The following article was written by chapter member Mike Kurland and appeared in the November 2005 issue of The Nautical Mile.

Topside Painting - Tipping and Buffing

This past spring I felt it was time to varnish my 1950 Chris Craft Riviera. I took my boat to the fellow who does all my work and gave him a work list, which included varnishing the boat. To my chagrin two days before the St. Michael's boat show, I receive a call from my restorer that there were brush marks in the varnish due to the high humidity. You can only imagine my disappointment. Jack (not his real name) offered to take the boat back to his shop after the boat show and reapply the finish coat. Varnishing boats all my life and the fact that his shop is a six hour round trip from my house, I decided to varnish the boat myself.

I discovered that the Volatile Compounds Act, dealing with petroleum products, had changed the formula for varnish. This affected how the varnish flows. I was instructed to add Penetrol to the varnish so it would flow better and to use a Chinese bristle brush. I wasn't told that there is a white and black bristle brush and the black is the preferred brush. Why do they call it a Chinese bristle brush when it is made in the U.S.? I didn't want to use a power sander fearing I would sand to bare wood, so I sanded by hand using 3M foam 220 grit pads. This was the first two coats of varnish being applied in my garage with the temperature somewhere around 85 degrees. I wasn't happy with the finish because it wasn't significantly better.

Listening to a friend, I purchased a sprayer. Once again I sanded, but this time I used a random orbital sander. I sanded very carefully with my knees shaking. Never reading the instructions that come with tools, I decided to read and follow the instructions that came with the sprayer. I checked the varnish for the correct viscosity. I taped off the parts I didn't want to spray and I pulled the trigger. Big mistake! I purchased a pressurized canister sprayer so there wouldn't be a lot of overspray. But when I looked up when I finished spraying the whole garage was filled with varnish mist. I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt because the temperature was at least 85 degrees. The hair on my body was stuck to me from the varnish mist. After a bath in paint thinner and a shower I mapped out my next step because I still wasn't happy with the finish.

The same friend who talked me into the sprayer suggested I use a water-based product. I now sanded with the orbital sander more aggressively followed by hand sanding with a 3M red foam pad. Along with the water-based varnish I also purchased tint. Since I have applied four coats of varnish I decided not to use the tint. I applied the water-based product, but there were still brush marks.

I wanted to show my boat at the Tuckerton Boat Show and time was now running out. I had one more chance to varnish the boat before the show. I went to my local marine supply and purchased a quart of Interlux varnish. I called the technical support number on the back of the can and explained my problem to the technician. He was baffled and told me to apply very thin coats. I was now sanding with a vengeance. I applied two thin coats and although it was better, it is still not up to my expectations. I was out of time! I decided to go to the boat show with the expectation of not scoring high. I decided to sit back, have a good time and to set out on an information quest to find out how others varnish their boat. One note; I decided to freeze my varnish brush for an emergency touch up in the morning. I wrapped the brush in Saran Wrap and placed it in the freezer. Warning! Absolutely don't do this if you are going to eat the food in the freezer unless you like the taste of varnish.

Arriving at Tuckerton Seaport, I got caught up in the excitement and thought if it rained all day, my boat would show better. I momentarily forgot my quest and besides, the weather was absolutely perfect for the show. I found out there are two methods for varnishing; tipping and buffing. The Philadelphia Chapter of ACBS Inc.'s website goes into great detail on tipping, which has to do with applying the varnish. Buffing has to do with light sanding, then polishing the varnish, which produces the finish I have always admired. The choice of varnish was 100% Captain's Z Spar varnish. I also discovered those little dots that mysteriously appear in varnish when you turn your head sideways looking for flaws are runs, not dust. A fellow boater told me, he had varnished some wood upside down and the pesky dots still appeared. This will go down as one of those unexplainable mysteries of life. Just a little sidetrack; a volunteer from the museum was spraying a liquid on everyone to keep the bugs off. I asked if it was Windex remembering the movie, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". He replied it was Listerine and insisted that it worked. These boats were never buffed when they were manufactured. I found there were two schools of thought on buffing. Some boaters are purists and will not buff, while others want the look that buffing produces. At some point will the judges take off points for buffing?

I had a great time at the boat show, but left totally confused. Do I invest in a special sander and buffer hoping I can produce the perfect finish or do I take the boat to a professional? As of yet I haven't made up my mind, but I am leaning towards being a closet buffer. The boat will be buffed, but I'll never admit it.