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Tips for better varnish

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Varnish Guru:

When Bryan Hicks of Panama City, Florida, a veritable artiste with a varnishing brush, talks about his work, he often concludes with a quote from Vince Lombardi: “Gentlemen, we will chase perfection and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while that we will never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence!”

For Hicks, Lombardi’s words underscore a critical point. Even professionals like himself, with decades of their lives devoted to the discipline of varnishing, are bound to make a mistake or two, here and there. “So don’t feel discouraged if you see some imperfections at the end of the day,” he advises. “There’s no way around it really. There are no perfect jobs.”

Hicks has been doing the varnish work on my Grand Banks trawler Betty Jane for several years now. Arawak has many of the same exterior teak detail and will benefit from new varnish. As you can see here, she’s worn down to the bare wood so we’re beginning from scratch.

He began with Betty way back when by removing all traces of the finish on her exterior teak and then went on to administer his own mirror-like coating, which he continues to refurbish annually. It’s unusual for a varnish job to last through an entire year in the North Florida climate, a metrological mélange that includes wicked heat during the summer and freezing temperatures in the winter. But the job Hicks does indeed lasts. And he’s generously willing to share the essentials of his highly successful method with us.

Out with the Old

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 ( 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.”

In with the New

Hicks’s application of a new finish begins with an “extremely light and fast” once-over with 220-grit paper, followed first by a wipe-down with a rag (he always uses white cotton to obviate soluble dyes from discoloring the wood) dampened with mineral spirits and then by a second wipe-down with an Awlgrip ( tack cloth. “The best tacks come from Awlgrip,” he says. “They are very absorbent but not overly sticky.”

Next come from five to seven coats of Awlspar M3131 classic spar varnish, the first thinned with Awlspar Brush Reducer to a 50-percent-varnish/50-percent-reducer ratio and the second to an 80-percent-varnish/20-percent-reducer ratio. The reason Hicks goes with Awlspar M3131 is that it penetrates wood—and especially teak—so deeply and thoroughly. He goes with a 220-grit once-over between coats and, for thoroughness sake, lets each dry overnight, despite the five-hour drying time noted on the can. Then he begins building coats using a comparatively expensive, classic product from Pettit: Flagship High-Gloss Varnish. In most cases he lets the stuff also dry overnight and, to develop “a little toothiness,” sands between coats “very, very lightly” with either 320- or 400-grit paper. “For a genuinely durable, long-lasting finish,” he concludes, “you need at least nine coats of varnish on a given surface and I’d say 15 coats is optimum.”

He’s got a rule for thinning the Flagship. “I tell people to take a wooden stirring stick, immerse it in the varnish by about two inches, then lift it out,” he says, “and see how long it takes for the liquid to go from a steady stream to drip, drip, drip—three to five seconds is fine but anything more requires thinner. You get the right amount by adding a little and then repeating the test.”

Tips and Tricks

“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.”

We’ll have our work cut out for us on Arawak, even following these great tips. It’s time start fresh...the right way. The Hicks way.

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