When we bought Makani, our Nonsuch 30U, all her teak trim was unfinished. It had weathered to a typical grey which to some is perfectly fine. No work, no fuss. My own taste runs to nicely varnished brightwork that rewards the owner for all the work and attention involved.
One of our earlier boats was a Pearson Ensign One Design which among its attractive (to me) design features were Mahogany coamings and seats. Since this was back on the East Coast, when we stored the boat on the hard for the winter I would remove the coamings and seats to bring home for a nice winter project of refreshing the varnish, keeping it bright and in excellent shape season to season.
Here in San Francisco, there is no winter (at least not like back East), so I planned to varnish as soon as the rainy season was over. Due to an unusual El Nino this year, that meant I had to wait for the end of April to get large enough blocks of “dry” time.
The first thing I did was replace the rubber cowl vent on the Dorado box with a Stainless Steel vent. If the box is going to be varnished a rubber cowl sitting on top won’t do.
Step 1: The Right Tools
From my experience varnishing the brightwork on my Ensign, I had come to trust and follow closely the directions in Rebecca Wittman’s book “Brightwork, the Art of Finishing Wood.” I completely recommend this book to anyone interested in finishing wood. It not only covers varnishing but also oil finshes, too. I won’t repeat everything she has in her book, just add my own experiences.
The main “tools” are varnish, stain, tape, sandpaper, brushes, paint filters, and plastic cups.
I used Schooner Varnish because I’m used to its flow properties, like its slight amber hue, and was always pleased with its UV protection.
I tried three kinds of 3M blue tape and found the Exterior to be the best for coming up cleanly after being on the fiberglass for about a week. None of the tapes did a great job of preventing varnish or stain from getting under the edge of the tape.
And my preference in brushes is foam, but NOT the super-cheap brushes made in China. For a few cents more there are foam brushes made in the US that work much better.
Note: the varnish is in a jar because I thought it would store better–nope! Still got a layer of congealed varnish at the top.
Step 2: Preparing the Wood
As is often stated, the quality of varnishing is only as good as the preparation.
Because the wood had not been protected, the grain was very uneven and “ridged” so I started with 80 grit paper and worked up to 320 grit. The paper used was red 3M and I stored in accordion style file folder for convenience
I always wrapped the paper around a sanding sponge or used a Mouse palm sander, depending on the shape of the surface. Of course, sand with the grain! After each sanding I vacuumed the wood then wiped it down with Mineral Spirits to remove all residue before going to the next grit.
Step 3: Staining the Wood
This is a step I probably could have skipped, but the wood was very light (with grey streaks I couldn’t sand out) and I wanted the finished look to be on the darker side, so I erred on the side of staining. I couldn’t find a stain with a Teak color so I used the Varathane Golden Mahogany. I first used the regular blue tape which was very hard to remove after being on the fiberglass for a few days.
Step 4: Sealing the Wood
Following the directions in “Brightwork” I sealed the wood before varnishing by wet sanding with Tung Oil. It was a multi-step process clearly explained in the book. I chose to use the wet sanding method to level out the grain as much as possible.
Step 5: Applying the Varnish, or, Go With The Flow
Never varnish straight from the can! If your brush picks up any dust it will contaminate the entire can of varnish. I pour a small amount of varnish through a paint filter into a plastic cup then begin with a foam brush (store in a plastic bag to minimize any dirt or dust getting on the unused brush). Again, follow the book’s instructions for cutting the first few coats of varnish and for the sanding schedule between coats. Throw out the brush after each coat!
Once you’re actually applying the varnish the most important technique, for me, is to find the “pace” of the varnish. This is not painting! You want to put on a coat that is thinner rather than thicker. Do not rush the varnish! It leaves the brush and goes onto the wood at its own pace, which is usually slower than you want it to. I have to keep saying to myself, slow down. This is one of the reasons I use Schooner, which has less solids than Epifanes. To my touch, the Schooner flows on a little quicker, so I like it a little better.
In the end, I applied 8 coats of varnish. There is a complete sanding and application schedule in the book. It works well for me.
Step 6: Ahhh
Below are the before and after results, which I’m very pleased with. No, I’m not getting canvas covers for the grab rails. I’d rather enjoy seeing them glisten as I approach the boat and recoat sooner than shroud my work with Sunbrella.
One final note: I chose not to varnish the washboards, just the frame. I knew it would drive me crazy trying to not scratch them every time I take them out. I also didn’t varnish the “eyebrow ” because it’s a lot of work and there were a lot of gaps that would allow moisture in and raise the varnish. So the washboards and eyebrow trim were sanded, stained, and wet-sand sealed.
Step 7: Cleanup
There was a residue left by the blue tape in many spots. To remove this I used Goof Off wipes from the hardware store. They worked very well!
Step 8: Oil, not Varnish
For the teak on the bowsprit by the anchor roller I chose to sand, stain, and oil–not varnish–because the idea of the chain and anchor possibly scratching the finished wood was not acceptable to me. Here’s how that looks.