Boat SealantsBy Don Casey
Published: April/May 2013
Perfect technique can't make up for the wrong sealant. If you really want to stop that leak, start by getting the sealant right.
What Really Matters
A good marine sealant for bedding deck fittings must be waterproof, of course, but it must also be flexible, UV resistant, and, ideally, chemical resistant (fuel, bleach, and other solvents do find their way on deck occasionally). It should not be so strong that the deck hardware can't be removed if necessary, or so tenacious that it leaves a residue that prevents other sealants from adhering. From an aesthetic perspective, it should resist dirt and not age in an unsightly way.
The table below summarizes how the various adhesives line up against these criteria. Strength is measured in psi. Flexibility is measured by elongation, or the amount the material can be stretched, as a percentage of its original length, before it ruptures. When bonding two different materials together, and then subjecting the bond to movement, elongation allows the seal between the two materials to stretch to accommodate the differences in flexibility. A good sealant for bedding deck fittings has relatively low tensile strength and relatively high elongation.
The high tensile strength of the medium- and high-strength polyurethanes makes them excellent adhesive sealants, but less than ideal for anything that might ever need to be dismantled. In addition, the polyurethanes will soften when exposed to fuels, solvents, and particularly acids, so they're not the best choice for use on the deck. At first glance, silicone seems a better compromise, with lower tensile strength than the medium- and high-strength polyurethanes, but similar elongation and better chemical resistance. Unfortunately, the adhesion of general-purpose silicone sealants is often fleeting; you won't have to look far in any marina to see silicone "worms" dangling from portlight frames. Worse, silicone leaves behind an all but permanent coating to which no sealant, including fresh silicone, will adhere. Contamination from some earlier silicone sealant application is often the undiagnosed cause of premature bedding failures. But silicone cannot be avoided altogether as it is one of the few sealants compatible with all plastics.
The remaining sealants all have relatively low tensile strength and high elongation, and any of them can be used for bedding deck fittings. The low-strength polyurethanes have less holding power than their more muscular siblings, but share their susceptibility to chemical attack and incompatibility with plastic (except Sikaflex 295 when used with a primer). Butyl tape is an old solution that's becoming popular once again, and it has a lot to recommend it (see sidebar). It can be used to bed all types of plastics, unlike polysulfide, which attacks plastic, and polyurethane (with the exception of Sikaflex 295), which loses its grip due to plastic outgassing.
Polysulfide resists chemical attack and is unaffected by submersion. When cured, though, polysulfide has less stretch than other marine sealants. If you tighten the fasteners enough to squeeze out all but a paper-thin gasket of sealant, the seal will rupture if opened by just a few thousandths of an inch. Good bedding technique resulting in a thick layer of sealant overcomes this problem, making polysulfide suitable for virtually all non-plastic bedding applications, including tank fills and vents, wood components that might be subjected to bleaching, and thru-hull fittings both above and below the waterline.
Polyether sealant is the new kid on the block. The only polyether sealants you'll find in marine supply stores will be West Marine's Multi-Caulk and 3M 4000 UV. The primary attraction of 3M 4000 UV is its versatility. It's the only marine sealant suitable for both above and below the waterline that brings no risk of incompatibility, whether sealing fiberglass, metal, wood, or plastic. (Note: Multi-Caulk is not safe for ABS or Lexan plastics.) 3M 4000 UV's low odor and easier cleanup make it more pleasant to use than the other curing sealants. However, with a tensile strength similar to the low-strength polyurethanes, it will deliver a stronger bond than desirable for bedding applications where future disassembly is likely.
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