May 26, 2013

The villainy of varnish

THE TWO WORST THINGS about varnish are that it’s expensive and that I always have to buy more than I need. Right now, I’m varnishing a couple of teak handrails, so I don’t want to buy a quart of Epifanes, or even a pint of Captain’s Varnish, which is sometimes available. Consequently, the varnish always gels in the can before I can use it all, and I swear I have thrown away more varnish than I have ever managed to use.

We all know that varnish will start hardening if it is exposed to the oxygen in the air of a half-used can, so there are various things we can do to separate the air from the varnish.  Some people cut a round disk of plastic and float it on top of the varnish. Others squirt propane gas into the half-empty can to displace all the air.  (They have to be very careful later not to light a match to check the contents of the can.)

I’ve heard the suggestion that you should decant a quart of varnish into much smaller jars or cans filled to the very top, which is a good idea, except that I never have enough empty cans or jars for the job. There are other methods, too, including the one I have always used, which is quick and easy.  I always sprinkle a capful of paint thinner onto the surface of the varnish left in the quart can. I leave it for a minute or two so that the vapors will displace the air, and then I hammer the lid on tightly.

This scheme served me well for many years, but lately something seems to have changed. Now I find the varnish is starting to gel and become lumpy after a few of these treatments.  The varnish doesn’t form a hard skin on the surface, as used to happen if you simply didn’t do anything at all about the air enclosed in the can. Now it just forms hunks in the body of the varnish with a consistency like cheesecake.

I have managed to rescue some of this stuff in the early stages of its cheeseification. I simply ladle it out into a small container and stir it with a spoon, having added 50 percent of paint thinner or turpentine.  After a while it seems to dissolve most of the lumps, but I’m never sure how the consistency is going to work out. In any case, I strain it through some old insect screen I just have lying around, the remains of a long-departed screen door, and I’m left with a varnish that is reasonably free of lumps, easy to apply, and dries just fine, but never looks quite as brilliant as it should, probably because it’s thinned out too much.

I have half-filled quart cans of Epifanes and Captain’s Varnish that are almost solid now, and past rescuing. It just drives me mad to have to buy another quart of expensive varnish when I need only a few teaspoons for a handrail.  Every now and then I consider painting the darned handrails — but they’re made of teak, and I suffer from the common misconception that no rational sensitive person can paint beautiful teak. But I’m going to have to steel myself if things keep going the way they are.

I can paint teak if I have to, I know I can. And maybe I will. Just one more can of varnish, and after that it’s paint, I swear it.

Today’s Thought
A thing of beauty is a job forever.
— The Keats Rule of Varnishing

A woman walked into her lawyer’s office, taking with her a baby in arms and four other children under the age of six.
“I want a divorce,” she said.
“On what grounds?” asked the lawyer.
“Really? Desertion?” the lawyer looked from her to each of the five children in turn.
“Oh, don’t take any notice of these,” she said. “Yes, he really has deserted me. It’s just that he comes home now and then to apologize.”

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Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

If I buy a new boat with any teak topsides, I'm going to order it be finished with oil. Maintenance detracts from the pleasures of ownership in my book.

John Vigor said...

Doc, I've tried oil and been disappointed. It hates seawater, and the sun will oxidize it and turn it a murky black within a few weeks if you don't clean it and wipe on a new coat every week or so. Varnish is the lesser of the two evils in my book.

John V.

Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

Shucks... but thanks for the splash or reality, John. I was hoping to do with out a bothersome boat cover.

The Unlikely Boatbuilder said...

Agreed… Oil is not the solution. It lends almost no protection and takes more work to keep fresh than varnish.

The solution is more brightwork, not less. If you have lots of brightwork to keep up, you won't have a problem using up your varnish before it goes off on you!

Sometimes its hard to see the obvious...

Ken said...

Oh John, just join the crowd, Sickens/Cetol claims less work with their product and lasts longer in the can! Bwhahahahahaha

John Vigor said...

Won't. You can't make me. I hate the look of orange Cetol and the more transparent Cetol is no better than traditional spar varnish.

John V.