The Art of Maintaining Brightwork - SailNet Community
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The Art of Maintaining Brightwork

A fellow cruiser mentioned over cocktails on Safari one night that he knew a couple who had actually added wood to their boat and now had even more to maintain. He loudly declared that this was the stupidest move he had ever heard. His wife choked on her cracker, rolled her eyes and said, "Honey, I think it was Sue and Larry who told you that. Don't you remember anything?"

Many people consider those of us who insist on having wooden adornments trimming our boats as not very "bright" for having to "work" on them all the time. So I guess the name brightwork is really a misnomer if you look at it from their viewpoint. Kind of like jumbo shrimp, calm wind, fast cruising boat or funky white guy.

Yes, it's true. Larry and I did indeed add teak to our boat and to make things even worse in some boater's minds, we then varnished it. We are in that group of sailors who can't seem to live without the look of varnished wood on our boat. We weren't happy to settle for some of the easier finishes like Cetol or Deks Olje, etc.; nor could we leave our woodwork bare. It's an aesthetics thing. It's not something you should ever persuade another sailor to do, if they are not predisposed to it from the start. It's a very personal choice.

While selecting a boat, we had a long list of practical, logical and safety requirements to meet. But somehow, thrown in was the illogical, mandatory requirement that our boat be adorned with wood. There's no real explaining it, other than a boat usually reflects the owner's personality and we've always had a passion for antiques and finely crafted wooden items.

Safari's wooden wheel, teak-laid seats and teak trims gleam in the sunlight.

We're not total gluttons for punishment, though. We ooh! and aah! over the beautiful all-wooden boats, with pristine, gleaming varnish along with the rest of the wood lovers. But never for a second would we go that far. What Safari has, we feel, is a manageable amount of teak to keep up, and enough to satisfy our personal need to touch and admire the beautiful grains of wood each and every day.

What is a manageable amount, you might be asking? Well, our boat came with very pretty teak toerails and handrails, and there's teak decking-type inlays on the cockpit seats and on the swim platform. We added to that a teak floor in the cockpit, teak dorade boxes, a teak seat on the bow pulpit, teak drink holders and the most beautiful 42-inch teak wheel you've ever seen.

What does this cost us in time to keep it looking beautiful? Since our initial varnishing of 12 coats (Okay, that took awhile), we have stuck to a fairly strict maintenance schedule of another 2 coats every 3 to 4 months. That may sound awful to some of you, but it's really not. With the two of us working about 4 to 6 hours each for two days, we can knock it off quickly. (And remember, it's not like having to go into the office and get something done. We're in beautiful settings and working at our own pace and listening to great music on the stereo. Our greatest challenge is keeping the cats down below.) When you're just dealing with refreshing healthy layers of varnish, maintaining is very easy. The problems start when the finish has been left too long, and is flaking and peeling away. Then there's no saving it and it must be removed completely to achieve a good look.

The life of the varnished wood will vary with the conditions it is exposed to. Its worst enemy is the sun and the more it sees, the faster it will break down. Covering the wood when the boat is not in use will certainly extend its life. When Safari was tied up at dock, we discovered a cheap and easy alternative to canvas covers for protecting the teak toerails. For our boat, a 4-inch diameter tube of PVC drain pipe cut straight down the middle gave us two perfect lengths of toerail covering that simply snapped in place. We cut custom lengths to fit the boat exactly, then numbered them P1, P2, S1, S2, etc. for simple port and starboard reinstallation.

PVC covers for teak toerails are easy to slip on and off as Sue demostrates. A little protection pays off in maintaining brightwork.

Our recent time spent cruising in Maine provided us with the most beautiful, stimulating visual sights each day with a wide array of wooden boats, old and new. It seemed each corner we turned brought into view a boat more magnificent than the last. Strangely enough, we were the odd-boat-out in Maine, being a modern designed, fiberglass boat with minimal wood. But would we trade? I don't think so. Maybe if we were filthy rich and could pay someone to take care of all that wood. But even then, do you get the same appreciation out of the wood if you haven't personally, lovingly toiled over it? Probably not--but it might be fun to find out.

No, you'll never convince the sailor who insists on not a scrap of wood being allowed on the exterior of his/her boat to convert. They'll always believe that you're crazy when you show up at dock with your new treasure, or that maintenance nightmare, as they see it. There is no logical explanation for why you bought a boat like that. But once you have her brightwork glistening and half a dozen people on the dock have already stopped in admiration and gently caressed her toerail, you'll know the reasons why ... and that's what's important.

How to Maintain Beautiful Brightwork

Follow these three steps and your varnished brightwork will proudly glisten forever.


Never leave your boat at the dock after a day's sail without first rinsing your brightwork with fresh water. Crystallized salt left sitting on your wood will magnify and reflect the damaging rays of the sun into your varnished surface, enhancing its deterioration. Additionally, minute particles of salt act as an abrasive, which will scratch your finish thereby dulling its appearance.


It's simple: the ultraviolet rays of the sun do more damage to brightwork than anything else. Therefore, if you can shield your wooden surfaces from the sun, you can protect their beauty and extend the time interval between maintenance coats of varnish. Covers are often made from canvas sewn into custom sizes to cover the woodwork, or sometimes are simply a tarp or sun awning suspended over the boat. On Safari we fashioned PVC covers from 4-inch sewer drain pipe. The pipe was cut in half straight down the middle, allowing it to be easily slipped over our wooden toe rail. There is enough natural pressure in the plastic to hold the covers in place without any extra help. The pieces are marked port and starboard and are numbered according to their placement along the bulwark. This inexpensive cover works great when at dock.


Re-coat, re-coat, re-coat. If you're not ready to set up a renewal schedule and stick to it, don't varnish your woodwork. Use a lesser finish that is easier to maintain. If, however, you love a varnished finish as we do, plan on renewing your outer layers of varnish every 3 to 4 months.

First, examine the existing finish and ensure that you have good adhesion, and no apparent problem areas that need extra attention. If you have problem spots, repair them now before it's too late. If your number of repair areas becomes too great, you need to strip the varnish with a heat gun and start over again.

Assuming that your existing finish is in reasonable condition, this is the procedure to follow:

_ Sand lightly with 320-grit sandpaper to scuff the surface.

_ Remove sanding dust with a tack cloth or diaper wetted with thinner.

_ Tape off all areas to be varnished. Use easy release tape (blue or green) and don't rush. Proper masking will save on clean up time in the long run.

_ Choose a high quality foam brush (the ones with wooden handles) and always keep a wet edge so you can feather your brush stroke into the area you have just covered. This ensures a smooth finish without brush marks.

_ Don't purchase big containers of varnish unless you are doing a huge job. Buying small cans ensures that your material is always fresh for each renewal. (Cans that have been opened and resealed don't store well for long periods.)

_ Transfer small amounts of varnish into a suitable container for application. Never apply varnish directly from the can. This could cause the material in the can to become contaminated or gummy.

_ Never shake varnish. Air bubbles will result and ruin your finish.

_ Mix in recommended thinner in small amounts for renewal coats. Thinning of finish coats is only necessary if varnish will not flow and brush strokes remain highly visible.

_ Allow your first coat at least 24 hours to dry before sanding again for second coat.

_ Check the weather. Don't varnish in excessively hot or humid weather or if rain is forecast.

_ Before the final coat of varnish has dried, carefully remove your taping. The reason for this early removal is to minimize the chances of some of the hardened varnish being pulled off with the tape.

_ Check your work for runs and drips. Remove what you can with your thinner. For hard to remove runs use a flat razor blade. Remember, the sooner you clean up, the easier your job will be. Every day you delay allows the varnish to harden even further.

Tools and Materials for Wood Care

  • Varnish - Select a high-quality product with good UV resistance. We use Schooner by Interlux. Epifanes, however, is another highly regarded product that is used by many professionals.
  • Thinner - Each type of varnish requires its own special thinner. This will be indicated on the can of the product that you choose.
  • Small Container - Save small containers to pour your varnish into. Never use the varnish directly out of the can.
  • Extended-use masking tape - This blue or green tape is designed to stay on for longer periods of time than regular masking tape. These tapes can be easily removed after 5 to 7 days of direct sunlight. Don't cheap out here and use regular masking tape or you'll be sorry.
  • Sandpaper - 220- and 320-grit--100-grit is also helpful if you need to repair an area. Expensive paper lasts longer than cheap paper so buy good stuff. We think 3M gold is a good choice.
  • Tack cloth or diapers - A tack cloth is basically a resin-impregnated piece of cheesecloth that you wipe over your sanded areas to remove any dust or debris. The dust sticks to the cloth, leaving your teak squeaky clean. A diaper splashed with thinner also does a reasonably good job for wipe downs. The key is to remove the dust and debris from your surfaces prior to finishing.

    Using a handy sponge brush, Sue applies a coat of varnish to the teak top of a cowl housing.
  • Foam Brushes - Foam brushes are wonderful for varnishing without leaving bristle marks. Always keep a variety of sizes on hand and never try to reuse them as you can never get them totally clean. Buy the good-quality ones with the round wooden handles. The cheap ones with the plastic handles fall apart when exposed to the solvents present in varnish.
  • Razor Blades - Have some flat razor blades to help remove any runs or drips from your fiberglass surfaces. If you find that you are occasionally nicking the gelcoat with the blade, apply a light coat of wax to each area prior to scraping with the blade. This will help the blade slide easily over the gelcoat surface and reduce the tendency of the blade to bite into the surface.

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