DIY and Gear


The Battle of Keeping Beautiful Bright Work

It is true, there is nothing more sexy than a vessel with pristine bright work. Varnish that has that “wet” look is something all boaters strive to achieve when applying or keeping up varnish on their boats. Those who succeed or at least try to, know that this task is time consuming and can be quite expensive. The payoff however is extremely satisfying… that is at least for 2-3 months till the thing needs a refresher coat. 

The saying: “paint it while you own it, varnish it when you sell it” had to come from somewhere. Most likely, it came from a shipwright who had had enough. 

 The pain of keeping your boat bright has been plaguing  boaters for years and I do not think that is going to change anytime soon.  When we bought Prism back in 2013, Jon wanted to let all the teak go sliver, or paint it. I put my foot down and said that if we were going to buy a traditional looking boat with all the beautiful teak on it, then we were going to keep it bright.  On that day, with that foot down, I had signed a verbal contract stating I was now, and always in charge of the bright work aboard Prism. No big deal I thought….. little did I know.

Fast forward 7 years and many different products later, Jon and I have found the perfect compromise for us and what we feel, are the best products to use when redoing/ keeping up  varnish on boats.

Varnish or Oil?

The main difference between these two products is that varnish sits on top of the wood creating a protective film. Where as oil goes into the wood to keep it from drying out. 



  • Tougher
  •  many different finishes
  • interior finishes can last indefinitely with simple wood waxes/ cleaners


  •  can crack or peel
  • more steps involved to re-coat
  • more expensive



  • easy to apply
  • easy to up keep
  • no sanding between coats


  • more frequent recoats needed
  • not as a durable finish
  • mold can grow in grain
  • dirt and other oils can impregnate the grain
  • cannot be cleaned with wood waxes or cleaners

Spar or Polyurethane?

This question would take a whole book to answer completely. 

 Here is a clip from Bob Flexner’s book about finishing.

“The simple answer is this: varnish is a material which consists of resin and solvent. You put it on wood, the solvent evaporates, and the resin is left. Polyurethane (the Minwax at Lowe’s) is a type of varnish, although many people seem to be very confused about this. There’s three kinds of resins used in varnishes for woodworking: phenolic, alkyd, and polyurethane. Polyurethane has become the most popular these days, mainly because of its greater scratch resistance. Some people complain it looks cloudy, however, although I think this is usually because they use too much. Varnishes are either water-based, or oil-based, much like paints. Oil-based are older, and probably use either boiled linseed oil or tung oil as their base. They usually impart an amber coloring, because of this oil content (esp. with the linseed oil). Water-based varnishes don’t have the amber color, though some say they’re not as durable, and other say they’ve improved with time and the newer ones are. You can buy non-polyurethane varnishes, but probably not at Lowe’s or Home Despot. Some people prefer the phenolic because it’s extremely hard and can be polished well. The alkyd preceded the polyurethanes, although typical polyurethanes I believe also have alkyd resin, and are not 100% polyurethane. “



  •  More UV inhibitors
  •  more flexible
  •  very water resistant
  • amber glow color


  •  softer (minus fully phenolic varnish)
  • more expensive



  •  Tough/ scratch resistant
  • easier to apply
  • affordable
  • available everywhere
  • less coats needed


  •  not as flexible
  • wood can discolor under the finish
  • less impervious to moister 
  • can become cloudy in color

Removing Varnish

Before you go all crazy and start to sand your peeling old varnish and take the 1/32″ of teak ( which you desperatly need) with it, lets talk about some smarter ways to remove old or unpleasant looking varnish. 

Our favorite option: It is defiantly time consuming, but it is simple, effective and most importantly it does not remove any of the teak!  Bust out that heat gun and a metal scraper. Jon and I have fallen in love with a certain type of scraper that we hands down swear by and we use to remove all our varnish no matter how big or small the job.

If you have a boat with a lot of bright work you are going to want to invest into a head gun with more than the low and high settings. Our heat guns have a low and high setting but we can select a range of temperatures from 250°F to 1200°F.

We like to set the heat gun on high around 1000°F. Working in about 12″ sections, we run the gun about 2″ above the varnish surface  till the varnish starts to bubble, then using the scrapper in a pulling motion, scrap the varnish off. In a matter of 25-40 seconds the varnish has been removed and you are left with bear wood that only needs to be lightly sanded to give it some tooth  before you apply your new product.

They do make varnish strippers, which I would only recommend if you are working with a very flat and smooth surface. If there are any louvers, edges, accent grooves, indentations or corners, I would not use this type of product. The stripper ends up becoming a nasty goop that is more than a hassle to remove from all the nooks and crannies. I made the mistake of using a product like this to remove the varnish  from all our louvered doors aboard Prism and it was the biggest mistake I have ever made. Yes, it did remove the varnish, but the time it took to get the pieces free and clean of the product was not worth it in the end.


Prepping and Applying Spar Varnish

When starting from bare wood, you need to make sure the entire surface is clean and free of any old product, dirt and oil. We use p100 to give the wood a good tooth,  vacuum or blow out the dust, then wiped down the surface with acetone. There are people out there that say if you do not spend at least $40 USD on a varnish brush then you are not going to get a good finish. Well, I will 100% disagree. Jon and I rolled and tipped the 9 coats of spar varnish inside Prism. Doing it all with a $5.00 brush and roller from the local hardware store.

1st & 2nd Coat:

 We thinned the first coat of spar varnish 50% with Mineral Spirits. We used the french method for the first 2 coats. This is the method of using a cheese cloth and  literally whipping the varnish on.  We let each coat dry over night then scuffed the surface with a red scotch brite pad, vacuumed, wiped down with Mineral Spirits and applied the 2nd coat which was thinned 25%

3rd – 6th Coat: 

These coats were no longer thinned and applied with the rolling and tipping method.  Each coat stared with scuffing the previous coat, vacuum, wipe down, then roll and tip the surfaces.

**These coats could be hot coated if you have the time, or are using a product like Japan Drier. Hot coating does not require sanding between coats.

7th & 8th Coat:

Sand the previous coat with p320 removing any dirt, dust and imperfections. Vacuum, wipe down with a lint free rag and mineral spirits. Roll and tip, then let dry over night. 

9th Coat:

Sand previous coat with p400. Vacuum and wipe down using a lint free rag.  Roll and tip and you are done.

Refresher Coats Down the Road

The 9 coats of spar varnish we applied on the inside of our boat might seem like over kill to most people. The can says that for interior use, only 2 coats are needed. We had the time, so we really built up our layers.

It has now been over year since we finished the interior varnish. There are areas where the teak has soaked it in and the grain structure is starting to become noticeable. After a quick scuff with a red scotch brite pad, we applied one coat, and it is back to looking great.


The ANSWER to all Varnish Qualms

What is this voodoo magic?

While we were sailing down the west coast, we were sailing with a few other boats, but one always stood out to Jon and I. It was a Liberty 458. Month after month, and varnish touch up after touch up we always noticed that the Liberty was NEVER working on their varnish and it always looked immaculate. 

One day we had to know their secret, so we went over and asked her owner Bob what his secret was. We said “Bob, your varnish looks great what do you use, we never see you working on it?” His response was ” Oh this, I have not touched it in over 5 years, minus a few spot repairs here and there.”

I think Jon and I both caught flies in our mouths when we heard the 5 year part of the answer. Needless to say we looked into the product and deiced that the next time we bring the varnish back down to bare wood, we were going to try this stuff.

Originally, we were going to do all of Prism’s varnish with this stuff. Then we saw how much it was going to coat. This idea quickly changed into all the exterior wood and only the cabin sole inside would be coated with awlwood.

Awlwood is defiantly a little picky and has some strict guide lines, but If you follow the application guide, it is well worth the price and time.


** If you want a matte finish, YOU NEED TO KNOW THIS: After the primer, the build coats are used using the gloss product. The matte product is used only for the final top coat, and refresher coats.

Application Guide

Awlwood Application Pages

Page 31

Page 32

Page 56

Page 57

Page 58

Page 59

Page 60



For more detailed information about application, drying times and important specifications, click the link below for the PDF of each product.

Awlwood MA Primer Datasheet

Awlwood MA Clear Gloss Datasheet

Awlwood Satin Matt Datasheet

The Products we use and reccomend

The only scraper you will ever need

Heat Gun

** The model Jon and I have and use is no longer made. We recommend a heat gun with many temperature settings. 

Spar Varnish made by ACE

**This product is not sold in all states

Brush and Rollers

Japan Drier



2 thoughts on “Varnish

  1. I took Jon’s approach and abandoned varnish by the time we met, but had kept it up on Mabrouka for 15 years prior to that. Epiphanes was my favorite varnish, not because it was particularly durable, but because it smoothed itself out so nicely. When I was on a roll, I’d do up to three coats in a day, only allowing the preceding coat to get dry to the touch and the next coat would go on without prep other than a wipe down. If the top coat dried for more than a few hours, I’d let it cure completely so I could do a scuff before the next set of coats. Another trick I picked up for the build-up coats on exterior varnish was to spray the surface off with fresh water after sanding, then do a quick, but generous wipe down with alcohol. This wasn’t just laziness. I think it was more effective at getting the sanding dust off and away as a contaminant for the next coat. The alcohol got the water out of the nooks and crannies.

Leave a Reply