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Old 01-09-2008, 15:44   #1
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Varnish-- I Don't Get It.

Why do boaters insist on using varnish to protect wood on boats? Everyone tells me "Oh, it's because nothing else will stand up to the marine environment."

How can that be? First of all, paint works just fine, so long as it is good quality marine paint. And many of the good quality "all weather" paints are polyurethane based. That's what people use on houses at the seashore.

So why not use polyurethane on boats? I don't understand why good grade poly wouldn't work as well or better than varnish and I bet it is much less labor intensive.

I suspect that people use varnish because they've "always done it that way" and for no other good reason.
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Old 01-09-2008, 15:55   #2
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I don't understand why good grade poly wouldn't work as well or better than varnish and I bet it is much less labor intensive.
You can use a good grade poly but it won't hold up to UV radiation. You can use house paint if you like. You will find some woods don't accept paint all that well. At some point try to remove it wghen it fails. Things that go on eventually have to come off. Removing UV trashed polyurathane is a real adventure. From a just labor stand point it is pay now or pay later. No applied finish lasts in a marine salt / sun environemnt.

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I suspect that people use varnish because they've "always done it that way" and for no other good reason.
I would give people more credit than that considering you don't know.
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Old 01-09-2008, 16:14   #3
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Marine grade, poly-based paints have U/V protection. And although I'm a newbie about boats, I know something about protecting houses in seaside environments. And I certainly don't use varnish.

Here is just one polyurethane product for boats
http://www.creative-wholesale.com/Dura-Tuff.html.

I suspect there are others, with more coming on the market, because varnish is a PITA.
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Old 01-09-2008, 16:29   #4
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To me, varnish just looks right on a sailboat--
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Old 01-09-2008, 16:50   #5
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I've tried a variety of finishes on my boat, excepting paint that is, and so far none of them have either held up or looked good except for a good grade of varnish. Although UV is the most commonly cited culprit there are also a few other factors.

- Salt crystals on the wood act as small magnifiers for the sun helping to break down the finish
- The wood being finished often has sharp corners or bends which usually means a thinner than desirable finish. These sharp edges also allow water to seep under the finish.
- Some areas are also subject to foot traffic such as coaming boards and toe rails

There is a great deal of difference between a paint and a clear finish such as a varnish both in chemistry and aesthetics.


Finally, those of us that use varnish know that it is a labor intensive job and it is OUR DECISION that the labor is worth it for the final result. The decision is individual. That's why there are so many floating chlorox bottles out there.

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Old 01-09-2008, 17:00   #6
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Well, the boat I just bought has a fair amount of exposed wood and the only thing that is varnished is the tiller. The cabin sides, top and brightwork are finished with cetol, and the finish looks beautiful.
yachtpaint.com - the website of International and Interlux paints

The lack of brightwork and other exposed wood that would have to be varnished is one of the reasons I bought the boat.

If you folks want to spend hours and hours varnishing, by all means do so. The other finishes (e.g. cetol, poly) certainly require attention and regular maintenance, but nothing like varnish.
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Old 01-09-2008, 17:15   #7
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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you think your Cetol looks good, great! Personally, I don't care for the color and you may find that the maintenance and attention are closer to varnish than you might think or wish. I know because I tried Cetol a couple of times myself and here in SW Florida it actually didn't last as long as my high solids varnish.

Of course, a great deal depends upon where your boat is kept and the original application. Any product, improperly applied, will degrade rather quickly. Some folks insist on a high solids varnish and then dilute the dickens out of it by adding a ton of thinner to the product. They don't seem to realize that its supposed to be somewhat viscous. So perhaps people get better results off of stuff that doesn't require as much of a learning curve to apply properly?
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Old 01-09-2008, 17:38   #8
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The best looking long lasting finish I have seen is Awlbright. It's a 3 part system from the folks that make Awlgrip that you apply 6 coats. I saw a boat that came from MD after 4 years and it still looks great. Nothing outlasts ultraviolet radiation. Hard finishes come off the hardest. Soft finishes require frequent reapplication.

For myself I have a taft rail around the cockpit that has 18 spindles with a top and bottom rail. The varnish eventually went bad and took 40 hours to remove. You can put the time in all at once or over the years but it does not net out any different.
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Old 01-09-2008, 18:29   #9
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Yes, I'm sure every finish requires maintenance in a salt water environment. But I'm not willing to conclude that the "net" is the same for every type of finish, particularly if you do not buy a boat with alot of varnished surfaces.

So, Pblais, when you slaved for 40 hours to sand off all of that bad varnish, did you then simply revarnish the rail or did you use Awlgrip or some other finish?

I don't know about cetol (although I'm about to find out), but I do know that modern polyurethanes produce an extremely hard finish. And if you do scratch it, you can fix the damaged area pretty easily with steel wool and a few new coats of poly.
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Old 01-09-2008, 18:50   #10
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I am in the process of a little test. The lazarette top got varnish the coaming got cetol. Both were done a the same time.

I must admitt the cetol was much easier to apply. I used a lint free rag and for me it went on much better than a brush. Also very thin coats. Three of the cetol natural teak and three of the cetol gloss. Also sanded between coats with 220. I did not have trouble with the color though I have a boat two down that is very orange. Understand there was some problems but now has been corrected.

And I can still see the grain on the wood.

Nice thing about your boat is it is your boat, paint it, varnish it, cetol it, pull all the wood and duplicate with plastic, whatever its your boat.
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Old 01-09-2008, 18:59   #11
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Few things look as nice as a properly varnished piece of teak. I used Cetol for many years. It just looked OK but when it failed (Water under the edge, UV) it is very difficult to remove, I like the look of varnish on my handrails and accent stripes etc. . A few coats a year is not so much work. I leave the toerail uncoated. I am sure a solid color paint would last better with regards to UV but then it would look like a house trailer. Not a boat.
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Old 01-09-2008, 19:29   #12
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Well, I like the look of varnished teak too, but not when the varnish gets so thick that you lose any sense of the wood itself.

And I prefer a more "satin" finish on wood, not too shiny, so I like the look of the cetol.

I paid a premium for a well-maintained boat in "like new" condition. One way or the other, I will keep it that way.
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Old 01-09-2008, 20:08   #13
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But I'm not willing to conclude that the "net" is the same for every type of finish, particularly if you do not buy a boat with alot of varnished surfaces.
My experience says it nets out the same. I think you pick something you like. Why not have what you want? Since it's all time required you can pick what you like and how you want to put the time in. You can't beat the calendar.

Of course you will try to keep it that that way, but how and when?

I used to prefer Cetol and a lot of people do. Others don't. I would try to maintain what you have and see how it goes. Switching is a lot of work. What you say now may not be the same after you try to live with the decision. If you can enjoy it it isn't so bad. For us Spring sucks since the temperature gets good about the the time the pollen kicks in and then the heat. That leaves October to December to do anything annual.
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Old 02-09-2008, 09:25   #14
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The secret to a good looking finish is in the prep. With a lousy prep job any finish will look lousy. No matter if one uses Cetol, varnish, or a multi-part, the prep is the same and THAT is where the work is. So this discussion breaks down into two parts.

First, what looks good. Curmudgeon prefers a satin finish, I prefer gloss. Dealer's choice.

Second, what will last the longest with only touch-up periodically so as to avoid taking everything back down to bare wood.

I don't believe that there is a single answer to the second. There are too many variables such as where is the boat located, i.e., north, sub-tropics, tropics. Is there a great deal of airborne pollution, if so that will shorten the life. How good was the prep job, and was the finish applied properly. If in salt water, is the boat washed down frequently. The shape and location of the wood plays a part. Sharp edges are vulnerable and there is a difference between horizontal and vertical surfaces.

Two other points, first, be careful using Cetol as it is a stain. Drips and runs onto fiberglass can be a real pain to clean up. If the gelcoat is very porous you may not be able to remove all the stain.

Second, I would like to recommend two books on brightwork by Rebecca Wittman. A lady who does this for a living and a very entertaining writer. The first book is "Brightwork, the Art of Finishing Wood" its a hardcover with some very nice photos to drool over. The second is a papercover that is more of the step by step to a perfect finish and is called "The Brightwork Companion". Two links to these books at Amazon are attached.
Amazon.com: Brightwork: The Art of Finishing Wood: Rebecca J. Wittman: Books

Amazon.com: The Brightwork Companion : Tried-and-True Methods and Strongly Held Opinions in Thirteen and One-Half Chapters: Rebecca Wittman: Books
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Old 02-09-2008, 13:22   #15
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Originally Posted by cabo_sailor View Post
The secret to a good looking finish is in the prep. Second, what will last the longest with only touch-up periodically so as to avoid taking everything back down to bare wood...

be careful using Cetol as it is a stain. Drips and runs onto fiberglass can be a real pain to clean up. If the gelcoat is very porous you may not be able to remove all the stain.
Thanks for the information!

Yes, the prep is the key to painting or refinishing just about any type of surface. The boat I'm buying is in "as new" condition, so the key for me is how to keep it that way. I'm not yet faced with a deteriorating situation.

My boat isn't fiberglass, btw, it's a "stitch and glue" boat made out of wood layered with epoxy resins and glass threads. It's not a standard cold moulded fiberglass hull. But it likely won't like Cetol dripped on it either.

With the Cetol, I'll follow the annual maintenance instructions on the packaging and go from there.

Alas, I'll still have to varnish the tiller for the forseeable future...
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