welder to repair any minor cracks.
Now for the fun part: rebuilding. You are putting a significant amount of labor into this trailer, so treat yourself to the best new parts. Don’t reinstall anything junky or worn, since this is a job you won’t want to do again in the near future.
My favorite trailer parts store is etrailer.com. The staff is knowledgeable, the selection is extensive, they have video reviews of the products, and they answer questions. I ordered a new trailer jack and wheel for the front of the trailer, new LED taillights and side marker lights, and a new wiring harness. The old trailer jack still had some life in it, so I renovated it and set it aside to mount on the back of the trailer; that will prevent the dreaded popup when you step aft of the trailer axle.
The trailer wheels also had some surface rust. After cleaning off the road grime, I went through the same prep and then primed both sides with spray paint. One trick for these: instead of masking the wheels off with tape, treat yourself to some 3” x 5” index cards and insert them in the space between the wheel and the tire, overlapping each card by an inch or so to protect the tires from stray paint.
After priming, I sprayed the wheels with Rustoleum paint and they were ready to go.
Painting the Trailer
One friend recommended I use different colors of paint for each coat, so I’d be able to see if there were any spots I missed. I liked this idea, but it was hard to figure out exactly how much of each color to buy.
Instead I purchased a gallon of Rust-Oleum Smoke Gray paint. By the time the third coat of paint was applied, I was starting to hate the job. But when I stepped back to admire my work, the 27 year old trailer was looking better than new.
The galvanized trailer fenders now looked a bit tatty, so I gave them a wire brushing, a cleaning, and a couple of coats of Rust-Oleum Cold Galvanized spray paint. The finish is not as hard as I would like, but the fenders look much better than they did before.
The spare that was on the trailer was rusty beyond repair, so I went to the junkyard. The hardest part of replacing a spare tire is figuring out what size you need, but again etrailer makes it easy. Another way to make sure you don’t buy the wrong size is to make a little jig with a piece of wood and some nails sticking out of it where the lugs go, so when you get to the junkyard you can instantly tell if the spare will fit the trailer.
The spare I purchased for $20 had a leaky stem valve, so I brought it to a local shop to have the tire removed. Then I took the wheel home, restored it (same process as above), and brought it back to have the tire remounted and leaky valve stem replaced. It’s much easier to restore the wheel when there is no tire on it, and far more rewarding.
Repack the Bearings
Next up for your attention are the bearings, which are some of the most important parts on the trailer. Remove your bearing caps and have a look at the grease. If they’ve been repacked lately, it will feel silky smooth and smell fresh and you are in good shape. If it looks like a hardened, lumpy mess, it’s time to repack the bearings. Here's a good video on YouTube to show you how to repack trailer bearings.
Now that the trailer was painted, I started to imagine that my boat's bottom was my own. Given the choice, I would rather rest my buttocks upon a wide, comfy platform, and I’ve always admired the wide, cushy bunks covered with closed cell foam that high end yachts perch their entitled bottoms upon.
My trailer bunks were nothing more than 2 x 6’s cut to match the shape of the bottom of the boat. To replace them, I cut ¼” plywood to match the length and width of the bunks, rounded the corners with a jig saw, and drilled some holes for countersunk flathead screws.
Next I taped off all the finished work with painter’s plastic, and then mixed up some epoxy. I coated the two original bunks with straight epoxy, then mixed up a thickened batch of epoxy and applied it to where the bunks would sit on the frame. The screws served as clamps. On top of the new, wider bunks, I wet out some 6” wide fiberglass cloth I had lying around the shop.
Eight hours later, after the epoxy on the glass cloth was firm but still easy to handle, I trimmed the edges of the cloth flush with the bunks with a sharp chisel.
The next day, I washed the bunks with warm water and a Scotch-Brite pad to remove the amine blush from the epoxy. Then I sanded out the rough spots, cleaned, primed, and painted. Now the bunks matched the frame, but they still needed padding.
Closed cell foam made those nice, wide bunks into a La-Z-Boy for my boat. A friend had some leftover foam from his latest project, so I cut what I needed off his sheet, two strips 6” wide and four feet long. I made the cut at his house with a flat edge and a utility knife, so it was a bit rough. Back in my garage , I used a fine-tooth table saw blade to clean it up.
To attach the foam to the bunks, I placed a strip of carpet tape down the center, then applied a bead of 3M 5200 around the edges. Once the foam was on top of the bunks, I used weights and clamps to hold it in place.
With the foam bunks looking cushy enough for the Queen’s royal backside, it was time to install the lights and wires. Here’s a tip before you start: Those metal clips that came with the lighting kit will mar the surface of your paint, kink your wires, and cut your hands. The ideal place to put those clips is in the trash can. Use wire ties instead.
After sorting the harness so the wires ran exactly straight, I stripped the wires back enough so there was about a half inch where they met with the wires from the lights. Before soldering, I slid shrink wrap wire covers onto one side. Once the joint cooled, I slid the shrink tube over the joint and shrunk it with a heat gun to make the joint more waterproof.
To work properly, LED lights must be grounded, which means the ground wire is in clear contact with metal. After applying one coat of primer and three coats of paint, I had to expose some of the metal for the ground to do its work.
Once that was done, I bolted the new trailer jack on the front of the trailer and then took my reward: a test drive with the empty trailer to make sure the lights worked. The new LED lights were much brighter than the old bulbs.
The trailer was looking good, but while I was taking it apart and wire brushing it, I had time to reflect on one of the great mysteries of life: why did the trailer rust in this one particular spot? Or this one? Chances are, it was because water could collect there. So when I reassembled the trailer, I laid down a generous bead of silicone caulk anywhere water could collect. I also bedded where the lights were mounted to the trailer, where the fenders met the trailer, and where the wooden bunks met the trailer.
The final finishing touch was to put my boat name on the trailer so there would be no ambiguity as to who owned this renovated masterpiece. I used reflective mailbox letters.
Making your trailer beautiful is a lot of work, but knowing that you and your beautiful boat will get down the road safely is a good feeling indeed. And after all of this love you have shown your trailer, there’s no doubt your trailer will love you back for years to come.
When Joe Berkeley is not working on his trailer, he is a freelance writer. His work is at joeberkeley.com.
Editor's Note: Once you're finished working on your trailer, it's time to tow it to the water. We've put together a series of towing videos to help get you on the road safely in a variety of situations; here's a list of what's published so far.