Varnish or Vanish: The Laborious Art of Preserving Your Boat

Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Artist Suzanne Davis, paintbrush in hand, makes one careful, bold stroke, then pauses to admire her work and to answer questions from the class. The subject isn’t watercolors or oils, however; it’s boat varnishing.

Davis’ canvas is the glossy planked hull of a sleek sailboat. Or the stain mahogany interior of a trawler.

“Varnishing definitely is an art,” says the 36-year-old Davis, a former catering manager who has been earning her living as a professional boat varnisher since 1982. “I learned so that I could refinish a 32-foot sailboat that my husband and I had bought,” recalls Davis, who is now divorced. “After I had finished it, people started asking me to work on their boats.”

For the past year and a half, Davis, who is better known locally as the “Varnish Lady,” has also been teaching classes in boat varnishing in Orange County and as far south as the Chula Vista Marina in San Diego.


At the annual Wooden Boat Festival, held each August in Newport Beach, Davis’ varnishing seminars draw standing-room-only crowds. “A lot of the people who take my classes are boat owners who can’t afford to hire someone to do their varnishing. And they may have messed up the job doing it themselves, so they need outside guidance on how to do the job right,” she says, explaining the popularity of her course.

During a recent 4-hour seminar at the Sea Scout Base in Newport Beach, the classroom smelled of paint thinner as Davis fielded questions about sandpaper, paintbrushes and--most important of all--the weather.

“The ideal weather for varnishing is when it’s overcast and between 60 and 70 degrees,” Davis says. “In summer if you don’t have your varnish on by noon it may be too hot (the varnish won’t flow properly). And in the winter, if it’s too cold, the varnish won’t dry and get hard. So the weather is critical.”

Because the weather is so important, Davis has prepared a handout on the subject. For example, if it is 90 degrees, you can probably varnish from 7 a.m. to noon. If it is 80 degrees, you can varnish from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. On the other hand, if it is only 50 degrees, you can’t start varnishing until 10 a.m. and you had better quit by 2 p.m.


So what do you do during the rest of the time?

“You do all your prep work,” Davis says. “Everybody is always trying to find the easier way to do varnish work. But proper preparation is the only way to begin.”

Often, that means scraping off the old varnish until you’ve reached bare wood, then starting all over again, Davis says. The final finish depends as much upon the preparation work as it does on the actual applying of the varnish, according to Davis. Once you’ve stripped the wood and begun to apply your varnish, Davis admits that the process is a never-ending job.

“Two coats of varnish will last only 1 month,” Davis says. “Four coats will last 2 months, six coats will last 4 months, and eight coats will last 5 months. So you can see your goal is to get as many coats on as possible as fast as you can.”

Once you have your eight coats on, Davis says you should go back every 5 months, do a light sanding and apply two more coats. “Some people varnish their boats religiously every 3 months,” she says.

For boaters, who can work on their vessels only on weekends, Davis says now is the time to begin in order to get all the preparation and varnish work completed before the summer boating season.

Davis, who operates a one-woman business called Pristine Varnish, keeps busy year-round working on about 30 boats. Currently she is too busy to take on any new clients. Some of the projects she is working on now include routine maintenance of the wood trim on fiberglass boats and the complete restoration of a couple of classic wooden boats. Most of what Davis teaches the students in her varnishing seminars are things she has learned herself--the hard way, she says.

“Just about everything I talk about in class, I’ve had happen to me,” she says. “Things like sags and runs in my varnish. Rain that came before the varnish dried.”


Davis says her most difficult job so far was refinishing a 40-foot sailboat on a mooring in Newport Harbor. “It had weathered badly and had to be stripped down to bare wood. And it was a difficult place to work, having to row out there every day.”

One of the most painful mistakes Davis remembers making was accidentally sitting on a rag soaked in paint thinner. “I was wearing a swimsuit and I got a pretty severe chemical burn,” she says. “I’ve also lost a couple of layers of skin on my hands from not wearing rubber gloves. Now, I always wear gloves.”

Once Davis even broke her nose when she stood up to put her varnish bucket on the dock, took a step forward and ran, nose first, into the bowsprit of the boat.

Despite these painful lessons, Davis says: “I really enjoy what I do. It is hard work, but the beauty of seeing something that started out looking so bad end up becoming so beautiful makes it worth it.”

Davis offers the following hints to boaters who would like to do their own varnishing:

Clean surfaces before sanding.

When sanding large surfaces, use long strokes.

Always filter your varnish through a strainer.


Never varnish directly from the varnish can. Pour only as much varnish as you can use in 45 minutes into a separate container.

Make sure all bristles of the brush are wet with varnish before you begin.

For best control of a varnish brush, hold the butt end of the brush--not the handle.

Use knee pads when working the boat.

Lay on the varnish; do not brush it on using a lot of strokes.

Varnish buckets can be reused a number of times by turning them upside down and allowing them to drain into an old used bucket.

Use the back of your finger to check for dry varnish so as not to leave fingerprints.

Davis’ next varnish seminar will be held May 6 at the Sea Scout Base. For information call (714) 675-8039.

PRE-RACE SEMINARS--A series of free Ensenada Race seminars will be offered by the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn. (NOSA), sponsors of the 42nd annual Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race.

Past race winners will provide tips on docking in Newport Harbor, starting line tactics, the latest safety requirements, race logistics, navigation strategies and international sailing protocol.

The first seminar will be held at 7:30 p.m. next Friday at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club, 1601 Bayside Drive, Corona del Mar. The Ensenada Race begins at noon April 28 in Newport Harbor. For information on the race or the seminars call (714) 640-1351.