Varnish and Cetol – Warning: No Photos of Perfect Varnish Are In This Post

About this time of the year each summer, I finally begin to catch up with all the maintenance tasks that are lower priority in the spring. Spring is the time for larger projects, recommissioning, and getting the boat into basic cruising mode. Early summer is the time for renewing varnish and Cetol, and starting in on smaller quality of life projects. Early summer is appropriate for wood finishes too, as the weather is more reliably fair, the rain is more predictably in the afternoon, and it’s pleasant to be outside.

I’ve finished up my early rounds of varnish and Cetol. I’ll go around again in late fall and protect with fresh coats for the winter. Wood finishing isn’t for everyone. Some folks (okay, a lot of folks) are impatient with it, and look for ever easier ways to keep up appearances, yet reduce time maintaining fiddly little bits of exterior wood. In fact, I have a marina neighbor who replaced his teak hand rails with stainless steel sections in an effort to reduce the maintenance time. I understand this. Most folks have a limited amount of free time, and typically don’t want to spend it refinishing teak. I’m lucky in this respect: I like doing the work, I have enough time to give it, and I like the way it looks. It’s one of those traditional yachtsman’s skills that is so satisfying. But even I have a limit. Love of teak and wood finishes can be an ogre of a task master if allowed to take obsessive control of one’s attention.

I maintain control of my obsessions by limiting the amount of “really nice” finish I apply to several pieces – not all them, though. Hand rails, companionway hatch runners, and eye brows are notoriously difficult to keep perfect, repair, and varnish, so I tolerate a measure of imperfection with these, and I use an easy-to-apply/maintain finish on them. Cetol is the perfect answer for these pieces. I’ve varnished the hand holds and rails before, and it looks great for a while, but it’s too much acreage to maintain like varnish requires, and because of access, too difficult to keep after.

On the other hand, I keep the larger flat pieces with easy access bright with varnish. Pieces like the anchor platform, companionway hatch decking, swash boards and fore hatch are easy to keep looking nice, and the bright finish really dresses up the boat as a whole.

I don’t tape with masking tape. Nope. I free-hand with a foam brush, and follow up with a solvent-dampened rag for mistakes. I don’t like the tape residue, and doing a proper tape job takes a very long time. Then you must keep track of the time the tape has been applied and pull it off before the sun cooks it into your gelcoat. So, I get some Cetol on the gelcoat. That’s okay. Most of the time it wipes right up, if I catch it in time.  What I don’t catch is pretty easy to remove with a scraper, so I just don’t worry about it. But truth be told, I’m pretty careful, and don’t leave too much where it’s not wanted anyway.  Okay, here are a few photos to demonstrate how much imperfection I’ll tolerate, and how the bright pieces turn out.

Eye Brow.  Note the mottled, imperfect finish.

Eye Brow. Note the mottled, imperfect finish.

The appearance of this eye brow is good and bad, or rather imperfect. That’s because I won’t scrape and sand the the whole piece bare when I have to repair the finish. I scrape off the pealing finish all along the length of the piece, then sand with 100 grit paper, brush and wipe down with solvent, then apply Cetol. The yellower, brighter sections you see are where it was applied to bare wood – all the finish had been removed there. The darker sections, of course, are where there is still old Cetol that’s well adhered. However, the entire eye brow has a freshened look about it, and from several feet away, you can’t really see the imperfections. Would perfect, shiny varnish over freshly sanded wood look better? Absolutely, but this is satisfactory, the wood is protected, and it’s not ugly like a spoiled and neglected varnish or Cetol finish would be.

Companionway hatch rail. Spot-repaired, and the whole piece was over-coated.

Companionway hatch rail. Spot-repaired, and the whole piece was over-coated.

The hatch rail was scraped and sanded where the old Cetol was pealing. Then the entire rail was sanded and coated. After a couple of seasons, the newly exposed and refinished wood will darken too. I’ll recoat this rail several more times this summer – it only takes a few minutes.

A larger section of scraped/recoated hatch rail.

A larger section of scraped/recoated hatch rail.

You can see Cetol incursion onto gelcoat in the above photo. A scraper will take it off with little fuss, and I’ll do the side of the rail again as well, picking up the run with a scraper blade.

Drop boards and companionway decking.

Drop boards and companionway decking. The drop boards are red oak, as is the anchor platform (below). The middle board (above) will eventually need to be taken down to bare wood and bleached because of water incursion through the vent  join. Apparently, I didn’t take enough care to seal every bit of it when I built it originally.

I keep these under varnish, obviously. They’re easy to keep fresh, and look nice with this finish. As you can see, they aren’t perfect either, but they look reasonably nice, and it doesn’t take too long to keep them that way.


Hand rails and eye brows.  Again, not perfect, but not unattractive either.


A tough but rot-prone wood, it is important to keep the varnish on these red oak pieces repaired.

I keep learning about varnish. Up until recently, I used mineral spirits to thin it by about 10 percent. This makes it flow much better, and let’s it level out to a mirror-like shine. I recently purchased paint thinner, which is a different formulation from mineral spirits. It flashes off a bit faster than spirits, and I think can be used to thin the varnish a bit more than 10 percent.  My experience with it today provided the best flow characteristics and leveling I’ve ever gotten – a good bit better than mineral spirits. Lightly sanding (or bronze wool) between coats will improve the gloss of the new coat.

Finally, my home-built hatch, restored from having the dinghy break the window, and freshly varnished.

Finally, my home-built hatch, restored from having the dinghy break the window, and freshly varnished.

I keep thinking I’ll build a new hatch and apply all I learned about it’s construction with a new effort.  But, this one seems stable now, and though imperfect, looks fairly nice under fresh varnish.

I’ve spent parts of three or four days freshening all the wood finish, and I like the effect over-all.  Any additional time spent trying to achieve perfection, however, would tip the scales towards too much maintenance and not enough sailing.

Gotta keep these things in perspective.

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