Getting Personal with PAINT & VARNISH

by Marty Loken - Nordland, Washington- USA

“As appeared in Small Craft Advisor” (SCA)

See my next article on Choosing Colors.

I know it’s true: Many of you share the agonies I’ve suffered when applying paint and varnish. There might be elusive moments when you appear to know what you’re doing, but they’re followed by soul-crushing catastrophes when everything goes wrong, so wrong. (You know, drippy runs, bugs and dust everywhere and brush marks that suggest you painted the thing with a broom.)

Paint and varnish are that way: No mercy. No shortcuts…although we never stop searching for ways to beat the system.

For me, painting poorly started 63 years ago at age 10, when I built my first boat—a simple 8-foot hydro powered by Grandpa’s 5-hp Johnson. Although the boat was little more than two sheets of fir ply screwed onto wedge-shaped sides, forming what looked like an oversize door stop, I felt the boat deserved something better than the flat, white house paint my Dad always applied to fishing skiffs he built in the same basement room. So I managed to scrounge some half-empty quarts of leftover enamel, blue and white, and came up with a swooshy paint scheme – executed crudely but pretty cool if you were 10 years old and full of newbie-boatbuilder pride.

A few years later, when Dad took possession of a rotten 34-foot cruising sailboat, I was given my first semi-professional paint and varnish assignment. (“Professional” because I was given an actual job; “Semi” because no pay was involved.) My task was to start scraping, sanding, painting and varnishing what seemed like a massive ship, and the first particular assignment was to be hoisted aloft—way aloft—in a frighteningly crude bosun’s chair to refinish the mast while dangling 50 feet over the deck. (Nobody else would go up that peeling, sun-bleached, half-delaminated mast. “Just send the boy up there,” I remember one of my Dad’s boating cronies suggesting, and up I went, imagining I was aloft on the tallest of tall ships.)

That first varnish and paint job went poorly, but standards were low, allowing my mediocrity to blend with the work of others. We eventually got the 1930s-vintage boat sailing with its haphazard refinish, and enjoyed a number of memorable family adventures.

After that, in teenage years, I turned several fishing boats into outboard “racers,” and by high school was entering water-ski races and local outboard marathons with a variety of actual racing runabouts—all painted or varnished quickly and poorly, but up to the standards of my peers, who shared my obsession with speed but also my lack of regard for the quality of finish.

It wasn’t until my 30s that I started to imagine that paint and varnish might be important, and even potentially done with a bit of care. The turning point came when I dragged home the boat of my maturing nautical dreams, a 1946 round-bottomed cedar launch known as a Poulsbo Boat, 16 feet of tumblehome-transomed beauty that was in terrible shape and cried out for a complete and proper restoration (stem separating from planks, steambent frames split or broken altogether, a punky mahogany transom and gutted interior.)  The boat was a floating disaster, and I loved it dearly.

The Poulsbo Boat wasn’t just another plywood junker to patch up, use and discard. It was my first “real” boat, and so I began to learn more about filling and fairing hulls, scraping and sanding…and then sanding some more. About primers and different paints, and which colors looked right on a traditional hull. And about how much all of those marine-paint products cost—even back then, 40 years ago.

So, my first favorite paint was Z-Spar’s alkyd marine enamel in what seemed like a traditional color called Atlantic Green. I’d noticed a lot of dark green on old boats, so this seemed like a good idea. I applied Atlantic Green with a cheap brush over the hullsides of the Poulsbo Boat, selecting an off-white enamel for the sheerstrakes. After a primer coat and four coats of green, hand-sanding between coats, the boat looked gorgeous to my eyes…as long as I ignored the runs, brush hairs, bugs and dust particles everywhere.

Let’s get to the point: After many years of experiencing every kind of paint and varnish product out there, and after surviving what might be called my High Gloss Period (varnish or paint—everything glossy), I’ve finally settled down, sobered up and realized that you don’t have to pay a bloody fortune for every paint and varnish product in order to have acceptable results, and you certainly don’t need to always follow the rules…well, at least not all of the rules, when selecting or using paint and varnish products.

We can begin with paint. Today, my boating focus is almost exclusively on vintage designs in smaller rowing and sailing boats. They aren’t all necessarily “classic,” but the designs tend to harken back to a period between, say, the 1870s (my 14-foot melonseed) and the 1970s (a 16-foot wooden motorsailer I’ll restore this winter).

To me, and this may just be me, high gloss finishes do not belong on most vintage-design boats…especially anything designed between the late 1800s and maybe the 1940s. There’s no rule about this, fortunately, but I think after years of painting vintage boats that they look better and simply “right” with a satin or maybe semi-gloss hull finish. Not only do I tend to avoid high gloss on vintage boats or boat designs, I really prefer the overall look of what we call a “workboat finish,” often meaning satin paint, satin varnish or simply oiled surfaces—easy on the eye, simpler to maintain and wonderful in not showing every little scratch, scuff mark or painting blemish.

The trouble is, if you go to your local chandlery or marine-supply store, you’re mainly going to find only one thing: Gloss, gloss, and more gloss, in products made by the big marine-paint companies such as Interlux or Pettit. Whether they’re alkyd enamels, one-part polyurethanes or expensive two-part polyurethanes, the excellent products of companies like Interlux and Pettit tend strongly toward high gloss, since that’s what the mainstream market wants—or thinks it wants. (Oh, you can find a bit of Semi-Gloss in some of their whites or off-whites, but mainly Gloss in the darker colors.)

You can buy flattening agents to add to your high-gloss paints, but calculating how much is needed to achieve a certain level of semi-gloss or satin finish is problematic, and with the added cost of dulling agents you’re just doubling-down on your already stiff investment in paint.

The other challenge with the major paint companies is that they long ago discontinued what we’d now call “vintage” colors, trimming their palettes to generic shades of green, blue, red, orange, yellow, off-white and brown…generally too “primary” for my taste. Hardly any of the big marine paint manufacturers produce what I would call traditional colors of an earlier era when many of our classic boats were designed, unless you consider white and off-white as an acceptable range of “traditional.” You can certainly buy the standard primary colors and mix your own custom shades—I do it regularly and cheerfully—but I love to support the smaller paint companies that already offer vintage paint colors and less-than-glossy finishes that look far better on classic boats, big or small.

The other huge advantage of working with the smaller companies—and the same goes for buying paint at your local hardware store—is that they’ll custom mix any color you can imagine. All you have to do is deliver a color swatch you like, whether it’s from some house-paint color card or a small sample you mix on your own.

It’s funny about many paint products. Once “Marine” appears on the label, the price shoots skyward. You might find some excellent enamels at your neighborhood hardware store, or local paint supplier. I don’t see many products labeled as Porch Paint these days, but if you ask for “something like porch paint” at the hardware store, and you have a color in mind, they can often mix an alkyd enamel that’ll cost less than marine paint and come close in composition to the stuff labeled “Marine.”

(As an aside, and speaking of hardware stores, I know some of you are proudly using cheap water-based latex house paint on your boats. I’ve never been a total paint snob, but please don’t start telling how great the stuff is because I’ll turn the hearing aid off. You’re welcome to do whatever you want—after all, it’s a boat, not a violin—but I don’t like latex on things that float.)

Here in the Northwest, I love to buy paint made by Marshall’s Cove Marine Paints, based on an island in Puget Sound. Peter Marshall’s color palette is beautifully traditional in flavor, with colors named after some particular Northwest classic boats—Ethel M. Red, Martha Green, Red Jacket Black, Ladyhawk Brown, Hecate Ranger Green, and others. The paints are traditional alkyd enamels, not polyurethanes, and they’re priced lower than any of the major paint companies’ products.

Marshall’s Cove offers all of its standard colors in Gloss, Semi-Gloss, Satin or even Flat. They will mix any color you come up with, for a reasonable extra charge. And starting about the time you read this, Duckworks Boatbuilder’s Supply will be carrying the full line of Marshall’s Cove colors…so now you’ll be able to get some great marine paint colors at reasonable prices from your favorite mail-order supplier. In the meantime, you can view the Marshall’s Cove color palette online by going to

My other favorite smaller paint company is Kirby’s Marine Paints, formally known as the George Kirby Jr. Paint Company, founded in 1846 and family owned and operated ever since in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Kirby’s chart of marine paint colors is rich in traditional workboat hues and from personal experience, when you order Gloss from Kirby it’s like everybody else’s Semi-Gloss, and Kirby’s Semi is somewhere between a typical Satin or Flat. So be aware and if you have a big project, maybe test the relative glossiness with a sample quart before you start buying gallons. Like Marshall’s Cove, the Kirby paints are traditional alkyd enamels, not modern urethanes, and Kirby’s products might have heavier pigment mixes than any other marine paints I’ve experienced: They cover wonderfully, but can be thicker to apply. (Just use thinner, as needed.) For a look at their products, go to

My other favorite (but not small) paint/varnish company with some great traditional colors is Epifanes of the Netherlands, offering modified alkyd enamels, as well and one- and two-part urethanes. I also love their varnish products. (See sidebar article Wednesday for more on the subject.)

Some of the modern urethanes are amazing in how they flow when brushed, rolled or sprayed, and how durable they are once cured. I’ve sprayed expensive products like Interlux’s Perfection two-part paint and the results  can be gorgeous…although the learning curve when spraying can be steep and expensive. (We’ve built special spray booths, used dust collectors, washed down areas the night before and tippy-toed into the booth in the pre-dawn stillness and STILL gotten loads of dust and bugs in the paint, not to mention runs, orange peel and other messy outcomes when wielding a spray gun. So, on a personal level, I’m done with spraying and happy to continue using a badger-hair brush alone, or a brush accompanied by four-inch foam weenie roller and the roll-and-tip method, which when done right can come close to any spray job I’ve personally survived.)

Not to get too sidetracked in technique, but painting or varnishing in still air really does help when it comes to dust control. You don’t have to get naked, although it might be entertaining for the neighbors, but it’s worth wearing clean and dust-free clothing, after doing a good job of sanding, filling, sanding some more and wiping down all surfaces the night before. If you have a friend or partner who can join you in the rolling and tipping adventure, you can often do a better job with two—as long as your painting buddy is comfortable operating at the same speed and with approximately the same mindset about doing a decent job. (Best to practice your duet on a scrap of plywood before rolling and tipping the actual boat.)

Finally, on the technique subject, you can get away with inexpensive chip brushes for some undercoats that’ll be sanded smooth anyway, but when you get down to the final finish coats, invest in a decent, more serious paint brush. I like badger-hair brushes, but there are other pure bristle brushes that’ll work just fine, too. (Also, my personal preference is for a brush with beveled tip, vs. 90 degrees to the handle. And I usually use a 2-incher for topside paint on smaller boats, with 1-inch brushes reserved for trim work.) I know some folks do great work with foam brushes, but I’m not a fan.

So, to conclude for today, let’s talk about varnish for a minute.

As with marine paints, the older I get the more I appreciate the softer and (to my eye) more traditional look of satin varnishes, vs. the overly glossy “Chris-Craft runabout” finishes. (When we had a boatshop in Seattle years ago, specializing in restoration of vintage mahogany beauties built by Chris-Craft, Gar Wood, Century, Hacker Craft and others, varnishing was all about gloss, and the higher and deeper the better. That was fine, but these days I’m a geezer who only cares about slower boats, slower restorations and finishes that were appropriate 100 years ago. In my world of varnish, that means one word: Satin.)

While I continue to use a variety of varnish products, my hands-down favorite is Epifanes Matte. Period, end of the varnish story. I just love the soft, old-time look of the satin finish and especially how well-behaved it is when applied. You have to work hard to get runs or other mistakes—the Epifanes Matte just oozes into the wood, flattens out uniformly and looks gorgeous and traditional on any kind of smaller vintage-design boat.

The other favorite natural finish is what some of us call Boat Soup, a homebrew combining spar varnish (40-45%), boiled linseed oil (40-45%) and pine tar (10-20%, but more toward 10%). This potion is mainly used to oil the unpainted interiors of traditional wooden boats—protecting the wood while offering an easy-to-maintain, natural oiled-wood appearance. The brew can be applied with a rag soaked in the stuff, or brushed into nooks and crannies that can’t be reached by the rag. However applied, it soaks nicely into the grain, leaving a rich and dark finish that is natural, long-lasting and utterly traditional.

So, come to think of it, that describes how we feel when we occasionally, often accidentally do a good paint and varnish job—natural, long-lasting and traditional, just like our favorite boats.

This story was reprinted from a recent issue of SCA and for more informative features you can subscribe here.


  1. Thank You, very good. Mostly my thoughts exactly. Except one can find good foam brushes for tipping…but not at the dollar store. Look for small cell foam. Good ones usually cost a $1.00+ each. But I’ve never been able to clean and re-use one. Therefore if you’re a good brush cleaner (i’m not) it may be more econonical to go “real brushes”.
    thanks again Marty

  2. Hi Marty:

    My ears were burning as soon as I started reading this piece. Miss Kathleen, the boat that I followed you around in the rain aboard during last year’s palooza has on the order of six or eight layers (I won’t glorify my technique with the term “coats”) of paint on her topsides. I do just about everything around the boat shop by the “discovery learning” method. This particular hull brought on a totally new level of discovery.

    I say, she has about half-dozen coats of paint. More in some spots, than others. There was a modicum of experimentation with the “proper shade of green.” Some with left-over oil, some latex. Some custom mixed. Some stock colors from the local hardware store. Some slathered on, on humid days. Some during the depths of winter (occasionally done while begging Duck’pox to kick in 20-above-zero ambient temps, at the same time.) Some was gloss, some semi-, and some might have even been primer. And, for some reason, it all seemed pretty impervious to the “rules,” until that really hot week in August.

    I noticed a blister forming near the bow. Naturally, I stuck the tip of my knife in the blister, and proceeded to pick at it. Just a bit. I didn’t mention that Miss K is built on a 60’s vintage fiberglass sailboat hull.

    Before an hour had passed, most of the starboard side had been peeled down to about two levels below what I thought was the original gel coat (white.) Turns out, that was paint, over an intermediate primer, over a period-authentic gel coat of gawdawful burnt orange.

    Somehow that paint job had lived for about 50 years, until I caked all those other layers on top. So, even if there was mold-release wax still on that bottom-most surface–and I suspect there was–the white layer stuck pretty well since LBJ was in the White House.

    My guess is that this inadvertent, chemical-free paint stripping exercise came from heat trapped in poorly cured and improperly combined layers of paint.

    This is probably a poorly documented experiment. But, I hope to get the rest of the hull peeled in similar fashion once the snow is off the ground hereabouts. Hopefully, not requiring me to sand through a quarter inch of goo.

    My newly-arrived can of Duckworks’ Marshal’s Cove green is burning a hole in my paint locker. No foam brushes, you say…


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