Recommendations for wood finishes (canoe and SOF kayak)

The finishes on the wood gunwales and thwarts of my canoe and on the steam-bent coaming of my skin-on-frame kayak have become scuffed and dry looking. Now that I have a nice shop to work in I would like to do a full maintenance on the boats. Looking for recommendations on what would be the best re-coating choices. (I don’t like shiny, BTW.)

Spar Varnish. Semi gloss. Or Spar Urethane. If you have the time, use Tung oil. It takes several coats but does a good job and won’t flake off as it ages. I use it on the GP I’ve made.

Cool, I already have a can of that I bought to dip the tips of my cedar GP.

Watco Danish oil would be a good choice, It comes in many flavors.

I refinished the gunwales on an ancient 1977 MR Explorer and a Bell Magic with Watco Danish oil. The finish wore through almost immediately during transport. I have Yakima Loadstops on my roof racks and indoor/outdoor carpet on my trailer. The carpet is worse but both rub through in one trip. I started using small sections of vinyl tubing that help but sometimes fall out. Any suggestions on finishes or transport would be appreciated. I’ve always been concerned that moisture would get under varnish. The boats are garage stored.

I’ll use spar varnish on thwarts and SOF coamings. Currently I have a can of Helmsman around that I also use on the S&g & strip kayaks. I’ll use Watco (the Teak is easiest to find around here) on my GP and the gunwales of the MR Independence. The GP took 4 - 5 coats initially to get it happy. Now one coat a year is all it needs. The rails on the Indy were oil finished when we bought it and it sleeps indoors so it usually only needs a single recoat every year of so.

I’ve been coating my GP with spar varnish then doing a final sanding to reduce the slipperiness. The stuff is durable but not enough for a paddle in my hands.

Had I the choice over again I’d choose one of the drying oils, like Tung oil.

Since about 2000 I’ve mostly been using tung oil, and like it. If for some reason I need to sand a gunwale or thwart down past the finish - a deep scratch, for example - I’ll use a coat of Watco Teak to come close or match the factory color and thereafter use tung. I use spar varnish on paddle blades and shaft but zip strip the grip of a new paddle and use tung oil thereafter. I get fewer blisters that way.

It depends on what I want The finish to do. on my Sailboats and wood kayak I have used top end UV protection and gloss I use Interlux Schooner Varnish. Epifanes is another high end varnish. Both are pricey. I have recently used TotalBoat Halcyon Rugged Marine Varnish (Jamestown Distributors) way easier than regular varnish as you can recoat after an hour without sanding as long as the next coat goes on within 24 hours, Soap and water cleanup. and comes in a plastic bladder that keeps all the air out. I really like the ease of using this product. I have a gallon of Tung oil that I use on paddles and my canoe gunnel. Easy to reapply as often as needed. Easier than varnishing. I use it on the flutes I make too.

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Cool, lots of good options. I’ve also been using hemp oil more often since it’s non-toxic. I think Watco is more durable but it’s super easy to apply any oil when wood starts looking dry and thirsty.

Epifanes or La Tonk varnish, and a lot of it…I think both my GP and my wooden Euro has 9-10 coats.

The two different applications need different kinds of help.

The frames on an SOF need to be oiled to keep them flexible. Raw Tung oil will work and that is the base for most of the other oils (like Watco) on the market.

Wood gunwales need UV protection. Use Epiphanes, Interlux or Petit varnish on them. The reason is that as specialty varnishes they can bypass EPA regulations and give you real UV protection. They also stink, because of the high volatile content, so use them outside.

At least three coats, wet sanding with 320 paper between coats. Then give them about two weeks to properly cure.

“Raw” tung oil as opposed to what? Pure tung oil is exactly that, 100% tung oil. “Tung oil finish” products are an entirely different animal, as many contain little or no tung oil; they’re just thinned varnish. Watco contains some oil (I’m not sure if it’s tung, linseed or something else), but it’s still essentially a wiping varnish. The fact that it can be built up to a glossy finish is evidence of that. It makes a great furniture finish, but I haven’t found it to be particularly useful on kayaks. It’s not durable enough for coamings and it’s too slick for a paddle finish.

Oiling an SOF frame has zero effect on its flexibility. Oil applied to the surface of wood penetrates a few thousands of an inch, except on end grain, where it will soak in somewhat. If anything, coating an SOF frame will preserve its level of stifness by preventing water from soaking into the wood and softening it.
It’s impossible to maintain the finish on an SOF frame unless you like stripping and reskinning your frame frequently. For that reason, it’s best to avoid finishing frames. With boats that are used in salt water, the water itself is the best preservative. OTOH, fresh water is a problem, as it promotes mold and mildew. The best practice for boats used in fresh water is to get them dried out ASAP after use. Do not coat an SOF frame with linseed oil, as mold and mildew consider it food and thrive on it.

I agree with the recommendations for spar varnish for coamings. Epifanes is great stuff and works perfectly straight out of the can for that application. Mixing it 50:50 with pure tung oil makes a terrific paddle finish, too.

I’ve mostly used Zar exterior polyurethane on kayaks and it’s quite durable both on wood and as a skin coating. Helmsman works well too, but it adds a fair amount of amber color. If that’s what you want, go for it, as it’s relatively inexpensive and easy to find. I don’t think it’s quite as durable as Zar when used as a skin coating, but it certainly works.

Really appreciate that thorough response, Brian. I’ve always kept my SOF dry as I could (I haul it inverted so it drains and dries via turbulence in transit and I made a breathable canvas “bug cover” for the cockpit for storage – it lives on the wall of a very dry garage between outings.) I confess that the last coating I put on the steam bent ash coaming was food-grade butcher block dressing!

The guy who made my first GP told me he used a tung oil/varnish blend which created a lovely “baby’s bottom” finish with excellent grip. So I will try your 50/50 Epifanes and tung oil to restore that one.

I have Zar poly so I’ll do the SOF coaming with that this round – interesting to know it can be used on the skin too, though my bow seam is going to need some pretty good dollops of Aquaseal before she goes out again. Trying to nurse her another year or two before she needs a new skinning.

What I do for the stitching holes is to put some varnish in a glue bottle and put a drop on each hole to seal it. On a new skin, I do this after the first coat of varnish on the skin has gotten tacky. I typically need to touch up a few holes after applying the second coat to the entire skin. I use the same method to seal the holes in the coaming hoop.

Raw Tung Oil as opposed to boiled Tung Oil. Boiled Tung Oil is used as a paint thinner and doesn’t have the same essential oil mix.

Oiling a SOF frame keeps the wood from drying out and getting brittle. It can not replace what the wood has lost but it will keep it from getting worse.

I used Helmsman’s varnish on one outdoor project and it dried out in about six months. Using a specialty varnish, I have gotten two years from a mutli-coat application. I admit that I live in Florida and that is extreme weather for keeping things from going to seed.

Do you mean boiled linseed oil? I’ve never heard of or seen boiled tung oil. Pure tung oil cures quickly and doesn’t need dryers or partial polymerization to speed the curing process the way linseed oil does.

As I mentioned previously, linseed oil should not be used on SOF frames, as it promotes mold and mildew growth.

Sorry, I don’t buy the drying out and getting brittle bit. Oil finishes breathe and the wood will absorb moisture when it gets wet (or is stored in a damp environment) and it will dry under dry conditions, as well. The only thing coating it with oil will do is slow down the process somewhat.

What do you mean by “dried out” varnish? Varnishes don’t dry, they cure by combining with oxygen from the air. Cured varnish is chemically different from uncured varnish and once it’s cured, there’s nothing to “dry out”. If the varnish broke down in 6 months, it’s most likely from UV damage.