Aboard Astraea

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Varnishing 101: Making your woodwork look nice

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There’s quite a bit of prep work that goes in to making the wood on your boat look nice. Airborne’s needed a fresh varnish job for about a year now and now is the time to get her looking her best to sell.

I started by asking Eric of Coconutz over for some how-to advice on how to get started. He brought over paint scrapers and sandpaper and we worked at getting the old varnish off. Later I went out and bought all the stuff I thought I’d need to get the job done. I went to Harbor Marine for sandpaper and an imitation dremel tool, Dixie Lumber for paint scrapers and brushes, then West Marine for varnish and thinner. The only other thing I needed to get the job done was 3M paint masking tape, gloves and denatured alcohol.

Natalie and I scraped the remains of the old varnish off and then I did most of the sanding. We don’t want to take any unnecessary risks with her breathing in nasty fumes or dust while doing the varnish so she won’t be sanding. The varnish coat was very light so I didn’t need to use a heat gun to get it to come up, but that won’t be the case for the next guy. I’m using Airborne as my “learn to varnish” boat so Astraea will be beautiful.

We used our shop vac to suck up all the loose dust and varnish scrapings. I put on rubber gloves and used denatured alcohol on a rag to clean the wood and remove any residual dust from sanding. Then Natalie and I taped around all the woodwork that we were going to varnish.

Taping around the woodwork.
Taping around the woodwork.

 The freshly sanded teak has a nice, clean light color to it. Cleaning with denatured alcohol removes excess oil from the wood which can cause the varnish to not adhere properly. I followed the instructions on the West Marine varnish can, mixing my first coat 50% varnish, 50% thinner.

Bare wood, before applying varnish
Bare wood, before applying varnish

Yesterday, during my lunch break I headed home to work on the first coat of varnish. I stirred the mixture of varnish and thinner until it was one homogenous mixture, and then carefully started to apply. This first layer was really runny and I had lots of dribbles coming off the brush. I turned the brush upside down, and the varnis started to run down the handle and drip off. I wiped up all the dribbles with a paper towel and kept going. It took about an hour to do the handholds and the hatch track.

After the first coat

After the first coat

From mixing the varnish to putting everything away the project took an hour and 15 minutes. That’s a pretty good way to spend your lunch break.
The first coat glistening as it dries
The first coat glistening as it dries

Now I need to add another 6 coats and the job will be done and I can start on the wood in the cockpit. If you’re going to tackle a job like this, take a look at West Marine’s top tips on varnishing.

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