Imagine a salesman comes into your shop.
Says he’s got this great new product for your boat. This is how it works:
-Get everything super clean and dust free.
-Wipe everything down with lacquer thinner, so there’s not even a fingerprint anywhere.
-The room can’t be too hot or too cold, and not humid.
-Warm the can, and thin it for the first coat with lacquer thinner.
-Wear a special mask, because the fumes are toxic.
-Put on a very thin coat with a special expensive brush or it will leave streaks and run.
-Wait just the right amount of time for it to dry, but not too long.
-Carefully sand everything smooth, and carefully clean everything.
-Repeat every step.
-When you’re done, wait a week, then wet sand and clean.
“Now, it’s only going to look good for a couple of months, because after you’ve had it out in the sun and weather, heat and cold, it will crack and let moisture in, and you’ll have to sand everything down and do it all over again. Isn’t this great?”
I don’t know about you, but I’d chase that guy away with the biggest stick I could find.
I’m convinced the only reason we still put varnish on boats is because that’s what they did when they didn’t have anything better. So it’s “traditional” to varnish a boat. And truly, varnish is beautiful, and is perfect for violins; but in my opinion it’s a terrible thing to put on a boat. At least for someone like me who hates maintenance.
I also don’t care for any of the modern poly-plastic or chemically stuff, though I’ve tried it. Epoxy needs a protective coating on the surface, though, or the sun will break it down in no time. So I had to do some hunting for alternatives.
Back when I was really poor and just out of college, I didn’t have any table at all and bought an old one literally all in pieces at a junk store. I fixed it up, put it back together, and it turned out pretty good. An old banjo player buddy told me I should put Tung Oil on it, as that was how you got a “hand rubbed” finish the old way. The stuff was so benign you could rub it in with your hand. Sounded good to me, so I tried it and liked it.
That was 30 years ago. That table has been sitting in the sun in a south facing window for all these years, we still eat on it every day, and it still looks great with that original finish, just a little worn on the edges from all the elbow action. This is one of those things that makes you say “hmmmm . . . ”
After quite a bit of digging, I learned of a Tung Oil based finish that was intended specifically for boats, was the official varnish of the French Navy for the last 100 years, in fact. It’s called Le Tonkinois, or “Le Tonk” for short. I decided to take a chance on it.
As far as I can tell, American Rope & Tar is the only distributor in the US for Le Tonk, which concerns me a bit. They’re great people, and I love ordering from them, but I sure hope they don’t go out of business in my lifetime. Very helpful folks, too. I wrote them with questions about using it over epoxy, and they said do a light sanding to put a tooth in the epoxy and it should do fine.
Even a traditional, old school, hand-written receipt. Gotta love it.
As far as application goes, I couldn’t ask for anything better. It’s self-leveling, so no worries about leaving brush strokes. Builds quickly since there’s nothing in it to evaporate, so fewer coats are needed. Non-toxic, no fumes, so skip the masks, gloves and bunny suit (though it does have a very rich aroma). No sanding required between coats, or feathering out touch ups. It doesn’t get brittle and crack, like varnish, but gives with the natural movement of wood as it heats and cools. This little give means it doesn’t get as slippery, so no need for additives the make a non-skid finish for decks. For maintenance over time, just do a light scuff to clean the surface and wipe with water – no solvents, and no more sanding back to the bare wood. Very cool.
I’m a bit concerned that I can’t find any good examples of people who have used it this way, over epoxy. I’ve dug up some minor references on the Wooden Boat forums, and they’ve all been positive, but nothing substantial enough to instill a lot of confidence. My thought at this point is even if it isn’t quite as good as varnish, since it’s so much easier to use I’ll be more likely to keep up with it and add extra coats later, so for me it will be a net gain.
To do a test run, I used the time while the knees cure to finish the oars. (I’m not wasting ANY time if I can avoid it.) Emily offered to help, and Amanda provided the entertainment, so I have reinforcements now, too. We had already put a coat of epoxy on the oars for this test. Today we sanded and wiped them down, then we put on the first coat. It definitely went on easy.
So far, so good. Good enough that tomorrow we’ll use it on the interior of South.
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