Exterior Marine Wood Finishes: Part One, Traditional Varnishes

In recent years, real wood on new boats has definitely gone out of style. Unless you’re looking at a polished Chris-Craft launch, a 64-foot Jarrett Bay Sportfish, or some other high-end boat, exterior wood trim is the exception these days, not the norm.

Varnish looks great and does a great job protecting wood, but getting it right requires a deft touch and some clever tricks. Photo by Gary Reich.

Varnish looks great and does a great job protecting wood, but getting it right requires a deft touch and some clever tricks. Photo by Gary Reich.

But what about the rest of us, who have boats pre-dating this falling out of love with wood phase we’re going through? Or those of us who really like the look of wood and don’t mind the time and effort it takes to keep it in shape? The good news is that the quality and longevity of marine wood finishes has increased exponentially over the last 20 years. The bad news is that the selection of these products is still as large and confusing as ever. Don’t worry—we’ll try to demystify this confusing world of products in two parts. In part one, we’ll tackle conventional varnishes. In part two, we’ll delve into the world of oils, sealers, and one-step “miracle” treatments, plus some good-quality “hybrid varnishes” such as Cetol, which can be a good compromise.

The first examples of varnishes being used to protect wood can be traced back to Egyptian times. Examples of these varnishes were found on wood bowls and sculptures in the tomb of Tutankhamen. And the idea was simple: mix some pine sap or other resin-like substance with a bit of distilled solvent, such as turpentine, apply it to the wood in layers, and you had a tough coating that protected and enhanced the appearance of the wood. The rest is history, so to say.

Epifanes “Clear High Gloss” varnish is a top choice among marine pros. It’s also the most difficult to apply. Image courtesy of Epifanes.

Epifanes “Clear High Gloss” varnish is a top choice among marine pros. It’s also the most difficult to apply. Image courtesy of Epifanes.

Today, varnishes are a witch’s brew of resins, tung oils, alkyd resins, and ultraviolet (UV) inhibitors. The best thing about them is that when applied correctly (and at a sufficient thickness), they make wood look absolutely gorgeous and provide excellent overall protection from the elements (think sun, salt, and spray). The downside is that varnish can be extremely difficult and time-consuming to apply correctly. Several coats are necessary to be effective, and sanding is required between each coat.

I could certainly blog on for pages about the various methods for applying and achieving that mirror-like varnish finish on your boat’s wood (I could write pages on brush selection alone), but if you plan on going down the glossy varnish road, seriously consider investing in Rebecca Wittman’s excellent book, Brightwork: The Art of Finishing Wood. It covers everything from prep work to thinning to maintenance—and more.

You’ll probably find yourself in your local marine supply store scratching your head while dozens of different cans of varnish stare back at you at some point in your love affair with wood. It can be a tough decision picking just one, given all the choices, but there are three or four varnishes that are hard to go wrong with.

Multiple coats of varnish make this detail on a stitch-and-glue kayak shine. Photo by Gary Reich.

Multiple coats of varnish make this detail on a stitch-and-glue kayak shine. Photo by Gary Reich.

Many experts I’ve talked to over the years consider Epifanes “Clear High Gloss” to be the highest-quality varnish money can buy, and it’s also my personal favorite. It’s loaded with solids and UV inhibitors, and when applied correctly, provides a rich, deep, glossy finish. But all of those solids and UV inhibitors come at a cost. They also make Epifanes thick and gooey, which means it’s more challenging to apply.

Lots of professionals also like Pettit’s Captain’s and Flagship varnishes (you might recognize these as old Z-Spar brands), which are slightly thinner and easier to apply than Epifanes. Last, but not least, Interlux fans can give the company’s Schooner Varnish a try. I have never used it, but have always heard generally positive comments about it from boat builders and restorers who like the Interlux brand. There are also two-part polyurethane varnishes available; but quite honestly, they’re best left to the pros to apply.

Glossy, rich-looking wood on a boat is certainly eye-appealing, but some of us don’t have time for all of the prep, sanding, and maintenance essential to a good varnish job.

If you want the wood on your boat to look nice, but don’t have hours upon hours to invest in sanding, thinning, recoating, and maintaining, read Exterior Marine Wood Finishes: Part Two — Oils, Sealers, Hybrids. Some are worth your time, while others are best left on the shelf at your marine supply shop.

Speak Your Mind

*



";}