Finishing Brightwork on Boats

Sailors and woodworkers describe what boat finishing is really all about. March 28, 2012

I bought an old (74) Mako boat and want to replace the wood trim with some mahogany I have laying around. What type of finish would you recommend? I don't really like the looks of poly on it though. I do like the looks of oiled teak so I didn't know if that would work or if there is something else. Maybe something from Sikkins? I'm on the west coast of FL.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor P:
Epifanes varnish is the stuff. Itís expensive, but worth it.

From contributor J:
Nothing looks better than traditional spar varnish and nothingís more difficult to keep looking good than traditional spar varnish. Varnish however, is the undisputed and time-tested finish for those who love to varnish.

Oil finishes look great the day you apply them. You will need to continue to apply them however, about every other day. Mahogany will soak up a single oil finish like a sponge and weep it out for at least two lifetimes.

Two part polyurethanes will definitely and positively outlast regular spar varnish (maybe). The cans cost about four times as much as varnish and are at least ten times harder to restore to their original Bristol condition if you happen to let it go. Silkens Cetol is my preference though. The yearly re-coats are easy and the finish is more than acceptable. It's a fact that I spend quite a few more days sailing per year instead of being tied to the dock.

From contributor L:

Contributor P is right on. Epifanes is the way to go. I use it for all exterior applications, boating and exterior doors, deck rails, and etc.

From contributor W:
Epifanes is a very durable, high gloss varnish and I have used it for years. It is worth the extra money. It is still varnish however and under the direct Florida sunlight you should expect a maintenance routine of at least three times per year. This will involve light sanding between multiple coats. If you stay right with it and never allow it to crack, flake or chip to any degree, you should have "showboat" results.

If you let varnish sit around too long, then you'll have to strip it back to bare wood, sand, and re-coat. This is best done with a heat gun and scraper and will be a struggle and fight for every square inch. Each time you do this the wood is worn away and eventually starts to expose bunged screws. The teak trim on my boat requires a full week's hard labor just to remove an old (neglected) finish.

Cetol on the other hand, will eventually flake and fall off on its own or simply bush off. Of course the idea is to never let it go that far (either varnish or Cetol). A yearly re-coating of Cetol (in So. Cal) is done without sanding between coats. A thorough cleaning is all that is normally required.

Professional yacht maintenance guys almost always recommend quality spar varnish over Cetol because of the undisputed mirror-like gloss finish that can be (painstakingly) achieved. This is the end result of (endless) fine sanding and built-up coatings (somewhere between 10 and 20).

Many owners of sparkling Bristol boats spend most of their free time varnishing and are happy to do so. When talking about the proper finish down at the marina, you'll get an argument from just about anyone with a brush in their hand. My aim is to leave the brush, the dock, and the debate behind and to that end, I stay away from varnish. I do receive compliments all the time on my "less-than-showboat" Cetol finish.

From contributor R:
I've been finishing brightwork for over 20 years. I prefer varnish, but not any varnish. I do not like Cetol, more for the color than its durability. Nice wood is made to look crummy with Cetol.

The recs for Epifanes are fine, but they make more than one varnish. They have a varnish that contains tung oil and a phenolic resin. This is a fairly old recipe that was originally designed for marine applications. Use this one. The other secret is to use the right application procedure and above all, the right brush (a real varnish brush, expensive but worth it) or it won't come out quite the way you were hoping. I can get two seasons out of one refinishing (3-4 coats).

There are some marine varnishes that are good and others that are utterly useless. Read the labels and ask the pros and don't expect to find them in a "big box". Unfortunately the one I now use mostly (100% tung oil/phenolic resin) is not available retail, and therefore can't give you a recommendation.