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gunwale finish

Discussion in 'Strippers, Stitch-n-Glue, and Other Wood Composite' started by tszpieg, Aug 29, 2009.

  1. tszpieg

    tszpieg Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Curious how people are finishing the gunwales, and how they've held up over time? I have a 16' Prospector that is just about to that point, but I'm not totally sure how I will finish the gunwales. I tell my wife I like to make thoughtful decisions, she says I tend to over-think just about everything!
    What are your thoughts/feelings on finishes?
    Seems to be 3 major schools of thought...
    1. Varnish alone
    2. Epoxy coats (1-3), followed by varnish
    3. Oil finish (Watco?)

    Also, how many coats of varnish are you doing on the interior and exterior? I'm thinking of doing a matte finish on the inside.


  2. Scot T

    Scot T LOVES Wooden Canoes

    Hello Terry,

    On the couple strippers I've made my choice as to what to do about the gunwales was based on my experience building wood canvas canoes and all wood boats.

    At some point the gunwales may need to be replaced (from wear and tair of protecting the hull from docks, bumps and such) so I varnished them with a couple coats before installing them then installed with brass screws and a good bedding compound and then finished off with three or four more coats of varnish. It gets rubbed off over time so first thing in the spring I brush on a coat or two more.

    Oil finish is most traditional on work boats. It's the easiest to maintain and does a fine job. I find that it has to be applyed more often than varnish but is very easy and quick so it's not really a problem. The one downside, if you can call it that, is the wood/oil will darken over time but many like that look.

    IMO the epoxy on the gunwales, decks and sometimes seats, is really not necessary. It's an impostant part on the glass/epoxy component for the hull but beyond that I don't see the point of epoxy on trim. Just keep up with the oil or varnish and all will be fine.

    I think I did a half dozen or so coats of varnish on the hull and every year I lightly sand the hull and give it usually one coat before summer. The inside I don't do quite as often as I usually place a cotton throw rug down on the bottom so it doesn't get as scuffed as it could. A habbit from using wood/canvas canoes in sandy areas for years.

    I also like matte varnish on the inside as well. It cuts the glare of the sun and has a tiny bit of roughness to the finish so when wet it's not as slick as gloss varnish is. Some folks sprinkly fine sand over the freshly varnished interior bottom, to add that grit but I don't think I'd like that on my boat. I try to keep the "grit" out.

    But final thought, it is a boat and although a beautiful work of art it still is a tool to carry one over the water in comfort and style so think what is best to keep it in good shape and you not a slave to maintaining it.
  3. pklonowski

    pklonowski Unrepentant Canoeist

    I originally oiled the trimwork on my stripper, and promised myself I'd keep up with the maintenance regularly... over the years, that promise didn't hold up very well. The old parts looked pretty bad after only getting one or maybe two oilings per year, so I'll try varnish this time around, and see how it holds up to my standard (inadequate) maintenance schedule.

    As I work into the last steps of a major repair job, including new rails, thwarts, & seat, I'm first putting Watco Exterior Wood Finsih (an oil), letting it cure, then putting Helmsman Spar Varnish on it all. There may be an issue with certain varnishes adhering to certain oils, but so far the decks are holding up well, and they're stored outside (covered)...

    The best part of building your own boat is that, when you mess it up, you know how to fix it!
  4. OP

    tszpieg Curious about Wooden Canoes

    Thank you both for the replies. This decision has been on my mind for quite some time and I think I've made a decision. I think I will go with straight varnish on the trim. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if it turns out that the varnish is not looking like I thought and I don't like it, would there be anything preventing me from sanding it off and going the route of oil instead? I guess I'm not sure of campatability issues with any remaining varnish that may be left in the wood after sanding (IF I'm not satisfied with the varnish over time..).
    Any thoughts on that one?

    Thanks again,

  5. pklonowski

    pklonowski Unrepentant Canoeist

    Gunnel finish

    Varnish (theoretically) doesn't soak into the wood much at all, so once you sand it to the wood, you've removed the old varnish, and probably some of the wood as well, so that shouldn't be an issue. Though I can't say I've done it, maybe someone else has comments?

    Another option is to sand some scrap pieces of the same board, then oil one, varnsih the other, and see which you like better. Might save some work!
  6. Andre Cloutier

    Andre Cloutier Firestarter. Wicked Firestarter.

    If they're ash I like a coat of epoxy sealer all around to keep 'em from turning black, then varnish. lots of beating on my 16/30 gunwales and no stains so far, and they're under water all the time. Well, at least one is most of the time....
  7. Fitz

    Fitz Wooden Canoes are in the Blood

    Oil vs. Varnish Debate...

    To each his own, but I wonder about this oil business. I spend some time on other paddling websites and all you hear about is oiling your gunwales. I'm not sure who started all this business, but I constantly argue for good old spar varnish. The proponents then counter some evidence of cracking varnish and rot (more likely polyurethane that they thought was varnish). Then I counter that I have 80 year old canoes with gunwales that are fine. It just doesn't soak in to the "oil" crowd.

    They then spout off at how easy oil is...multiple coats a year. I then counter that I scuff the varnish every 5 to 8 years if I feel like it and then give it another coat of spar. Whatever.

    Some people like the oil look. But varnish has been protecting wooden boats for hundreds of years. Case closed.

    Flame me if necessary..:D
  8. Dave Osborn

    Dave Osborn LIFE MEMBER

    What Fitzy said......!
    You'd have to go a long way to find many arguments against good quality marine (spar) varnish. (shameless plug:...Interlux Schooner or Epifanes among others) I have no experience with epoxy on wood. Andre must have had good success with it since his gunwales see more water action than his keel!

    Simply, the varnish can be restored at substancially less frequent rate than oils without gumming up your sand paper, while maintaining a watertight and aesthetically pleasing look.
    IMHO, oil is for furniture that is not weather exposed and for comfort on paddle grips and shafts.
    Good luck in whatever method you choose.

    Smoothin' it in the Northwoods!
  9. Howard Caplan

    Howard Caplan Wooden Canoe Maniac

    My oiled wood on the Bell Merlin, kevlar rotted at the deck and gunnels after a bird nested there.
    I replaced all rot and I will not oil - I will varnish instead. Mainly for the above reasons including the regular maintenance which doesn't work for me for more then a couple years. But also because the oil attracts dirt. Black, grimy dirt that takes a lot of elbow grease to sand down.
  10. pklonowski

    pklonowski Unrepentant Canoeist

    You mean that black stuff is just dirt? I assumed it was fungus. :eek:
  11. Dave Osborn

    Dave Osborn LIFE MEMBER

    If it was a plant based oil it probably WAS fungus...mildewgus!
  12. Howard Caplan

    Howard Caplan Wooden Canoe Maniac

    Never put a microscope to it. It may be fungus?
  13. pklonowski

    pklonowski Unrepentant Canoeist

    So if I take it to work & look at it under the microscope, does anyone here want to know what I see???


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