11 Dec

The Wood Factor

Does your varnished wood trim or rails need some care? Here’s how to keep everything in Bristol fashion.

By Capt. Ken Kreisler


Under the right conditions, and with careful prep work, your varnish job can result in a professional look. Photo: Ken Kreisler

Back in the day, during high school summer vacations, I was a yard snipe at what was then the Schatz Brothers marina in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, New York, and came under the tutelage of a crusty old salt that, as I would quickly find out, knew everything about anything that had to do with boats.

On one particular early morning, while he prepped a section of teak rail, I caught the job of taping the water line.

“Commere kid, I wanna show you somethin’,” he said as we walked over to his well-traveled van, reached in, took hold of a wood box, set it down on the floor, opened the latches, and showed me a set of brushes.

“Paint brushes?” I asked.

“Nah, ya knucklehead. These are badger brushes, and they’re for varnishing.”

Badger 1

While there are many who use other types of brushes for varnish work, badger hair brushes are favored by expert finishers. Photo:

That was my first lesson in what some call the black art of wood finishing; filled with mystery, concern, and at times fear in getting it just right with a deep and beautiful finish.

To begin with, and no matter whom you ask, it truly is 90% preparation and 10% application, with both parts equally important in order to achieve the desired results. And as there are many surface conditions to deal with, such as starting with bare wood, deep gouges, checking and splitting, as well as rot and stains, that require a whole different approach—perhaps in a later installment—here we are going to deal with good, clean wood that, due to age or sun exposure, is in need of a proper maintenance coat or two to bring back the shine.


Careful and meticulous taping is essential for a great look to your finished varnish work. Photo: Ken Kreisler

Before you even deal with product or brush selection, or getting out the several grades of sandpaper and the ubiquitous blue or green painters tape, it’s important to pick the right day and time for the job. A humid, windy day is not preferred as the moisture in the air will cause your finish to dull as well as carry dust and bugs onto your still-wet surface. Cool, dry weather with filtered sunlight is preferred.

It’s now time to tape off the area. Depending on the scope of the job, length of rails or location of trim, this can be a time consuming and somewhat laborious affair that can test your back strength and patience. Go slowly and make sure your line is straight and true. I still remember the administrative cuffs to the back of my head from my tutor when I strayed off course with my taping. Trust me, as with a perfect water line, there is nothing more nautically professional looking than a razor edged varnished trim against your boat’s painted surface.

In preparation for sanding, you’re most likely going to start with 220 and work your way up as subsequent coats are applied. Given the surface already has several coats on it already, there is no need to get aggressive with sanding. You can use a sanding block or fold the paper up so you can switch to a fresh piece as you go along. Remember, there is no need to take off the entire coat; the sanding here is merely to provide a surface that will be able to accept the new coat. Once you have the entire area, or the section you are working on, scuffed up enough, tack the surface off. As you can get a tack cloth at any paint supply location, make sure it a quality one. Just like anything else for this kind of project, the better materials used results in a better finish.


Even with minimum trim, the varnished highlights makes the boat’s lines stand out.                      Photo: Ken Kreisler

Once your area is sanded and tacked, it’s time to apply the first coat. Should you be so fortunate to have a set of badger-hair brushes, you are far ahead of the game. If not, use a new, clean brush. Again, quality counts. I’ve had good results with foam brushes especially on the build up to the final two or three finish coats when I will bring out my own badgers.

Do not shake your can of varnish as this will only cause bubbles. Slowly pour your product of choice into a clean and separate container and place the lid securely back on the can, this to prevent any dust, bugs, or any other material from getting into your varnish. And should some flying pests land on your still wet rail or trim, do not attempt to remove. What’s done is done. Wait for the next sanding and the interloper will easily disappear.

During application, avoid drowning the entire brush into the container. Instead, dip a bit under half way and brush one way with the grain by ‘drawing’ the varnish on. Do not load up the brush; too much varnish will find its way up into the ferrule and stay there. Not good. And if you have to ‘fight’ the application, the varnish may need to be thinned out some. Carefully follow the manufacturers instructions and gently stir in the thinner with a clean wooden stick.


Once your wood is properly sanded and wiped free of any dust, dirt, or insects, it’s time to apply the first coat. Photo: diynetwork

When the brush is lightened up—not too much varnish left—use a featherlike touch to finish off. Continue the application until your entire section is done. Allow this coat to dry fully and then repeat, this time with 280-grit and with the next one or two coats, using 320. For the finish coat, use 400-grit.

My advice is to carefully follow product instructions as directed and do not cut out any of the preparation work. Doing so will allow you to achieve the right outcome.

If you have any questions, contact your product manufacturer before beginning as this will hopefully prevent any mistakes in the process. Or, better yet, track down an old salt in the area and, treading lightly, ask them their secrets to a beautiful varnish job.


While you may not own a beauty like this Lyman Morse built boat, should you have cause to varnish your wood trim, a well-done job will make a big difference. Photo: Lyman Morse

1 Comment

Posted by on December 11, 2015 in Maintenance


Tags: , , ,

One response to “Maintenance

  1. john7468

    December 15, 2015 at 1:58 am

    “Back in the day” I was a traveller, and was also fortunate to have a fantastic teacher……not a crusty old salt though!!! TTFN


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: