July 14, 2016

To varnish or not to varnish? Short answer...don't varnish.

How is the wood looking on the outside of your boat??

Time for a touch up?

Yeah, I know how that goes...I just went through this process on my Newport 30. I had friends trying to convince me to varnish my wood trim - but I resisted.

In fact, there comes a time in every boaters life when they need to decide between cetol or varnish.

I have put a lot of thought into this question...and I have an answer.


My reasoning is simple.

Time has value.

That's the most succinct way to put it...

I use a cetol finish on my external wood because I want to spend my time out sailing in the open ocean as opposed to in harbor re-applying varnish.

This past week, I sanded down all my teak trim, cleaned it up and then applied 4 coats of sikkens cetol marine natural teak. It looks perfectly fine.

Below I will review the process of applying cetol.

apply cetol on a boat
Final product - a few days after 4 coats of cetol marine natural teak

The photo above I took 2-3 days after the final coat, so the cetol is more or less cured. I cleaned up the deck and sprayed it down with water before this photo.

cetol marine natural teak reviews
my forward hatch right after 4 coats of sikkens cetol marine natural teak
This photo above was just after the last coat of cetol. It is still tacky and wet looking.

Now, keep in mind, I am not a perfectionist. But, to my eye, this looks almost as nice as varnish.

Here's the trade-off.

  • Cetol is easier to apply than varnish (put on 3-4 coats, no work in between coats)
  • It's easier to remove than varnish
  • It lasts 2-3 years before you need to re-touch (varnish lasts 6-12 months)
  • in general, varnish has a deeper and richer look vs. cetol
  • some people complain about the slightly orange color in cetol

So, here's the story with the color...

Cetol is a durable satin, translucent protective wood finish (that's their wording). Historically, the major complaint with cetol is that - it has a slight orange hue. That is certainly the case with Cetol Marine, their first product. Apparently, it's the orange pigments in the finish that allow the Cetol to defend against the UV rays in the sun.

In response to outrage from boaters - the Cetol folks made a new product, the 'marine natural teak'.

They turned down the orange in the 'marine natural teak'. Somehow, with the natural teak version, they've managed to maintain good sun protection without the orange color.

To my eye, the color in the 'natural teak' version is perfectly normal for treated wood.

If the color of my wood in these 'after' photos makes your stomach turn, then go buy yourself some real varnish and get to work!

If you don't mind the color, then go get yourself some cetol. I use about 2 quarts on my boat. That amount allows me to put 4 layers on all the wood trim you see in these photos.

West Marine will sell you a quart for about 50$ (yeah, not cheap...)

However, you can usually find the same quart of cetol on Amazon for a better price.

cetol marine
The hatch and cockpit teak with 4 coats of cetol natural

In this photo, the hatch and cockpit teak are finished (4 coats), but the hand rails are still raw teak.

Okay, if you're interested - I will walk you though my recent teak project - step by step.

Here are my 'Before' photos...

sikkens cetol natural teak
out sailing, ignoring my crappy woodwork

Here I am - doing what I do - out sailing. If you look close, you can see that the external teak trim on my Newport 30 sailboat is looking a little ragged. I will be generous and say, its been about 4 years since I have done much of anything with my teak. 

Let's just say, my teak had degraded to the point where my marina friends regularly gave me a hard time over it. That's usually my cue to get to work.

cetol natural
the shameful condition of my teak
Since the time I bought my boat, I have never sanded the teak all the way down to clean wood. In the past, I've just lightly sanded and then loaded up on Cetol. So, my wood has always looked patchy and there's been dark water stains throughout. So, this time I decided to do it right.

I should mention that the peeling finish in the photo above is the cetol natural teak finish that I applied about 4 years ago. So, you can see it is already separating from the wood, this made the sanding a bit easier.

cetol marine finish
cleaning up the bare teak with 80 grit
I used an electric hand sander where I could - and then just sanded manually with bare hands in the hard to reach spots. I recommend only using high quality 80 grit paper. Anything else just binds up with oils and dust and becomes useless. Don't skimp on the sandpaper, get the good stuff. 3M makes good sandpaper.

sandpaper teak
shaving it down to bare, clean teak
This was a very dirty week. I recommend really trying to keep the wood dust from entering the inside of your boat. Really focus on that... It's a mess once its inside.

I spent 3-4 days sanding down my wood. My girlfriend, bless her heart, came down to help out.

teak varnish reviews
Jessica sanding down the hand rails

This piece of teak in the cockpit was finally starting to look nice. Apparently, my teak has a light golden color once it's properly sanded down. After removing stains with 80 grit, I moved on to 150 grit, to smooth things out and close up the pores.

Is cetol better than varnish?

 I have never seen my forward hatch look this nice. I had to take this photo, because I know this won't last.

cetol vs varnish
forward hatch cleaned up to bare teak
Alright, so I removed the dust and prepped the wood for finish. For this, I used a couple rags and acetone. I first tried paint thinner (since it is less harsh on the fiberglass), however the thinner takes too long to dry. Acetone vaporizes in 10 minutes, so I went with that.

I taped off with the blue 3M tape. 3M says you can leave this tape on for 14 days and still pull it off clean. I wouldn't wait that long. After 1 week, it is anyone's bet. I left this tape on for 3-4 days in the hot sun, and it still came off easy.

cetol marine teak
all prepped up

Here, I have applied 2 coat of cetol marine natural teak on the teak panel on the right. The trim on the left still remains raw.

cetol natural teak
a close up comparing 2 coats of cetol vs. nothing
Here's a link to this stuff on Amazon.

At this point in the week, Jessica became bored with the project. Here she is at the marina, playing with the dogs. You can see that Glacier (the white one) can barely contain her excitement over getting a treat. They were having much more fun that I was.

dogs on a sailboat
Glacier very excited for food

Okay - many days later, I am done with the project. I have now applied 4 coats of cetol on all the wood.

If the sun is shining, you can easily do 2 coats in 1 day. I wait till the bottom layer is no longer tacky, then start the second coat. I should mention that I used foam brushes for this project. Personally, I think they are easier to handle/control than hair brushes.

So, I think it looks great. I have had at least one professional boat-yard guy stop by and compliment me on my varnish. He was impressed to hear it was actually cetol, because he is well aware how much more work is required to actually apply varnish.

Here's a few more finished teak photos.

I will load a few more photos up tomorrow, now that the whole boat is done and cleaned up.

Final pictures after 4 coats of sikkens cetol marine natural teak

marine cetol

sikkens cetol teak
big improvement in the cockpit

handrails sailboat
handrails looking nice!

Cetol Marine Natural Teak Reviews

I'm looking at the wind report and seeing 10-15 knots this weekend. I'm planning to raise sails this Saturday and head into the Pacific Ocean...

It's like the old saying...

'Varnish is for people who love boats, cetol is for people who love sailing.'

It should be noted that I owe much of my familiarity with boat maintenance to Don Casey's classic book, This Old Boat.
This is a broadly respected, definitive text that has brought many novice boaters into the world of proper boat care. There's a nice section on wood work and teak maintenance. Also, if you are emphatic about putting varnish on your boat, this article provides some good insight.

Truth be told, I didn't know much of anything when I bought this old Newport 30. I slowly brought it back to life and it's given me 8 great years. Let's hope I see another ten years from this vessel. Lord knows I wouldn't get much if I sell it...