How to Choose a Marine Canvas Color

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Choosing a canvas color for your boat’s bimini, dodger, boat cover, awning, shade sail or other overhead shade application is a big decision. As you’ll find out, it’s not so black and white. There are a lot of factors to consider before deciding on a color — perhaps more factors than you realized. Choosing between a dark or a light color involves the following considerations: UV protection, heat buildup, glare, stain visibility and, above all, your cruising location. In this blog, we’ll discuss all these factors to help you choose the best color for your boat.

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First, let’s talk about dark colors. Dark colors include black, navy, burgundy, chocolate brown, very dark green, etc. Many boaters prefer dark colors for their canvas tops because of their classic look and the striking contrast between dark canvas and a white or cream color boat. Black, navy, burgundy — these colors will never go out of style, which makes them a popular choice. You can find these classic colors filling marinas and ports all over the globe.

Dark canvas colors have lower levels of visible light transmittance (Tv) than light colored fabrics. Visible light transmittance is the proportion of visible light that is transmitted through a fabric. This factor greatly affects glare. A dark fabric has drastically lower levels of glare than a light fabric. Not only do dark canvas colors reduce glare more than light colors, but they also perform better at blocking light. This is known as solar transmittance (Ts), and it’s the percentage of solar energy that is transmitted through a fabric.

Though dark fabrics do a much better job of reducing glare and blocking UV rays than light colored fabrics, the downside to dark colors is heat buildup. Imagine getting into a car on a hot summer day. That can be what a tropical sun beating down on a black bimini can feel like. If you use dark canvas for a full boat enclosure with the windows zipped up, your cockpit can quickly heat up like an oven when the sun is at its peak. Dark canvas also holds heat longer than light canvas, meaning it will take longer for the canvas to cool off after the sun has gone down.

If you sail in the tropics and you prefer dark canvas, there’s a solution to the heat buildup issue. With good air circulation and approximately 10-12 inches of space between your head and the canvas, there should be sufficient space for the heat to dissipate and airflow to cool down your enclosure.

Another factor to consider is keeping your canvas top clean. While dark colors do a better job of hiding dirt, pollution, and other stains and smudges, bird droppings are very visible on dark fabrics. If you dock at a marina where birds are a constant nuisance, this could be a serious consideration for you when choosing your canvas color.

  • higher amount of dye in canvas increases UV resistance
  • zero or low percentage of glare
  • hides dirt, pollution and smudges
  • typically lasts longer than light colors
  • absorbs heat more than light, creating hot area around and under canvas
  • shows bird droppings
  • at night, dark colored enclosure can feel “cave-like”
  • black canvas enclosure at risk of causing chemical pinking on vinyl seating — breathable marine canvas fabric is best, but even vinyl or coated fabric can be used successfully if vented properly
  • Now that we’ve discussed dark canvas colors, let’s move on to light colors. The light colors include white, natural, cream, pale blue, light green, yellow, orange and others. With more color options than ever before, there are dozens of colors to choose from, and many boaters are drawn to lighter colors for their fun and contemporary look. Dark canvas colors are more common, meaning light colors can be an advantage at the marina so you can easily find your boat among the sea of navy and black.

    Another benefit of light colored canvas is that light colors don’t absorb heat the way dark colors do. They reflect UV rays so the space under the bimini, dodger, awning, etc., stays cool and comfortable. When spending hours at the helm during a cloudless summer day, this can make a significant difference in your comfort level. At night, a light canvas can provide some welcome brightness and visibility.

    Light colored canvas does a poorer job of hiding dirt, smudges and pollution, but bird droppings don’t stand out as much as they do on dark canvas. Light colors, particularly white canvas, are more at risk for mold and mildew growth. Due to the fabric dyeing process and how UV rays affect different colors, light colored canvas might not last as long as dark canvas, so you could potentially be sacrificing longevity for comfort and coolness.

  • reflects light, creating cooler area around and under canvas
  • provides better visibility at night and an airy atmosphere, even in full enclosures
  • hides bird droppings better than dark colors
  • less UV resistance than dark canvas
  • creates glare effect
  • shows dirt, pollution and dark smudges
  • white canvas is more prone to mold and mildew growth
  • may not last as long as dark colors
  • Now that you understand the pros and cons of dark and light canvas colors, let’s talk about the best canvas brands. Sunbrella® is a clear choice for biminis, dodgers, awnings and more. Every Sunbrella Marine Grade fabric comes with a 10-year limited warranty, ensuring your canvas application will withstand the elements for years. Sunbrella marine fabrics also hold the Skin Cancer Foundation’s seal of approval for aiding in the prevention of sun-induced skin damage. With the largest color range of marine fabrics, Sunbrella has a color for everyone.

    Sunbrella® SeaMark® fabrics feature Sunbrella’s solution-dyed acrylic canvas with a waterproof PVC backing on the underside. SeaMark is designed to withstand salt, moisture and temperature extremes, making it a great choice for boat shade applications. Two fabrics in the collection have a dark canvas top side and a lighter color, waterproof underside. These dual-color fabrics could be a “best of both worlds” option for those who want the UV resistance of a dark canvas with the benefits of a light color underneath. Due to its waterproof nature, the fabric can accumulate moisture on the underside if the enclosure is not properly ventilated.

    Top Gun® and Top Notch®, from Marlen Textiles, bring exceptional performance and longevity to your boat enclosure. Instead of acrylic, they are 100% solution-dyed polyester fabrics. Polyester fabric is more abrasion resistant and dimensionally stable than acrylic, though acrylic recovers better and “bounces back” after it gets wet. The Top Notch 9 collection has a fluorocarbon finish that makes the fabric breathable, reversible and water-repellent. Top Notch 1S has a urethane coating for extreme water resistance. Top Gun 1S has an acrylic coating that provides high water resistance, durability and tear strength. There is no pigmentation on the underside of the fabric, which would help decrease radiated heat transfer underneath. Top Notch 1S and Top Gun 1S are the lighter weight canvas options.

    Ultimately the choice is yours, but we hope we’ve given you some valuable information to think over when choosing a canvas color. Dark colors block UV rays, halt glare and absorb heat. Light colors have less UV resistance, create a glare effect and dissipate heat for a much cooler enclosure area. If you sail in the tropics, a dark canvas will be very hot to stand beneath unless you have adequate airflow and enough distance between you and the canvas top. However, a dark color will also offer more protection from the harsh sun than a light colored fabric. If you sail in a more temperate climate, a dark color will retain heat during the day and provide warmth to your enclosure during chilly weather. Dark canvas offers no brightness at night and can make your cockpit enclosure even darker than the outside.

    Perhaps a color in the medium range, such as tan, gray or medium blue, would provide both adequate sun protection and heat dissipation. It all comes down to what looks good on your boat, where you sail, and how much care and maintenance you want to put into your canvas. No matter which color you choose, Sailrite offers the best selection of colors and brands. We also sell fabric samples of all our marine canvas fabrics so you can see the fabric in person to make sure it’s exactly what you’re looking for.

    What has your experience with canvas colors been like? Do you prefer dark or light canvas for your bimini, dodger, boat cover, awning or other shade application? Please share your opinions and experiences in the comments section. We'd love to hear your thoughts!

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