oil for wood gunwales

OK, so not gunwales. I’m a happy new owner of a used Folbot tandem in need of some care. The wood coaming is in good shape, no dry rot apparent. Looks like the previous owner had varnished them and it’s flaking off. From what I’ve read here about canoe gunwales from people who seem to know their stuff, if one plans on using the boat regularly, oil is better than varnish, no?

So what type of oil is best? Any other tips are greatly appreciated!

Thanks in advance.

oil vs. varnish
Oil is not necessarily better than varnish or polyurethane finishes.

If the wood in question is likely to be subject to significant abrasion, oil may be a better choice since a surface finish will be scratched off. Bright finishes such as marine varnish or polyurethane are more durable than oil but when they go bad, refinishing is a much bigger job than with oil.

Even though all the manufacturers of “penetrating oils” tout the ability of their products to permeate deeply into the wood, I have found that regardless of the product, oils are pretty much a surface finish as well. I use oil on the gunwales of whitewater canoes because bright finish would likely get scratched pretty quickly. But I have found that after only one or two outings the oil has pretty much been wiped off of the middle of the gunwales where the heel of my hand tends to rub.

Oil is easy to apply and reapply but requires much more frequent application than bright finishes. The frequency will depend on usage.

I have used many oil products. The very best results I ever got was with Deks Olje, which has become difficult to find in the US. Watco products are popular and widely available. I find that the Watco Teak Oil is a bit more durable than the regular Watco exterior oil. The teak oil will darken the wood slightly over time. Some swear by Tung Oil. Some swear by a homemade mixture of boiled linseed oil, turpentine, and vinegar.

Wood is wood

– Last Updated: May-25-16 11:41 AM EST –

so I'll pass on the instructions received with my Lumpy paddle (Western Red Cedar):

100% pure tung oil. Apply per instructions, then wipe off (do not allow it to dry).

The Watco brand isn't pure tung oil. It's considered a wiping varnish (per Home Depot).

This is what I purchased from Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/hzgfhxg

I know oiling the GP isn't necessary, but I use it because it shows the beautiful grain of the paddle.

Watco marine or teak oil
has worked well for me for 30 years. Reapply only once or twice per year if boat stored indoors. And it only takes a few minutes. Ease of maintenance is important to me and it is a lot easier than varnishing. My 2¢ worth…

thanks very much
You confirmed my choice to remove the remaining varnish and go with an oil. The coaming is unlikely to suffer any impact besides a paddle shaft (also wood).

I Use Endust On Almost Everything

– Last Updated: May-25-16 7:45 PM EST –

From wood, aluminum, fiberglass/carbon, varnished surfaces to old Formica top surfaces. It cleans, preserves and is not slippery.

I now use and cook with either refine (still liquid below 70 deg.) or unrefine (above 70 deg.) coconut oil, from Sam's or Costco. I season my butcher block table with it and coat my bare wood paddles and Reverie gunwales with it too. The price is also very cheap.

varnish vs. oil
The problem with the varnish is it very likely wasn’t prepared properly before it was varnished, they also very likely used hardware store (interior) varnish and only applied one coat. And it’s flaking off, bit surprise.

Varnish done properly will last lots longer than oil, washing it, sanding all of it to get it smooth and apply at least 2 coats of marine varnish that’s designed for outside use. Properly cared for and not stored outside it should last for several years.

If you oil it, you’ll be oiling it every 6 months to a year every year.

Bill H.

boat soup
Do a google search on “Boat Soup”. It’s a general term for lots of simple recipes for a standard way to treat wooden boat surfaces.

Outdoor polyurethane
I’ve been a woodworker for more years than I can remember and the best wood finish I’ve ever found is water-based Varathane outdoor Spar Urethane. It is extremely easy to apply, doesn’t yellow, is very durable and is very, very easy to fix. It dries in about 5 minutes.

For the best results the wood needs to be sanded to bare wood. It will take about 6 to 10 coats to get a deep lasting finish. That sounds like a lot, but as I said, it dries very quickly (no dust settlement) and you can apply two, or three coats per day. Lightly sand between coats to maintain a nice smooth finish. All of this might sound tedious, but it is not and the results are the absolute best.

Water based spar
I’ve had poor luck with water based spar varnish (Varethane brand) on canoes and will not be using it again. It certainly is easy to apply but even 6 months after application it still turns that milky blue color and softens when exposed to water.

I did the entire hull, gunwales, and seat of a stripper I built. Wake up in the morning while on a trip and the seat, gunwales, and interior would all be that bluish color from the dew and I can feel with my fingernail that it softened. Ten minutes after it’s dried off it looks and feels good again.

I will give it credit though and say that despite this it seemed to hold up ok. When I refinished the bottom this winter there was still varnish on the bottom of the hull that needed to be sanded off.

I talked to another guy who had similar results from Target EM9300, which was another product I was interested in.

I’ve tried WR-LPU from System 3 and had was happy with the results but I didn’t keep the boat long so can’t comment on longevity. I’ll probably try it again sometime.


Wax it.
There aren’t many coverings that are 100% water tight without wax, or some other water repellant. I never have found any finish that you could leave out in the weather for long. The sun will destroy it faster than anything.

Does the mantra still apply - once a …
day for a week

once a week for a month

once a month for a year

once a year thereafter?