December 13, 2015

A thing of beauty is a job forever

WHEN I LIVED in South Africa I once owned a 30-foot boat that had bulwarks, a caprail, and a rubrail made of beautiful hardwood. I couldn’t help myself, I varnished it. And varnished it. And varnished it.  That hot sub-tropical sun burned through the varnish as if it were melting butter. Every six months I rubbed it all down and put on another two coats of varnish. But, man, it looked beautiful. People walking past in the marina used to come to a sudden halt and stare at it in awe.

Eventually, though, the inevitable happened. I got sick and tired of varnishing. I was also intending to sail that boat to America and I had plenty of other preparations to attend to. I had just about decided to paint all that nice wood a suitable buff color that looked almost like varnish from 20 feet away when I noticed the brightwork on another similar boat a few berths away. It was a lovely shade of honey teak, a transparent matte finish that always looked as if it had just been applied.

I saw the owner on board one day and asked him what kind of varnish he used.

“It’s not varnish, it’s Deks Olje,” he said. “It’s Norwegian magic. You just wipe it on with a rag. Rub it well in, all over, and you’re done. Just let it soak into the wood and dry. You don’t have to bother with fancy brushes and there’s no trouble with wind or dust.”

I couldn’t get to the boat store fast enough. I bought a large can of Deks Olje, which, lacking any knowledge of Norwegian,  I confidently translated as Deck Oil. The instructions claimed it was the “easiest maintenance system afloat,” a protective traditional wood oil, an alkyd-urethane resin. I was thrilled to have discovered it. 

I spent a week removing all the old varnish from my woodwork and sanded it smooth. It was a lot of work. I then applied three coats of Deks Olje with a clean rag. Nothing could have been simpler. Sure enough, it looked magnificent. It wasn’t shiny like the old varnish, but it had a deep, warm luster that enhanced the color and grain of the wood.

We went sailing offshore on day trials shortly afterward, and within two weeks the combined efforts of hot sun and warm salt water had devastated my Deks Olje. It looked terrible. Half of it appeared simply to have been washed away, leaving bare wood already going grey. Much of the rest had turned white, as if it were encrusted with some kind of chemical salt.  Needless to say, I was spitting mad.

I went back to the owner of the boat down the way. “My Deks Olje is a disaster,” I said. “How does yours stay so nice?”

“Oh, my Zulu house servant does it,” he said. “He comes down once a week and just applies a fresh coat. It’s the simplest thing. Takes him half an hour.”

”Once a week?” I said. “You mean, every week?”

“Yes,” he said. “Surely you have a servant?”

We sailed for the USA shortly afterward. I gritted my teeth and let the sun and waves remove the rest of the Deks Olje, which they did with remarkable efficiency. The brightwork weathered to a dignified silver grey and needed no attention at all.

Six months later I bought a can of good old-fashioned tung-oil varnish when we got to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and treated the wood to the old familiar routine. Once again, it looked magnificent and I sold the boat a few weeks later. I didn’t tell the new owner how soon he would have to re-varnish. I figured he was just lucky I hadn’t slapped on another few coats of Deks Olje.

Today’s Thought
 I cannot pretend to be impartial about the colors. I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.
— Winston Churchill, Painting as a Pleasure

“Your wife tells me she found out you dated an eye doctor in Alaska.”
“No, no, that was no eye doctor. She was an optical Aleutian.”

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