Prepping Before the Varnish

or A Stitch in Time, Saves Nine

by Sherwood Heggen

Let’s say it is time to do something to make your boat look better and you decide to put three coats of varnish on it and get into the water. Well, slow down here. Walking around the boat you see a number of typical eyesores and problems that require attention. Fixing them will take time, but if you don’t, the boats condition will only get worse. Or, you will wish you had taken the time because the boat won’t look that much better after the varnish without paying attention to the little things that are distracting to the appearance of the boat. The secret to a good looking boat is what you do before you put on the varnish.

Making a boat look good has its tricks. Let’s explore some of these ideas to allow a more professional look for your boat. Please note that not all of these ideas are for the purist who will probably get the cringes reading this. But, we are not into purist thinking in this mode of restoration, or maybe better put, maintenance. We intend only to fix little problems that can

compromise the structure and appearance of the boat, get the boat shipshape, and back into the water. When the time comes for the boat is to be restored to its original, flawless beauty, then we will go a different direction with the fixes.

If you just purchased your classic wooden beauty, the previous owner might have painted a real stupid name on the transom and you would rather put a better stupid name on it instead. How do you get the name off with the least effort. I will tell you. Alcohol – denatured, that is. Using a hard rubber sanding block loaded with 320 wet or dry paper and denatured alcohol, that name will disappear with just a little scrubbing effort. Denatured alcohol breaks down the paint and varnish and the sandpaper scrubs it away. Wet the sandpaper with the alcohol and commence removal of the name. Have paper towels dampened with denatured alcohol available to remove the resulting sludge. If you don’t wipe away the sludge completely while it is still wet, it will dry as a stubborn crust that will have to be sanded off. Work quickly as it dries fast. Since the alcohol is so effective in removing paint and varnish, stop sanding as soon as you see the lettering disappear or you could work your way down to wood before you know it. Check your progress frequently. It is almost disappointing how quickly the work goes. A job that appears so daunting shouldn’t be so easy, although it is messy so wear your rubber gloves.

With that done, move on to the oh-no’s on the boat. You notice a couple of seams on the stop sides where the varnish is starting to peel back. This is a problem that won’t get better over time. Other than stripping the varnish and starting over, all you can do is slow it down with a patch-em -up method. This is not a fix. You might still have problems down the line, but if you want to get some varnish on to make the boat look presentable and more water tight, it will do the job. Go to a hobby shop and ask for a small

bottle of thin cyanoacrylate – known as super glue. Run a line of the glue at the broken edge of the varnish and watch it creep under the broken edge and glue the varnish to the wood. The glue will harden almost immediately and you can varnish over the problem area. Typically, the stain remains in the wood and you can build up the varnish over the problem area with multiple coats. It is a long process to perfectly build up to the level of the old varnish. The final appearance of a seamless fix will be determined by how much of a perfectionist you are and how much time you have. You might have to build up to the 12 – 14 coats of existing varnish on the boat to make it unnoticeable. If you have the time and patience, go for it.

The next grievous problem you find is dock rash. You find a big dent where the wood is crushed and the varnish is broken. If this were a car body, you would just go to the tool cabinet and get out the dent puller. Wood doesn’t work that way. Instead of pulling the dent, you are going to expand it. Wood expands when saturated with water, as we all know as wooden boaters. We can use that characteristic to good advantage by placing a wet Band-Aid over the dent. Fold a piece of cloth into multiple thickness and to the size of the dock rash. Wet the cloth and place it over the dock rash securing it in place with the handyman’s secret weapon – duct tape. Tape around the patch to trap the water so the patch can’t dry out. Leave it there for a couple of days. During that time the wood will absorb water. Then, remove the patch, place a wet towel over the area and apply a hot clothes iron to the towel. The wet towel will transfer the heat evenly and heat the water in the wood to expand the cells even more. The dent should be gone, or at least, be less noticeable. Let it dry for a day or so and then fill  any areas of missing wood with Famowood putty, sanding it flush to the surface. Follow that with stain and multiple coats of varnish to match the rest of the varnished surface.

The next thing you see is cracked plank or an open butt joint. You can varnish over it, but the varnish will never bridge or seal the crack and water will continue to creep in, lifting the varnish and creating more problems below. We are working with a small crack or split here, not a large gaping crack that should be repaired with new wood. Get out the Smith’s Clear Penetrating Epoxy System (CPES) and an artist’s brush and treat the crack with it. The CPES is used to harden the wood around the crack in case there is any deterioration. Let it cure for about 3 days to let it gas off. Then, tape off to the edge of the crack and with a putty knife, or the like, force West System epoxy into the crack. A heat gun will thin the epoxy allowing it to flow into the crack more easily. After it has set up a bit, apply a bit more over the crack to put a heap on it so you can sand flush to the surface later. Let it harden and then sand flush. The crack is now sealed and you can proceed with varnishing. The fix will be noticeable but not as much as it was before and the wood will be protected from water migration.

If you are working with an open butt joint, I have found that filling the joint with 3M5200 after the CPES allows the joint to remain unbroken over time and will also match closely to the color of the stain if you use the mahogany color. Use naphtha to clean up around the joint. This can also be used for any separation between the transom and deck planks also which will keep water out of the transom frame to guard against rot. You can successfully varnish over it.

Things are starting to look better, but now you see a deep scratch in the varnish right on the deck where everybody can see it. It is only a surface scratch which luckily did not go all the way to the stain. If you varnish over it, it will remain there as a break in the smooth surface and will continue to be noticeable unless you can spend the time to build up the varnish to the old existing surface. This is an easy one. Get the West System epoxy out again and fill the scratch as you did with the crack in the wood. When it is cured, sand it flush with the surface. You can then varnish over it for a smooth, even appearance.

Those deck seams might have gotten a little too wide over the years of varnishing and re-striping. It is time to get them back to the normal eighth inch width or as narrow as

possible. Get the hard rubber sanding block and denatured alcohol and paper towels out again and do some careful sanding to remove layers of paint on the deck boardsthat created this road stripe width painted seam. You might also want to use a utility blade knife as a scraper to remove the striping paint in low or stubborn areas. Simply hold the blade itself in your

fingers (it is not installed in the blade handle) and use it much like a wood scraper. Again, be careful and work patiently to remove as much as you can without jeopardizing the varnish between the paint and the wood. You don’t want to burn through, but if you do apply a coat of stain to the bare wood. Allow it to dry a couple of days and then apply a thin coat of West System epoxy as a build up coat and varnish over that.

In most cases, that should take care of the prep and repair work to get your boat ready for varnish. Don’t forget to give it a careful, but thorough, sanding and cleaning before the first coat of varnish goes on. Taking time and paying attention to the details will make your boat look like a winner rather than a user. Your boat is a reflection of who you  are so take the time to make a favorable impression.

I continue to invite you to contact me with your questions regarding restoring and maintenance of your wooden treasure. It is rewarding to hear from so many people literally from around the world. Feel free to contact me at  or call at 715-294-2415. I will provide you with an answer from my own knowledge or refer you to my network of knowledgeable wooden boat owners and restorers.

Hey, don’t go it alone if you don’t have to. We are all in this together. Don’t destroy it; restore it the way it is supposed to be done using the minds and ideas of those who have done it before. OK, go out there and get busy. Your boat is calling. Can you hear it? Yup, it’s calling you.

Get to it!