Boat polishing is easy, but it can take a while to get right. On the other hand, can you put a price

DIY FEATURE - Varnishing Tricks

It has often been said that if God had meant us to have fibreglass boats, he would’ve created fibreglass trees. It has also been said, and I quote from English author Kenneth Green’s charming and prodigious novel Wind in the Willows, “that there is simply nothing quite so nice as simply messing about in boats.”

Some say I’m a fortunate man to have lived the best part of my time (to date) messing about in boats and I don’t even own one.

I have spent the past 30 years in recreational marine as a skipper, a project manager and a restorer of beautiful timber boats. Mostly it’s dragging a brush, working aboard many of the country’s most beautiful wooden boats, handcrafted by some of the best boatbuilders not only in Australia but from around the world.

From the design boards of Sparkman and Stephens, Ron Holland, Robert Clarke, and Ed Dubois, and from the boatbuilding yards of Cec Quilkey, Halvorsen, Swan, and Grand Banks and many more, I have been blessed to be able to work on such classics. Among them the stunning Halvorsen boats Lady Beutron, Nikki Odee, Silver Cloud II, Jubilee and Ku Ring Gai, the great ocean-racing yachts Salacia II, Ragamuffin, Love and War and Concordia and the sleek and modern Azimut, Fairline, and Fleming range of offshore passagemakers to mention some.

Yes, I guess I have been fortunate to be have been an integral part of ensuring these stunning vessels always looked up to the mark.


How to polish and varnish a timber boat

There is absolutely nothing quite like a wooden boat. Wood is good. For that matter there is also nothing quite so nice as any boat — be it fibreglass, aluminium or steel construction — that presents wood features that enhance the boat’s sheer line and style.

Wood that is superbly faired, dressed and varnished in either brilliant high-gloss or the more subtle low-sheens of satin and matt-finish can add so much to the overall beauty of a boat.

What is varnish? Varnish according to the dictionary is a substance consisting of resin dissolved in a liquid, applied to wood to give a hard, clear, shiny surface when dry.

There are three end results of a varnish job. They are the good, the bad and the ugly or better still, the all-right, the not-bad, and the stunning.

Getting a mirror finish

Most boat owners of the DIY variety seem to settle for somewhere between ordinary and not bad, while others may be able to obtain a fairly good end result. However, only a few can appreciate and achieve what is deemed excellent. That is a high-gloss, protective and brilliant finish. Just like a mirror.

A spectacular finish is obtained only if one is prepared to put in a great deal of time and effort. This means hours of diligence and great patience. Mostly this is achieved by getting a professional to do the work and that usually means forking out some big bucks in order to achieve a best result.

However, if you are prepared to do the hard yards then you too can stand on the dock and proudly admire a beautiful finish, but only if you follow to simple guide lines.

So you now own or have just purchased the boat, the little ship of your dreams. You’ve been mulling over this acquisition for years and now, finally, you found her after months of searching and a thousand hours pouring over Trade-a-Boat, the Book of Dreams.

After some haggling and negotiation you have acquired a beautiful little Halvorsen 36 just like the one you hired at Bobbin Head for so many years. You said you’d always own one and now you do. But look at her, she needs works — some electrical, a new engine, a topside repaint and, good grief, take a look at the varnish, it’s a mess.


The right boat polishing gear

You’ve struck a budget, talked to the right guys but you want to do the brightwork yourself. Not a problem, so let’s get started.

Firstly, you need the right boat polishing gear. The right scrapers, paint strippers, a heat gun, sandpapers and power sanders, thinners, masking tape, brushes and finally the varnish.

Once you have all this in place you will need to know just how to go about the task of stripping away the decrepit, blistering and peeling old finish to make way for a beautiful, rich, new surface.

There are two acceptable ways of removing old varnish. The first is using any good paint stripper. Simply follow the instructions on the can, but remember this substance is a caustic material and can cause burning if in contact with skin. Also, it is advisable to wear a mask as vapours may cause respiratory problems.

Apply liberally to the desired surfaces, allow the stripper to sit for a time and then remove with a sharp scraper, ensuring you keep the blade flat on the timber so as to not score the delicate surfaces.

The second method of varnish removal is utilising the technology of a heat gun (a hair dryer on steroids). Be careful with this instrument, it can turn a clean wooden surface into charcoal before your eyes in a heartbeat and burn your fingers off just as quickly.

After the stripped area is completely clean of old varnish, wipe down with turps to remove any paint stripper and when dry, either hand-sand with 80 grade paper, preferably using a flat block (cork or sponge) and sand with the grain, not across it. When complete, sand again with a finer grade paper (recommend 150 or 180).

Now that this process is complete, dust off the prepared surface and vacuum the shavings. Once you have a clean surface apply a sealing coat of 50/50 mixture of varnish and turpentine and allow to dry to a tacky finish before applying a second 50/50 coat and dry for a full 24 hours. These two coats constitute your first coat.


The six-coat varnish rule

This now sets in place the basis from which you can build your six coats to a stunning new varnished finish. In the process of building each new coat remember to sand the previous coat with a finer grade paper (i.e. 240 grade to 320 grade paper). Six coats is the rule of thumb for a good protective finish.

How well does six coats last? Generally, you can expect at least six months before you will need to varnish again. This is all dependent on how you look after the finish.

If saltwater is not washed off after a day or days on the water and if covers are not placed regularly over varnished surfaces you can expect the varnish to break down quickly, particularly on corners, leading edges and around seams.

This means you will have to regularly varnish surfaces, say every three to four months. Therefore, the more varnish the better.

Direct sunlight on any painted or varnished surface can over time be detrimental to a beautiful finish but more so to a boat on the water as a result of refractive light. So it is important to wash down the boat regularly, but ideally chamois off wet surfaces to further protect painted and/or varnished areas.


Final step

How do you get a mirror finish? It’s all in the preparation. This is the most time-consuming part of the whole process.

The second, third, fourth and fifth applications must all be sanded between coats and the preparation of the final coat must be thorough. Get the surface as flat as you can using either 240 or 320 grade paper. Exercise special care during this procedure to ensure you do not rub through to the timber. The application of the final coat should be laid off in the early morning, with as little breeze as possible. The ideal temperature should be between 20 and 25°C.

Dip the brush into the varnish pot, with about 15ml of varnish on the bristles, then begin at a corner or a seam and brush with the grain. As you progress brush back to the varnish you have just laid checking each stroke to ensure a flat, even coverage with no floods (curtains), holidays (dry spots) or
runs. Limited brush strokes will ensure an even flow allowing the varnish to fall like GLAD Wrap. Try not to brush back and forth too often, as this can leave a stringy- or ropey-like finish. Less strokes not more. Remember as you are brushing, the varnish is already tacking off.

Set yourself a program and stick to it as you work around the boat and try not to paint yourself into a corner. Don’t try to do the whole boat in one hit. Take your time and ensure that all prepared surfaces are dust free and clean of grease and silicone. Wipe down surfaces prior to varnishing with absolutely clean and dry rags.

Where necessary apply masking tape to ensure a clean edge and to protect other painted surfaces and edges, including cabin sides to decks, coamings, stainless steel, windows and all fixtures.

Remember, if it is too hot, too cold, too windy or overcast do not varnish or paint or you could undo all the hard work and preparation spent trying to achieve the perfect finish.


If all else fails

And finally, if all this seems just a little too arduous and daunting then call a professional and he can deliver to you a stunning end result or as we used to say on Condor of Bermuda, “a Steinway, a true piece of furniture.” Something you can be chuffed and proud to call your own.

The professional may just save you a great deal of grief and maybe even your marriage or relationship. And that my friends is a ship of another story.

* The author is a Commercial Master and has sailed extensively the Australian coast and international waters. A project manager, writer and broadcaster, Patrick Bollen has 32 years experience in the recreational boating industry.


10 varnishing tips for the perfect boat polish 

1. Don’t be daunted by the size of project — you can do it!
2. Set-up a program and stick to it.
3. Do your research and ask questions from paint professionals.
4. Estimate your materials required (i.e. sandpaper, strippers, tools, masking tape, varnish quantities etc.)
5. Strip, dress and seal a section at a time before moving onto a new section. Build varnish surfaces as you progress.
6. A clean surface with no grit to ensure a good finish.
7. Do not put too much varnish on the brush.
8. At end of each day’s task clean brushes thoroughly.
9. Do not varnish if too cold, too hot, too moist or too windy.
10. Remember to wear face masks and gloves (OH&S) where necessary and clean-up at the end of each day.