A Lesson in Varnishing

…or Ain’t she pretty? I did it myself!

By Sherwood Heggen

Did you notice last fall as you were putting your boat into storage that the varnish is starting to look a little hazy. Are you behind on the varnish schedule because of what it costs to have someone do it for you. Are you aware of what happens to boats that aren’t properly varnished and maintained? Unfortunately, they begin to deteriorate – you know – rot. It’s time to consider maintenance, or let’s call it a mini-restoration project to protect your investment. You may be surprised how investing a little money and time now is going to save you a whole lot later on. The least expensive protection you can provide for your boat is to keep current on the varnish. If the boat is kept in the water and is in the sun frequently, consider at least two coats of varnish every year. To some, it may be an intimidating job, but it really isn’t beyond most peoples abilities. The equipment is very basic and the expense in someone else doing it is mostly time. Read through this and then take inventory of your skills. You might want to give it a try. Along the way of getting to the varnishing, you may find some other important tasks to do on the boat first. No amount of varnish is going to protect a boat from rot if there are areas where water can easily enter but have a hard time getting out. The two notorious areas for this are deck seams where the caulking has cracked or come out and butt joints on the deck and side of the hull. Those areas might need attention along the way. Let’s get started. You have your boat in a protected area and off the trailer. You should be able to walk around it comfortably and there should be good lighting. You are itching to get going. But proceed methodically and the job will go easier. Start by removing all of the hardware. Don’t tape around it to varnish! When you take off the hardware, place all of the screws, nuts, bolts, or washers for each piece of hardware in a small plastic sandwich bag. Put a piece of paper in each bag on which you have written what they are for, i.e., bow light, port forward vent, etc. Tape the bag and its contents to the piece of hardware to which it belongs. This might be a good time to replace any mis-matched or worn screws or bolts. Place all of the hardware in a box and set it aside. Also, take note of which screws had lost their hold in the wood by placing a piece of masking tape at that hole or holes when found. Fixing these worn screw holes is fairly simple. Prepare a small batch of epoxy and mix some micro balloons into it to thicken it slightly. Using a toothpick, insert the thickened epoxy into the screw hole. Fill the hole and wipe off the excess with lacquer thinner. If the screw hole is on a vertical surface, tape over the hole to keep the epoxy from running out. When you re-install the hardware, the hole must be re-drilled. Next, take notice of any areas which are suspect for rot – again, deck seams and butt joints. If the caulking has broken away form the wood on a seam and has been that way for more than a season, rot may have begun. Remove as much caulking as possible and check the wood for soundness with a “T” pin or pointed X-Acto blade by pushing it into the wood. If the pointed object penetrates easily, rot has begun. It is important to determine how far the rot has gone. How deep can the pointed object be pushed? Let’s say for this time, that there is just a hint of softness. It is time to get out the penetrating epoxy. Clean out the area where the rot exists by removing any soft wood. Soak the wood with the penetrating epoxy until it is saturated. An alternate to the penetrating epoxy is regular epoxy. Apply the epoxy on the infected area and heat it with a heat gun. It will become thinned by the heat and soak into the wood more deeply. It is not as effective as penetrating epoxy, but will get you by until there is time and money to do major wood replacement. To seal up the seam or joint, use mahogany color 3M 5200 or Sika Flex caulking. Thin it with a little naphtha to make it a little easier to work with. Clean up any excess with naphtha. Let the caulking cure for a few days before you put varnish over it. If you are comfortable that there are no other problem areas, it is time to start preparing for the varnish. Start by protecting the interior of the boat with drop clothes over the seats and interior. Protect the ceiling boards with 6 mil plastic held on with high quality painter’s masking tape. Here is where the hard work is – sanding! Take your time and do it well. The sanding effort helps to level any existing runs, sags, or brush marks to provide a smooth surface for varnish. The final appearance of the varnish job will be a product of how well you sanded. Equipment required is a small bucket for water, a long and a short sanding block, 320 and 400 grit wet or dry sandpaper, a sponge, and elbow grease. Use the long block for convex surfaces (decks and sides) and a short block for concave surfaces (forward topsides). Load the sanding block with 320 paper for the initial sanding. Fill the bucket full of water, dunk the sanding block in the water and proceed with sanding. Keep the sanding area wet by dunking the sanding block in the water frequently. As soon as the area being sanded begins to dry, the paper will load up, making the sandpaper ineffective. Clean the sanded area with the sponge frequently to check the progress of your work. It is best to sand lightly the first time around so as not to sand through to bare wood. Shiny spots may remain after the light initial sanding. It is best to scuff up these shiny areas with a 3M scratch pad to give the new varnish better adhesion. If you do sand through, let the wood dry overnight before attempting to repair by re-staining. Before varnishing over the new stain, spread a film of epoxy over the stained area to seal it and create some instant build up. Once that is cured, sand it lightly. When sanding the hull sides, don’t be afraid to sand into the boot stripe to eliminate the edge that exists from when it was previously taped off for painting. The boot stripe will need to be redone anyway. The time has nearly come to apply varnish. But first, remember, the major challenge in varnishing properly is dust control. You can’t expect a great looking varnish job if you don’t control the dust in the air, on the hull, and on the floor. You must realize dust is everywhere and we are making more every moment of the day. How many varnish jobs have you seen that didn’t look too professional? What are some of things that make it look that way? Let’s name them: · Runs and sags · Varnish on the hardware · Brush marks and skipped spots · Remains of bugs and mosquitoes · Dust! Dust is a generic name for any little spec which interrupts the smooth varnished surface in the form of a minute projection. It comes from the sanding residue in the crevices and holes in the hull, from your clothes, your skin flaking off, and airborne stuff from who knows where. Controlling it is a major job. Hopefully, you have a controlled environment such as a garage or partitioned off area of a building to help control the influx of dust. Then you only need to worry about the localized dust. Either vacuum or air-hose off the hull to remove any dust hiding in the recesses of seams and holes. Use a stiff bristle tooth brush to help loosen things up. Then, using a sponge and water, wash the boat down thoroughly. Change the water in the bucket as it becomes dirty. When the water remains clear, the hull is clean of sanding residue. For the coats of varnish applied before the final coat, this is all the clean up you will really need. Any dust that does remain in the new varnish will be sanded off in preparation for the next coat. Apply the varnish with a foam brush that you have vacuumed clean. An effective way of laying the varnish evenly without the use of a foam roller is to dip the first half inch of the brush in the varnish. Then touch the loaded brush to the surface three or four times at about 4 inch intervals in the intended path of the brushing. Then brush through the dabs of varnish, flowing it out. Continue repeating that until the hull is covered with varnish, always finishing your strokes into the previously applied varnish. If the varnish doesn’t look smooth and glassy right away, don’t worry about it; it will level over time. After the varnish has dried for at least a couple of days, go through the sanding and cleaning process again. From this time on, sand after each coat with 400 grit paper. If the sanded varnish is completely “whited out,” it is time for the final coat. Don’t be afraid to put on an extra coat or two before you consider putting on the final coat to fill in all of the little imperfections. The surface will tell you when it is ready for a final coat when the sanding easily provides a smooth “whited out” surface. Once that condition exists, major dust control has to take place before the final coat of varnish goes on. The dust control for the final coat must be strictly practiced. Varnishing is best done in the early morning hours when the wind is calm, the dust has settled and the flying insects are asleep. The steps you must take the night before you do the varnishing, are described above. In preparing to varnish, dress in a pair of jogging shorts or cut-offs and a pair of sneakers – no shirt, as it is a dust factory. Enter the work area with a pail of water, pouring it on the floor where ever you walk. The dust has settled over night and is now on the floor. You want it to stay there by trapping it in place with generous amounts of water. Now it is time for the final cleaning prior to the final coat of varnish. With a clean bucket of water and a clean sponge, wet the sponge and squeeze it out until it only moist to the touch. Then wipe down the hull, moistening the sponge as necessary. This will pick up the dust that has settled during the night. Change the water and rinse out the sponge and repeat the process. The hull will dry off very quickly. Next, thoroughly wipe down the hull with a tack rag, opening it and turning it frequently. Now see how much dust remains by wiping the surface with the palm of your hand which just held the tack rag. If there is dust, you will feel it as little pieces of grit which will stick to your hand, still sticky with the tack rag resin. Wipe the surface again with a new tack rag and check again for dust with the palm of your hand. When no more dust can be felt by the touch of your hand, the surface will be ready to varnish. Pour varnish into a clean plastic container, and with a clean foam brush, and a wet floor, begin varnishing. You should have the starting and stopping points figured out by now to create a continuous wet edge, having already done 2-3 coats. Apply the varnish in a long “X” shaped pattern followed by smoothing strokes with the grain of the wood. This will help eliminate skips in the varnish. Initially, brush marks and some bubbles might exist, but leave them alone and let the varnish do its leveling after you have left the room. Really …. leave the room. Don’t be tempted to fix any brush marks, especially after the varnish has had a chance to set for a while. Take what you get and be happy. When you come back that evening, you will see the rewards of your diligent effort of chasing dust. The varnish should be as smooth as glass, with no major dust. Let the varnish cure for at least a week before you tape off the deck seams and the boot stripe to paint them white. During the wait, you could re-install any hardware that won’t be in the way of painting the deck seams and boot stripe. Also, give the interior a good cleaning so it will match the good looks of that great varnish job you just did. As with anything, the skill of varnishing comes with practice. If the coat of varnish you put on doesn’t look so great, consider it a practice coat. Sand it down and do the next coat better. Give it a try. You will feel a boost in your self-confidence and pride with work you have done yourself. If you have any questions about the process, feel free to call me at 612-432-4345 or E-mail me at Heggensj@AOL.com. I look forward to hearing from you. In the meantime, remember: Don’t destroy it; restore it!