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Your Favorite Varnish?

signal charlie

Well-Known Member
Staff member
What's your favorite varnish, prep and application method? Capn Jack did amazing varnish work but the skill never transferred over to me. Skipper has it but she is usually entertaining herself elsewhere when the sander starts up. So I do minimal varnish work, just enough to protect the blades and am happy with the workboat finish. Alan OTOH does amazing work. I'd like to get better.

Last year we tried out TotalBoat Halcyon, water based. I started with a crusty spoon tip daggerboard, sanded off the big chunks with 120 grit, wiped off some dust with a towel and we brushed on a couple of coats full strength. The varnish performed to our satisfaction, but we decided to play with it a little more recently. I scuffed the finish and brushed on 6 more coats, it looked great but I could see some old divots translating through the additional coats.

2 more coats, still drying.


4 more coats, 6 total.


We wrote an article about Halcyon Rugged Amber Gloss Varnish that published this month in Small Boats Magazine, and a reader was curious about whether we could get a smoother finish. While we prefer the wooden parts on our small boats to have some grit to them, making them easier to hold onto and handle when wet, out of curiosity I wooded one side of the board and am applying 5 new coats of Halcyon. We also prefer the satin finish, and our next step is to apply a couple of finish coats of Halcyon Satin over the gloss base coats. Photos later today.

We've tried several varnishes, Capn Jack liked the Pettit line, Z Spar I believe. I used Minwax combo stain and polyurethane for a while, they were okay and tried one of their water based varnishes, wasn't a fan. Lately it has been separate Minwax stain with TotalBoat Gleam Satin. And West System 105 epoxy with 207 Special Clear Hardener was the trick on ZIP.

(Image: Lewis. Small Boats Magazine. Sep 2020)

But remember, I am not a good varnish prepper, I do very little sanding, no bleaching, and rarely clean the wood with thinner or dewaxer. So I hope this varnish proves to be durable, because I know it is easy to use, we varnished inside the house, no fumes, and I rinsed the brush in the kitchen sink each time. And I've had that bag of varnish almost a year.

Tell us your trade secrets.


Not Sunfish parts, but I just in the last couple weeks used some Varathane oil-based polyurethane (from Home Depot) to finish some cherry I'm using as "countertops" and a bench for some built-in cabinets. So far... I'm not super impressed. Lots of air bubbles left, and on my 3rd coat, you can definitely see areas where it smoothed itself out well, but then right next to it is an area with very visible brush strokes.

I just watched a video on the Halcyon on Total Boat's instagram saying it was a very clear finish, so was tempted to try that - interesting that you are having mixed results with it.

signal charlie

Well-Known Member
Staff member
What I am finding with the Halcyon, like any other coating, is that the Devil is in the details of the prep. I went back to square one wooded one side of the daggerboard and applied 5 more coats of Halcyon Rugged Amber Gloss. I'm a lot more pleased with the leveling because I gave the varnish a fighting chance. I ran out of varnish, one of the first times I've used an entire container of varnish before it dried up, thanks in part to the Stop Loss bag.



So that is 5 coats above, the first 2 were probably filling in grain and sealing the wood back up. I bet it would look great with a few more coats of gloss but I like a satin finish, so I applied 2 coats of Halcyon Clear Satin next. Photos of that soon once it dries. Pretty fun to do a coat in the laundry room while the coffee is brewing, rinse out the brush in the sink and then do a second coat when I wander by for the second coat of coffee.

I can't stress enough that I don't like spending time prepping and varnishing, especially before when multiple coats meant an enormous waste of brushes as I could never get brushes clean without a lot of chemicals. Foam brushes were not my friend either, but I had better luck with them using Halcyon.

signal charlie

Well-Known Member
Staff member
Final version, satin finish, how we like it. 4 coats of Halcyon Rugged Amber Gloss for the base coat, 2 coats of Halcyon Satin top coat, applied with foam brush. 12 Dollar Boat coming together in the background.



New Member
Honeyteak by Signature Finish. It is very forgiving as to weather conditions, forget needing perfect temps and humidity for a week. Best of all is rapid build time, another coat every 20 minutes without sanding. If over 60 minutes or overnight just rub with 3m red mesh. What I did on our always outside cruiser six years ago just now needs some small touch up. I try to add two coats a year when i can get to it.


New Member
Sadly Tom passed away about 3 years ago but his widow keeps things running. They are always available for help and will sell very small quantities if needed.
I forgot to add Practical Sailor aways rated honey teak as one of if not the longest lasting in their testing.


Well-Known Member
Tom Fabula (Stuart, FL) is/was owner/operator of Signature Finish/Honey Teak (Signature Finish is/was always quite a small company).
Honey Teak is a 2-pack catalyzed acrylic urethane that has a reputation for quick application and high build. It chemically "cures" (not "dries"), and is harder than traditional varnishes. The website is: Boat Paint in Stuart, FL | Boat Paint Supplies | Signature Finish
Do we have to start with sanding to bare wood?

Thank you, Roller, for always contributing valuable information on metals. (And now, varnish). :)


Active Member
It's always a good idea to wood an object before applying a clear finish, but 2-packs are very tenacious. If recoating, the original finish needs to be very well scuffed/sanded. It's not good practice to apply a harder finish over a softer original.