Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Glossing Over Everything

Three subjects you just don't bring up when in mixed company around boats and shipyards:
religion, politics and varnish preferences..... I reckon I'm about to break that taboo today.

Folks seem to be awfully set in their ways about all three of those subjects. But when it comes to varnishing (or substitutes thereof), opinions can get pretty heated; sometimes turning into long-standing grudges. Seriously.

I just don't get it...Having grown up in a paint shop with a brush in my hand since I was five years old, I've really never been too intimidated by finish techniques (anything that can be fixed with a solvent does not present much of a headache in my book).

There is an old joke in the theater world. Carpenters build things and if there's a slight flaw they say, "Paints'll fix it." Things move through the paint shop and after the Scenics are done they'll say, "lights'll fix it." Once things move on stage and tech rehearsal begins, the lighting crew can be heard to say, "It'll look great 60 feet out in the house with the act curtain down." (Or alternate ending: "It'll be dark and they'll be drunk.")

Sugaree's trail-board
I've approached bright-work on boats with pretty much the same attitude. All in all, it's a policy that has served me well.

Between Sugaree's taffrail and her decorative trail-boards, Kwaietek's ironwood billboard, stern-guard and rub-rails (not to mention her interior fir cabinetry and cherry soles), and little Zeta's classic teak trim, we have more than a few bright-work projects to take care of in the coming months.

Kwaietek viewed from Zodiac's bow.

---Add to that chore list the exhausting square footage of Zodiac's mahogany caprails, deckhouses and spars, and her salon sole which we'll be lending a hand on this spring and you could say we're up to our eyeballs in wood finishing...

Tight-rope act to hit under Z's caprail


(oh yeah, I have no choice but to take the deck of my Chesapeake Light-Craft kayak that Jeff made down to bare wood and re-finish it as well).  

Inlay on the kayak

Every project on every vessel has it's own unique requirement; some more than others. I like to approach each wood finishing project with a different perspective.  I am not married to any one technique nor loyal to any particular brand or type of solution.

Painting detail with (yep), kale!
In the theater, we had a heavy amount of respect for the venerable techniques of the old school painters; in fact, I was trained by my father who in turn was a student of the well known masters such as Arnie Gillette (the guy who wrote the books)... Yet, the theater world promotes innovation and using whatever you can to achieve the desired finished product.

Same thing goes for bright-work. Make it work, make it last. Don't fear the brush.

For our little sailboat Sugaree, we decided from the get go  that her wood work should be easy to care for and not something we wanted to re-do every season. She is a lovely little fiberglass Magellan class ketch and her taffrail has those spindles that can be a real bitch to sand. We chose the teak tinted Cetol initially. The first year that I applied it, I confess to being disappointed in the overall look. The color was too orange and after the second coat it developed a plastic-y sort of finish.
However, we sanded that layer off four years ago and went with the clear Cetol semi-gloss and it has a nice clear finished look. Furthermore, we haven't had to bother with it for four whole years, (big points there)!
The Cetol finish works well on Sugaree
Cetol finish goes on easily, doesn't require a great deal of sanding between coats and is really durable. It doesn't look as showy as true varnish (even their gloss isn't close--no matter what they claim), but it's an attractive and practical substitution, especially if you're planning to cruise a lot with your boat and don't want to worry about constantly re-applying.

When we hauled Kwaietek out for the first time, we asked around for advice on treating her expansive billboard and stern-guard. The BC Forest Service designed and built these old vessels to be bomb-proof when it came to cruising amongst the logging camps up the inside passage. Everywhere the boat could possibly come in contact with a log or rock, there is a layer of ironwood... and we needed to care for it.  Our buddies Christine and Jeffrey Smith recommended the two-part product called Deks Olje.  

I spent a good day or so sanding off all the old finish and then another day applying multiple coats of part 1-the saturating oil finish. Basically, you keep applying coats until the wood just won't take any more. As soon as the last coat dried, I began the process of brushing on part 2--the oil varnish finish. It doesn't need to be sanded between coats (bonus), and the recommended number of coats is six or seven. I love this stuff!

It's been three seasons of summer cruising and anchoring and the billboard looks great. It protects the wood wonderfully, even where the anchor bangs against the ironwood as we hawse it.

When we tackled the interior cabinetry that Jeffery installed, we went for varnish on the fir woodwork. There is currently four coats of varnish on the bookshelves and bunks and four to five coats on the Maple veneer counter tops in the master stateroom.

I have a hunch that this summer I will be emptying out cabins to sand and apply a couple more finish coats.
The sheen that varnish achieves in the last couple of coats is well worth it.

Kwaietek is at heart, a work boat. Even though she's our home, and often times a show-piece at some classic wooden boat show, she was born a working vessel. Her exterior finish work reflects that.

Sugaree is a 70's fiberglass sailboat. We made the decision to "funky her up" when we purchased her. The accents like her trail-boards, painted sun on her cabin front and the Purple-heart sampson posts are all fun details, but we did not feel she needed the yacht quality varnished bright-work to make her look complete.

The mighty Zodiac however, is a horse of a different color. Anyone who has been onboard or had the chance to walk beside her at dock knows firsthand the glorious bright-work that personifies Zodiac's classic gaff-rigged schooner look.

A hard-won glossy finish on Z's caprails

With  well over 1,800 square feet of bright-work on the 90 year old vessel, one has ample opportunity to learn how to varnish.

Our family has been involved in Zodiac's annual winter refit projects since 2006.
I don't even want to count the miles of varnished wood I've dealt with on that old girl.

A rigger's eye view of bright-work chores!

In 2009, Jeff and I (with Megan and Kris), helped the Captain wood the entire expanse of Zodiac's caprails. It was a back breaking, sweaty chore... Ten to twelve hours a day for a solid week, we sanded and varnished, sanded some more and varnished. Seven coats worth of varnishing when all was said and done.
The brand of varnish we used was called "Schooner" varnish by Interlux. It was beautiful--went down like honey and left a deep reflective gloss. The trouble was, it lasted all of about three or four months. Then it yellowed and faded out.  We decided to discontinue that product.

When our new masts arrived fresh from the lathe in 2011, we spent three months prepping and varnishing them. I am certain that on any given day between January and March, if you'd drawn blood from any of us you would have found a blood-varnish-content of .09% or greater... We sweated varnish.

Tim created a recipe of heated varnish, turpentine and penetrol for the initial coats. This soaked into the raw wood and then we would wrap the spars (all 400 feet of 'em)! and continue the process every other day, graduating to a 50/50 solution of varnish and turp, then to straight varnish. Eventually we'd built up about ten coats of varnish on the main and fore masts with about six to eight coats on the various gaffs and booms. Lordy, what a massive job.

The brand we used for that project (and on all the deck boxes and houses is McKloskey's Man O' War Spar Varnish (gloss).

It gets the job done.

I've applied the floor finish in Zodiac's main salon now twice since we layed the flooring in 2007. The fir sole was reclaimed from a south Seattle apartment building dating from the turn of last century. Jeff ran it through the thickness planer a couple of times and the boards came out clean yet retained a lot of character that is typical of old vertical grain fir.

The salon gets a major amount of traffic during the season. Passengers move in and out of the space and luggage is routinely dragged across the sole. We used a tough finish that holds up well and keeps a high sheen.  Dura-Seal Polyurethane gloss finish has done well for us every single time. I really like using this product because it goes on smoothly and doesn't require sanding between coats (as long as you apply the next coat within 24 hours). 

Salon floor with two coats of Dura-Seal

Classic yachties always hiss when they hear that we've used a non-traditional finish on the salon floor.... but everybody has to admit that it looks fantastic for a space that has hundreds of feet trampling back and forth on it 120 days out of each season!

(Besides--the old scenic artist in me loves the fact that we can maintain the look of a classic wooden boat and use practical substitutes to help make her last)!

I suppose it's time to pull out my custom paint box that Jeffery made me (it's pretty slick and well worth a blog post all of it's own), and I will recondition all of my quality varnishing brushes...stock up on the sacrificial brushes that are good for certain jobs and dig out my paint clothes.
(Of course I'm banking on a few more good winter storms to delay my exterior projects). Still, 'tis far better to get started on all this bright-work soon so I have some actual time to get out there and enjoy the fruits of my labors.

See ya' out there!

~ Chris

1 comment:

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