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To stain or not to stain

Discussion in 'Wood and Canvas' started by sam.p, Sep 17, 2019.

  1. sam.p

    sam.p Enthusiastic about Wooden Canoes

    Ok I'm restoring a 1912 Carleton and am finished with repairs and now I'm ready to start stripping ancient varnish. But, the wood without varnish is much lighter. Was the original color of wood with original varnish light or is the dark color the result of very old varnish darkening with age.
  2. Michael Grace

    Michael Grace Lifetime Member

    This question gets asked a lot. The old varnish is darkened from age, and most of the time these old canoes were not stained when they were built (but at least some parts of at least some canoes from at least some of the companies did get stain). When you remove the varnish the wood looks much lighter, and if you clean the wood well and sand it, it will look even lighter. But when you apply the first coat of thinned varnish, you will be amazed at the rich color that returns.

    An example, a 1916 Old Town Otca getting its first coat of varnish (more coats yield an even richer product):

    JimT and sam.p like this.
  3. OP

    sam.p Enthusiastic about Wooden Canoes

    Thanks. I thought I would not stain but needed affirmation.
  4. MGC

    MGC Scrapmaker

    There's a bit more to's been discussed in other threads but to put a bow in this discussion, staining and tinting is sometimes done during a restoration to color match new bits of wood installed in an old hull. What Michael highlights is correct if you have not replaced planking, ribs, decks, rail tips etc. If you don't make an attempt to color match new wood it will stand out when you start to varnish the hull.
    Some of us color match the wood before we install it (that is my preference) so that stain or tint does not flow to the adjoining original wood. Others will stain/color match once the bits are installed. Shellac is something that I have had success using in that you can mix it to a variety of colors and color depths. It dries quickly and makes a fine base for the varnish.
    Staining an entire hull...that is not often done but I've seen it. Some canoes from the Adirondack camps were stained. The sailing canoe currently for sale in the classifieds had a dark stain on it when I bought it. The Carleton I have in queue has a reddish finish that I've seen on other hulls from the Star Lake, Saranac's not the norm and except for Morris, I am not aware of any builders who made a habit of using stain during the new build process.
  5. OP

    sam.p Enthusiastic about Wooden Canoes

    Wow if the 1916 is yours you did an exceptional job removing that varnish.
    JimT likes this.
  6. Michael Grace

    Michael Grace Lifetime Member

    It is, and yes when stripping I always try to take it all off! :eek:
  7. MGC

    MGC Scrapmaker

    I've been outside the last several days getting a hull sorted for varnish and this thread came back to me.
    There's a bit more to prepping than just stripping if you want to get to a hull that looks like the one Michael has shared.
    First there is indeed the stripping. Hopefully all you need to remove is old varnish. Paint can be a beast to remove and especially now with the available strippers without teeth.
    Once the stripping is done the next step should be a good cleaning with TSP, water and a good brush. I carefully use a pressure washer to rinse the TSP and stripping gunk and sand from the gaps in the planking.
    The next step could be to sand and varnish but if you want to achieve the results Michael has on the 1916 you will next clean the hull using something like Snappy Teak-Nu... The results will blow your mind. Even though the hull might have looked ready to varnish, Teak-Nu will remove grunge and grime that was buried deep in the wood and crevices. It's a slow two step process that requires application of an acid cleaner and a neutralizer. You use included brushes to apply and remove the product and once finished use water for clean up.

    That's not all....if the hull you are restoring was once fiberglassed, if it sat filled with water and if the wood blackened deep into the grain even your best efforts might never make it look bright and is likely to darken up when you start varnishing that character.
    If the hull is one that was well cared for and if it never suffered from real abuse then you have a great chance to restore it to its original beauty.... just know what you are getting into before you start. The expression about making a silk purse from a sow's ear applies to restoring old canoes.
    sam.p likes this.
  8. dtdcanoes

    dtdcanoes LOVES Wooden Canoes

    Most restorers feel the stripping challenge is the pits, pro or otherwise. I mean they say it as though they mean the PITS. They probably do, but there is often more to the story. We did not see the boat before Michael got to it and some of the boats we come across can appear as a carcass , period. But, once you see for yourself what can be the result as Michael presented.....well the image does not leave soon and soon one looks to the next example for that experience. To be honest there are two extraordinary experiences at least some of us treasure and one is the result of a careful and well considered morning stripping project. The other event comes at the end of the resto process when you go to the shop the next morning and see the result of the 5-7th coat of varnish on the rails. And, yes Snappy T or Teak - Nu will blow your mind , for sure, especially when the salty haloes have disappeared. Silk purses ... I think someone actually did this , not because it was easy, but because it was HARD....Monsanto or Dow maybe. Have fun
    As an aside , regarding matching new wood of a replaced rib for instance.....Michael's pic shows clearly what should be matched when the new rib stands along the old wood. I do to a sister- old rib to see what you should match and see it as a goal to have on the new wood before installation. And so it goes
    sam.p likes this.
  9. Michael Grace

    Michael Grace Lifetime Member

    Mike (MGC) and Dave (dtdcanoes) make some excellent points and I agree completely with them. The canoe in the photo above was in good condition when I started. It had its original varnish on it, but it wasn't a true basket case. I stripped, cleaned and bleached as these experienced and talented guys described, then sanded carefully. The ribs I sand carefully first using a power sander starting at about 150 grit and going through 220 grit, the last being by hand. The planking I usually sand by hand only with 220 grit because it's so hard to sand in any way but cross-grain.

    Maybe I'm crazy but I actually like the stripping process because it's so exciting to see the gorgeous wood being uncovered from the old varnish. I do it by hand but I do it as efficiently as possible, working on about 2' or so of the canoe at a time. And even though that 1916 Otca was in good original condition, I and others have brought back really nasty-looking hulls to beautiful condition using the same techniques. By the way, of the many 2-part cleaner/bleach solutions I've tried, none of the off-the-shelf brands from home centers worked well at all. I think they're just too dilute. Snappy Teak-Nu and Te-Ka are two brands that work exceptionally well.

    There are other ways to strip and clean... I'm working on an interestingly unusual canoe right now, a Canadian cedar strip, that has deep gouges all over the planking because wither someone went at it carelessly with a pressure washer, a scraper, or a power sander. So sad, and there's no way to fix it. Don't know what I'll do except sand the planking as best as possible and try to ignore this one (terrible) flaw in an otherwise nice canoe. On the other hand, the mahogany trim pieces (seats, etc.) that looked terrible color-wise and finish-wise are coming back beautifully using the methods above.
    sam.p likes this.
  10. Dan Lindberg

    Dan Lindberg Ex Wood Hoarder

    X2 - stripping is my favorite part of returning a canoe to water, as like Mike says, that's when you 1st see the wood uncovered. Is it a nasty job? yes, but I like it. I'm not fast either, working a few hours each night, it takes me about 2 weeks for get the wood clean.
    ps, my 1st (and only) attempt at staining was a disaster, I no longer stain. The new wood gets character with use.

    sam.p likes this.

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