getting it out the can….and onto the wood?

OK so you have prepared your wood or varnish and now you want to get down to getting the varnish out of the can and onto the wood.

You have 3 choices really

The traditional way of applying varnish is of course with a brush, preferably with hair removed from the sensitive parts of some endangered species of furry animal purchased at vast cost by your grandfather and passed down father to son on their death-bed.
Now I am not denying that brushes and the vast skill needed to accurately wield them can produce results of the utmost and highest quality……its just that I own 8 wooden dinghies and I need an easier and faster way of applying the damn stuff. And to be honest life is just too short to be spent cleaning brushes.

Ah yes….spraying…..the professional answer….well again you get a great result, but you need to work indoors, somewhere with no dust… need a compressor, spray gun…..and again lots and lots of skill. Lets face it if you have the ability to spray varnish and somewhere to do it…..chances are, you are not reading this!

Not so many people know about this method, but believe me, this is the way to do it. It is easy, cheap, fast and gives just brilliant results…..with next to no skill needed. I mean if I can do it, its got to be easy.

So what do you need?
Well you need some small foam rollers, these are just like the big rollers you use to paint your walls but they are only 100mm long. You can buy them at your local DIY store, although they are a little expensive so it can be worth finding a paint store and buying a big bag of them which works out much much cheaper. Then you need the pads; these are foam pads in the rough shape and size of a brush, sometimes called Jenny Brushes although they are also made by a few other companies such as West. They are all much the same although watch out as some of the cheaper ones use glue that can be melted by paint thinners….so they work fine until you try and wash them and then they fall apart……clever that…..cos then you have to buy another one <G>.
Of course you are going to also need some abrasive paper, lots of lint-free cloth, tack-cloth, the appropriate thinners….and of course the Varnish of your choice.

I will discuss elsewhere the choices of possible varnish and why you might want to use one or other type……but lets get back to applying the stuff.

Rollers give good results because they can apply an even coating of varnish easily and quickly. Because they are fast, they enable you to always keep a wet edge on the varnish and working fast means looking good.

OK so what do we do?
The secret to getting good results with a roller is working fast. You are not going to lay down a few thick coats, but lots of thinner coats until you have built up a beautiful thick finish, so you will get plenty of practice.
Pour out a little varnish into the tray and add just enough thinners that it becomes loose and free and will easily flow off the roller when you lift it out. This is roughly ‘single’ cream consistency, rather than ‘double’ cream. The exact amount of thinners will depend upon the type, age and temperature of the varnish. What you are trying to do is to add enough thinners to allow the varnish to flow easily out when you apply it. If you add too much thinners then you end up with such a thin coat, that it is just not worth the effort, but if you don’t put any in, then it is much harder (and slower) to apply and quality quickly drops off

Once the varnish and thinners is well mixed fill the roller with varnish and put the tray on a stool alongside the dinghy…..and get ready to work! If you are right handed, then you want to start at the right end of the work and move left (If left handed, swap around).
Work in small areas of about 400-500 mm square, lay down a series of thick lines of varnish with about a roller width distance apart and then roll across the thick lines, spreading the varnish as evenly as possible across the area. When you have an even coverage, finish off with a roll in the direction of the woodgrain. This process should only take about 30-40 secs, hopefully less. Depends on the varnish, but the chances are that you are now looking at a sea of little bubbles on a varnish with a slightly orange-peel effect left by the roller.
This is where the pad comes in! take the foampad (jenny brush) and drag it as lightly as you can across the varnish. Making long, light, slow and steady drags across the varnish will remove the mottled look and the bubbles and leave a glassy finish behind. The idea is to touch the varnish as lightly as possible, trying to keep the foam pad as dry as you can. If the pad gets wet (which it will) you need to dry it off as much as possible.
Having a second set of hands here can really help, one person applies varnish with the roller and the other lays it off with the foam pad.
As I said……the secret is to work fast and not let any edge dry off before you return to recoat it. Its easy and its quick, a 12ft hull should take 25-30 mins, decks 15-20 mins (faster if you are working with some one). If you miss a bit (and you will) then don’t worry, but also don’t be tempted to go back, once the wet edge is lost, you will never get the varnish to blend in. Better to leave it and get it in the next coat, same goes for those annoying flies that decide to learn to tap-dance in the middle of your new varnish, leave them, they only have little feat, but if you try and move them you will drag their whole body into the varnish.

The coat you have applied will be quite thin, both because you thinned it and also because a roller tends to apply a thinner coat anyway. So you will need to apply a few more coats than you would if you were applying with a brush……that is the bad news, but the good news is that it should dry a bit quicker too.
You want to get the next coat on as soon as possible after the first, but you are not going to be able to do that until the last one has dried and you have rubbed it down. The best way to rub down the still tender varnish will be with wet’n’dry (about 400grit) used wet with a little washing up liquid in the water.
You can ‘hot coat’ like this, applying varnish over just dried varnish for up to about 4 coats, but once you have got a fair amount of varnish on the boat, it is best to really leave it to dry and set before sanding with a rougher paper like a 240grit used dry.
If you are starting on bare wood, then the first few coats will need quite a bit of sanding between coats before the grain of the wood is fully covered by the varnish, you will most probably need to use something like the 240grit to get this done, but once you have got the base coats nice and flat it becomes easier to build up lots of layers in quite a short time.

A roller lays varnish quickly and evenly, giving you plenty of time to keep a nice wet edge…but you will have lots of little bubbles’n’bumps.

So then you pull the tip of a foam brush over the bumpy varnish, 45degrees, not too fast and just touching the surface, nice and gentle….a lovers touch.

So how many coats and how long will this take?
It normally takes about 3-5 coats to fully close the grain of the wood, depends on the wood, how much you sand and how much thinners you added, you then need to add another 3-5 coats to provide a little depth and after about 5 coats is should start to look really professional and if you have been really sanding down then it should be totally flat by 7 coats (and not that thick, as you will have sanded most of it off again)
How long it takes to do will really depend upon how well you can organise your life to fit around the drying times of the varnish. I would normally hope to apply 3-4 coats ‘hot-coated’ over a w-e and then leave it to dry and harden before finishing off the next w/e with another 3-4 coats. If you can find the time it is even better to just put on one coat a day. This works well because you are still overcoating within the ‘overcoating’ time but normally a day is enough to let the varnish harden enough to allow it to be properly sanded between each coat. Between the first few coats, it is best to dry sand with 120-180 grit but when you get towards the last coats, you should be starting to get a good finish and you can move over to 180-240 grit wet’n’dry, this helps because it also keeps the dust down. If you go beyond the overcoating time, you will be forced to go back to dry sanding with 120grit.

How much does this cost?
Well no more or less than applying fewer, thicker coats. It does become hard to estimate the thickness that you have applied and I normally think in terms of how many cans or ml of varnish I have applied rather than number of coats. You will of course use quite a bit more thinners, (which can be incredibly expensive) and wet’n’dry but I promise that it will all be worth it when you can see your reflection in the varnish.

Is it pretty yet?

With a little luck, your varnish should by now look just glorious, deep, golden and glass like……well done…but, if it’s perfect then …that’s most probably because you, unlike me, have been working is some small, dust-free, central heated workshop, rather than an open barn with the wind whistling through and depositing half of Weston beach in your varnish.

So lets face it……there is some dust in there…..or maybe you were getting a quick coat on outside…..and one baby black cloud, meandered across the perfect blue sky and then pissed on your varnish……been there, but the bottom line is, its pretty, but it ain’t perfect and you want perfection.