Tips and Tricks


Expert Varnishing TipsTips and Tricks

Homemade varnish first aid kit

First-Aid Kit

So while lugging your lunch hook astern you gouge a sweetly varnished caprail. Don’t freak out—don’t! Simply break out this handy-dandy varnish repair kit, assembled using a small, discarded bottle of fingernail-polish remover (with a little ol’ brush inside), a scrap of 220-grit sandpaper folded to encompass the bottle, and a rubber band or shorepower cord wrap (shown) to keep the whole thing ready for action. It’s surprising how easy it is to nix a varnish glitch if the complete fix is stowed conveniently in a galley drawer. And keeping glitches from getting out of hand will safely see your gleaming brightwork through to its next all-out refurbishment.

By Capt. Bill Pike

“Never apply varnish right out of a can,” says Hicks. “Transfer it to a small, plastic, quart cup first and strain it through a paper filter while doing so—even a brand-new, freshly opened can of varnish is likely to have chunks in it, let alone a can that’s already been opened. And hey, read the directions on the can and/or check out the manufacturer’s website, too. Might tell you something you don’t know.”

Rather than the iconic and very expensive badger-hair varnishing brush, a two-inch-wide version of the “Corona Urethaner” is Hicks’s favorite application tool. “It loads with just the right amount of varnish,” he maintains, “and layers it on very smoothly. Tips off smoothly too.”

And maintaining the “wet edge” virtually all varnishing mavens specify is one of the most difficult aspects of varnishing technique, according to Hicks. To help, he advises working rails and other comparatively thin parts as quickly as possible in two-foot sections, always “lightly tipping off” new sections by drawing a relatively dry brush into the older, already-applied material. “And try to keep the wind behind you most of the time,” he says, “so you’re not breathing fumes. Or else, wear a good mask.”

Additionally, to prevent issues related to overly speedy drying times (at least in North Florida), Hicks advises applying varnish after 5 pm during the summer. And to preclude dew-related issues (especially cloudiness), he advises never applying varnish much beyond 3 pm in the winter. “And avoid layering it on too thickly,” he says, “so the surface doesn’t skin over before what’s underneath cures—you don’t want what’s called ‘alligatoring’ to occur while the solvent gases try to escape and bubble up.”

Hicks wraps up his little varnishing primer with three simple rules he tries to always adhere to. First, regardless of what device, technique, or abrasive that’s used, always sand with the grain and wear a good particulate-type mask. Second, try to do all varnishing jobs either in the fall or in the spring, thereby avoiding the heat- and dew-related issues associated with summer and winter. 

“And finally,” he adds, with a grin, “Let me again mention the sentiment Mr. Lombardi so eloquently expressed years ago—no matter how careful you are, perfection’s absolutely impossible.”