Pros and Cons, Oil vs Varnish

-- Last Updated: Feb-09-09 10:54 PM EST --

A friend of mine is soon going to refinish the gunwales of her canoe. She's much less active here than I am so I'll ask the question.

The gunwales are currently varnished, and I haven't looked closely enough at the boat to see if all of the woodwork is easily removed, or just some. If some woodwork is best left in-place, she'll probably varnish everything, but let's pretend that everything can be removed and fully sanded and refinished , so that either option is available. I tend to like oil because it's easier to dribble it into hidden surfaces every now and then than a complete take-apart to apply varnish, and because it's so easy to re-finish scratches and the like. However, I realize that varnish lasts a lot longer than oil, and during its useful life it eliminates the need for periodic re-applications.

Let's hear the pros and cons of each, according to the experts and not-experts-but-good-enoughs among you.

If the gunwales are ash, I would strip
them and oil them. Ash is not the most water resistant wood in the world, but with a yearly oiling, they will last a long time. More frequent oiling is very easy. Varnish is just going to get nicked and scraped open, and then there’s no protection.

I had a canoe with spruce gunwales, which came varnished, and I had to keep them varnished, because spruce is a good deal more susceptible to water damage than ash. It really should have been sealed with West epoxy and then spar varnished. That’s what I did with a set of spruce thwarts I made to replace heavy ash thwarts.

I will admit to a preference for oiling. Nearly all the furniture I have made is oiled. Once when I stripped a floor, I ended up oiling rather than varnishing, because varnish just gets scratched and chipped.

I remmeber how difficult it is toput a set of

Gunnels on. But oinl does look good…

If ash, use oil.

I just spar varnished some new ash rails. Wow they look nice.

I paddle 80 to 100 year old boats. Most have original varnished outwales of spruce or mahogany.

Mahogany has pretty good water
resistance, as you might expect of a jungle tree. So mahogany can be oiled, as I have done on mahogany furntiture.

I see one thing already
It would probably pay to figure out what kind of wood we are dealing with. I can’t reliably identify very many kinds of wood on sight, so we’ll probably seek some help with that part.

1 vote for lazy
If varnished, I’d sand lightly and revarnish. Removing all the old varnish in order to oil is too much work.

If not varnished, I’d oil. True, oil needs to reapplied every now and then, but it is so easy to apply, it isn’t a big deal. Plus, if you believe the promo literature, it soaks in and forms a deeper barrier than you’d get with varnish. Oil does not want sanding between coats. Oil easy. Chip lazy.

I don’t think oil equals lazy
It requires adherence to a schedule and as I understand it multiple light coats must be applied.

This is a good article.

oil or cetol
gunnels get bashed, waterstained wood under varnish doesn’t look good.

Oil is Nice
I’ve had two canoes with ash gunwales. One came with them varnished from the factory and the other was oiled. I stripped the varnish from the varnished gunwales and oiled them after a year or so because the rails take a beating and water and staining start to work at the nicks, chips, fastener locations, etc. I think I’d done at least two touch up varnishing jobs prior stripping the gunwales.

Oiling isn’t needed all that often (these boats garage kept) and is easy when needed.

It was some work to remove the gunwales strip and reassemble, but not all that bad and I was happy to have it done.

Oil then varnish?
I have never refinished a canoe before, so this is more a question than a suggestion, but could you not oil it to have it penetrate the wood, then varnish to seal it in? or will it not stick very well on top of the oil?

Some manufacturers have oils and
varnishes that are specifically compatible. However, it is necessary to let the oil “dry” very thoroughly. I personally don’t think there is a point in using varnish over oil unless you just have to have that varnish look. And even then, you might as well have just used the varnish alone, perhaps thinning the first coat with a suitable agent to help penetration.