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Out with the Old

Bryan Hicks sands between coats.
Hicks sands between coats. He uses Awlspar because it penetrates, and Flagship because of its tough UV resistance.

Expert Varnishing TipsOut with the Old

By Capt. Bill Pike

Hicks uses a variety of tools to remove old varnish—sanding blocks, scrapers, orbital sanders, and even belt sanders—but his favorite (because it’s fast and tends to cause little damage to underlying wood) is a heat gun, albeit a 1,600-watt professional model from the Master Appliance Corporation (www.masterappliance.com) capable of generating a 1,000°F blast. “I use a triangle-shaped scraper and firm pressure in conjunction with the gun,” he explains, “and I tend to remove a one-to-two-inch strip at a time. I try to maintain a 45-degree angle to the wood with the scraper.”

Once the old varnish is gone, Hicks then sands the remaining bare wood with an orbital sander for the most part and either 80-grit or 150-grit paper. “If there are stains, nicks, and scratches, I tend to use the coarser stuff,” he says, “and I watch for swirl marks—even a good orbital will sometimes catch a piece of sand in the paper and cause problems. If I do have swirls, I work ’em out with a sanding block.”

Hicks is no fan of the gold standard of varnishing here: 220-grit sandpaper. “You’ve got to be careful not to change the shape of the caprail or trim piece or whatever else you’re working on,” he explains, “and the overuse of fine sandpaper tends to simply polish the wood’s hard grain and dish out the soft, leaving you with a ripple effect. It’s better—and safer—to go with coarser paper at this stage of the game.”