Marine Varnish

Continuing the theme of marine paint, I thought I would expound a bit about marine varnish.

As is the case with marine paint, a big part of getting a good finish has to do with thorough preparation. Equally important is the species of wood that is being varnished or finished. Some types of wood hold up well under traditional finishes, others need special treatment. As I wrote in the marine paint post, the best advice I can give is if you find something that works stick with it.

Oils verses varnish.  I have used deck oils and so called “fisherman’s finishes” and my take is this: if you do not mind the wood getting progressively darker, and you do not mind adding coats several times during a season, they do work very well. One thing you will need to consider is drying time. Most deck oils are just that, oil. With out a drying agent such as Japan Dryer, they take a long time to dry. Technically, some never really dry, but just become more solid. As a result it can take a while for a coat of oil to “dry.”  An exception to this is the use of heat to change how the oil and wood combine. I know of sailors who take the shells of wood blocks, parrels, lizards, and wooden cleats and boil them in linseed oil. The resulting finish is soft to the touch, bonds extremely well to the wood, and are fairly long lasting, but I will also say boiling linseed oil has it’s own perils. If this sounds like something you want to try, be very careful; the risks of boiling oil without a spill, burns, and a possible fire, may be why you do not hear of this being done all that often any more. I would certainly never try to do this while on a boat, or in a crowded boat-yard. The other thing I will say about oil finishes is that not all oils are created equally. I have used the products by Deks Olje, and they make for a more varnish-like finish, but I use a respirator when applying them, because of the fumes, and based on my own experience I would recommend three days drying time between coats. That adds up to more drying time than we typically have in New England in a given painting season.

For me personally, once the boat is in the water, I don’t want to work on it, I want to sail it. That means I need to strike a balance between creating a manageable workload in the spring and being able to enjoy the beauty of the occasional piece of bright work. I would like to stress the word occasional because although I like varnishing, I don’t want to spend all of my time on it. One of the first things we did when we took over the stewardship of our friendship sloop was to cut the amount of bright work on deck in half. There were plenty of surfaces that look just as good painted as varnished and those areas that we left bright stand out more, and I am more inclined to keep them in tip top shape.

Main hatch and sky light

So that leaves classic oil-based varnish, polyurethane, two part urethanes, and acrylics. I am not an expert on any of this stuff, and the only reason I am writing this is that I have read just about everything out there on the subject of varnishing and what I have found from personal experience has been different from a lot of what I have read. In some cases, very different.

My bias: I don’t like synthetic finishes. I don’t like them on land, on furniture, or on boats. Despite what I have read, and what I have heard from some of the furniture building geeks on TV, I have had very poor results with polyurethane. This may be because I have used a lot of other finishes and have something to compare them to, or, it may just be me. But, I do not like the way polyurethane looks on wood (like plastic), I don’t like the bleached look of the wood either. Contrary to what I have been told, I find that polyurethane scratches easily, and have found that where it does scratch water gets in and lifts the finish. Now having ranted about synthetic finishes, I should say that I am no purist, and there are a few places on our boat where we use them. Our toe-rails are made of locust, for example. Very hard wood that has a unique color, is very rot resistant, and is also very hard to get finishes to adhere. For this surface I use a two-part system called Bristol finish. I use the amber kind (again I don’t like that “just poured plastic” look and the amber has some coloring in it). It is a tough finish that bonds reasonably well to such a hard-to-finish wood, and you do not need to sand between coats, and I can put on three coats in a day. However, it does not hold up as long as advertized, in fact I have to do some maintenance to it every year if I don’t want it to fail. I do use a respirator, and you need to be very careful handling this stuff. I would also point out that I have had a very high failure rate with Bristol Finish anywhere that there is a seam or joint in the woodwork. So large, or long sections of wood uninterrupted by seams are where I do use this finish, and again only on a few select areas of the boat.

I do like oil-based varnishes. Yes they are fussy to apply, yes you need good brushes, yes you need to keep the work area immaculately clean, and yes you have to sand between coats, but nothing else looks like real varnish, and in my experience at least, few things last like it either.

One of the problems with oil-based varnish (what we used to refer to a “glovers” varnishes in my youth) is availability. The craft word is so awash with new products, or “new and improved” (and by the way, I have always wanted to know how something can be both new AND improved, it has always seemed to me that a product is either new or improved) that it can be hard to find a source for a consistent oil based varnish. I use the word “consistent” because on several occasions in my varnishing career, a product that has always worked flawlessly suddenly behaves very differently. On both occasions, when I did my research I found that the company that produced the product I was using had changed the formula. The end result is that I had to find a new product. I have been using McCloskey Man O’ War varnish for over ten years on our friendship sloop. It is a fairly simple tung oil based varnish. They changed their formula a few years ago to a “clean air” formula. I don’t know what that means, except it takes longer to dry and needs to be strained more carefully. Le Tonkinois also makes a tung oil and linseed oil based traditional varnish that I know many people swear by.

Wood species is an important consideration with varnish. Some species of wood can be particularly problematic. For example, teak can be particularly difficult to get varnish to adhere to because of the intrinsically oily nature of the wood, and it has never seemed like a rational approach to bleach out the natural oil of a wood in order to get a different oil to adhere to it. As a result, I prefer to use teak on the few parts of the boat that I am going to leave unfinished, lizards, or cleats for example. However, teak is a rather obvious example, less obvious examples might include white oak, which can be surprisingly difficult to get a varnish to adhere to.

Keeping track: if you have a small boat you will probably remember what products work best on which parts of the boat. If you have a larger boat, it is a really good idea to keep a maintenance log that lists what products you applied, in what quantities, and on what dates. This makes it much easier to chart what works, and to re-order products in the right quantities.

Where we do have a lot of varnish is below. This made sense because we had managed to score a supply of recycled mahogany for bulkheads and trim, and it seemed a crime to paint this beautiful wood, so we have a lot of bright work below. This also made sense because the varnished areas below have needed very little maintenance in the last decade since they are out of the elements. One caveat here on interior maintenance of varnished surfaces: sun block. I don’t know what is in sun block but we have run into several flavors that work as very good varnish strippers. Now whether you chose to put something on your skin that is capable of stripping varnish or not, is your business, and guests aboard our boat usually bring their own brand of sun block. However, part of my cleaning after every cruise is to wipe down anything that looks like it might be a smudge left by sun block on the varnish. I just use lemon oil and a paper towel; it only takes a few minutes and keeps the varnish looking good below.

In my experience part of the varnishing process that can lead to a poor finish is application. In short, it is much more complicated than is usually represented. The correct viscosity is needed to get the kind of result you are looking for, drying conditions do matter, and in order to get the desired finish you may need to modify specific coats of varnish, either thinning them for initial coats, or adding drying agents for top coats, in either case effecting the way you need to apply or brush out the coat of varnish. Again, the best advice I can give is experiment, keep track of your results, and stick with what works for you.

I am saddened by the number of people who see our boat, make ooh and ahh noises about the varnish and then immediately harp on how much work it is. I feel badly for them because they clearly have confused work with doing something worthwhile. I won’t argue that varnishing takes a lot of time, practice, and skill, but then those people clearly do not know the pleasure of getting up early and rushing down to the shop to see how last nights coat of varnish came out. Nor are they familiar with the lush, tactile feel of varnish when it flows properly off the brush, or the spectacular visual effect that fresh varnish has as it settles on new wood, or new sanded old wood. Being able to sit in the cockpit at the end of the day and enjoy the beauty of sunlight on a few select pieces of carefully chosen and skillfully varnished pieces of trim, or in the event of damp and inclement weather, to sit below with the stove lit and light from the oil lamps reflected off the bulkheads, well these, for me, are some of the joys of cruising on a classic wooden boat. I get as much pleasure out of them as I do when I get the topsail to set well in the right breeze.

Cleaning the head is work, pulling up the cabin sole and vacuuming the bilge is work, cleaning out the icebox is work, removing a cutlass bearing is work. To me, varnishing is just part of the yearly life cycle of the boat and a rite of spring, to refer to it as a lot of work seems to miss the point. You might as well say sailing is a lot of work.

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2 Responses to “Marine Varnish”

  1. Henry Smith Says:

    ” those people clearly do not know the pleasure of getting up … the spectacular visual effect that fresh varnish has as it settles on new wood, or new sanded old wood.” This made me smile and wish the weather were more amenable to getting out there and varnishing! Varnish is like amber butter, like the chocolate crunch coating that ice cream cones are dipped in and which then hardens…but better. I love varnishing.

  2. Laurie Says:

    I so agree with the above statements regarding varnishing wood, that I am seriously considering varnishing my half-log wood siding home (half covered, half exposed). It seems that this product may hold up better than many of the Home Depot products. I live in Oregon, in the Coastal Range, which gets a lot of rain, snow, and temperatures into the low teens. I’ve had some problem with either mold or mildew (dark areas in the wood). I don’t want to have to strip off the old finish before applying new (down the road). I am after the same golden glow in the wood that has been described above. I also need to do the same for my deck. Any suggestions from like-minded thinkers will be greatly appreciated! Laurie

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