Video: Testing Varnishes on a Picnic Table

Around here we love testing products. We have the TotalBoat Workshop setup for testing all sorts of products to increase our understanding of how they work, how they work best, and how to help you use them with the best possible outcome. We test bottom paint in a scientific study with Marine Bio students from RWU and have learned so much from being involved at the top level of this kind of testing. So, when the idea was presented to build a pine picnic table and apply different varnishes, we thought it was a great opportunity to discuss the varying varnish techniques and really test out the TotalBoat varnishes up against the best selling brands.

We were curious about how the different varnishes flowed and were applied. We wanted to test rolling and tipping coats, foam brushes vs. high-end badger hair“fooler” brushes, and chip brushes. Building this picnic table not only gave us a spot to convene outside our HQ for lunches and company parties, but a chance to really work together and gain lots more knowledge on the varnishing process, tools and techniques that we hear about daily from our customers.

Alongside most of our testing is an invitation and opportunity to get customer feedback from your own experiences. We want to understand what works and what doesn’t work with you. Do you have a tried and true brand or application method that you stand by? Is there a brush you can’t live without? Is there something that is always a more challenging part of your project? Help us help you by answering our Varnish Survey and then check out the results from other customers. See how your experience compares to others. Then – let us know what you think about varnish and the job of varnishing in the comments below.

You will find the TotalBoat Varnish Test picnic table outside the front entry to our Bristol, RI retail store. Come have a look for yourself. It’s a great way to compare tints and finishes. So far all 10 finishes look great after a year outside, no overcoating and plenty of exposure to sun, snow and rain. Come see for yourself.

Thanks for watching! Happy varnishing!


29 responses to “Video: Testing Varnishes on a Picnic Table

  1. How come no test of Bristol finish?
    Has to be a bigger seller than many of those you listed

  2. What is the point of this video? No conclusions, or even opinions, are offered! My advice: don’t make paths for decay by puncturing the top, put the screws in from below.

  3. While not part of the video, the description above the video reads “So far all 10 finishes look great after a year outside, no overcoating and plenty of exposure to sun, snow and rain”. So there is some level of conclusion – they all work well, for at least 1 year.
    And pine isn’t the only thing you varnish. Any wood can be varnished. Pine is simply a less expensive material for running tests on.

    My experience with varnish shows that surface preparation and the conditions you apply it in, are critical. My new boat is going to be mostly painted, since 2 coats of paint are easier to apply than 6 to 10 coats of varnish. And scratched paint looks better than scratched varnish. I’ll save the varnish for the transom, masts, tiller, etc.

  4. ? What is wrong with you guys? The video is a short demo of various varnish applications. So what?, its great. Think great thoughts,… its more fun.

  5. What a useless video. It’s an equally useless conclusion. Who cares what varnish is best for an unused picnic table. Let’s see a truly serious comparison of Varnish on hardwood or brightwork on a well-used boat.

    Just a waste of time, in my opinion.

    1. Flat clear coatings do not last very long in the sun. High gloss coatings need to be applied first as a build up, then the top coat could be Flat or Semi.

  6. Great test!
    This is the closest thing to hard data that I’ve seen. In another year or so we will start to see the coatings break down, then we will have the answers people are looking for.
    There was a comment regarding abuse etc. That would distort the test results. None of the coatings will stand up to a dropped winch handle or a chafing line.

  7. 9 “varnishes”, 9 planks. Picnic table or my 50 year old wooden OWENS Granada, I think it is a good test to compare products. I have run a similar test using my Teak decking strips. The penetrating epoxy base, doubles the longevity of the finishes. Give me an update in 3 months. My product of choice is Bristol Finish. I have also used Captain’s Varnish, Silkens and Perfection Plus.

  8. Let’s see a comparison for hardwoods, especially one that includes Deks Olje–a much different kind of system that needs to be evaluated along with the more standard varnishes.

  9. Bristol finish is pretty good on teak. Bought a gallon used half can’t use the remaining because the catalyst went bad. Anybody know if they have improved the life of the catalyst?

  10. Plus one for the “waste of time” observation! If you want a REAL test of MARINE varnishes, build your picnic table of a wood used on BOATS – teak and mahogany! Then, varnish the darn thing outdoors (not in a climate-controlled shop) in a boat yard – like a BOAT!!! Just Sayin’!

  11. What a bunch of grouchy old man comments. No sense of fun. The people who built the table will now know more about methods, problems of applying different varnish than most of you. The customer is supposed to make conclusions, not the vendor, and they will still sell a range of products. The type of wood does not matter for a side by side test, and yes one obvious conclusion is that pre coating with penetrating epoxy makes everything look good for at least a year.

  12. One point I would make is that the Captain’s Flagship is far superior in terms of durability and will last much longer than the basic Captain’s you used in the video.
    I do not want to pile on, but after your incredible skiff series, this one is a let down.
    As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Failure is an opportunity to try again, more intelligently.”
    Give this test another shot with different wood, teak or mahogany.

  13. I would love to see the results of this test as I varnish for a living. I use different brands for different applications and species of wood. Sailing across the Atlantic- high seas , slow wooden boat equals proper testing!!! Donanations excepted.

  14. I would love to see the results of this test as I varnish for a living. I use different brands for different applications and species of wood. Sailing across the Atlantic in June- high seas , slow wooden boat equals proper testing!!! Donanations excepted.

  15. I have built 237 full size traditional wooden handcrafted flagpoles over the last 14 years, which are all over the US in 35 states and some extreme exposure situation. We use clear vertical grain Northern Red Oak on 95% of our flagpoles, 6/4 planed to 5/4 and epoxy laminated construction with finger joints. The balance of or orders are either Doug Fir or Phillipine Mahogany. Two coats of oil based stain, sometimes 3 if a very dark color, and eight coats of hand sanded varnish applied on a reduction gear motorized stand spinning at 3 rpms. Meticulous prep and good clean varnish room. We have tried everything and finalized standardized on Z-spar Flagship varnish 2015. On ocassion we do 12 coats for seacoast or deep south latitudes. Even more rarely we apply two to three coats of semi gloss Epiphane over the high gloss 2015 for a flatter finish by request, such as a special flagpole for the Gov of Tennesse. We get 5 years out of the 2015 in most latitudes, failure always occurring on the southern exposure and the other three sides still look excellent. In my professional opinion with a great deal of experience this is the best finish on the market at a reasonable cost with excellent results and a gorgeous finish. I can be contacted through any search on the internet for Adirondack Flagpoles if you wish to reach out to me. Danny Kaifetz.

  16. Still going to interesting to see how the finishes last. Fun little project.
    Total Boat………thanks for posting this short, free video!

  17. A few points to make here:

    There is not a conclusion to be drawn after ONE YEAR of varnish use as all finishes continue to look great! (Yes, possibly due to coating the raw wood first with Penetrating epoxy). We did NOT make a teak and mahogany table becuase it was not practical! We will get good results on this pine table regardless of the wood type. We cannot replicate every prep, finish and use detail so a good baseline test of basic (commonplace) varnish prep and application was the best way to tackle this. Applying varnish inside a shop is fairly commonplace as parts are often removed and brought inside for finishing. (and it was winter in New England!) However, if you are one of the complainers you have missed the point of this project. We will report back on the ongoing condition of the table as time ticks on and if you disagree with our methods, we are sorry.

    Additionally, most of these finishes are meant for SINGLE SEASON use and will NOT last after much more than a year without overcoating. But we are curious to see how they will each break down and then we will likely apply more coats again over the winter.

    We try to test a lot of what we sell to better serve you, our customers. We certainly can’t please everyone but please consider that our knowledge is your gain when you shop with us. Tests like these cannot – in reality – cover all bases. But they cover many and they are ALWAYS helpful and provide us with great product knowledge and understanding of a process like varnishing.

  18. Good to see Captains Varnish held up as well as the others.
    I use it on my woodstrip sea kayaks. Although in my case I find it best to scuff and recoat each year. Sun, sand, scratches etc.

  19. I just love the comments, I think some of these folks won’t be happy unless Jamestown comes down and does their varnish for them, and builds them their own picnic table. Scheesh! Varnish to me is fascinating and mysterious stuff. I’ve been successful but felt it was more due to the prep and application than it is to the actual varnish used, they all seem pretty good. I’m looking forward and willing to give this test some time and see if some varnishes are really better than others, or if varnish failure is really due to ‘operator error’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *