Paying Attention to the Details

(or Little Things Mean a Lot)

by Sherwood Heggen

When others look at your boat, what typically strikes them most are the details that are wrong with it. You can have the shiniest boat out there, but if there is an ugly spot, that spot will be observed most critically and remembered by the observer. Lack of attention to detail and maybe some blatant laziness on your part can be the difference between hearing an onlooker’s remark of “nice boat” or a sideways glance indicating “could be a nice boat”. Whether you own a user boat or a show boat, this Gadgets and Kinks will serve as encouragement to pay attention to detail.

As an example of this lack of attention to detail, I recently came upon a Chris Craft runabout that has stainless steel trim strips inset in the dashboard. The boat had high value potential but was devalued greatly by the appearance of the dash. The previous varnish job was hastily done to cover bare wood at the trim strip slots. No thought was given to removing the stainless steel strips or to doing the varnish correctly. Instead, varnish was applied over the strips, masking their effect as trim.

What an ugly sight! It was a zit on the forehead of a beauty pageant queen! The thought came to me that maybe the poor soul who did this seemingly in-excusable deed should not be criticized. Maybe no one was there to tell him how to remove the strips and he took the easy route. It is often a great mystery how things come apart when you don’t know how they went together. The point of detail we will discuss this time in Gadgets and Kinks is how to remove the trim strips to be able to varnish the dash properly.

First, to get the strips out, we need to know what is holding them in place. The trim strip cross section is “U” shaped with a lip facing inward on both sides to retain special tacks. The tacks are slid in from either end and spaced evenly about every 3 or 4 inches. The strip, with tacks in place, is positioned over the slot in the dash and tapped into place with a light hammer. So, how do you get it out? Putting it in is apparently easy.

Patience and care are the two virtues you will need to exercise during this task to prevent damage to these delicate strips. For tools, you will need a sharp utility knife, a pointed tool as minimal as a small nail, a broad faced tool such as an old wood chisel, a light hammer and a small block of wood. For access to remove the strip, you must first remove the instruments. Remove also the switches and knobs at this time to prepare for varnishing later.

More than likely, there will be varnish sealing the strip in place. Use the utility knife to cut through the film of varnish and then scrape away as much varnish as possible from the strip and the wood without cutting into the wood to make removal easier. Then, insert the pointed tool under the strip in the open end at the gauge hole. Gently lift the strip and begin to work it loose. Be very careful not to get too eager about getting it out once the end is free from the slot or you might bend the strip badly. Instead, gently work it loose enough to get a mini crow bar (the chisel) under an edge to lift the strip along the slot.

Then with some pressure, with your finger on the loose end, begin prying the strip out of its slot. The finger pressure helps keep the strip straight as you pry. The trim strip in the picture doesn’t appear to be out of the slot at all only because it is coming out almost perfectly straight. Any minor curling back can be gently bent back to straight. Continue to pry and wiggle the trim strip and watch the progress while patiently prying and lifting. You may be so lucky that some strips are loose and it could come out easily. Others may take more of the patience and care you possess to get them from the bed they have been in for the past 50 or 60 years.

OK. You have them all out. What next? Varnish the dash, of course, but how do you clean the strips of varnish and grime? It is likely that the tacks might be lodged in place with dirt or rust. Removal for cleaning might be difficult. To make things move easier, use the lubricant in a spray can called “PB Blaster”. It is available in most auto parts stores. Squirt a little on the tacks and wiggle them loose and remove them from the strip. Then, determine if they are useable or if they are brittle and worthless due to rust. If they are useable, clean them as well as possible and set them aside. Now, take the strips and remove the varnish with some paint remover. If they appear dull or scratched, rub them briskly with Flitz polish or 000 steel wool followed by polishing with Flitz on a paper towel. The strip will come up bright and shiny after the polishing residue is wiped away.

When the varnishing is complete, be sure that there isn’t a build up of varnish in the slot that would restrict the strip from going in place. If so, use sandpaper on a small strip of wood to sand away any excess varnish restricting the slot. Do not sand through to the wood. Trial fit the strips in the respective slots to be sure that they will all fit once they are finally installed. Slide the tacks in place on the strips and position the strips over the slot. When satisfied of their position, lightly tap the tacks in place one at a time. Once all tacks are lightly holding, lay a small block of wood over the strip and gently pound the strip in place. The wood evenly distributes the blows from the hammer to protect the strip from bending. With that done, go on to the next strip until all are in place.

What if the tacks were not useable? Spots of 3M101 Sealant can be substituted for the tacks to hold the strips. Just don’t use gobs of it that would ooze out, restrict the placement of the strip, or make it impossible for the next restorer to remove the strips for varnishing.

So, there you have it. Rather than destroying the beauty of the boat, you have restored it, if only by a small detail. Your boat may have small details that need attention. How about that rusty steering column, or the screws that are either too big or too small for the hardware. Go take a look at your boat and see what detail needs
attention. Hopefully, your boat’s admirers will give you a “nice boat” remark as you would deserve for that little extra effort.

As always, questions or comments about restoration of the old wooden treasures are welcome. Give me a call at 715-294-2415 or e-mail me at

Your concern or idea may be the perfect spring board for the next topic in Gadgets and Kinks!