Watco Oil on Gunwales???

I am making a trade on a canoe with wood gunwales that have been pretty neglected. They are dry / gray and in need of attention to bring them back to life.

What is the best way to address this? Should I send them first before applying the oil?

With the oil…is it better to apply a thick coat and just kind of let it soak in or is it better to rub it in vigorously like you would with tung oil?

Any other advice would be appreciated.



I"d remove them
If you think the boat is a keeper, you’ll do well to remove everything, address any issues, apply multiple thin coats of oil, and then reassemble.

As an added bonus, it really helps you bond with your new boat.

Yup! Wat he said…
Ah’d also thin de first coat of Watco a bit wit some mineral spirits fer a little better penetration.


Another boat?
Matt, you are a boat whore. I think everybody on this board probably suffers from boat disease, but yours is a particularly virulent strain!

Ya, take the gunwales off. Watch for cracks around screw holes on the back side of the gunwales. Sometimes there will be rot inside the crack.


just dry and grey?
before you go to a buttload of work removing them make sure you REALLY have to. just grey and dry with no ROT? I’d sand and oil with thinned Watco. taken ‘em off/ re-installing takes a long time. better to go paddling’…IMO.


yea, that’s why I said "if a keeper"
Knowing Bowler, it’ll be gone in 2 months :wink:

Composite or Royalex?
Gunnels on composites usually have the outwales rabbeted a little deeper than the thickness of the hull at the shear, creating a little void where water and crud likes to collect and accelerate hidden rot, especially if the boat has been stored outdoors. This condition is almost always worse at the ends. You could remove a bunch of screws at the ends and pull the outwales away for closer inspection, which should reveal any condition that requires further attention. Otherwise, a light sanding and deck cleaner/oxalic acid and/or two-part wood bleach will likely take care of the gray surface degradation if cosmetics are important to you.

Nystrom should be along to share his take on drying oils, which I think are close to spot-on.

just get 'em all done then trade it for the flavor of the month in SEPT!



I did this
On a boat I got with grey neglected gunnels. I rubbed Watco on liberally with fine steel wool. It took orr the grey,got smother. After it sat a while I wiped the dirty stuff off with a rag,then reapplied Watco with a rag when each coat soaked in.


yeah, don’t use steel wool
Use sandpaper or bronze wool. Steel wool will embed little fibers that will rust.

Or, in wood high in tannins, steel wool
pieces get stuck in the pores and eventually cause little blue/black stains that can only be removed by oxalic acid treatments.

Some say rubbing in oil finishes with wet/dry sandpaper forms a slurry that fills the open pores of species like ash. I’m skeptical.

2 cents worth
I think you have lots of options and have already gotten lots of good advice…you can’t beat the protection of taking the rails off, oiling them and reinstalling.

If it was mine I’d probably give it a good sanding (100, then 150, then 220) and then start giving it drinks of gunnel lotion…1/3 minerals spirits, 1/3 distilled white vinegar, 1/3 boiled linseed. The rails will drink it up and will look better than Watco and the stuff is much less “nasty” than Watco. If you want a super durable finish then use watco later once the rails look great from gunnel lotion…and wear rubber gloves if you use Watco. All oils including Watco seem to want light coats…if you slather on Watco and let it dry it will look like varnish - yuck.

Maybe that explains it.

– Last Updated: Jul-18-09 9:02 PM EST –

I have never liked the look of Watco-treated gunwales. Most examples I've seen looked like they'd been smeared with nasty varnish that already started thickening in the can and had been ready to be relegated to fire-starting duty two years previous. Ick. I've got to admit the stuff looks like a good "armor treatment" for gunwales, but I don't like the way it looks. Could be I've seen a lot of misapplications of the stuff. Still, my preference is for an oil that doesn't cover up the natural wood color, so I probably won't ever use it.

I really don’t expect a pretty result
from oiling ash gunwales. The oil is to protect the wood, but it does not prevent accumulation of dirt on the rough wood surface.

If I thought it mattered, I would apply West epoxy on all surfaces, followed by spar varnish. But oiling works well enough, as long as you don’t expect long lasting beauty.

Various grades of "expectations"
I’m not fanatical about appearance either. If I were, my wood-gunwale boats, which are also my oldest, wouldn’t have gone without any re-sanding for all these years. If I were at the “looks matter most” extreme I might use varnish, but I don’t care for the work that’s involved, especially the the inevitable need for complete removal and re-application every several years. On the other hand, if I were completely at the “don’t care about looks” extreme I could even get by with roofing tar or something like that, which would cost about two cents per year and would have all the convenience and quick touch-up capability of oil plus much better sealing properties. As it is, I figure if two different oil choices offer similar protection but one lets the wood show and the other forms an opaque coating, why not let it show.

I’ve also stopped over-maintaining my boats’ rails and oil them only on rare occasions. I had watco finish on ash rails on a Blackhawk that was tough as iron…I let light coats set up for weeks over the winter - and you could scrub the rails with Bon Ami without wearing away the Watco (it did wear down gradually). Overall I much prefer gunnel lotion…looks great after oiling and easy to maintain…if rails get scuffed or blackened from roof rails then a little scrubbing with Bon Ami or worst case a light sanding and more oil and they look as good or better than new again. I like gunnel lotion cause it’s easy to use, looks great, and is easy to maintain. If you’ve got wood rails you might as well enjoy their beauty. In my experience the only reason to use watco is durability…it lasts longer than other oil finishes.

penetrating oils
I have used Watco oil, Deks Olje, Teak Oil and Mad River’s “Gunwale Guard”. These are all variations of penetrating oil. They are not opaque coatings. Used properly, they don’t leave a gummy residue.

The application procedure for Deks is a little more involved, but it probably gives the best cosmetic result. The general procedure for the others is to apply a fairly generous coat, wait about 15 minutes and apply another. After another 15 to 30 minutes, wipe off the excess, and you won’t have a gummy residue.

You can also wet sand with fine paper after the second coat, or between coats. Be careful with the oily rags, as they can self-combust especially if wadded up.

I haven’t seen any great difference in durability between various oils. I haven’t found penetrating oils to be especially durable, especially when used on the gunwales of whitewater canoes. By all accounts, Tung Oil, which I haven’t used, gives the most durable finish of the various oils.

It really isn’t possible to judge whether the insides of the outwales or the outside of the inwales are starting to dry rot without at least partially removing them. I haven’t found removing the rails particularly onerous. If you do, mark which side is which, and when reinstalling start at the center and use some spring clamps to keep the outwales and inwales approximated as you work toward the stems, one screw at a time.

New owner of a used Mad River Exolorerr here, and learning about ash gunwhale care. I plan to treat the wood before winter but am unsure of the product to use. I see Gunwhale Guard on line and is recommended by Mad River, but watco oil appears to be more locally available. Will the finish and protection be similar with both products?

This is not the first time around on this subject, but I will repeat what I have said before. For the best results, I would sand down to good wood (past the grey) and then give it about six thin coats of Varethane water based outdoor urethane (gloss). Lightly sand between coats.

This finish should be very easy to maintain: Just give it a quick light sanding any time it looks like it needs it–followed by brushng on an additional thin coat.

Water based urethane dries to the touch in less than five minutes, but it needs a few hours to cure completely.

Apply with a very high quality, fine bristle brush. All clean-up is with warm soapy water.

Gunwale Guard is one of the worst oil products I have ever used and I know of others who have tried it and were disappointed.
I have not used Varethane. I have heard reports from people who love it, and others from people who hate it.

Probably the most important aspect of preserving wood gunwales is how the canoe is stored. If stored outdoors, make absolutely sure the gunwales are up off the ground and not touching anything. Even if covered, canoes stored outdoors tend to collect a lot of morning dew. Repeated water exposure over time is death to ash gunwales. The moisture penetrates the grain of the wood especially where ever end grain is exposed. As it does so, it tends to open the grain which results in deeper water penetration.

I have used a wide variety of penetrating oils on wood gunwales and commented on my experiences earlier in this thread. The best results I have ever achieved were with Deks Olje, but that is impossible to find in stores anymore. It can be ordered on-line. These days I usually just use Watco Teak Oil, which is widely available and gives decent results if used properly. I usually apply oils unthinned and then wipe off the excess before it dries. If it seems to be getting too thick and gummy, I will thin it out in situ on the rails using a rag moistened with mineral spirits. I have found that most Watco oils are too viscous to use more than 2 or 3 coats in a day.

If the canoe is going to be used primarily for flat water day trips where the gunwales are not expected to get scratched up to badly, a bright finish using a marine urethane or varnish is a reasonable alternative. Bright finishes take more work to apply initially and when they are neglected the take more time to restore, but they can remain durable for a very long period of time and look good to most eyes.

Oil finishes work very well if you keep up with them, which means periodic reapplications. How often the reapplications need to be done varies widely depending on how the canoe is stored, how and how often it is used, and the ambient climate. A lot of people start out maintaining their wood gunwales conscientiously, but then life events take over and the stop taking care of their gunwales for a few years only to find them very badly deteriorated.