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Preparing for that big fat varnish.

Discussion in 'Tips and Tricks' started by victorw, Sep 12, 2008.

  1. victorw

    victorw Enthusiastic about Wooden Canoes

    I tried it once, I tried it twice, and I'm just about to try it thrice.

    As a new canoe restoring person. I've joined to ask for a few tips on varnishing if you please. No matter how hard I vacuum and wipe, I cannot get that clean glass finish that I'm after with Epifanes Clear. There are always a whole bunch of little specks and bumps that I presume are from dust. So here's the question, how do you prep your shop before the big varnish? What do you do if you have limited room to varnish in, what location do you choose to varnish in? Finally, how smooth should I expect a canoe to be? Is a speck-free glassy hard varnish job feasible? (Are my expectations out of whack?) If so how?

    Sort of a dustbusting and expectations question. Oh and, do you filter your varnish?...

  2. Canerodz

    Canerodz Trout Bum

    I've strained varnish through cheese cloth layers and the filter cones paint stores sell and really like the filter cones. If there is gunk in the can you need to get it out.

    I'm not an expert, but here's what I do to get the best results I can. This assumes gloss varnish.

    If you are working over a cement floor, vacuum it thoroughly the day before you varnish, and wet it down the day you varnish to keep dust down there. If the room has lots of dust you oughta vacuum everything once in awhile. Don't stir up dust when you get ready to varnish. If you are working in a garage with an electric door opener unplug it! (long, sad story there.) Don't use a fan.

    Sand until smooth, whatever that entails, vacuum, and tack cloth the area to be varnished.

    Buy a really high quality marine spar varnish with lots of tung oil. I hate poly varnish because it looks cheap and and is impossible to repair properly if it gets chipped. Poly forms a giant plastic coating as opposed to a unified film. Gently stir the varnish if it needs to be stirred. Never shake the can. Read the mfgrs. directions and follow them. Pour some varnish into a clean disposable plastic paint cup you buy at paint stores. Never varnish right from the can.

    Buy a really good varnish brush and expect to pay way more than you want. Keep the brush wrapped up until you get ready to use it and then knock any loose hairs or dust out by knocking the bristles rapidly back and forth over the hand not holding the brush and gently remove any bristles that are loose. If you clean it after every use and care for it well it'll last for years.

    Load the brush with varnish just half-way or so up the bristles, gently tap the brush on the side of the cup above the varnish once to get the drips off, and lay the varnish on with long, slow, smooth motions overlapping adjacent strips and working from a wet edge (just varnished) out over unvarnished areas. The varnish should smooth out and self level. If it doesn't or is not brushing on well, thin it, even though the can will say not to. The can is trying to remain VOC Compliant. not help the varnish flow. If the varnish shows brush marks even when thinned you can "tip-off" by holding the brush perpendicular to the work and only using the very tips of the bristles, smooth the varnish out, sorta like smoothing icing on a cake, but different. I always lay down the first coat at less than full-strength, but not as weak as 50\50, more like 60\40 - 70\30, depending on how thick the varnish is and what I'm covering. It's a feel you'll develop. If you are getting bubbles you need to stop, load the brush with varnish and gently wipe it over the edge of a coffee can (if you can find one!) to get the foam out. Keep your brush loaded with varnish and proceed slowly. Apply several thin coats and no heavy coats. Don't load the varnish up to the metal band holding the bristles.

    Carefully walk away and forbid anyone to enter the varnish zone for 5 hours. If it's bug season turn the lights off so they aren't flying into the varnish.

    After the initial coat has completely cured(sanding results in a white dust not gummy sandpaper) sand everything with 220 grit wet or dry sandpaper on a rubber sanding block for the high parts, wood or a dry celulose sponge for the low areas between ribs and such, folded a few times for the picky detail areas, wet with clean water, and wipe it off with a clean, damp, lint free cloth (old, clean diapers are da' bomb!), folding the cloth to keep a clean part outside as you wipe. Let this dry and vacuum and tack again.

    *Note - If you don't use a sanding block the sandpaper won't knock off the high parts of the bubbles and specks, but will follow them and you won't get a smooth finish.*​

    Apply the next coat following the same rules, thin if you need to to make the varnish flow from the brush instead of 'grabbing' the surface of the work.

    Varnish, rinse, and repeat until you get the depth you desire, I usually do one thinned coat and two full strength.

    *Another NOTE - Let each coat of varnish completely cure before applying the next layer or the lower layers never cure properly, resulting in ugly and disappointing results.

    After a couple of days you can polish the finish out with a variety of things from the 3M series of Finesse-it polishes to ultra fine steel wool to 800+ grit wet or dry sand paper, if you want.

    When dings happen dry the area when you can, sand with 220 - 400 grit, tack and apply a couple of light coats of the same varnish to the dings, allowing it to dry between coats, until you have filled the boo-boo. Sand lightly to blend into the surrounding area.

    If you just do the dust elimination, surface prep, get a good brush and varnish, watch what you are doing and the results you are getting, and adjust as required, rub the dry varnish down with 00000 steel wool and tack well between coats you'll get a good finish, just not showroom quality. Often this is good enough. If you do a great job on the decks, wales, and seats most folks will be plenty impressed providing you do a pretty good job on the rest.

    Again, this is from my experience. Your mileage may vary.:)
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2008
  3. OP

    victorw Enthusiastic about Wooden Canoes

    That's fantastic! thank you very much!
  4. Fitz

    Fitz Wooden Canoes are in the Blood


    The reason I post is that I am still sticky with varnish.

    Maybe I am missing something, I probably am missing something, but I just varnished a canoe next to 4 lanes of traffic, including soot beltching diesel semis, outside in the breeze and attracting the bugs to no end.

    I think the finish is fine. No Runs, No Drips, No Errors.

    I don't have a paint room. I bet Old Town didn't have a paint room. I like to use a new can of varnish for the last coat and a new brush or at least very clean brush. But I don't really see the need for a sterile environment.

    FWIW - you now have both extremes.
  5. Canerodz

    Canerodz Trout Bum

    You're right. The question I was answering was "Is a speck-free glassy hard varnish job feasible?" At the end I pointed out that you don't need to do the whole catastrophe if you don't want to.

    You don't need a sterile environment at all. But if you are an OCD sufferer you need to remove the variables that MAY prevent you from having the finish you desire. It's sorta like carrying a binky around.

    My varnish obsession comes from making bamboo fly rods, and not tolerating any imperfections in my finishes. But I know some body shop guys whos reputation and livelihood rely on perfect and repeatable results also, and they pretty much do the prep I do in addition to having a paint booth.

    Anyone can do whatever makes them happy and they will never get an argument from me.

    Except rooting for the University of Michigan. I wouldn't root for those guys if they were playing Iraq.
  6. Fitz

    Fitz Wooden Canoes are in the Blood


    Sorry Canerodz, my post was only meant to show the other end of the spectrum, not to judge your technique - which by the way is admirable. I think that is a great primer on getting a great finish, and given the right canoe, I think that kind of preparation is warranted. I am no varnish pro as is obvious with my "technique".

    I just wonder if the poster is really dealing with dust. There are so many variables that it is difficult to comment based on the information in his post. For example, I don't like foam "brushes" - what did he try for a brush? Does he really have a dusty shop?

    PS: I have not used Epifanes, but I have some to try at some point.
  7. Canerodz

    Canerodz Trout Bum

    No worries, and you are right. I'm just a real sensetive sort of guy.;)

    There are plenty of very good varnish jobs done out in the open air. Most bright work on big yachts has to be done outside, and they don't settle for "good enough." I think most of this is 50% getting comfortable with any technique and then making it work for you.

    I agree with you on foam brushes, but I have some friends that swear by them and do much better work than I do. This is literally a case of different strokes for different folks.

    I bet that if we did an exhaustive study we'd find that there was a high correlation between varnishing and painting philosophies and personality types. We should write a grant!:D
  8. Benson Gray

    Benson Gray Canoe History Enthusiast Staff Member

    Actually, Old Town did and still does have a paint room. The original one was on the top floor in the opposite corner of the factory from the wood working areas. This was the warmest and lowest traffic location that minimized the dust problems. The current paint room is now closer to the wood working area with all of the plastic vapor barriers and exhaust fans that OSHA requires. However the finish on most restored canoes is far better than they had when first shipped. My restored GS grade canoe probably looks better than many of the original AA grade ones did.

  9. Fitz

    Fitz Wooden Canoes are in the Blood

    Paint Room

    Yes, Benson, I'm sure they had a dedicated paint area (not a modern paint room), but I guess I have varnished myself into a corner. Are we really looking for a lacquered piano finish or a wooden boat/canoe finish? That is my point. I just went and looked at the canoe drying next to MA Route 2. If I had the chance to do anything else, I think I would had thinned it just a wee bit, but it looks damn purty, so I think I will leave it be.

    Plenty of spars and woodwork are varnished in Maine air and sun complete with white pine pollen I am sure.
  10. OP

    victorw Enthusiastic about Wooden Canoes

    This is the thing. Are dimples a fact of life or is it possible to get a piano finish on a canoe?
  11. Fitz

    Fitz Wooden Canoes are in the Blood


    Well, if it can be done, follow Canerodz's advice. Maybe a spray gun.

    You haven't told us how or what techniques you are trying to get this finish.

    I'm gonna go watch my varnish dry.:cool:
  12. OP

    victorw Enthusiastic about Wooden Canoes

    Well I've just been vacuuming and wiping and using a brush. Nothing really special. has their been any consensus as to whether foam brushes are much better for varnish than bristle?
  13. Canerodz

    Canerodz Trout Bum

    There are some serious varnish experts over there.
  14. Paul Miller

    Paul Miller Canoe Nut

    I don't like any specks either. I strive for the perfect finish.

    The problem with the oil based vanish most of us use, is the length of time to dry. The varnish can remain sticky for up to 8 hours depending on the weather conditions.

    That gives dust plenty of time to land and find a home.

    Water based finishes dry much faster and greatly reduce the dust problem.

    Commercial auto paints "flash over" in as little as 15 minutes. The dust has only 15 minutes to land as apposed to 8 hours.

    I have used all kinds of brushes and find a black china bristle works best for me. I find it holds just the right of amount of varnish, not to much and not to little. I find that badger hair tends to hold too much varnish and puts down too thick a coat.

    When I vanish the inside of a canoe, I flip it over to let it dry. That is where the type of brush makes the difference. If the varnish went on too heavy, you will get runs, which generates a different problem.

    Good Luck,

  15. OP

    victorw Enthusiastic about Wooden Canoes

    Flipping the canoe over is a brilliant idea - I'll try it.

  16. Dave Wermuth

    Dave Wermuth Who hid my paddle?

    I too have turned it over

    I have done that before but dust is so light weight it floats up down around, I couldn't detect a difference. I try spraying the air with water to get the dust down. And the floor too. I Don't go in there to keet from stirring it up til it dries. I try to let it settle for a day before I paint. But Without a dust free paint room I can only minimize the dust. I imagine the canoe building guides varnished their canoes in the back yard to minimize the dust from the road in the front yard. ;-] So, it's relative.
  17. Howard Caplan

    Howard Caplan Wooden Canoe Maniac

    While I sweep and vacuum before varnish my space is a lot less then ideal. But my biggest frustrations are the result of humidity. I waited for a low humid day to apply my final coat.
  18. Dan Lindberg

    Dan Lindberg Ex Wood Hoarder

    I do all/most of the things mentioned.

    If I really want the varnish or paint to flow down and look nice, I create a "paint room" by hanging plastic sheet around and OVER the canoe.

    For varnish I usually don't worry too much about the ribs, as there are already many things breaking the surfqace, ie, tacks, and just put on 3-4 coats with a black china bristle brush. BUT, I do spend as much or more time on the thwarts and decks, which I want perfect, as they seem to get noticed and remembered the most. These I do inside, and because they will get many coats, I use a foam brush on them.

    For paint, again the "paint room" and it's rolled on and tipped with a black china bristle brush. 3-5 coats, with sanding between coats.

  19. garypete

    garypete LOVES Wooden Canoes

    The Mr. Coffee Varnish Secret

    A furniture maker gave me a varnish tip that has done wonders for my formerly dismal varnishing results.

    Heat the strained varnish slightly. Flow-out is greatly improved and tack-free drying time is reduced enough so most flies don't have time to plop in while the film is wet.

    Heat just enough so the can feels warm to your hand. If the can feels like it might burn your hand if you held on, it's waaaaay too hot. I've never checked the temp, but I would guess it's somewhere around 95-100 degrees F. Too warm and the varnish will be too runny and skin over too fast as the solvents rapidly evaporate.

    I find that the warming plate from an old Mr. Coffee or similar coffee maker just fits a quart can and provides gentle warmth. Don't leave the can on too long though, as those units are thermostatically controlled to about 150 degrees F, way too warm for what you need.

    And remember, VARNISH IS FLAMMABLE. So don't set the open can on a stove burner and forget it's there. If you decide to use the stove-burner method, check your fire-insurance policy first.
  20. JClearwater

    JClearwater Wooden Canoes are in the Blood

    Upside down also

    The Crandell I have been working on the past year is so narrow in the ends it is impossible to varnish all the way to the stems with any kind of brush. I can't even slide my open hand all the way in let alone varnish. So my solution was to attach a foam brush head to the end of a paint stir stick (like you get when you buy a gallon of paint at Home Depot) and use that to reach all the way into the stem. I also varnished inside both ends of the canoe with the canoe upside down. That way I don't have to stand on my head. I simple crawl underneath with a drop light. The other advantage is that any runs end up at the gunwale line rather than caught around the stem and the cant ribs. After I have progressed enough to use a brush I turn the canoe right side up and proceed in the normal fashion. It was suggested once to me to varnish the ends before installing the decks. That might work but would require way too much planning ahead for me.

    I sand the canoe and vacumn the garage floor the day before. I vac and tack rag the canoe before I begin. I strain the varnish, especially if it is not a fresh can and I never varnish directly from the can. You would be shocked how many little globs you stain out. I never varnish outside - varnish is a bug magnet. I never varnish if the temp is going to drop below 50 deg F for the entire time needed for prep, work and dry. The last canoe I did I used Epaphaines[sp] and was happy with the results but I did thin it. Directly from the can it is too thick. I have found that if the varnish is too thick you end up putting on too much and it sags - often times you don't notice the sag until it is too late to catch. Which brings up another point - varnish it and leave it alone! You can never fix a defect if the varnish has started to set up, you will only make it worse. Sand it out later and re-varnish that area.

    Just my 2 cents worth.

    Merry Christmas to all, peace,

    Jim C.

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