Brightwork. Ick. It’s not my fave.

The first time we ventured down the insane rabbit hole of prepping and varnishing old teak, we were astonished that just the toe rails and handholds took a whole week with both of us working dawn until dusk. Shortly after, we left New York, and we haven’t touched a paintbrush since – until two weeks ago.

For the past 18 months, we’ve been watching the rest of the teak (varnished by the previous owner) deteriorate in the cockpit (two companionways, combing, and the moldings around the winch cubbies) on the windlass platform, jerry jug rails, and bowsprit. It was getting on our nerves. When we hauled out, it was finally time to do something about it.

Hours and hours and hours later (with lots of rain delays in between) we’re nearly finished. A lot of learning happened during those weeks, which I’m happy to share in the form of tips below. Scroll to the end for some notes on our varnish product selections, for those who are curious about the formulas that we chose.

Apologies to the non-boaters for this boat dork post –  we hope to resume our regularly scheduled adventure programming very soon!

– Remove as many pieces as you can and do the varnishing off the boat whenever possible – it may be a pain to uninstall/reinstall things, but it makes the final product so much better, and helps you avoid getting varnish in unintended places. We removed the bowsprit, rails for jerry jugs, instrument panel, and cubby moldings.

-Taking the time to scrape off old caulk and seals before taping makes edges easier to define. Re-caulking after the tape is removed makes the area look clean and bright.

Teak cleaner for wood that had been exposed and stained

-Use a vacuum cleaner to clean up as you work to prevent yourself from going crazy by working in a dirty space.

– There’s no substitute for using a good, high quality paintbrush to apply varnish. I was originally advised to use disposable sponge brushes for varnishing, but now that I’ve tried the brush I will never go back. Well worth the additional cleaning.

– On vertical surfaces, brush perpendicular to the wood, bottom to top to avoid drips and the bumpy “orange peel” look. I thought you were supposed to go with the grain, but got much better results going against it, brushing bottom to top. Avoid overlapping strokes.

Varnishing mahogany jerry can rails

– I got great results sanding between hardened coats with 400 grit sandpaper (was previously told that 220 was sufficient).

Before: Varnish scraped from combing, cubby moldings with original varnish (and lots of mildew)

During: Combing and cubby moldings, stripped, cleaned with Snappy Teak-nu, and sanded with 60 then 400 grit sandpaper

After: After 8 coats of Bristol Finish

Some notes on our varnish choices:

In 2015 we used Honey Teak, a 2-step (color and clear coats) polyurethane coating, to restore our toe rails and handholds. We’re impressed by how well it’s held up in the brutal Caribbean sun – the only places where it’s flaked are spots where we’ve dinged the toe rail, breaking the seal.

We would have liked to use Honey Teak this go-round, but it’s only available direct from the Fabula Signature Finish company, which is in Florida – not cost effective or practical in a Sint Maarten boatyard. A little googling revealed Bristol Finish, a 2- part polyurethane product that touted similar durability without the bother of applying separate color and clear coats and was available at the Island Water World store down the street. Both products may be applied in multiple coats during a single day, which is an awesome feature when you have a lot to do and not a lot of days in which to work (traditional varnishes must dry 24 hours between coats, and sanding must occur between each).

I hated applying the Bristol Finish at first. When mixed according to the instructions, it went on way too thick and the results were bumpy and drippy. I thinned it out with acetone (suggested for working under a Caribbean sun) which improved the consistency at first, but evaporated too quickly. Very frustrating. Enter Noel, our painting guru, who introduced me to the magic that is Awlgrip Slow Drying Brush Reducer. That product worked perfectly with the Bristol Finish, and didn’t evaporate away like the acetone, allowing me to apply whisper thin, even coats from beginning to end.