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Ericson 38--Varnish, Again

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I've had oiled teak and varnished teak, and in the end, for me at least, the maintenance comes out the same. Here in SoCal, oiling--after cleaning and bleaching, is best done every three months. Varnish--just two maintenance coats over a sound base--is every 18 months or so. Both are pleasing to my eye, and the periodic effort is much reduced by memories of letting wood go too long, and having to start over.

In many years of varnishing I have heard and tried all the tips, and that should make me an expert. It didn't, because I do only one or two varnish sessions a year, which always seems learning from scratch. Or maybe I know too much, and have had too many failures, or am just confounded by the strident recommendations at odds with each other.

The varnish standard is too high for mortals. As a kid I watched Beaton's Boat Yard on Barnegat Bay varnish spars. Sixteen coats. Perfect. They did it by brush, in a special shed with dust ventilators, and it looked like honey an inch thick. The price of the boats they built was astronomical, even then. Their celebrity sneakboxes-- a most humble little gaff-rigged workboat--came out like fireplace-mantle ornaments, and the very rich sailed them in white clothes. Varnish to me was elegance then. Now I see it as a way to protect wood. And recognize that I don't have a dust-free shed.

Interlux Schooner is my choice. Mere brand loyalty, no research. Two coats on the sole stays shiny for six months, then gradually fades to matte from foot traffic. It never cracks or wears through or admits water.

The deck handrails, companionway wood and some grabby surfaces belowdecks get refinished on the same schedule as the sole. I no longer cover the handrails from UV, although the whole companionway has a sunbrella cover to protect the new acrylic curved hatch and one-piece hatchboard.

We all know the theoretical best practices for varnishing, but I'll list them in my personal order of importance. Bear in mind it doesn't rain much here, and can be very dry--in a Santa Ana wind from the desert, humidity can be 10 percent. No varnishing those days.

--Thinning. I always thin at least 5 percent. The trick to varnish is to get it to level out, so brush marks disappear. If the brush drags, it's too thick. However, there shouldn't be any drips. Atmospheric conditions are always different, so after the first handrail, stop and see what's up. If there are drips, something's wrong. It may be too much thinner. It may be too much varnish on the brush. Adjust technique or varnish accordingly.

--Thinner. Interlux stopped shipping Product 233 to Southern California because our standards changed. They now recommend 216, which is mostly xylene--a bad choice in dry conditions. Interlux 2333n, a more recent product, may improve flow, but I've never tried it. These days I am using mineral spirits, which works very well with Schooner. However, "mineral spirits" in Los Angeles County nowadays is essentially acetone--a terrible choice for thinning varnish, since it speeds up drying time and inhibits flow-out. However, in Santa Barbara County, real (petroleum) mineral spirits is still sold, so that's where I get mine. Point? Thinner is important.

--Brushes and rollers. The photo shows the mini-roller essential for flat surfaces such as the cabin sole. I learned about it from a Louis Sawzedde video on YouTube ( ). He notes that the trouble with varnishing flat surfaces is that the varnish can pool, or be too thin, and it is difficult to get even coverage with a brush. I have had good success with his roller method. Forget "flowing on" the varnish, as I was originally taught, and berated whenever my brush stopped. With a roller, go back and forth numerous times, spreading the varnish around as you would house paint on a bedroom wall.

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Doesn't that make bubbles? Of course! Millions of them. Now tip with a brush moistened in varnish until all the bubbles are gone. More than once in the past I have finished varnishing a sole and returned the next day to find a holiday (an area the brush missed). There's no perfect repair for that, since the wet edge is lost. Sawzedde's roller technique spreads the varnish with certainty--and tipping removes the bubbles.

--Lighting. This photo shows the desk lamp I use for side illumination of the dark cabin sole. There is just no way to get complete coverage if you can't see the reflection of the new varnish on top of the scuff-sanded previous coat. No sense even trying without good, strong light.

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--Straining. Varnish in the can gets a hard top after one day. It should always be strained before use. We are told by experts never to return used varnish to the can. I do it anyhow, if there's a lot. It will be strained again the next time, anyhow. Buy 100 paper cone paint strainers for inventory. They last 10 years, and without them we can't varnish.

--Preparation. For periodic maintenance, no big deal. Sand with 220. Vacuum carefully. Wipe the surface with thinner (mineral spirits in my case) just before commencing to varnish. Scuff between coats with 320 sandpaper or with a scuff pad. Vacuum and wipe down again.

--Brush for tipping. I spent $20 on a new brush this time, and it lost four or five hairs which are now embedded in the final coat. I guess it's a bad idea to use a brand-new varnish brush. Don't quite know the solution.

In many respects, varnishing is an old-time procedure. It takes time. It takes multiple sessions. It takes waiting for weather, and for collecting the supplies, and it takes a certain adjustment in a world that's otherwise going past at high speed. Some jobs come out better than others, but from every job we learn something new-- often "don't do it that way again."

You either like it or don't, and for anybody who doesn't, stainless steel handrails on the cabin house are worth the installation effort. They look good, too, I think.

New idea for me: a touch-up bottle of varnish always on board. In my case, it's a glass container formerly for spices stolen from Tracy's spice rack. The idea is that whenever you see a void in exterior varnish, from a nick or perhaps a 10-year-old flaw continually getting worse, you grab a foam brush and dab on a protective bandaid of varnish. Let's see if I do it. And I might, given that in a few years my handrails will need stripping to bare wood, a job no fun at all because it means building up seven new coats. Anything that delays that is worth it.

There are some boats around me that are new, built in Maine, and floating showcases of flawless varnish. Not covered, either--that would hide the status and the elegance. I admit to finding it a bit much, this ostentatious display of raw purchasing power, as if filling your slip with thousand-dollar bills.

Their varnish is continually refreshed by professionals, whom I watch for tips. They seem to do just what we all do, with the patience of being well paid.

I asked the boss what the standard contract is. "Every six months we put on two more coats, whether it needs it or not."

How much?

He grinned. "Well, if you have to ask...."

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Updated 11-14-2018 at 10:14 AM by Christian Williams

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Maintenance and Mechanical


  1. CSMcKillip's Avatar
    Every time I read one of your post I have your voice in my head from watching your YouTube trip to Hawaii.

    So how easy is it to really replace the rubber seals in the Superhatch… That's my next project!
  2. gkjtexoma's Avatar

    Same here on your voice in my head. Great article but I use foam brushes and varnish from Ace Hardware that was highly rated in a Practical Sailor test. The varnish is inexpensive to boot.
    Updated 09-30-2018 at 06:14 PM by gkjtexoma
  3. Christian Williams's Avatar
    Superhatch rubber:

    Brushes: I like foam too, for small jobs. But I think you'd find tipping a big sole easier with a traditional hair brush.
  4. Easy Ed's Avatar
    In the mid 70's I worked for Ericson in Irvine, and then lived aboard for 5 years. During that time I picked up more than a couple of varnishing tips from the "old timers" in Newport Beach.
    1st-Regarding the type of brush, by far, the old timers used one with natural bristles, specifically the E&W Badger Brush. It is a mixture of badger and Chinese bristles. It's a thick brush and holds enough varnish to lay down just the right amount with a long stroke, with maybe one additional stroke to tie the passes together. They are still available and can be found on-line at a number of stores. 2nd- This is the second secret the old timer shared. After giving the brush a good cleaning, give it a quick dip in diesel. Let it drain and then wrap it in newspaper to straighten all the bristles. Before the next use, give it a quick rinse. I have two E&W brushes, that are a soft as the day I bought them 37 years ago.
    Updated 10-08-2018 at 02:14 PM by Easy Ed (incomplete sentence)