Clarity And Depth – The Chester Yawl Chapter 8

The beauty that is in the eye of the beholder demands clarity. It is never more pleased than when it penetrates the blue sky or sees fish winding among eel grass below the surface of clear water. When we who have pretensions toward craftsmanship apply the finishing touch to a project we want to let the materials show their natural beauty.  A clear coating on wood displays the grain’s pattern and enhances the reflectivity and color variety of the bundled fibers. The degree to which we are successful in this requires as much care and attention to detail as skillfully wielding tools to assemble a complex structure.


In the world of wooden boats a premium is placed on the so-called bright finish. In some cultures boats are painted bright, even garish colors.  You see this in the Mediterranean and the equatorial areas of the world. Varnish suffers from the sun the farther south one is located. The Chesapeake summer light is as harsh an environment as I need to be subjected to. By the time you reach Florida I don’t even want to discuss it.  Fortunately The Pacific Northwest is somewhat tolerable and the lack of sunshine that dims many a Seattelites soul can finally be turned to advantage. Once upon a time various oils were applied and laboriously rubbed until they gleamed – sort of. This lasted until oxidation created an ever  darkening patina.  More stable varnishes have been around for hundreds of years. The spar varnish we use now is more durable than the oils and shellacs of an earlier era. Formulations for clear protective coatings have become government regulated chemical stews. They are easier to maintain and they even smell slightly better.

Many builders of the Chester Yawl kits have opted for a bright hull. It looks very good in a “ooh shiny!” sort of way. I confess to being an old fashioned, mostly paint and just a little visible wood kind of guy. In a previous post Dave’s yawl showed the epoxy-coated hull in bright mode. The finished article will be different. A coat of white paint now reduces the visible wood areas considerably. Dave does not wish to be wedded to frequent maintenance of the shiny stuff. I don’t blame him. There is enough bright finish area to keeps the boat pretty and practical. He is somewhat new to the craft of varnishing so we have worked together to make his boat’s beauty at least skin deep.

It is not my intention to write a tutorial on varnishing. Over the years I have heard or read much information on the art with just a smidgen of science. The whole body of knowledge would contain enough contradiction to confuse a philosophy professor. My one bit of solid advice is to get a book that makes logical sense to you and adopt it’s methods as your own. Wherever your gut-feeling leads you in another direction follow that instinct. If you come up with a mess don’t worry. Varnish is infinitely sandable and all you really have in this world is time. Unless you are doing this for money in which case you have more trouble than I can help you with.

I have done my share of varnishing over the years and find it to be more satisfying than painting. It likes to be an unhurried process. I feel no pressure to get things covered up.  The basics of wielding the brush is to flow the varnish from the wet edge of the previously applied varnish. Use a brush made for varnishing. Hard nylon bristles create brush marks like furrows in a field. Good lighting will help you keep track of where you’ve been and where you need to go next.


I could state a lot of ideals here like: dust free environment, stable temperatures, surfaces properly prepared with a specific grit of sandpaper, or no sandpaper only scrapers and planes with razor sharp blades set to take micro-thin shavings. My cramped garage and an unusually cold autumn have made observing the niceties a struggle. the temps are a particularly difficult issue. Dave purchased a kerosene heater who’s design is adapted from some sort of military jet engine. It gives heat, and quickly, but makes conversation difficult.

The first coat is on and from a distance it looks very nice. Up close it bears it’s share of imperfections. The first coat is what I call a “spit coat.” It is not meant to be perfect and will be sanded smooth providing a base for further coats which will provide a more eye-catching sheen at a closer distance. The Tao of varnishing is a practice of patience. The destination is up ahead and we will not see it until we get there.

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