Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Evolution of Good Varnish

A little back history.........My grandfather owned a couple of sailboats, first was a Cheoy Lee Offshore 27 and later a C&C 41. The Cheoy Lee was your typical offshore 27, lots of wood and tons of varnish. The C&C was the opposite. Just a small amount of wood work on trim pieces and such. I tell you this because I could never figure out where my father learned how to varnish. Well, according to him, my grandfather puts varnish on like he is whitewashing the back fence. So, as the story goes, my father had two choices; he could clean up after his father and redo it when he wasn't looking or learn to varnish and clean up after just himself; and that was where it all started.
I was 8 when my father bought his first boat. It was Thea, USA 108, also a Nordic Folkboat. At that time there wasn't much wood to varnish on her. A matter of fact, everything that needed varnishing could be thrown in the back of the truck and done in our garage; minus the toe rail. I remember sitting in the garage for hours on end, watching and asking millions of stupid questions. Come on, I mastered water colors in pre-school; how hard could this be? Boy was I wrong. I would bug him to let me try, and constantly he would tell me no. Every once in a while the planets would align just right, or he was tired of me begging and he would let me put some varnish on. It was usually on something unseen by anybody, like the bottom of the traveler. I learned then that you could screw up in a matter of seconds, and my moment to shine was short lived. He would fix what I messed up in the ten seconds that I had the brush in my hand, and I would go back to watching.

At the age of 27, I was given my own tub of varnish and a brush for the first time. I like to think that it was because he knew that I was watching and learning, asking all the right questions; but it wasn't. The Truth of the story was that the list of projects was taking longer then expected and he needed to get his boat in the water. Even at the age of 27 I was proud of the job that I did on the bottom side of the decks in the cabin. It wasn't long until I figured out that it was another place that no one would ever look. The following winter, his list was once again long, and he decided that it was my job to re-finish the mast. Since then I have been trusted to varnish just about everything, except the final coat on anything. To make a long story a little shorter, I am 32 years old now, and it is finally looking like I may get to finish a job.

Now when I say that varnish evolves, I mean just that. You can't just sand a piece of wood and slap some varnish on. You need to take your time, and remember that half of it is in the prep work. The sanding alone can be the difference between dinning room furniture and patio furniture. In the pictures below, most of the prep work has been completed. Everything that is going to be stained and varnished has been sanded first with 80 grit, then with 240 grit to remove the sanding marks. We then tapped everything off. (And yes, we now own stock in 3M masking tape)
Just before we left for the evening we vacuumed the cockpit, and blew the entire boat off. The following morning we would start the staining process.

The next day was spent doing just that, staining. I felt like the Karate Kid, "Wax on, Wax off." A whole day of it. It is pretty simple, apply a hearty amount of stain to the wood, let sit and wipe it off when it has absorbed to the desired color. It is just a messy job, and the stain then has to dry overnight, so you really don't know what the finished product even looks like until morning.

We are now into day three. We liked the color, and are planning on 10-12 coats of varnish before we are done. With tack rags in hand, we started the first coat. The first coat is a tricky one. When varnishing stained wood there really is not a good sealer that you can use without making the stain look blotchy, so we have found that you mix the varnish with 25% brushing thinner. The issue comes from the varnish being very thin, but it's just the first coat, so a light coat is okay. Day 4 we sanded lightly with 320 grit sand paper, wiped the entire boat down with paint thinner and applied coat number two. We repeated these steps on day 5 and day 6. This is what the wood looked like after 4 coats.Just after we left when finishing the forth coat, our janitorial crew came in to sweep out the shop for the following week. As you can tell from these pictures, they stirred up a ton of dust. Dust is not a friend when you are varnishing........

Coats 2,3 and 4 are pretty thick and it is time to plane down the varnish. We do this by sanding again with 320 grit sand paper. This time concentrating on making it fair and flat. Most of the wood grain is filled, and the remaining coats will continue to build in thickness. We cut and strip the tape. Re-Tape the entire boat again, moving the tape to the outside edge of the caulking around the deck. This will help seal the king plank and margin boards from any water sneaking through at the caulking joint. Day 7 and 8 were spent finishing all of this up.

Day 9 started with wiping down the entire boat with paint thinner and ended with applying coat 5. From coat 5 on, we let each new coat of varnish cure for two days in between. It has been cold and damp for the most part, and it is better safe then sorry. Day 10 we stayed busy working on other parts of the boat. Day 11 we sanded and applied coat 6. This was the schedule up to day 15 when we applied coat 8. These pictures were taken just after finishing coat 8.

This is were we are currently. We will stop varnishing for a few days, letting the varnish cure and move our efforts to re-finishing the cabin top, putting the phenolic on top of the cockpit combing, and polishing out the hull. I figure if we have any mishaps while these projects are being completed we still have at least 2 coats to go, to fix them.

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