One of the distinctive features of Reliants and Offshore 40s was the extensive use of teak in construction -- decks, cabin sides, dorade ventilators, rail, etc.  The boats were built to give the appearance of beautiful, classic wooden boats.  As we all know, the result is a stunningly beautiful boat that draws comments everywhere.  We also all know that this comes with a cost -- the maintenance of brightwork.

We have all struggled with the challenge of varnishing, myself included.  I want it to be clear that I have not found the perfect answer, I am no great guru on this topic.  I can only share my own limited insights and draw your attention to what more knowledgeable people have said.

The underlying problems are clear and simple.  Varnish is damaged by sunlight, water, and abrasion; and those are three things that boats have in abundance.  I have a friend who is a physicist who bombards molecules with laser beams.  His comment was that the energy in sunlight includes every frequency, so it can break apart every molecular bond know to science.  He recognized immediately the inherent problem with any varnish, and convinced me that in trying to have varnish out doors, we are challenging fundamental laws of nature.  I have been impressed by comments of boat owners who sail in the tropics.  They can't believe how rapidly a dozen coats of varnish disintegrate. Very frequent re-coating is needed.

Moreover, we are dealing with wood, and wood expands and contracts with changes in moisture and temperature.  If the varnish film is brittle and inflexible, the film is stressed and eventually cracks microscopically and then visibly.  The expansion and contraction of wood gets magnified at the joints, and the various seals and glues holding wood together may have begun to deteriorate.  Also the wood itself checks from drying out.  Where the wood moves, it cracks the varnish, letting water in, and water loosens the varnish and stains the wood.

We have all been searching for an elusive holy Grail: a way of applying and maintaining brightwork that is beautiful, requires low maintenance, and is reasonably priced.  So far, no one has discovered an ideal solution.  We only turn up different options and different trade-offs.

  • pay boatyards to do brightwork.  This can be very costly, going from four into five digits.  In a couple of cases, owners ultimately put their boats up for sale (not sail) because they wanted to maintain brightwork this way but ultimately found it too expensive.
  • do it yourself.  While I suspect we would all like to do this, who has the time?  Our boats also have engines, electric wiring, plumbing, decks, etc., and there are a few other things in life in addition (family, jobs, etc.)  Hatches and ventilators can be taken home (if the boat is covered) and re-finished carefully and given 5-10 coats of varnish, but not cabin sides, coamings, and toe rails.
  • find some low-input/high durability teak treatment.  At present, penetrating stains (Cetol, Armada) and epoxy based sealers under varnish seem to be the most promising choice, but the long-term suitability has not been demonstrated yet.  (more below)
  •  ignore brightwork and let the teak go gray.  My father adopted this strategy for many years.  At least he could afford the boat and was able to launch her early and sail a lot.  I currently "treat" the rails this way.
  • - selectively reduce the amount of brightwork, by removing wood and painting it.  Some of us have done this for the cabin sides.  I am thinking about this, but my daughter was very upset and promised to help me sand and varnish instead.

(Let me say that I am focusing here on the teak brightwork around the deck.  For spars, our spars come off each year and are easily varnished.  A single coat of varnish works well for the summer season; in winter our spars are covered.  Moreover, it is extremely useful to be able to see through the coating to inspect the joints in the wood.  If one did not want to take the mast out each year, the trade-offs on mast maintenance might be different.  Similarly, the varnish below decks seems very durable, and upkeep is not a big problem.)

At present, owners of sisterships have these ideas and experiences on managing the teak bright work:

Mark Treat (WINDIGO) has an interesting approach, which I will summarize:

1. Strip and sand the wood.

2. Sealing.  Use two coats of Smith Clear Penetrating Epoxy Sealer, a two-part system that penetrates the wood and makes a very stable, moisture-proof foundation for the varnish.  (Call Smith & Co 800-234-0330.)

3. Varnishing.  Many varnishes are possible.  The main thing is that it needs to filter or reflect out the UV from the sunlight.  Mark is experimenting with Coma Bernice.  So far, it seems to hold up very well.

Pat Zajac (RUSALKA) is also using Smith Clear Penetrating Epoxy as a base but is covering it with Interlux Clipper clear varnish.  Needless to say, it looks great now, and we will be interested in the long-term evaluation.

Tim Litvin (SALA-MA-SOND) is trying the Smith full system, including both the penetrating epoxy and 2-part polyurethane.

John Paradis has an approach which similarly stresses the initial sealing of the wood:

1. strip old varnish (heat gun recommended), sand.

2. make a seal coat of 1/3 maple oil stain, 1/3 oak floor filler, 1/3 mineral spirits.  Apply and wipe off within several minutes.  It can be varnished in 30 minutes.

3. Varnish with Flagship varnish.  First coat well thinned, full strength for the next 3.

4. in fall, touch up scratches with light sanding, wipe spot with filler stain

5. in spring, light sanding, one coat varnish.

I'll report on Epifanes system, which is being used on a beautiful Cherubini 48, that spends a lot of time in southern waters.  The varnish looks great, and the owner says it is not so hard to put on or maintain:

a. For base: Epifanes Gloss Wood Finish (west # 371056) base coating with UV protection: This enables buildup of several coats without sanding if used within 72 hours.  

b. For top coat: Epifanes Clear High Gloss Varnish (west #351023)

Al Roosov, tired of varnishing, has been satisfied with Permateak Gold for many surfaces.  He warns against Cetol because it turns orange in a year or two.

Phil Norgaard is using Cetol on JOHN TROUT and David Epstein is trying Armada on CALYPSO.  I visited his boat, at it looks very nice, although it does not have the smoothness of varnish.  I look forward to hearing their evaluations after a few years.

Needless to say, we are not alone is searching for a solution to the brightwork challenge.  PRACTICAL SAILOR has been running tests on alternative varnishes and other coating systems.  May 15, 1998, March 1997, March 1996.  The latest tests are beginning to show products that may be more durable than traditional varnish.

(a) penetrating stains

Cetol Marine (800-833-7288) so far has held up in their tests for 30 months.  It is not very transparent, and looks a bit like paint.  Cetol makes a new product Cetol Gloss, which is glossier but not as durable as the semi-gloss product.

Armada Teak (orders: 800-336-0320; tech: 800-890-7723) a bit more transparent than Cetol, a little brown-orange, perhaps not quite as durable as Cetol but still viable after 30 months.

(b) finishes involving special two-part sealing materials.  By using chemicals other than oxygen in the air to catalyze varnish, the varnish can include desirable anti-oxidants which increase durability.

Smith Clear Epoxy Penetrating Sealer (CEPS) and 5 Year Clear.      Steve Smith, 510-237-6842
Requires 2 coats of epoxy sealer and about 6 coats of 2-part polyurethane.  Takes several days to do the coating, under ideal conditions (no rain).  This will be problematic for parts that can not be removed.  Repair processes unclear.  Looks great after 30 months.  Useful information about the Smith CEPS and other specialized products for wood care and restoration are available at:  cost around $100 for 25 square feet.

Honey Teak   Tom Fabula, 561-287-6077
Uses 2-part base and topcoating system, fast drying, can be applied on tacky under coat, so all 3 base coats and 2 or more topcoats can be applied done in a day.  Can be buffed and/or compounded.  System uses acrylic urethane enamel, with color and UV protection in base; top coat is also acrylic urethane enamel but clear.  Manufacturer claims it is flexible enough so that it can go over joints sealed with 5200 and that it is easy to touch up damaged areas.  Should get one or two clear topcoats annually.  Cost is around $1.50-2.00 per sq.  ft.  Practical Sailor says it looks great after 30 months.

Bristol Finish 
C Tech Marine 407-752-7533,
 is a 2-part Acrylic Urethane resin, somewhat similar to Honey Teak.  It is said to be very strong and durable.  It can be reapplied without sanding between 1 and 24 hours; it is possible to accomplish a full buildup (6 coats) in one day.  cost around $50 for 40 square feet.  I am currently using this material quite and bit and feel that it holds up much better than classic varnishes.  Also it is is easy to apply (mainly it is tolerante to a wide range of temperature and humiduity conditions, so you don't have to wait for a perfect varnishing day.)

Tim Litvin applied the full Smith epoxy/polyurehane system in fall 1998.  We look forward to his evaluation.  I am now (summer 2000) experimenting with the Smith system on my Dorade boxes and grab rails.  It is tricky to apply, partly because it cures so hard that it is difficult to sand off the runs, curtains, etc.  One coat is applied per day (without sanding between coats), so it takes over a week (or close to two weeks, leaving time for bad weather), to get the required buildup.  It looks excellent, and if it holds up as promised, it is will be wonderful.  After four years iwthout maintenance (in northern waters, under cover in winter), it still looks great.

The fundamental problems with any of these new systems are (a) the new systems require full stripping of the old finish and elaborate coatings with new products and (b) the risk that if after 4-6 years the new products do not hold up well that they have left a resilient mess in the wood that will be difficult to remove for the next coating system.  

After several years of experimenting, I am expanding the use of Bristol Finish and think the 5 year clear is a good choice for high-wear items that can be taken off the boat and varnished in doors (like a wooden hatch).

The alternative, which I am phasing out on my own boat, is optimizing traditional varnishing, in hopes that a more durable varnish can be applied.  Rebecca Wittman's book, Brightwork, the Art of Finishing Wood  (McGraw-Hill) is highly recommended.  Tim Litvin (SALA-MA-SOND) comments, "aside from the visual delight of the gorgeous photography, and apart from her engaging and educational stories, and even not-withstanding her packing a lot of hard-won experience-based knowledge into the book, she really manages to convey the spirit of the activity.  I'd call this one a `must read' for anybody who owns or dreams of owning a boat with any wood on it."  Her main message is that varnish simply requires maintenance, touchup coats during the season.  It sounds simple, but in practice I have had difficulty living up to this requirement.

Henry Hinckley's excellent new book, THE HINKLEY GUIDE TO YACHT CARE has a thoughtful discussion of varnish.  In a nutshell, he recommends:

1. Varnishes - Hinkley uses Epifanes for durable buildup; Stoppani for final two coats because of superior gloss retention and durability.

2. clean bare teak with special solvent or acetone.  Use alcohol to clean pre-varnished surfaces.

3. No special sealer, use varnished thinned 50% first coat, 25 percent second coat.

4. sanding between coats: 220 paper and then finer; after 4th coat, uses 150 paper to get a smooth surface.

5. Then build up film thickness with 5-10 coats of varnish, sanded with finer and finer (280, 320, 400) paper.

brushes: 1 1/2 - 2" china bristle, foam brushes OK.  Clean brushes with thinner and use a hand-operated spinner.  Keep brushes wrapped in a small rag rinsed in thinner, then encased in aluminum foil to stay moist.  Motor oil can be used also and washed out with thinner.
 masking tape: If outdoors, use Scotch #471 blue or #225 silver.

tack rags: Gerson or Red Devil.  Special U.S. Paint or Sterling tack rags for polyurethane finishes.

Hinkley has lots of other tips.  Be sure you have good weather, not too hot or too cold, not too humid or windy, no bugs.

I put a note on Cruising World's internet chat page and got this advice from "Masto:"

When using thinner to wipe the surface make sure it's the same thinner as what's recommended to thin the varnish (read the label!). (Also remember that the cheaper the thinner is, the less pure it is and more likely to contain oil and water contamination). If you soak the rag too liberally you may in some cases risk just smearing any surface contaminants around, rather than removing them. 

When wiping sanded varnish I prefer a clean rag moderately soaked with denatured alcohol, changing the rag surface often.

Make sure the tack-rags you get are for varnish (often yellow in color) and not the white ones intended for LP.  Never put solvent on the tack-rag and yes, wipe lightly.

By the way, if you have A LOT of varnish to do, you may want to consider to spring for the extra expense of "gold" paper.  It costs a bit more but lasts about four times as long, i.e.  it doesn't clog up as soon and keeps on cutting.

Personally I wipe four (yes, 4) times liberally with acetone on bare teak; I lightly sand the surface the morning of applying the "sealer" coat to remove invisible surface oxidization (it's kinda like flash rust on freshly sandblasted steel, you don't see it but it will affect the adhesion of the entire coating system) even if I sanded it perfectly the day before.

Then as soon as I'm done sanding I wipe liberally with acetone four times just before the first "sealer" coat, changing rag surface often. Tack-ragging bare teak is less important than for the final gloss coat - doesn't matter so much if you get a little dust in it, it's gonna get sanded again anyway...

I found that this prep procedure made the varnish (any brand) last about twice as long in the Caribbean sun.  With last I don't mean how long the gloss lasts, but rather how long it would take until the varnish starts to loose its adhesion to the substrate. If you look very closely at a varnish surface as it ages you can often see tiny whitish lines forming in the wood grain. These are the precursors to where it will start to let go and eventually grow larger whitish spots (or dark, black if moisture enters). All that acetone wiping seems to remove most of the oil in the bottom of the sanded woodgrain, improving longtime adhesion.

Re-coat time for the varnish is another matter. It's usually time to re-do the surface when it starts to loose it's water beading ability (the old Turtle wax test), then all you need to do is scuff the surface and apply two new coats. 

Two part varnishes have the benefit of extending the re-coat time.  They can make varnishing life much easier (especially if you own a "varnish-farm" i.e. boat with lots of varnish), but if the underlying foundation coats are not applied properly using two parts often creates more work than it saves.  Besides two parts are a pain to maintain on a sailboat which gets banged around a lot more than say a powerboat.

To an inquiry about using a jet-speed varnish to build a foundation layer more quickly, Masto replied:

Personally I have never liked using quick drying "varnishes"  like Jet-Speed or the "sealer" type coatings available from most manufacturers.  I think they exist just so they can sell you another can of stuff. Most such products are for the greater part solvent, some of them over 90% thinner - read the label!

I've had much better result using the varnish itself as a "sealer", thinning it out with about 75% thinner for the first 2 coats (for Epifanes or Detco's Crystal), then two coats at 50%, two at 25%, and then onto straight stuff for building coats.  I do like using accelerator (read the label for the right one) for building coats, but never use it for the final gloss coats.

The ultimate varnish in my opinion is Detco's Crystal.  It's very similar to Epifanes, but not as finicky to work with.  It is also a tung oil based varnish but cures faster without any risk of losing the gloss.  Unlike Epifanes you can put on one good coat at 4 pm and come back to sand it next morning. It also sprays great.

If you get that gray, smeary stuff when you're sanding it's usually a sign of partially cured, or improperly cured varnish.  Depending on the type/brand of varnish this can have several reasons (in no particular order):
1) Too thick a coat (common problem with Epifanes). Easy to do with foam brush... 
2) Applied in too hot temp. The surface skins over and dries, trapping the solvents below (applies to 1) as well).
3) Wrong thinner used. 
4) Weather too humid. 
5) Applied too late in the day.

I am impressed by how many different varnishes there are, and the enthusiasm for different ones.  Rebecca Wittman uses Interlux products, Schooner (#96) for the bulk of exterior varnishing, and other Interlux varnishes for interior use or for high wear areas where polyurethanes are needed.  I noticed the professionals at Dodson's Boatyard (Stonington CT) using Schooner varnish too.  Hinkley mentioned Epifanes and Stoppani.  Musto referred to Detco's Crystal.  I shifted from Interlux Schooner to Z Spar Flagship on the basis on PRACTICAL SAILOR durability tests.  The Schooner varnish goes on easily and is soft and easy to sand and recoat.  My impression is that it is not quite as good in terms of durability.

Mark Treat is enthusiastic about Coma Bernice.  It is a one-part varnish made with long chained cross linked resins and microscopic filaments of metal to help reflect away UV light.  It comes in clear, amber, and mahogany.  It is manufactured in England by the company that supplies coatings to Rolls Royce.  Marketing and distribution systems have not been set up yet, but it is supplied by Larry Buck, who has a boat yard and claims to have been varnishing boats all his life.  He can be reached at 1308 Harrison Lane, Hurst Texas, tel 817-577-2656, beeper 817-604-1441.  At present, it is available only by the case, which has 10 liters, at $36 per liter (so $360 per case).  If you use this varnish, Larry emphasizes that it must NOT be thinned out more than 5 percent, and if you do thin it, use only white mineral spirits.  (I guess if it is thinned out more, the molecules won't be able to find each other to cross link.)

While all these techniques and tactics are helpful, I really have to think more strategically about varnish.

a. I have to rebed the window and their frames so no water is trapped where it will affect varnish.  I must cut out the cracks in the cabin sides and fit in some new pieces of teak, and perhaps spline some checks in the coamings.  No varnish can look good if the wood is cracked and letting water in.

b. I have to schedule my varnish work so I complete the preparation work on one day, and start varnishing early the next day, so I can varnish in the 7:00 to 10:00 time slot, before the sun is high and the air is hot.  I realize that varnishing in the middle of the day results in a skin forming too fast, trapping solvents which produces rough surfaces and which soften the old varnish and cause blisters.
 c. The new 2-part products (Smith's polyurethane, Teak Honey) may well be more than a marginal breakthroughs.  They merit some experimentation.   Maybe someday, the complex techniques of varnishing will go the way of Morse code and carbon paper.

Bryan Johnson has these tricks for his interior Refinishing Program:

Windress had been cruised from San Francisco to Florida over about 2 years and than sat on the block for 9 to 12 months in Florida before we bought her in Fort Lauderdale. She was trucked to Annapolis in late September (I am convinced that every week in Florida something was stolen off the boat) and the winter project started. The interior was overall solid but the wood was dull to in need of help near the entrances. 

The key to getting a lot of bright work done is to plan, get a lot prepared and varnish a lot at once. I really don't like opening the varnish can unless I have at least 2 hours of varnish work prepped and ready to go. In my mind, setting up to do a large volume at a shot is the only way to effectively have an outstanding finish and still have time to sail!

Step one: Un-screw everything that you can take home and remove, along with all the drawers and such so you have an at home varnishing project. Finishing attached doors is a disaster and with all the removable parts off the boat, finishing the frames and bulkheads is MUCH easier. 

Step Two: Better Living Through Chemicals!!!   Acetone does wonderful things in taking off weak varnish and preparing the surface for a new finish with very little effort compared to the sanding option.  OUTSIDE, with a nice breeze, scrub all the wood work with a course steel wool liberally dripping with acetone. (buy the acetone by the gallon and wear RUBBER GLOVES!!!!!}. All the thick, weak varnish will be scrubbed away real quick. A gray residue will be left. Use denatured alcohol and a bunch of rags to clean this off. (Denatured alcohol does the some thing as acetone but is not nearly as aggressive as a solvent). Sand as needed and wipe again with denatured alcohol before varnishing. 

Step Three: Epithanes Rub Effect Varnish was used on Windress. It was very forgiving and looks great. Two to four coats were used with a light sanding ( and alcohol rub) was used on everything. West System Epoxy was used to stabilize some spots where veneer was coming off (note: West System does not stick to wax paper, so you can get the West System under the veneer and clamp down with boards and wax paper for a good finish. The West System sands just like varnish and can be covered with varnish for the final finish. If you use West System on the exterior, cover with a UV varnish, West System is not UV stabilized and will yellow. 

Step Four:  The Interior..  Use the same acetone and alcohol prep as with the stuff you took home but be sure there is a LOT of ventilation and that the power is OFF> I had a short across a 110v outlet wiping down with alcohol,,, wakes you up quickly!!! Big spaces such as bulkheads can be prepared and varnished very quickly using this process. The key is to prepare a LOT at one time or at lest have a LOT ready to finish at one time. If you are prepping, you will have sanding and grit in the air. I suggest you prep the entire interior, clean up/wipe down, and varnish all at once. 

 The chemicals I use do wonders on getting a lot of wood ready for refinishing very quickly. BUT!!!  Do not underestimate the dangers with working with denatured alcohol and acetone! ALLWAY use rubber gloves and have tons of ventilation! Used carefully, this is a great program. Use great care. I did a two hour varnish session in the basement and ended up with a headache. Although it was winter, I started opening a basement window when varnishing and that was really needed. 

Page provided by Ben Stavis April 2004
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