Refinishing a Working Sailboat


Escaping the tedium of varnish

Paul Watson

There was not a moment of doubt regarding my instant attraction to the Allied Seawind II the moment I saw her. Severely damaged and scared, I could see through her mutilation and saw the beauty, strength and sea-worthiness immediately. It was love at first sight.

In September of 1989, Hurricane Hugo had knocked her from her shoring; the fall had snapped her mast, scarred her hull, twisted her railings and littered her decks with the bits of wire and rigging. But she was the most attractive profile I had ever found in a modest cruising yacht.

From that day in late 1991 I have been involved in her reconstruction and designing her restoration to a predestined glory. For most of that time I admit that the cosmetic aspects seemed so distant in those early years. Most of my attention had, by default, far more to do with structure and systems repairs. However I never found her any less beautiful regardless of her lack of cosmetic attention or her frequent resemblance to a construction site.

The incredible artistry that my close friend and ship’s carpenter, Wayne, has left behind in her main salon and the dedicated structural repairs to much of her needs (aft of the main bulkhead) over more than three years of part-time work it now became my responsibility to apply the make-up to her new face lift.

The Allied Seawind II was not originally nor ever lavishly adorned with great amounts of fancy joinery below and almost Spartan in the application of teak above decks. Even considering that Wayne’s interior refit was uniquely different and one that radically softened the typical, square cornered and basic, production finished interior of her sisterships, much of the new work required properly chosen and applied refinishing to accentuate the delicate, teak accents and moldings that defined her new "look".

Certain of the remaining, original teak would have to be refinished with hopes of matching, or complimenting, the finishes applied to the new teak additions.

The new rattan-centered sliders replace the old, teak plywood versions.

Each new, rounded-corner, locker opening is delicately lined with steam bent teak frames. However, the adjacent, original companionway opening reveal-moldings and the companionway ladder would now have to be treated to compliment or match the satin, polyurethane, finish of the locker sliders and their frames.

New, full-length, structurally supportive and functional, teak grab rails below the portlights transfer the Seawind II’s distinctive, sweeping shear line into the main cabin spaces below. This installation required the removal of the original, square-cornered, plywood reveal panels. Wayne created new waist locker faces and performed a great deal of work to restore both the cabin side panels as well as the rough opening for each portlight. Note that the grab rails are still not refinished, the accent strip is a reveal for a wire chase hidden within the rails. This reveal strip was fabricated in Mahogany and is refinished with the same, satin finish of the nearby teak.

Note that each slider’s opening is tapered to create an effect that mirrors and enhances the increasing dimensions as defined by the distinctive sheer line from aft to forward. Similarly, the aft, thwartships lockers taper downward towards outboard to enhance the slight crown of the bridge deck.


I have always admired the durable, satin, interior finish I had observed in the Hans Christian yachts and although I would not have the vast areas of wood panels to refinish I would try to bring an elegant softness and accent to the new wood and eggshell laminate in the main salon and galley by using a similar finishing agent.

Now, after almost a lifetime of yacht deliveries, club racing, marine, mechanical/electrical services and equipment consulting I admit that I knew little about refinishing wood. The learning curve was, however, not all that difficult.

As with most kinds of refinishing it is always the care of the surface preparation that determines the outcome of the application.

Even as I have made a considerable investment in Sea Quill over the years I never envisioned my cruising life aboard to become an anal retentive, tender of her cosmetic requirements. She is a working sailboat, not a showpiece, and I have accepted that I would always be reasonably attentive to her needs but the idea of continually chasing and tipping a varnish brush around gleaming and sensitive brightwork is just not part of my idea of relaxation.

I had to make choices of the refinishing materials that would be durable to the normal and often, typically clumsy movements of me and those infrequent visitors or crew. I had to be assured that application did not require any special techniques to insure that the product would cover without the need to precisely tip and flow the wet material. Also, the tropical sun, that she will hopefully be exposed to for some years to come, plays havoc by delivering ultraviolet rays that quickly break down almost any finish and UV resistance became an important focus as well.

"Sea Quill" will, soon, once again become my home and must endure the naturally increased rigors of my living aboard. The increased exposure below decks is certainly more predictable than a boat more casually used. Again, durability and easy maintenance was a key issue in keeping her looking good below.

In these expectations I turned to the durability of the exterior treatment that, once again, most Hans Christians had been delivered to their new owners with in the 1980’s.

I had first encountered Cetol when living in the British Virgin Islands and was amazed that the copious exterior teak on a small fleet of Hans Christian charter boats always seemed so fresh and durable. Not only did it offer superb UV protection but when damaged it was such a simple job of sanding back, a bit beyond the damaged area and a simple application of two or three, fast drying coats to almost seamlessly restore the finish.

In the past few years Cetol has become widely available in the US in the original, rather dark, semi-gloss, penetrating stain/finish and now a "Light" version that allows far more of the natural grain to be clearly visible is also on the shelves. A clear finish that closely emulates varnish can also be applied over two or three coats of Cetol should you prefer a bright finish. I have found that once the clear coat has become marred or damaged the patch up job becomes a bit more intensive but far easier, however, than varnish.

My decision for all of the exterior teak, with a few exceptions, was the Cetol Light without the clear coat. Durability, easy patching and the semi-gloss finish seemed to meet all of my more important goals for refinishing.

Similarly, the new interior as well as the original joinery would require a lustrous, softened finish, be durable and repairable but offer a richness that spelled home when below.

My choice after several tries with various marine products for the interior was remarkably simple and inexpensive. Minwax has come out with the Helmsman line of urethane finishes. In cans or sprays it can be obtained in both gloss and satin clear finishes. Once again it served all of my typical requirements except that it is not UV resistant to any worthy degree. I did coat the cross beam of my boom gallows and the cabin top hand rails for a season to test the UV resistance claimed by Minwax and found it failing miserably in the sunlight of the northeastern climes. However it performed admirably on the interior joinery where it has little exposure to UV.

Sanding older, exterior teak smooth can be a trial if you are unaware that it is quite easy to accidentally and rapidly remove the softer, pulpy grin that resided between the alternate, harder layers of the natural grain. This ridge-like, rough condition is particularly more evident on teak that has been long exposed to sun and salt water that leaches and abrades away the softer pulp. Freshly milled or generally unexposed, interior wood is far most treatment-friendly as the levels of its grain are not so deteriorated from harsh, elemental exposure.

Confronted with very meticulously milled and built new interior parts of the sliders, made the beginning of my sanding job really quite simple. With little rough material to remove and only minor tooling scratches, the first grade of production sandpaper was a medium, 150-grit to ensure the obvious defect was smooth. As with all preparation sanding, the strokes of the paper were passed with the lines of the grain. The next step down in grit was to the fine, # 220 sanpaper. Close and frequent inspection of the surface during the 220-grit stage revealed the steady removal of the marks left from the earlier sanding with the 150.

Once the sanding was completed I thoroughly rubbed each piece, in the direction of the grain, with triple X bronze wool to create a dull luster that also provided some "tooth" for the first coat of the urethane finish.

"Laying-On" on the first and successive coats proved that the drier the brush, the less sanding was required to produce a smooth and beautiful final appearance rather than a penetrating and thick first layer, turned out to be the trick in producing my desired result. In fact I found that if each dry-brushed coat was achieved without leaving noticeable brush marks, only a light use of the triple X bronze wool, between coats, offered the best, final product. In most cases only three or four coats finished the job.

Note; both the careful teak matching and construction details of the new sliders. The finish work included many modest coats of Minwax, ‘Helmsman’, satin gloss urethane to seal the moisture sensitive rattan before the finish work commenced on the wooden frames.

Time permitting; I alternated often between the interior project and the exterior refinishing requirements. I removed as much of the exterior teak as possible. First as a matter of insuring that they would have a newly bedded surface to prevent the insidious deck leaks for a few years. Secondly, and more importantly, they could be brought into the workshop avoiding the inclement weather of the raw, northeastern winter. The cockpit coamings, coach roof hand rails, the teak cross-beam of the boom gallows, shower and cockpit gratings all wound up getting my lavished attention during several snowstorms. Once winter had relinquished to spring, the cap rails would be tackled separately, in situ.

As the cockpit coamings had originally been heavily bedded to the fiberglass deck mold, the job of removing them involved a great deal of work to remove the original (unidentifiable) bedding from both the wood and the glass with a heat gun and scrapers.

However, once this was accomplished, the surface preparation of this well-weathered teak became enjoyably tedious but well worth the resulting finish. Buried beneath many layers of prior finishes I found the teak to be unique in grain and marvelously enhanced after the preparation and refinishing in the Cetol Light.

Beginning with the belt sander, loaded with 80-grit, I removed the leftover traces of the bedding residue, the many old finishes and about 1/16th of an inch the rough, teak surface. The, with much attention to removing the 80-grit scratches left by the belt sander and smoothing the hard as well as the pulpy grained surface I turned to a 100-grit paper on a random orbital sander. After an hour with the sander, the beauty began to emerge. Changing the paper frequently and moving through both 150-grit and finishing with 220-grit the wood was ready for the Cetol application.

After a few hours of allowing the dust to settle, the work area was twice dusted and vacuumed to remove the remaining sawdust, my ambitious sanding had created.

The sanded wood was then swept off with a foxtail brush, wiped with a tack cloth to remove any microscopic sawdust and finally washed with copious amounts of fast drying acetone (or lacquer thinner) to remove the surface layer of natural teak oils and the residue from the tack cloth. Immediately, once the wet acetone had evaporated, the first, thick, layer of Cetol Light was applied and allowed to penetrate deeply into the teak. The wet finish was tipped with a dry brush to induce a ‘flow’ and let dry for a day or two.

Once again I chose to provide "tooth" to the new surface with the bronze wool and found the results better than hand-sanding with 220-grit.

Each successive layer of Cetol Light was applied with light, nearly dry brushes to maintain the color and semi-gloss finish. After the fourth coat the results were remarkable. I had reached a milestone in my refinishing learning curve.

Now, the miserable job of removing those Lewmar 43 ST’s from the teak winch pads, outboard of the coamings is demanded. Over her twenty-seven years they had developed minor separations in the three, adjacent, thick, teak planks that they are comprised of.

Once they had also been separated from the copious amount of bedding they were similarly treated to refinishing. But not before I made a mix of the teak sawdust, clear-drying, urethane-based wood glue. The lamination separations were gouged and filled in with the brew before the first, thick, penetrating coat of Cetol is applied.

All-in-all, my approach to refinishing the sparse woodwork aboard Sea Quill easily manages to accomplish all of the goals. Protect the wood, display durability, provide a maximum amount of UV resistance, ensure easy maintenance and offer the warmth and beauty of the teak accents against the new interior laminates.