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Maintaining Your Brightwork with Good Old Spar Varnish

My girlfriend Mia and I bought our boat almost exactly two years ago. She's called Arcturus, after a 1930s-era John Alden schooner I sailed on in New Zealand. Arcturus is a 1966 yawl, 35 feet long, built of fiberglass in an era when they still built fiberglass hulls according to wood scantlings. She's beautiful – eleven total feet of overhangs bow and stern – and bulletproof.

The previous owner had just completed a remarkable four-year restoration when we bought her. We've since re-designed a few things and upgraded her some more. We ripped apart and re-designed the interior in order to build our "library," replaced all the standing rigging, and resurrected a fifty year-old dinghy that just happens to fit perfectly on the coachroof.

But the one upgrade that we yet hadn't completed was the most obvious. Like many older boats, ours had a lot of wood that needed refinishing. There was a lot of old Cetol and a lot of scraping ahead.

I'd worked on a 74-foot schooner in Annapolis, sailing on the Chesapeake Bay. The Woodwind is built of wood, and keeping up the brightwork on her was a full-time job. We experimented with myriad different products to keep it looking good. We tried Cetol. We tried staining the wood first, then coating with varnish, essentially creating our own Cetol. We tried two-part Bristol finish.

They all worked, with varying degrees of success. But to me, the only real solution for the Woodwind, and subsequently, the only solution for Arcturus, was classic spar varnish.

Mia had the unenviable task of removing all of the old Cetol. Just like finishes, there are loads of methods for removing old stuff – chemicals, sanders, scrapers, etc. But old-fashioned elbow grease worked best. With a little help from a heat gun, Mia spent almost a week scraping off two-by-two-inch sections of Cetol until golden yellow teak showed through.

She then sanded the bare wood in three stages, starting with 60-grit, followed by 150, and finally using a sanding "sponge" coated with 220 grit paper for the final once-over. The sponge worked great on the rounded handrails and cockpit comings where a sanding block would have left flat edges.

I chose Epifanes varnish. Again, it's proven and classy (and expensive). You can do one coat per day, and that's it. And they recommend up to 14 coats to make it shine. But we live aboard, so we had the time.

After the final sanding, Mia went over all of the wood surfaces with denatured alcohol, removing unseen dust, and finally one last time with a tack cloth, just before applying the varnish.

Epifanes recommends thinning the first few coats in order to ensure proper penetration into the wood grain. Mia went with a 50% mix for coat #1, 25% for #2 and about 15% for coat #3. For the topcoats, our goal was to create a mixture as thick as possible, but thin enough that it would brush on smoothly. We accomplished this by adding minute amounts of thinner, stirring with a tongue depressor, and ensuring that the varnish "flowed" off the end of the stirrer. The percentage of thinner varied based on the temperature, with the warmest days requiring none at all.

"Professionals" claim to use expensive badger-hair brushes – which is great if the yacht owner is footing the bill. We find a good quality sponge brush works just fine. They key to applying the varnish is ensuring you don't get any drips, which become painfully obvious when it dries. We always keep a "wet edge," ensuring we don't miss any spots and keeping the varnish 'flowing.'

Between coats, Mia used a small 3M scrubby pad to lightly rough up the surface, followed again by the alcohol and tack cloth sequence. We started early enough to ensure that no dew would form on the fresh varnish in the evening. A good weather forecast is obviously important, though it did drizzle some rain only about three hours after Arcturus' seventh coat, and we didn't see any problems.

The combination of lots of prep work, many coats, and lengthy wait times between those coats has created an entire industry around trying to discover a varnish alternative. However, as in life, there usually aren't any shortcuts to success. With classic spar varnish, we found a trusted solution that looks great and has few surprises. And with the right attitude, we actually enjoy the work.

Andy Schell is a professional captain and freelance writer, based in the Caribbean, Annapolis and Stockholm who lives aboard his yawl Arcturus. Contact him at andy.schell125@gmail.com or www.fathersonsailing.com.

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