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Introduction

WHY VARNISH?

You may well ask!! Why would any sensible nautical-type person, with even a sliver of intelligence and appreciation for the smorgasbord of entertainment possibilities that compete for our already seriously impacted-upon ‘free time’ limitations, (which seem to be part and parcel of 21st century living,) give even a fleeting consideration to slavishly maintaining the timber finishes on their boat. “Too much like hard work” – “Do you ever sail that thing?” – “I used to do that every Saturday too, until I discovered Wattyl Mission Brown” are some of the comments from the wags and nautical prophets who abound on the docks and marinas of Sydney harbour.

I have some thoughts on this and they have slowly formed in a career spanning some thirty five years in marine decorating, in which I have been involved with executing decorative and protective coatings on a vast range of vessels, which include 14 foot high powered sailing skiffs, 55m megayachts and pretty much most of whatever there is that lies between these extremes.

I was having dinner recently with a client for whom I was wrapping up an annual varnish program on his 80’ motoryacht, and was in company with some of his friends, one of whom had recently acquired a brand new $4million Sunseeker Predator. He was naturally enthusing over its sleek lines, 32 knot performance, garage full of toys, forward seeking sonar, twin overhead bunny pads etc. etc. As I was uncharacteristically quiet, he felt compelled to draw me into endorsing his boundless enthusiasm with the question – “So, Martin, what do you think of her?” To which I replied, “Mate, she’s probably a great vessel and will do everything you want her to do, and that’s fine, but the truth is, she’s not a real boat ‘cause she’s got no varnish.”

There was a moment of hush at the table before the laughter started although I noticed the effusive new owner was the last to participate. And I could get away with it because I can play the role of cranky old, penetratingly truthful, doneitall and seenitall waterfront character, whom has zero employment prospects from owners the like of this one. But at the bottom of it there is some truth to my comments, and this comes from a lifetime of sitting on boats in marinas, plying my trade, and watching the endless procession of gawking spectators who flock to these places to share, if just for a few moments, the glamour that is associated with a collection of luxury yachts. These days there are fewer and fewer wooden boats or boats with any timber trim at all, but it is clear to me that the ones that get most of the ooohs and aaahs are those with spectacular brightwork. And if the occasion is one in which I have recently laid down a finish coat, perhaps on a full length capping or hand rail, and it is gleaming and shining with that special freshness that a brand new coating exhibits, the crowd can be three deep at the stern rail and I am required to fix bayonet and charge, to protect my work from the inevitable, inquisitive fingers that want to caress the beautiful wood, with the words “is this wet ?” dying upon their lips as they look at me guiltily, just before I run them through. I don’t see many people doing that with a highly polished bit of gel coat. So maybe that’s why only varnishers know what a real boat is all about. Hell – who cares – it’s good enough for me!

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So, do we all think the same way? No, but that’s ok – varnish is for those who feel it, who look at it and appreciate it and nobody else. Many of those folk fall into the category of the ones who think that way, but with the proviso that it’s on someone else’s boat. This book is for those who think that way, but want it on their own boat, those who want to learn and execute a proper job, or those who think that way and just want to know how it all comes about.

Before we proceed with what this book will deliver, I want to outline what it will not deliver. We will not be offering an essay on the origins of varnish, other than very briefly. We will not be exploring the chemistry of varnishes beyond how it impacts our usage of the products. We are not covering the totality of coatings, clear or otherwise, that are used in a marine environment to preserve and decorate timber ie. oils, shellac. We will make some reference to these where it is applicable and it may be that in some future appendices these other alternatives will be considered.

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My objective is to provide a clear and concise reference tool with particular emphasis to the prospective varnisher, on how to create a lasting and beautiful coating on a properly prepared piece of timber. These instructions will have parallels in other applications, like the furniture and domestic building industries, but my target audience is the boatie and the would-be boatie, as well as the professional applicator who may want another’s opinion, so instructions are framed in that context. I hope to cover most of the dilemmas facing a newbie varnisher and present these in an easy to read and find format. I am also sure that there are some messages here for the professional, for as I have alluded, there are several ways of doing the same thing and perhaps I can give you a few ‘aaah-haaa’ moments for your trouble.

There will be descriptions on the use, care and sourcing of tools and materials. In this context I offer the following disclaimer: My experiences, choices and recommendations are my own, developed over many years. I do not endorse any company or their products. The materials I work with are generally not the only ones that will do the job; they are simply those I prefer. The procedures I offer and recommendations I make are those that work for me. The reader may choose to conduct further research before committing to any of them.

I have worked practically all of my life in a southern hemisphere environment. It is possible therefore that I may skim over or neglect completely some factors that could affect an applicator from a completely different climate. Having said this though, my personal view is that it is unlikely because the weather is the varnisher’s best friend and worst enemy, an inseparable colleague, to be considered at every stage of the process. It is weather and possibly the length of the day, which probably contributes the most to differing conditions in opposing hemispheres.

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Professional varnishers are a dying breed. To be a varnisher requires presence, patience and attention to detail. To be a great varnisher requires passion. There is just too much of a hard grind associated with the trade to capture and hold the interests of anybody for the length of time it takes to do a job from start to finish, let alone professionally for a lifetime. Passion is required to get you through this. Yet, when you know where to look for the skills you have developed, and if you can stand apart from the need to be perfect all the time, and if you can be a witness to your striving and the outcomes thereof and then give yourself the appreciation you richly deserve, what will happen will be the emergence of an awareness of how to do better next time. And the next time, and the next, and the next – and therein lies the seed of passion. So it is my hope that I can help you find the treasure, possibly with a sprinkling of homespun workplace-philosophy gems along the way, and that this manual will help start some of you along the path to perpetuating the skills and knowledge of a noble trade.

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