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Varnish: High Tech Or Old School?

Life’s too short to spend it maintaining brightwork, so pick a varnish that lasts.
But which one?
We asked the experts.

I was a lousy sailboat captain. Sure, I could sail pretty well, navigate, dock without smashing things up too badly and avoid arrest in foreign ports. So what made me a poor professional captain? I am brightwork-challenged. And the 55-footer I skippered for four years had plenty of it: varnished cabin-trunk sides and cockpit coamings, teak decks with varnished margin planks and toe rails, varnished deck hatches and dorade boxes, varnished bits and pieces that I can’t even remember anymore. It was hell for me, and it’s a good thing I discovered steel commercial boats, or varnish might have driven me to get a real job.

Karen Merkel Schultz varnishes the Betty Jane II the old-fashioned way.

Karen Merkel Schultz varnishes the Betty Jane II the old-fashioned way.

My battle with brightwork took place more than four decades ago. Although I always used a top-of-the-line varnish, usually from Interlux, the finish seemed to last just a little longer than it took to clean the brush, especially under the hot Florida sun. Maintaining brightwork was an exercise in futility—I’d rather roll rocks uphill with Sisyphus than be condemned to endless varnishing.

Things are mercifully different today. There are one- and two-part polyurethane varnishes, and even a three-part varnish. Supposedly they all dry harder, last longer and can be recoated quickly, without sanding. Even some of the modern single-pot varnishes let you lay on four or five coats a day; you have to sand only before brushing on the final coat. And, if you feel you need to pay for your sins but can’t take the pain of self-flagellation, you can still buy old-style “spar” varnish, fat with tung and linseed oil and smelling like the old days. But are the newfangled varnishes really that much better? I can’t say from experience—I don’t varnish anymore—so I polled some experts to get their opinions. Their answers surprised me.

Three Parts: Better Than Two?

Two-part polyurethane varnishes were newfangled when I cleaned my brush for the last time. Today, most major paint manufacturers make a two-parter: Interlux Perfection Plus, Epifanes Poly-urethane and TotalBoat Envy are three of them. Like all multi-part products, they’re fussier to use—you have to mix them just right—and more expensive. Since it’s often impossible to judge just how much product you need for a given job, you tend to mix too much, and what remains has to be thrown away, or it kicks off in the bucket while you fiddle around perfecting your brushstrokes. Nevertheless, some folks love the two-part stuff.

If two parts are good, will three be better? Awlgrip’s Awlbrite is a three-part mix designed to overcoat existing varnish, ideally the company’s Awlspar, a traditional tung-oil varnish. (Awlgrip’s third option, Awlwood, is a primer and clear wood system that’s applied to bare wood.) I called my pal Tobi Keitmeier, a professional varnisher (his company is Nautical Details, in Stamford, Connecticut) for his opinion on Awlbrite. “It’s a harder finish than varnish,” he said, “and its appearance is really, really good.” It can be polished to a piano finish, he added, making it excellent for tabletops and interior joinery. He lays on 10 or 12 coats, lets it cure for a couple of weeks, then wet-sands and polishes—he’s really into gloss.

But, according to Keitmeier, Awlbrite is more brittle than conventional varnish, so on wood that’s stressed or that can flex—toe rails, for instance—it can crack and let water in. It’s more difficult to apply, too. You have to mix the three parts precisely; it’s very thin and tricky to brush on and prone to running and sagging. And forget cleaning the brushes once the Awlbrite has kicked off—Keitmeier usually ends up throwing them away. But, he said, you still have to use good brushes, so that runs into money, too. “Maybe it’s better left to professionals,” he said.


Eight Months and Counting

Ray Tucker, a technical support representative for AkzoNobel, manufacturer of both Awlgrip and Interlux products, said the reality is that varnish will crack wherever there’s flex. With Awlbrite, the weak link is the spar varnish that’s under it, whether it’s Awlspar or something else. “If the spar varnish cracks, the Awlbrite will crack,” he told me. In that case, Tucker continued, Awlwood is the better choice. “It has much more flexibility than Awlbrite,” he said. “It’s not bulletproof, but it will hold up better.” Awlwood has a tighter bond to the wood, and can bend with the wood and absorb impact without cracking and de-bonding. And if it does crack, there’s a smaller risk of the crack spreading. “Awlwood outperforms everything on the market, especially where there are joints in the wood,” said Tucker.

David Freeman works for West Marine in Jacksonville, Florida, and is as enthusiastic about Awlwood as Tucker. Freeman stripped the teak on his sailboat last summer and recoated with Awlwood: one coat of Primer and eight coats of Clear. Although Awlwood is a single-bucket product when you’re applying it, it’s a two-part system. Awlwood Primer bonds to the wood on the molecular level—it doesn’t just “soak in,” like a thinned base coat of traditional varnish. The Clear topcoat sticks to the Primer like barnacles on a piling.

It doesn’t brush like varnish, either, said Freeman; it’s thicker, and doesn’t hold a wet edge, so there’s no going back over it. After a couple of coats, he said he got the hang of it. Awlwood dries fast, especially in the Florida heat. “I got some bubbles in the first coat and had to sand them out. Then I added a little reducer that got rid of the bubbles. No bubbles means no sanding.” Freeman applied three coats per day once he solved the bubble issue. But, he said, if you’re using masking tape, pull it off quickly or the Clear will soak through and glue the tape to the gelcoat.

When I spoke with Freeman, his Awlwood was going on nine months, and he expects more: His slip neighbors went two years with Awlwood before they had to recoat. “I’ve used a number of products over the past 25 years,” he said. “This is the best one I’ve found; it’s gorgeous, like poured glass. It just sparkles.”


The Old-Fashioned Way

Karen Merkel Schultz sounds like a Florida twenty-something on the phone, but she says she’s been varnishing professionally for close to 40 years. If my math is correct, that means she started varnishing about the time I put my brushes away—is there some kind of cosmic balance there? Schultz works mostly in the Ortega area of Jacksonville and maintains the varnish on Deputy Editor Bill Pike’s Cape Dory, Betty Jane II. Pike likes his boat kept just right—he is as fussy about varnish as I am cavalier—so I’m guessing Schultz does pretty good work. And she does it with traditional varnish.

“I am old school,” she said. “I like using old-fashioned varnish.” She noted that she’s tried all the fancy brews, the two-parts, the three-parts, but they each have their own problems. The fumes of some of them are horrible. And, she added, when a multi-part varnish hardens in the bucket, as it often does on a hot Florida day, you have to throw it away and start over. Schultz uses Epifanes Clear, an old-school tung oil, phenolic alkyd resin varnish with extra UV filters to resist the Florida sun. Epifanes also makes Rapid varnishes that can be recoated without sanding; they would be my choice, with a final coat or two of clear for gloss. That is, if I were to ever varnish again.

Some varnish gurus today start by applying multiple base coats of thin WEST epoxy to bare wood for fast build-up, then finish with a couple of coats of varnish, or maybe Awlbrite. Epoxy is flexible and adheres well to wood. But, said Schultz, “I don’t like to do it; the epoxy can get cloudy, which makes the varnish look cloudy.” Epoxy resin has no UV resistance, so without a topcoat that’s heavy on UV filters, it will change color, and allow the wood underneath to bleach out. And good luck if you ever have to strip it.

Schultz’s advice for varnishing is simple: Use the traditional stuff. If starting with bare wood, thin the varnish to start and lay on the coats. “Ideally, apply seven or eight coats, then add a coat in a few months. That way you always have a new coat. It’s better than doing ten coats all at once.”

If things go sour in my life and I have to start varnishing again, I think I’ll take Schultz’s approach: Follow the old path to gleaming brightwork. On the other hand, Interlux Sundown Buff comes pretty close to the color of varnished teak, just without the gloss. But it’s close enough for me. And at least at this point, I’m not looking for a yacht-captain job. 

2018 Boatyard rule

Varnish in a Bag

Jamestown Distributors is like the Amazon of marine supplies: If they don’t have it, you probably don’t need it. Recently, Jamestown started manufacturing and selling their own TotalBoat products. According to some people, they’re pretty good, too. Among several one- and two-part TotalBoat varnishes is Halcyon—it’s varnish in a bag.

According to the Jamestown folks, Halcyon “cures to a harder surface than most one-part varnishes, with superior abrasion, scratch and solvent resistance.” It contains super UV filters, so it should hold up under the summer sun, even in climates more tropical than Rhode Island, where Jamestown is located. Halcyon stays flexible too, so—at least in theory—it won’t crack as the underlying wood flexes. It comes in clear and amber.

Which is all very cool, I must admit, but we’ve heard the same stuff said before about other varnishes. So what makes me think Halcyon would be worth a try? First, it cleans up with soap and water. No more sloshing out the brushes in solvent that’s expensive, hard on the hands and nostrils and tough to dispose of responsibly. Just wash the brushes like you do when you paint your house with latex.

Second, Halcyon doesn’t come in a can, but in a flexible bag with a screw top. It’s easy to pour into your varnish bucket without making a mess, and you don’t have to punch holes in the rim to let the excess drip back into the can. At the end of the day, squeeze out the air and recap the bag. The varnish should stay fresh, without skinning over like canned varnishes tend to do.

Finally, Halcyon can be recoated without sanding, usually in about an hour. (After 12 hours of drying time, it needs sanding, though, so don’t dawdle.) Get an early start on a warm day and you can apply five coats before the sun’s over the yardarm. There are no fumes, so it’s better for the environment and for you, too, especially if you’re varnishing below decks. And, reportedly, Halcyon can be applied with a foam brush and self-levels nicely to a glassy finish. I’d use a decent brush, though, especially since it’ll be easy to clean.

How to Be a Varnish Snob

❑ Never use the manufacturer’s recommended system. Have your own secret concoctions for thinning the varnish and making it flow.

❑ Keep a large supply of every grit of sandpaper, from 120 down to however fine it gets. Never skip a grit. Also use fine bronze wool for rubbing down between coats. Or maybe jeweler’s rouge.

❑ Use only very expensive brushes, ideally hand-made by Norwegian elves with bristles pulled from the tails of Santa’s reindeer. Scorn anyone you see varnishing with second-rate brushes, and report to the boatyard staff and the harbor police anyone found using a foam brush. People like that are not welcome in your marina.

❑ Insist that on days you’re planning to varnish, nobody come within 500 yards of your boat for fear they stir up some dust. In fact, it’s better if everyone just stays home on that day.

❑ If a bug lands in your wet varnish, let it dry, then strip the piece down to bare wood and start again, after dousing the area with DDT.

❑ Invite passersby to see themselves in your mirrorlike varnish. Explain at length exactly how you did it until everyone goes away and leaves you alone. Then sand it and lay on just one more coat.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.