Comparing Varnishes with Boatworks Today

Andy Miller knows a thing or two about boat work and marine finishes. He put a few of our TotalBoat varnishes to the test when he compared them to the top selling brands – and in the end, he liked TotalBoat Gleam best.  Often times selecting your varnish is about brand preference and past experience, but as Andy points out in today’s video of the week, there have been some revolutionary changes in the varnish game, and TotalBoat has been a leader there.  Our rapid recoat varnish systems make building coats a pleasure, not a chore that can take over a week of your life.  For a busy guy like Andy, that’s welcome news. Sanding between coats is now optional, and overcoating can be done after just an hour, allowing for multiple coats inside of one day.  Check out today’s video with Boatworks Today.

Andy goes over a few very important distinctions when selecting your finish. The Epifanes Rubbed Effect Varnish and our TotalBoat Gleam Satin Finish and Lust Matte Finish varnishes do a great job of giving you a smooth, de-glossed effect. But you can’t use these varnishes as a first sealer coat and you have to build coats with a gloss varnish. Flattening agents in all of these varnishes will haze and cloud if you build coats with them. Use them as a topcoat for the ultimate finish that isn’t going to blind you like a mirror of gloss might.

Another consideration is how to thin your varnish. Like most manufacturers, TotalBoat has a proprietary thinner to be used with all of the oil-based varnishes. Special Brushing Thinner 100 is designed to be the perfect compliment to our varnish systems, just as Epifanes has their own Brushing Thinner,  along with Pettit and the rest of the brands, too.  Always be overly careful and prudent about replacing any of these with an off-the-shelf alternative. It can wreak havoc on a nice varnish job – and no one wants that to happen. Refer to the manufacturers Technical Data Sheets, found on our website pages alongside every product that has one, and loaded with all the things you need to succeed with your varnish or paint.


30 responses to “Comparing Varnishes with Boatworks Today

  1. Great video! And thanks for the side by side comparison. I would be interested in Andy’s take on the leveling properties of each product. One of the persistent issues that I deal with in my varnish work is getting the brush strokes to properly level without adding “brushing liquid”. Also I noted that Andy used these right out of the can without using a filter cone. I always learned that filtering was essential to avoid lumps and impurities on the work.
    (Just bought 2 quarts of Gleam to refinish my Pygmy Arctic Tern.)

  2. I’m looking for something to use over a Red Cedar Porch swing and Red Cedar Glider Rocker. The are on the front porch and get the Afternoon sun. I want something that will allow the natural colors to show through, has a gloss to it but protects the wood from the weather. I live in central N.C. and these pieces stay outside year round….does anybody have any suggestions??

    1. Lee: I used Man O War semi-gloss for a similar application. I sealed the wood first with shellac and then used 5 coats of Man O War (that I purchased at the local Ace hardware. )
      Be prepared to revarnish every year unless you can keep the swing covered.

    2. Try out Halcyon in the clear finish. It won’t give any extra tint to your wood grain and after about 3 coats it starts to gloss up very nicely.

  3. I currently use Epifanes High Gloss on all exterior wood. If I wanted to switch to Total boat High Gloss would I have to strip teak down to bare wood or can it be applied on top of Epifanes?

    1. Melissa – you can apply on top of the Epi after preparing, and if the wood is in good shape underneath your epi coats. See our TDS sheet on Gleam – it goes over applying over a previously varnished surface.


      “* If the previous finish is in good condition, sand with 320-grit sandpaper, wipe clean with a tack cloth, then follow
      with a clean, lint-free cotton rag wetted with mineral spirits. “

  4. I also use Epifanes, and have done so ever since Regatta Spar Five went off the market. I loved Regatta. Epifanes is a very thick product and difficult to use, still I’ve found nothing that matches its longevity. It’s UV inhibitors must be some of the best, because I was getting by with just two coats, one in the spring and one in late summer, and my varnish was the talk of the marina. My boating area is the Chesapeake Bay, and it’s hot and sunny here. The boat was covered in the winter, however.

    Yea, you probably should not use it straight out of the can, but it’s not that big a deal. More crap comes out of the brushes I use, which are near on thirty years old. It’s hard to get them completely clean. One tip on brushes, buy good ones and store them in non detergent 30 weight motor oil. Clean them in mineral spirits and use a brush spinner. Mineral spirits is getting very difficult to find these days. I don’t think tung oil based spar varnish will be around much longer. Pretty much all VOCs are under attack. Sometimes I use foam brushes. It’s easier than trying to clean out all the crap from a brush and get a dirt free surface, but a brush does a better job of applying on difficult and busy surfaces.

    Some tips –

    The biggest problem with keeping up varnish on a boat, is most builders fit wood trim and likely only calk where they screw it to the fiberglass. Then you put varnish on it and can’t figure out why it fails right after the boat sits through a winter. Well, water gets into the wood from behind and breaks the bond the varnish has to the wood.

    To combat this I’ve resorted to removing the trim and epoxying the back side and refastening it, applying calking, and in some cases epoxying it right to the fiberglass. Yes, I even have done this to toe rails, big job. This has resulted in not having to strip the varnish and reapply for literally decades. I just sand and reapply a fresh coat. It stays perfect.

    Don’t worry about a bit of dirt in the varnish or a perfect surface. It will get better with age, the varnish shrinks with time, and much of the dirt seems to wear out or disappear as it ages. A light sanding with 220 when you do the next coat will take care of the rest.

    If your starting with new wood, put one coat of West Systems epoxy on it, and sand it trying not to remove too much of the coating. Then varnish. You don’t have to thin the fist coat of varnish. Do wait for the epoxy to dry well, and remove any amine blush by washing with hot water before you varnish over the epoxy.

    You can sand your varnish with 220 between coats, but you must be careful, especially on radiuses, not to sand through. Use Scotch Bright 3M pads, course or medium, and you can avoid sanding through easier.

    I look at varnish as sunscreen for wood. Epifanes seem to have the best SPF, but is harder to use. You can use an easier varnish, such as Captains Varnish by Z-Spar. It goes on easy, sands easy, looks great, but it won’t hold up as long. So, do your build up with Captains, and then put two coats of Epifanes. It will last just a long.

    I’ve been varnishing for 40 years, and it is not hard to master. Just don’t stress over it too much. The biggest problem is water getting into the wood. It must be well sealed, especially teak, as water seems to move through it well. If any part of the wood is not sealed, water will get into the wood and your varnish coating will fail, all five, six or however many coats you have on it. That’s not fun to fix, it’s starting over. The wood mush stay dry, water can not get into it from behind.


    1. Great tips and thanks for sharing with the rest of us would be varnishers. My favorite varnish is Interlux Schooner but Total Boat Gleam is replacing it in my dock box. I concur with Epifanes, it is thick and I find it hard to apply.
      My varnishing technique is roll and tip with a 4 inch fine roller. I tip nowadays with a Jen foam brush. I have used badger hair varnish brushes but I hate the cleaning and in disposing of the mineral spirits.

      1. Agreed, disposing of mineral spirits properly is problematic. The way I minimize this is by using as little as possible and recycling the used spirits. You don’t have to go crazy on the amount you use. When I start, I take the brush out of it’s can where it’s suspended in 30 weight motor oil. It is sitting in it all the way to over the top of the bristles. I use about a half a cup of spirits dunking the brush into the spirits several times. Then pressing the brush on the side of the container to remove as much of the spirits as possible, before spinning it in a brush spinner inside a 50 gallon trash can. Just my shop trash can. I wipe it down with lint free cloths and spin it again if I’m really concerned about getting as much dirt out of the brush as I can. When I finish varnishing, I use this same spirits to clean the brush. I then recycle the used spirits keeping it in a gallon can that never seems to fill up, because I use it for other things. I’ve used it to coat plywood shelf units in my shop for a suto-finish. Works nice. I also use it for cleaning, and if let set, most of the contaminates settle out and it can be used almost as new.

        Brushes are expensive, and many years ago and old-timer taught me the trick of storing them in oil. I’ve been doing this for decades, and the brushes just last and last. You can do this with brushes you use for oil based paints too. It seems like it would be a bad idea. At first I worried I had to get the brush really clean of the oil, but it really cleans up easy in spirits and if there is any residual oil in the brush, well, I can say it’s never affect my results.

        Still, I often use foam brushes when I can. They just can’t do every job as well as a real brush, like when varnishing around hardware on a toe rail where I’m often using a big and small brush to get the job done.


        1. Thanks, Tim. Right now I am starting to refinish a Pygmy Arctic Tern and I go back and forth between badger brush and foam (to tip after rolling). I will have to try the motor oil trick.
          To dispose of the used mineral spirits, I usually dump it onto an old baking sheet and let it evaporate in the sun. And, all I have to do is clean the baking sheet. PITA !
          I re-read Rebecca Whittman’s “Brightwork” book and she wrestled with the same thing, Jen foam or bristle. She ended up recommending Jen foam, so I am leaning in that direction.
          Absolutely great discussion!!!

          1. Hi Michael,
            If you are doing a large surface, using foam rollers make sense. Using foam brushes is fine too. For regular brushes, I use Epifanes brushes. I like these better than the badger type sold in marine stores, because they hold a lot of varnish. They can put on a full coat easier. Epifanes used to make a plastic container that allowed you to hang several brushes to suspend them in oil. It also had a top. It might still be available. The reason oil works well is it stops any residual varnish in the bristles and the root of the brush from hardening. Kind of puts the brush in suspended animation until you need it again.

            I have to admit I have not tired these newer coatings that don’t require sanding between coats. They sound interesting. I’ve found nothing beats good old varnish for looks and it’s not that bad if you keep it up. Sanding between coats removes most of the dust and dirt that gets into each coat, no matter how hard you try to prevent it. I use a damp rag to remove the dust after sanding, and if it’s something I really don’t want any dust or dirt in, I’ll use a tack rag. For outside stuff, a wipe down with a damp cloth is good. I’ve even sanded and washed the boat, then varnished.

            The thing with different brushes, foam or otherwise, is to get an even coat on quickly and stop messing with it so it can self level. You don’t have to long to play with it. Try to avoid the heat of the day and direct sun. A nice cloudy day is great. How long between coats is another thing. On interior stuff, I like to through on a bunch of coats and then let is sit for a few weeks before giving it a good sanding and applying the finial coat. As varnish sits, it tightens up and some of the imperfections disappear. That toe rail just looks better after a bit of time, so don’t fret too much about the little stuff.

            As I said before, the biggest deal is water getting under the coating. If the wood is not sealed and it suck up water, you’ll never have anything but a headache trying to keep varnish on it.


  5. I agree that it would be great to see how the sunscreens hold up through the summer months. I’d also be interested in seeing how the shine mellows through the summer. Maybe cut the finished project in half and see how it changes inside to outside.

  6. i have been using and like the TotalBoat Lust varnish. I am using it to coat previously varnished topside wood. My only issue is the tape. If I put on three to four coats, i have been leaving the tape on for 48 hours because the varnish is hardening and gummy after last coating. But when i remove it, i find that i am breaking the seal unless the tape is completely off the wood.

    When should i remove the tape with the Lust product and coating three to four coats in a day? thanks

  7. I have primarily used Interlux Schooner in the past and now Total Boat Lust gloss on my Chris Craft restoration project. I wanted to use the Lust for the fast build up. Having used 2 gallons on this project here are my findings. First of all always thin. Xylol is the approved thinner and not mineral spirits. You can buy Xylol at Home Depot. You will do well with the Lust if you don’t think of it as traditional varnish but rather as liquid plastic (like the clear plastic finish on some restaurant tables). If you are varnishing on a level surface you can use it straight out of the can and gob it on. It will lay down wonderfully. It dries quickly so there is less dust collected. I use a 4 in or 6 in foam roller, followed by a foam brush primarily because I don’t like to clean brushes. Seems like you can never really get them clean. It is a thick varnish so be careful when applying on vertical surfaces (sides of boat). I learned this the hard way while trying to get good build up. It went on well but later ran and dripped. Put 5% or 10% thinner and yes you will get a thinner coat but it will not run easily. Besides you can recoat in an hour. If you recoat within 24 hours, you do not need to sand…hence the quick build up which is the product’s best selling feature. Wait too long and you are back to sanding between coats. It does however take some time to get “hard” and I sympathize with the comment about removing tape. I always use an electric heat gun to soften the tape adhesive and a slow 180 degree pull. I have successfully removed 2 year old tape this way so it does work. The best “blue” masking tape that I have found is made by Scotch and is also sold in Home Depot. It comes off the best.
    Would really like to find a very clear varnish to put over old varnish and white deck stripes so as not to “yellow” them. Anybody know of anything that would work.

  8. I’ve owned boats for many years and have done woodwork, mostly furniture, even longer. I’ve used most every varnish on the market over the years, but settled on Epifanes High Gloss for use on both. Post application finishing can make it look like any gloss level you want.

    This video is not a true test since the high gloss Epifanes was not used. The other thing is I don’t use any thinner with varnish other than pure GUM SPIRIT turpentine.

    I, therefore, don’t put much credence in this video and the products covered. He, also, didn’t apply these finishes in a realistic and proven way. I slightly thin Epifanes with turps and have found that several slightly thinner coats has more longevity and is easier to apply on brightwork, tables, chairs and teak products of all kinds (as well as many other species), especially if around water and weather and looks and feels better than thick coats.

    Longevity in a marine environment is generally around 3 years or more and longer if maintained religiously. I will usually re-finish brightwork every 7-10 years unless damaged in some way by physical trauma.

    Just my POV and experience.

  9. I have a couple of question I am going to use the Lust high gloss varnish. I am also going to be using the totalBoat wood sealer varnish primer can I thin down the Lust high gloss varnish if I am going to use the wood sealer primer? are should I not thin the high gloss varnish down?

  10. I would always thin the Lust unless you are working on a perfectly flat surface. Thin 10% and then maybe 5% of subsequent coats until you get the feel for how the varnish behaves. Don’t want anyone to have to deal with the drips and runs that I had to sand off. Tread carefully and learn as you go.

  11. Speaking of Lou, he has an excellent Total Boat video on leveling out poorly applied thick varnish drips/runs/gobs with a standard razor blade. It is lightning fast and and simple, classic Lou. Check it out.
    Love this piece and all the excellent followup! GO ANDY!

  12. I am a newbie at boat restoration with my first project of restoring a 1950 Old Town 14′ motor boat. Old Town at one time made these motor boats. I am using the TB Gloss Lust product and it has been a trial an error with the product. At first I wasn’t thinning and the finish was inconsistent. I then started thinning with TB Special Brushing Thinner 100 x 10%. Much better finish but I find you have to do some sanding in between coats. I know the advantage to this varnish is you can redcoat in an hour but after this restoration I wouldn’t make my varnish selection on this fact. There is so many things to do on the boat that being able to re-coat in an hour isn’t a big priority for me as I rarely do. I also tried the foam rollers and brushes but find the fine brush to be a better applicator. As Robert says, “learn as you go”. There is so much knowledge on this string I wish I had your wisdom when I started!

    1. thanks, for the comment. I have ask the question if sanding would be required after each coat. I am going to prime my wood before staining and then varnishing the wood. I have never use any kind of stain nor varnish before but going to give it a try I will thin the varnish till I thank it will flow nice

      1. No, stain then seal. The stain needs to absorb into the wood, sealing will prevent that. Be sure that you let the stain cure before you seal best

        1. I agree with Michael. I recently did the opposite where I sealed the wood and then stained. The stain never really penetrated the wood and I felt the stain was acting more like a paint. I will stain first next time.

          1. I, am very grateful to everyone that gave input and support I receive to in making my project a success. again I am a first timer doing any kind of wood work and I just want the project to turn out great. by the way I am staining , sealing and varnishing a oak wood floor on my 1969 c10 truck bed with all total boat product I will post picture once it is complete thanks again everyone.

          1. stain can be a little tricky to use. Some woods (like mahogany) accept the stain well, others (like maple) tends to blotch up as some of the wood absorbs the stain at a different rate than other parts of the wood. My suggestion is to try a test piece first before you stain the whole thing.
            I also learned (a long time ago – I’m kinda an old guy) that you apply the stain brushing with the grain then let it rest for about 30 minutes (the stain will initially be sort of glossy then will dull out) then wipe across the grain with a coarse rag, I use burlap but toweling will work well). Then let it dry at least over night. Wipe again then apply your seal coat.
            BE SURE TO WEAR GLOVES!! (no need to ask me how I know this)
            Good luck!

    2. this is my first doing any kind of wood work and I have purchase a lot of material to try and complete the job correctly.
      l. I am going to use the total boat Lust high gloss and I also purchase the total boat wood sealer varnish primer. however I was told that I should use the total boat primer first then stain then apply the lust high gloss varnish . I am not sure what’s the correct product to use first that is my question if anyone can shade a little light on this subject that would be great.

  13. Hank, let me jump in here. I’ve done a lot of varnishing over the years first on a series of wooden sailboats, then on furniture, now I am re-varnishing a 17′ Pygmy Arctic Tern kayak. My evolved technique is after final sanding, apply two successive coats of Zinsser’s Seal Coat, a shellac based sanding sealer. Light sanding using probably 180 grit, then successive coats of varnish. My favorite is Interlux Schooner but I am switching to Total Boat Gleam for the kayak project. I apply using a 4″ foam roller, tipping with a Jen foam brush. I do sand lightly between coats to remove any dust and to smooth any brush strokes. I have found that if you don’t give it a light sand, any imperfection is magnified. To sand, I will use maroon scotch-brite or fine sand paper – be very careful on outside corners, it’s way easy to sand through to wood.
    Trust me, it takes practice – I still get the occasional run.

  14. Since this thread seems to be all about varnish and its proper application, I would like to share with all my recent experience with Total Boat Gleam. After decades of using Interlux Schooner and Epiphanes, and Petit Captains, I decided to try Gleam to varnish my Pygmy, Arctic Tern, Kayak. It seemed much less viscous than the others but applied well with little tendency to run. I rolled and tipped using a three inch Jen foam brush. The Gleam leveled quite well. So far, i am impressed. Only five more coats and we’ll be done. But this may well be my go to varnish

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