Skip to main content

Refresh Your Boat’s Interior

Superior Interior

How to refresh less-than-perfect joinery.

If you’re anything like me, you often enthuse about your boat’s interior “lookin’ like new” while blabbing with your boating buddies. But again, if you’re anything like me, you also often wonder in quiet solitude, typically while eyeballing scratches, water stains, and other joinery glitches onboard, whether sprucing things up might make a lot of sense. After all, reality trumps delusion at least once in a while, especially when you’re alone.

Of course, there are many kinds of interior joinery. What’s in a Grand Banks trawler’s saloon will bear little resemblance to the saloon of a Hatteras convertible, for example. And indeed, a five-year-old Hatteras and a 25-year-old progenitor will sport radically different looking interiors as well, especially in terms of the woods chosen and how much was used.


Slane Marine rehabbed the saloon of this 1979 Hatteras. The photo below shows the veneers and finish Slane started with.


But hey, most experts in the field of boat restoration agree on lots of joinery-upgrading basics, and these tidy little rules of thumb seem to apply to just about all forms of pampered cellulose. So if you’re thinking about upgrading your interior wood, or perhaps even hunkered down in the midst of a project, check out the following pointers:

Right up front, what most experts suggest is disarmingly simple—clean the interior wood you want to upgrade with cotton rags and a spray bottle (the 32-ounce size works well) filled with water and a couple of tablespoons of Murphy’s Oil Soap. “Spray it on and then quickly wipe the surface off—you don’t want water spots,” says John Shannahan of Dickerson Harbor ( in Trappe, Maryland, a Grand Banks rehab specialist with years of experience. “Murphy’s cleans efficiently and leaves a little oil behind—you may find after using the stuff that you don’t really need to do any upgrading at all.”

The next step’s more complicated. You’ve got to figure out which of the two primary types of finishes you’ve got, varnish or oil, a task that’s not quite as easy as it sounds. More to the point, if done right, oil on teak (the most common type of wood used in interior marine joinery) can look very much like varnish. So, if you’re not sure of your finish, call your manufacturer. Most likely he’ll have used any number of finishes and woods over the years, but he’ll also probably have documentation on your boat, tagged either to her hull number, her year of production, or both.

Oil’s the easiest finish to refurbish, although the end product tends to exhibit a certain stickiness that attracts dust, even when dry. Go with a product your manufacturer recommends if possible, but otherwise you’ll find excellent, relatively inexpensive, linseed- or tung-based oils from Watco (, Scott (, Minwax (, and others at hardware stores. Most experts advise applying the stuff with a polyfoam brush and then thoroughly rubbing it in with clean terry-cloth pads. Do one coat and let it dry for a few days and then apply one or two more, depending on the appearance you’re shooting for. And bear in mind—in order to effectively switch to oil on woodwork that’s already varnished you’ll need to remove all the varnish first, a wicked job.

But let’s say you’re intent on revarnishing an already varnished interior. Frankly, adding a few coats to all the joinery onboard at one whack will almost certainly turn into a long, labor-intensive, and potentially dispiriting job, mostly due to the prodigious amounts of preparation work required and the problems that can arise. Because of this, it’s best to begin with a small area that’s self-contained (so color-matching issues are minimized) after you’ve considered a couple of prep-time-cutting options.

“Sometimes we’ll have old veneered panels on bulkheads, doors, and cabinets that are scratched or otherwise damaged,” explains Tom Slane of Slane Marine (, a respected restoration firm in High Point, North Carolina. “Such times, we’ll often apply new, paper-backed veneers over the old, while being careful to match it in terms of grain structure, pattern, and other aspects. Trying to rehab old veneer can burn up an awful lot of time.” 

Another nifty shortcut entails paint, particularly where large panels are involved. “In my opinion, some of the older trawlers have way too much teak inside,” says Mike Negley of Safety Harbor, Florida, yet another respected restoration expert and a high-profile contributor to a major Grand Banks discussion forum ( “Painting panels—especially bigger ones—cuts down on maintenance, brightens the interior, and actually accents the teak trim better.”

Even if you apply paint and/or new veneers to your interior, however, updating the remaining varnish will still call for lots of sanding. Interestingly enough though, James Moores, the head honcho of Moores Marine in Riviera Beach, Florida (, a company that’s been rebuilding and refurbishing older vessels (including the presidential yacht Honey Fitz) for decades, is no great fan of sandpaper, especially when applied to paper-thin veneers. “You’re better off with 3M sanding blocks for big areas and ScotchBrite pads for corners and other hard-to-get-at spots,” he says, “They’re less aggressive—really, all you need is a little mechanical tooth so your varnish will adhere.”

Negley, on the other hand, is an advocate of wet sanding, both to reduce dust and fill the grain of the wood. “But when wet sanding with a sander it’s important to make sure you’re using a tool that’s electrically safe,” Negley cautions, “and avoid random-orbital sanders if possible … swirl marks.”

The act of varnishing itself is a mysterious one, particularly when you consider the tons of advice that have been lavished upon the subject. Suffice to say that every varnisher has his own methods, although there are a few points upon which everybody agrees. First, read the directions on the varnish can before you jump in—a mistake on temperature compatibility, for instance, can turn 20 hours of devoted prep time into a total mess. Second, lay on thin coats (using a polyfoam throwaway brush almost guarantees this) because overly thick layers may produce “solvent lock,” a nasty condition where an upper-surface cure prevents lower surfaces from curing, thereby engendering numerous tragedies. And third, go with glitch-hiding satin on panels and other large features, and harder, more durable gloss on furniture, doorjambs, and other likely-to-be-touched components.

And one last thing. Once you’ve completed your upgrade, you’ll undoubtedly be asked, usually while blabbing with your boating buddies, exactly how many coats of oil or varnish you slathered on. Honesty’s a tad overrated in this area in my opinion, especially given the time and effort the aforementioned slathering requires. I’d suggest boosting the tally by a factor of two. Or maybe three. You deserve it.

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.