Posts Tagged ‘Traditional Sail’

Late Summer sail

February 15, 2019

It is a snowy February afternoon and I thought I would post this video of one of our last sails of 2018 taken by the woman who will willingly get up in the middle of the night and stand an anchor watch.

When she is trimmed properly, the boat pretty much sails herself, as is perhaps obvious since I am clearly more interested in the gaffer I have spotted in the distance than where we are going.

You can see the moment when we are hit by the wake of a powerboat by the shaking of the video. The filming was done with a basic iPad, and I have since bought the woman who will willingly get up in the middle of the night and stand an anchor watch a waterproof GoPro.

HMS Unicorn

January 22, 2014

While I have been doing a lot of writing in the last eight months or so, it has been for a book and not this blog. It is time, however, to add to the wooden toy category.

I visited with a six-year-old nephew just after Thanksgiving and he was completely obsessed with building a version of HMS Unicorn from one of the TINTIN books.

Since I was only visiting for a few days, there was not time to even start on this project, but it certainly made it easy to figure out what to make him for his Christmas gift.

This will be mostly a photo post, but here are a few particulars and some of the decisions that I needed to make.

First, it appears that the Unicorn in the books is a frigate, a 38, if I remember correctly, and that would be both too much work and too big a toy. So, I went with a 14 gun brig—essentially a sloop of war. This allowed me to keep the scale appropriate for small hands to play with and also make this a project that was manageable over a three-week period.

As I have said before on this site, I like to sketch out ideas in scale and work from there.

Another consideration is that no matter how careful he is, at some point either my nephew or one of his friends, or siblings is going to drop, knock over, or step on this toy, so it had to be built solidly enough to survive.

Starboard side showing the main chains. The wood for the main chains are mortised in to the side of the hull with the grain running across the center line so they won’t break off.

The wood is poplar, a choice that I have had good luck with over the years, inexpensive, readily available, easy to work, and stable.

The guns for the Unicorn have barrels turned on the lathe of and simple carriages made from a piece of “U” channel stock that I made up. To save time the carriages have no wheels, so I suppose they could be technically carronades.

Guns fresh from the lathe, gun ports, and capstan, which turns.


I was concerned with the possibility of the masts getting broken off, so the masts are made of thick hardwood dowels and much thought went into how to stay the masts to support them.

In the end I chose to go with the most obvious solution, which is basically how they would be stayed on a real vessel. The dead-eyes took the most time to make, but I could not think of a better way to tighten the stays, and once into production mode, took less time than you might think. The lanyards and dead-eyes made it easy to tighten the stays and make the rig very sturdy.

The wheel took a ridiculously large amount of time to make, but is a key feature so I felt it was worth the three hours invested into it.

Helmsman and wheel with the rigging started.

On the other hand, the figurehead took little time and is also a great detail.

Unicorn has anchors that may be fished and catted over the rail or deployed.

Anchors fished and catted

The rigging took about seven hours spread over a week of evenings and two long sessions in the shop over a weekend.

Sails were made from an old pillowcase that had just the right amount of wear and yellowing to look like canvas. The edges of the sails were sewn so that they would not fray and to make  them less likely to tear, the vertical seams were drawn with a pencil and straight-edge. The actual cutting and stitching of the sails only took a few hours, but bending them on was a more involved task and took more time.

I chose to leave off most of the sheets so that it would be easier for small hands to reach in and play with objects on the deck. Only the masts are rigidly attached to the hull, all other spars are lashed to eyebolts so that they can move. This has two advantages, one being that sails can be trimmed to approximate tacking, running, and heaving-to, the other is that if dropped, or knocked down, the spars and sails twist and move rather than break and tear.

Unicorn caries a compliment of two officers and four crew members, all bears. These pictures were taken before the crew had been varnished.

Lieutenant and captain

Hand going aloft

All deck crew have holes drilled in the bottom of their feet so that they can be set on pegs that stick up in strategic places on decks and in the tops. This way crew can be moved around and set on pegs, but don’t fall over when Unicorn moves.

So there you have it, the good sloop Unicorn.

The Main Gaff

April 26, 2013

The spar that is.

After twelve seasons of using, living with, and working on our Friendship sloop, we started off this year with only one spar that we had never refurbished, and that is the gaff for the main sail. I had slapped a little varnish on it once, but basically it has been without maintenance since we became the caretakers for this vessel in 2000. It was time to pay attention to this important spar.  On surveying the spar, we found that although the condition of the wood was generally good, the finish had disintegrated, and the service on the slings and horse were overdue for attention.

Gaff before work started

If you look at these pictures you will see that the wood is just starting to degrade where the finish is gone and that the service is worn and in need of repair and that the blacking is essentially gone.

Wear on the gaff

Service in need of attention


We have been working for the last month to make-and-mend the needs of the gaff.

We removed the slings and the hardware from the gall and then stripped the finish to bare wood.

Gaff stripped of varnish

Next we faired the spar and gave it an even closer examination. All of the questionable areas disappeared with the removal of what finish was left and with the fairing process.

Thus we started the two pronged process of re-finishing the gaff itself and repairing and refurbishing the service on slings and horse.

Starting to re-varnish the gaff

Refinished service

The same section of the gaff shown above after we started the refinishing process


One of the things that I noticed when I first surveyed the spar was that the service on the slings was wearing into the finish and resulting in damage to the surface wood where the weight of the spar was carried by the slings. We decided that the best way to protect both service and gaff was to leather the service where it makes contact with the spar.

Leathering is sometimes dismissed as overly “yachty”, but where bights of standing rigging make contact with any spar, I have found that leathering extends the life of the finish on the spar and on the service significantly. It is also an easy, clean and meditative chore that I don’t mind at all.


Finished sling


We are working on the last coats of varnish now (ten in all) and then we will reassemble the hardware and walk the gaff back out to the boatshed from the shop. By then it should be warm enough to start on the rest of the painting and varnishing for this season.

New Boat Part 22

August 13, 2012


Before I continue with the building of mast and sail for our new Penny Fee, now called Fee-Fie, (the dinghy has become Foe-Fum), I wanted to record some observations on the performance of the boat thus far. We have had the boat in the water and have been using her for about three weeks. We have used the boat to ferry loads to and from the Friendship sloop, and have towed it to Rockland from Boothbay and back, and have basically rowed it around a bit. As of this weekend we have been sailing it too, but I will save my observations on sailing qualities for the end of this post.

Penny Fee: Fee-Fie


The first surprise was how easily she tows behind the Friendship Sloop. She is heavier than our dingy, but she also has a much longer waterline and appears to sit high in the water when unloaded. She also tracks well, partly due to the longer waterline and partly due to the lap-strake construction.  The result is a longer heavier boat that does not squat down in the water behind our sloop but that slips along with less resistance than I would have imagined. Part of our trip back from Rockland was in 5 to 8 foot seas with 15-25 knot winds. We found that in every condition except heavy following seas; this is a very well behaved boat. In following seas she tends to surf and surge and a long towline and a watchful crewmember to tend the towline is advisable.


We have noticed that when under oar power it is more comfortable to sit on a seat cushion that raises up the rower about 2 ½”. I don’t think that this is the result of the benches being placed low, either by the designer or in our construction, but rather that we deliberately raised the height of the oarlocks so that the oars would be less prone to rub on the fender of the boat. She does take more back power and a longer stroke than the dingy to propel, but she carries her way beautifully and once moving is easy to keep moving. The other aspect that will take some getting used to is that she rows a little easier with a load rather than without. This is both the opposite of our dinghy and is also a bit counter-intuitive.


Another impressive feature is the stability of the boat, it has greater secondary stability than I would have imagined and, in some ways this drove us to make the sail because we wanted to see how she handled the pressure of the sail and how that effected the stability. We have experimented by having a helmsman stand in the back of the boat and steer with the rudder while the rower provides the power from the front bench. Our experience is that she provides a stable platform for the helmsman, to say nothing of the fact that it is just plain fun to stand in the back of the launch and con the boat.

Now on to the last pieces of construction:

The Mast:

I bought two pieces of 2”x 8” spruce stock that were not flawless but that had long, relatively clear sections in each. I got them at the local home center, total cost was about $20. I then ripped out the two best sections and using a dato-blade on the table saw cut a ¾” channel in each that started a bout a foot below the truck of the mast and ended about a foot above where deck level would be. Then the two halves were glued together giving me essentially a mast blank with a hollow core.

The two mast halves with dato ripped

The two mast halves glued together

When the glue was dry I cut a taper using the table saw so that I had a long, tapered, spar that was square in cross section. Next step, cut off the corners of the square so that the spar becomes eight sided, and then move to hand planes to make the mast round in section.

Mast with taper cut and corners cut off to make a long octagonal spar

Spars varnished and ready for hardware

The sprit is made of solid spruce about 1 ½” in diameter, shaped in the same way that the mast was shaped.

The mast has four, unfinished teak cleats; one each for halyard, brail, snotter, and downhaul. There are two heavy cleats set inside the gunwale, port and starboard aft, for the mainsheet. These too are made from unfinished teak. My experience has been that cleats do not hold finish, due to lines running around them, they are also a pain to keep finished. Raw teak weathers well and always looks pretty good without much care.

Cleats on the mast

Building the sail:

We used as a reference the excellent Sailmaker’s Apprentice, although sailmaking is not new for either me, or the woman who will willingly get up in the middle of the night and stand an anchor watch. It is also worth noting that first, the sprit sail is one of the easier and more forgiving sails to make, and second that we are using canvas that we were given free, so, in many ways this is a prototype sail and we might make a more durable version once we have learned all we can from the performance of this canvas model. On the other hand if this sail works, why fix it?

The sail is made of four panels and will take its shape partly from the cut of these panels (particularly the two closest to the mast) and partly to a slight curve built into the luff of the sail. A bolt-rope is hand stitched along the head, luff and foot of the sail to help minimize the stretch in these sections of the sail. We used 3/8” brass grommets for the reef points and the robands on the luff of the sail, and the brail-line grommet in the leach of the sail. The rest of the sail hardware is sewn in by hand. The thimbles and metal rings are all solid brass.

The building process:

One thing we did that made the whole sailmaking process much easier was to recycle the boatbuilding table and use it as a sailmaking table. All we did was cut the table in half into two eight-foot sections. This allowed us to either push the sections together and make one long table to lay out panels and pin seams and that kind of thing, or we could pull the two apart and put the sewing machine in between them and pass the sail from one surface to the other over the sewing machine table. If we were making a larger sail I would have raise the levels of the tales to the same level as the sewing machine table, but with a sail that is only 85 square feet it seemed unnecessary.

Work table with sewing machine in the middle, sail in the foreground

The sail took about two weeks to build working in the evenings and in what free time we have, but I would not want to be misleading about this. As I said before both the woman who will willingly get up in the middle of the night and stand an anchor watch, and I have sailmaking experience, added to which I have a fairly comprehensive collection of sailmaking tools and supplies on hand. It would be a different story if we were having to figure out each step from scratch and then purchase the appropriate tools, materials and hardware. As it was there where plenty of choices to make regarding where to put in grommets, cringles, and thimbles.

Details of the sail showing the hand-sewn hardware at the clew and head

Anyway the finished sail looked great, the question was how would it perform in collaboration with the Penny Fee? The short answer is: far better than I expected.

Penny Fee under sail

This shot shows the boat well

Sailing in light air

There is a tendency to make leeway with very light air, but that disappears when there is any real wind. The boat points higher than I thought it would and virtually flies downwind. Beam reaching it is remarkably stable. The other factor that I love about this rig is how easy it is to haul on the brailing line and collapse the sail and sprit against the mast. It was really fun to sail right up alongside the Friendship sloop, touch the side, and collapse the rig by pulling on one line.

Sail brailed up against the mast

The two aspects of the rig that I question at this point have to do with the mast and the foot of the sail. I went to great effort (explained above) to make the mast hollow and light, it now appears that that was not necessary and that it may in fact be a weakness, because the mast does flex alarmingly in strong gusts. However, if the mast breaks it will be easy and inexpensive to replace. My concern about the foot of the sail is simply that now that we have seen the sail and how it takes shape in the wind, I think we could have easily added twelve to fourteen inches of length to the foot of the sail and gotten her to round up a little faster when tacking.

In both these cases, however, I am splitting hairs and speculating. The factual evidence that we have so far is that this is an easy rig to sail, to break down and set up. It brails quickly so that if the wind dies you can row without taking down the rig, and you can dowse the sail quickly when coming alongside. In short, it is everything we had hoped for and we had a fantastic fun day testing it out.

Really fun to sail

If you would like to read all the posts related to this project together, go to the category at the right called “Penny Fee” and click on it. It will pull all the posts on the penny fee onto one page for you.


October 13, 2010

This weekend was our last on the boat for the season. We spent two nights enjoying the cold, clear, and spectacularly starry nights, and the warmth of the cabin by lamplight and the heat from our shipmate stove. When we were not focused on enjoying these last few days on the water we were getting the boat ready for decommissioning and winter storage.

The weekend was bittersweet for several reasons. Saxon, the ship’s wolf, at fourteen years old is showing her age. She is still pretty spry and does not want to be left behind, but she had a couple of falls getting in and out of the boat, which were hard to watch.  We have also missed being on the boat for most of September. Partly due to a month of storms and dangerously high winds, and partly due to the fact that the woman who will voluntarily get up in the middle of a stormy night and stand an anchor watch, and I spent one beautiful and quiet weekend getting married, and another, slightly louder and more social weekend celebrating with family and close friends. So while we missed being on the boat, and we hate to see the ship’s wolf struggle with the onset of old age: she is still with us, and we have so much to celebrate and be grateful for.

Perhaps nothing summarized the weekend as much a rowing ashore each night to give the ship’s wolf her evening walk. We worried about her taking a fall; she worried about missing something good on shore. The first night, we were preoccupied by the events of the last few months and by so much to do that the extraordinary beauty of the night caught us by surprise. The massive expanse of stars reflected in the quiet black water disturbed only by the phosphorescence from our wake and dripping from our oars. We soaked in the beauty and the peace and quiet, and our cares and concerns drained away as the three of us shared this time of literal reflection.

We were sad the season was coming to an end, and we were reminded of why we put so much time and effort into getting out on the water. And we were glad to have this time together and to be able to share it with one another.

Other Beauties

September 15, 2010

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

Well who can argue with that? This seems to be particularly true of boat owners. There are boats which are clearly a source of pride for their owners and that I would give away rather than own, most of them look like a cross between a Clorox bottle and a running shoe. Then there are the boats that I am instinctively drawn to, and which frighten sensible people away.

It should be obvious that I think the friendship sloop is a beautiful design, I keep track of Friendships whenever I see them and our boat is really a member of our family, but there are other boats that catch my eye and gladden the heart.

We were sitting on a mooring in Boothbay for the 4th of July this year, and two boats down was a Concordia 39. She caught the eye as soon as we arrived. I remember the first time I was introduced to a Concordia up close; it was in the 1970’s, I was a boy and we were invited out on the boat of a friend. I remember being unimpressed by the yacht club (pretentious without class), but the launch driver was obviously competent (I still tend to avoid yacht clubs like the pox, and am still prone to judge them by the quality of the launch and by the skill of the launch driver), then the Concordia came into view. I only remember thinking “now THAT is a beautiful boat”. That day on the water was the first of many over the years where a Concordia was a source of joy. Beauty and function, married closely with craftsmanship. Wow.

A Concordia 39'

Just last fall I shared a delightful sail with the woman who will voluntarily get up in the middle of a stormy night and stand an anchor watch, and her parents (my future in-laws), on a Concordia owned by a friend of theirs on lake Champlain. It was cold, but it was also a day dominated by bright October sunshine, and a stiff but not overwhelming breeze. I will admit to being loath to take the tiller for fear that my past delightful memories might turn out to be more colored by youthful interpretation than based in fact. I need not have worried, the feel of a balanced helm with those slight cavitations that accompanies a rudder perfectly in line with the slipstream of the keel, was everything I remembered. It was beautiful sail on a beautiful day.

Moonfleet, another 39'

One experience that I had with a Concordia out of the water involved our ship’s wolf. She and I had arrived at the yard that handles our launching and haul out. Our boat was on stands and I was readying the mast to be stepped. When we arrived I saw that the yard had placed next to us a beautiful old Concordia on stands and there was a guy painting the boot-top. Now, you need to understand that our ship’s wolf can be very standoffish with people she has not met, so I surprised to see her walk right up to this total stranger and sit down next to him. He commented on what a beautiful animal she is. I responded by saying that I had only seen her take to one other guy so quickly, a friend of mine who is a fish and game officer. The guy with the paintbrush looked a little surprised before he said, “I’m a fish and game officer.” Now it was my turn to be surprised. He asked next what her name was, and I told him, “Saxon”. Now he looked downright shocked. He said, “You’re kidding me!” (Actually he didn’t use the word “kidding”, he said something slightly different, but you get the idea.) I assured him that I was not, and he told me to go look at the name of his boat. I walked aft, and there it was painted on the transom: SAXON. Neither of us could believe it. We did not get to know one another too well as he was in the process of selling the boat, and in fact sold it within the year, but I was once again impressed by the beauty of these classic wooden treasures.

I keep track of Concordias whenever I see them, the 39s, the 41s, and the more rare Concordia 31s and 33s. I have only seen two of this last category, but in both cases, when I laid eyes on it, it was the only boat in the anchorage as far as I was concerned. There is one 31 that appears to spend time in the Fox Island Thoroughfare surrounded by a small fleet of Herreshoff 12 ½ day-sailors, certainly good company.

While on the subject of Herreshoffs, I should point out that the 12 ½ is a beautiful boat. Of the three most notable of the Herreshoff design and construction dynasty, John Brown Herreshoff, his younger brother Nathanael Green Herreshoff, and captain Nat’s son, L. Francis Herreshoff, it is to the work of Nathanael Green Herreshoff that I am most drawn. To my eye, the NY 30 and the Buzzards Bay 30 are two of the most elegant sailing vessels ever designed. I will certainly admit that neither design caters to the comfort of the modern sailor, in fact both designs are fairly Spartan in layout and require some muscle to sail, but then, both designs were the result of a time when luxuries (like an inboard diesel) and comfort were not considered an important part of recreational sailing.

Buzzards Bay 30, reconfigured with marconi rig

I mentioned launches, last weekend I was rowing the ship’s wolf ashore to do our evening inspection of the boatyard, and a lovely launch came put-putting into the cove. She almost looked like a slightly smaller version of one of the old navy double-ender launches, and it was clear she needed little power to push her along. She moved smoothly leaving little wake, and maneuvered beautifully. I was caught transfixed, and only wished I had brought the binoculars so that I could get a better look. The woman who will voluntarily get up in the middle of a stormy night and stand an anchor watch was still on our sloop at the time and did get a closer look and corroborated my impression of form and function.  How refreshing to see a launch that moves well without the aid of massive motors that need to be guided by hydraulics in order to overcome poor hydrodynamic design.

Another favorite designer of mine is Sam Crocker. I had the opportunity to buy two of Sam’s boats, Land’s End and Milky Way. I found both boats captivating, but at the time, each vessel needed more work and investment than I could afford, and I have always tried to stay realistic about what a boat is going to cost to bring back from the brink and then maintain. Still, Sam’s cruising boats stand out in a crowd as practical, functional, beauties.

S.S. Crocker sloop

And now a word about drop-dead gorgeous: Fife. I remember once making my way through the Stonington thoroughfare and thinking that we were a pretty special sight with all sail set, when around an island, on opposite tack and heading in the opposite direction came a Fife. She was about 55 feet on deck and looked delicate and fleet, swift, and yet almost predatory. We ghosted by each other in light air and I suddenly felt like a poor relation. I have only seen three other Fifes in my time on the water, and each time I felt like I had just bumped into the Queen of England in a grocery store. The woman who will voluntarily get up in the middle of a stormy night and stand an anchor watch once served as professional crew on a Fife, Halloween. The boat made a memorable impression on her, and we have several pictures of Halloween framed and hanging in the cottage. I believe Halloween is now registered in Italy and can be chartered for a measly 4,000 Euros a day….

As I mentioned in the third sentence of this post, there are boats that I am drawn to that scare other people away.

Halloween on deck

Halloween when she was named CottonBlossom IV

A Fife is now, and ever will be, out of my reach, but, I can appreciate the effort it takes to keep a Fife going, and I can admire the effort and the boat. That goes for a Concordia too, even though at heart I am a gaff-rigged sailor. I am sure that each time those owners come down to the dock, or glimpse their boats on the mooring they have a sense of awe for what they are keeping afloat and alive. I feel sure of this, because as far as our own boat goes, even after ten seasons, I still do.

August on the Water

August 30, 2010

August has been very busy for us on the water. We did a week long cruise to Mount Desert and Swan’s Island to check out the Sweet Chariot Music festival. Then on to two more cruises in the mid-coast of Maine, followed by some delightful sails on Lake Champlain.

We got to see family on MDI and schooners on Swan’s Island, and friends and family on multiple cruises and delightful sails on other beautiful boats as well as our own. The only down side is that we are worn out and I have not had time to add very much to this site. So I thought I would just post some pictures taken over the last month or six weeks….

Friendship Sloop Races

Fair weather or foul

One of my favorite shots

J&E Riggin


more fog

no fog

50th Gathering of Friendships

July 30, 2010

Last Thursday Friday and Saturday was the 50th gathering of the Friendship Sloop Society. The woman who will voluntarily get up in the middle of a stormy night and stand an anchor watch, Saxon, the ship’s wolf and I managed to get our boat first to Pulpit Harbor on North Haven Island for an informal rendezvous Tuesday night, and then to the docks in Rockland on Wednesday, fantastic to see so many members and so many boats, some I had never seen before.

Echo and company

Black Star, Gaivota, Hegira, and Banshee.



On any given day there were between 28 and 30 boats tied up at the Rockland docks. We saw so many old friends and made many new friends as well, it was worth getting together for that alone. There was racing on all three days, despite winds that were uneven and gusty. We participated in the first race, and even though we were trying to take up the rear where it was safer, we found the experience a bit overwhelming. So on the second day we went with three other boats on a short day cruise that was fantastic. Beautiful weather, great sailing, a beach to swim off of, and the comradeship of fellow friendship sloop sailors, the day was a delight. The third day we did go out for the parade of sail, but were frankly so worn out that we returned to the dock and got the boat squared away and socialized with other members of the Friendship Sloop Society and many of the interested visitors to the town docks in Rockland.

Gaivota and Gail O


Parade of sail

The awards dinner was terrific fun on Saturday night, and the fog lifted on Sunday long enough to see us on our way. So many beautiful boats, such welcoming people in such a relaxed atmosphere, we are already talking about next year.

Marine Varnish

July 2, 2010

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.