Removing Varish

-- Last Updated: Mar-08-10 4:19 PM EST --

Oops, that should read varnish! Been a long day!

I'm getting ready with the warmer weather moving in to remove the varnish off the gunwales of the Solo Tripper. Not having done this before but talking to some wood workers it seems the way to go is to use a paint/varnish remover and then follow up with some type of scrapper. I had thought I could just use a scrapper but was told I'd probably gouge the wood at some point.

Have others done this and if so how'd you go about it?



Woodworkers are often seeking a
higher, deeper level of stripping than us boaters need. The reason is that remaining varnish can cause mottled finish when the new varnish is applied.

Personally, I use a good stripper, follow directions for cleaning off the stripper/varnish, and then I sand for good adhesion. Then I put on the new varnish.

The issue for canoe wood is adhesion, not perfection.

I’m guessing Doug wants to completely
strip the sloppy varnish job from that new-to-him pretty little solo boat he picked up not long ago and give the rails a proper oil finish. You’re right, though, about an old-school methylene chloride stripper. Nasty, but effective.

Exactly Right
I want to strip all the gunwales and decks down to bare wood and figure out whether to go oil or varnish. The undersides are bare wood where the previous owner didn’t varnish. When I get it off I may end rebuilding some new ones if the wood is shot, gawd, I hope not!! Gotta hope they aren’t the original gunwales!



New! and Safe! does not mean Better!
I’d steer clear of the new products in the hardware

stores that proclaim Safe! and New!

Even if they say they will work on varnish, they will

work very slowly, if at all. They are best suited for

latex paints.

Anything that will work on varnish will stink, so use it

outdoors and/or with ventilation. Steel wool helps.

Good luck!

Varnish removal
I’d highly recommend removing the gunnels from the boat before stripping them. Depending upon the hull material the stripper may put it at risk. Removing the gunnels also will allow you to seal the backs of them before reinstalling.

Chemical strippers (especially meth chloride) generally work fairly well. They should be followed by a thorough washing as per the manufacturer’s directions and then a light sanding before applying the new finish. The stuff is nasty on your skin, eyes and respiratory system so be certain to use protective gloves, sleeves, goggles etc. Make sure you have good ventilation, or preferably work outside.

Another option is to find a furniture stripper with a long enough dip tank. I know of a wooden canoe restorer who brings entire wood canvas boats to such an outfit. He strips off the old canvas ahead of time but they dip the entire boat. The price they charge is less than he can by the stripper for.

Marc Ornstein

Dogpaddle Canoe Works

Custom Paddles and Cedar Strip Canoes

just an idea …

– Last Updated: Mar-08-10 11:00 PM EST –

...... but if you have or can get access to portable surface thickness planer (12"-13" kind) , and can afford 1/64" off each edge ... clean as bees knees ... the planer will self feed too , but you give it a little help ... ps., I'm about 99.99% certain that's how they are brought to final demensions originally anyway .

If you was around the corner I do it for ya in about 30 mins. ... got any carpenter/joiner friends local ??

I prep work dry when ever possibble , piece a cake compared to the stripper mess ... and oh man those fumes can blow your head apart even outside in the fresh air , get just a little over exposed to them and you'll feel it for days !!

If you do go the stripper route , invest in a filter breather face mask with replacable cartridges .

It won’t be that bad, Doug.

– Last Updated: Mar-09-10 7:51 AM EST –

And the results will be worth it. After all, she's your new baby, right?

Marc's right about taking everything off. Then it's just a messy, gooey, rubber gloves, goggles and respirator job, but you'll be an expert by the time you're done.

Of course, next you'll be wanting to buff that gelcoat, add some custom graphics, glue in some clever outfitting, design, build and install the ultimate kiester kradle and, finally, convince your wife that boats deserve a place in the living room where they can be admired from the couch - which is where you'll likely end up for awhile.

Bon chance!

why not just use a …
… random orbit sander on the top , inside and outside while the gunnels are in place … then get the underside and mating edges after you take them off ??

Work your way down as you think is needed , starting with #60 (quick cut) , then #80 … then maybe #150 or #220 and a little hand sand too , I like the Dewalt random orbit the best !!

If you are going to revarnish, I would just heavily sand the rails/trim, without removing too much wood. Start with 80 grit and end at 220 grit. Give them about 4 to 6 coats of new genuine spar varnish, scuffing with 220 between coats.

If you go for the snake oil treatment, I would strip with methylene chloride based gel stripper and proceed from there.

Lots of good suggestions. I will find out if the wood is good once I take them off, was planning on that from the beginning and forgot to mention in my first post.

I like the suggestion of running the gunwales through a planner, which I have. That would make it quick and easy.

I’m still on the fence on which way to go for treatment though.

Thanks for all the advice.


Wood Finish
Doug, I like the Watco Teak Oil for all my boat wood trim,twarts,ect. The oil is easier to always keep looking even. As it dries you keep oiling her and you eventualy get a nice soft finish. I am sure at least one half of anyone who chimes in here will say,go with the varnish.And that’s not bad. Either one is a lot better than they are now. Good luck,I hope to see it somtime. John

I’ll make a suggestion for pre-treat …

– Last Updated: Mar-11-10 12:58 AM EST –

...... wet wipe the raw wood with distilled water from the gallon jug you get from the grocery store (after final sizing) several times (days in succession) , and then let it dry well (a couple days or so) .

This will raise the grain and open the wood pours .

(do not use a wood prep. conditioner , these acually block the wood pours from letting your finish sink in deep)

Then apply your first coat or two as a cut coat (cut 30%) with mineral spirits (or thinner) ... this will penetrate deep into the opened grain .

Apply that first cut coat(s) directly to the raised grain before any sanding is done .

(if you are able to heat the wood to 90 degrees and just as it starts to cool (heat source off , thermostat down) , then apply the first cut coat , this will get it to penetrate in even deeper ... the reason is that the cooling wood will in-gas (oposite of out-gas) , drawing gases and liquids in even more)

Then light sand out smooth after first seal and bond cut coat(s) .

Continue with finish coats as desired (I like to still cut my finish coats a little too , 5%-10% ... goes on better !!

I think Minwax spar urethane (oil base) is the best stuff .

That is the treatment I would go for too

I think you want to stay away from anything “urethane”. I think the urethanes crack and peel easier and are probably the source of all those varnish on gunwale myths, because they are slightly less flexible. Go for good old fashioned spar varnish.

Your summary isn’t what your link states

Sure it does…
“A finish like Helmsman Spar Urethane contains urethane modified alkyd resins. A higher quality finish like Epifanes contains phenolic modified alkyd resins and a tung oil base. Since phenolic resins are considered more durable and better suited for outdoor conditions, Epifanes would be my finish of choice outdoors”.

Phenolic resins in spar varnish are considered more durable than the urethane modified alkyd resins found in urethanes.


– Last Updated: Mar-12-10 7:08 AM EST –

I missed that.

The flexibility of the varnish depends on the % of oil in the varnish. In my experience a urethane modified product is both durable & flexible without the yellowing problems incurred with phenolics.