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Varnish Restoration & Refinishing--- 

It's All About the Details, and So Are We.

Serving Long Island Sound to the Caribbean and Beyond, since 2001


Though we work on many types of projects, we may be best known for our top-quality brightwork restoration, refinishing and maintenance work......or, our Brightwork Masterpieces as to which they have been referred.

Principal owner Doug Ely is an expert at restoring and refinishing teak and other marine woods. He oversees the crew and works on virtually all varnish projects we handle. He has presented a number of brightwork restoration seminars at various marine-related establishments in the area, as well as one at Teakdecking Systems in Sarasota, FL. Doug also offers a comprehensive 3-day, hands-on workshop to other marine industry workers, or to detail-oriented boat owners who want to learn to restore and care for their own brightwork, belowdecks varnish and/or cabin soles, properly. (If you are interested in attending one of these limited-attendance workshops, please send us an email for more detailed info and potential dates.)

A Time Honored and (and Time-Consuming) Art

All varnish work is labor-intensive, whether on deck or below.  Exterior brightwork restorations take a major effort to do well, take far more time than most boat owners have available to do themselves and require an eye for all the little details that make a huge difference in the end. 

From heat or chemical stripping and scraping off of the old finish, 60-220 grit progression-sanding and preparation of every tiny morsel of wood (without altering the intended shape of the wood more than necessary), to meticulously applying 8-12 coats of high grade varnish (with a light 220-320 detail-sanding between each coat), it is a monumental undertaking. Not something that can be done in a weekend...or even a week. Easily 3 weeks on a typical 36 foot sailboat with a fair amount of wood, assuming the weather cooperates. Could be a month to do it properly, by one person. Maybe even longer. These are high man-hour projects. We offer special hourly rates on varnish projects like these due to the extensive amount of time we will need to be on the job to make sure the details are done right.


We supply our customers with price “quotes,” rather than just “estimates” for these types of jobs. What we quote will be a flat fee based on a discounted “varnish” labor rate. We will never say it took us longer than expected and then charge you for that extra time on a varnish job, unless we find something we could not have known while doing the original review for the quote. With varnish work, that is rare. And on the rare occasion when it happens, we will call to discuss the issue with you, immediately.  We had a project where we quoted on 80 man hours, yet it actually took about 100 to complete. That wasn’t the customer’s fault. We just erred in our estimating process. Why should the customer pay for our mistake? We billed for the original 80 hours. Not a penny more.

For more info on varnish rates and quotes, see Pricing Guidelines.

The Finishing Products We Use

We work with all wood finishing products available in the marine market today. We like traditional style varnishes the best, but there are some other good choices as well.

Traditional Varnishes 

The highest of quality, Epifanes brand (pronounced “Epi-fon-es,” not Epi-fanes) from the Netherlands, is a favorite, but we also use all other brand varnishes in the marine market, including Interlux, Pettit, and Awlgrip. There are two general types of single part varnishes, alkyd oil based and urethane. Both work well, relatively speaking, but varnishes in general have their limitations fighting sun, salt and moisture, three major attributes of the marine environment.  

We like harder urethane finishes on interior work, such as cabin soles, which get a lot of foot traffic. On outside brightwork, tung-oil based (alkyd oil based) varnishes seem to have a bit more pliability and are better at expanding and contracting along with the wood during a boat’s twisting and turning motions and through everyday temperature fluctuations. There are gloss options and satin ones as well, but satin exterior options are hard to come by. Most satin varnishes are for interior only because they have little or no UV protection. 

Varnish gives the classic look to the classic yacht. It has been used on wood for hundreds of years. Until not that long ago, it was the only choice for finishing exterior wood on a boat, with the exception of tung oil (teak oil), which lasts about 3 or 4 weeks, before it starts to look dirty. And a month more before scrubbing it clean and applying more is necessary. All that scrubbing is not good for teak. But, that’s another subject. (See Teak Deck Care.)

So, in addition to varnishes, we also use some alternate type coating options that may make more sense for your needs and limited time available for maintenance.

Sikkens CetolTM

There are four products in this line: Cetol Marine, Cetol Marine Light, Cetol Natural Teak, and Cetol Gloss. Cetol has come a long way in the last few years. So much so, that it is our favorite finish of everything on the market, with the exception of traditional varnish. Though the surface preparation phase is virtually the same as it is for varnish, it is easier to apply than varnish, faster, requires fewer coats, stands up better than anything on teak with higher moisture levels and requires less maintenance each year. We recommend Cetol Natural TeakTM now on most older boats which may have some trapped moisture in areas of wood to be refinished, since traditional varnish does not stick for very long where there may be internal damp areas. 

Sikkens makes four different varieties of this product, but the Cetol Natural Teak is the most impressive, particularly when finished off with two Cetol Gloss top coats. We have done many restorations using this product combination and very few people realize that it isn’t varnish when it’s complete. Of course we have a few secret tricks and extra steps we take to make it look so good. Though the other varieties---Cetol Marine and Cetol Light--- may not have quite the same visual appeal as Cetol Natural Teak, they all have very good bonding properties and hold up well to UV rays. Certainly better than traditional varnishes and most other one-part finishes. The Natural Teak, Light, and Original versions all leave a satin-type finish. For a glossy finish, a minimum of 2 coats of Cetol Gloss are applied over those finishes. Cetol Gloss is not intended to be used without first laying down three or more coats of one of the other three products.

As  far as wood finishes go in the marine arena, Sikkens Cetol is a very good all-round choice. The cost of a restoration can be thousands less than with traditional varnish. Though the prep work is similar, fewer coats are needed, less time re-prepping between coats is required, the product is easier to work with, has more forgiving qualities and the maintenance schedule is lighter overall. 

Bristol FinishTM

Rated “Excellent” by both Practical Sailor and Powerboat Reports, we have had some good success with Bristol Finish, a 2-part urethane based product with excellent UV resistance and even better durability. Though it looks very much like a spar varnish (it’s not as rich, nor does it dry as smooth) it will last 3-4 times as long in the sun without additional refresher coats necessary. However, it does not hold up well to moisture intrusion, though very few products do. Consequently, we recommend a clear epoxy sealer coat (we use Smith’s Clear Penetrating Epoxy Sealer) or two when using Bristol FinishTM after first being sure the wood is dry, not only on the surface, but deep within as well. 


One of the main selling points of Bristol FinishTM is that re-coating can be done within a few hours. Another is that there is no need to sand between coats during the application process. While that may be true if you are only concerned about good bonding between coats, we do sand between most coats, giving us a much smoother, more varnish-like appearance. As a result, we recommend a 6-coat minimum application for a deep-dimensional, hi-gloss finish, rather than the manufacturer’s recommended 4-coat minimum. Applied properly to a well-prepared wood surface, Bristol Finish should last 2 1/2 -3 seasons in the Northeast, as long as all dings and nicks or joint separations are tended to and touched up immediately during the period. Then, an additional 2 coats will give you another 2-3 years of beautiful finished brightwork. Though it’s not quite as dramatic as a well done, 8-12 coat varnish refinishing might look, it will be very close and very acceptable to all but the most discriminating eye. (See photo.) And, much less upkeep will be required.

Please note: Bristol Finish holds up great to strong UV rays from the sun. It's better than most other finishing products on the market for the do-it-yourselfer. However, moisture is its biggest enemy. It will not stick long at all to teak with moisture readings over 9 or 10%. If your boat decks totally drain after a heavy rain, so there is rarely ever standing water up against any of the finished teak, then Bristol could be a consideration. 

Other Products

In addition to those products mentioned above, we can also apply the myriad of other marine wood coatings available on the marine market today. 

In Summary

No matter what finish is applied, if the preparation work is not done properly, nothing will look good or last very long. Preparation normally accounts for 60-75% of a brightwork project, depending on how many coats are required in the end. Don’t be fooled. It’s not the finish, it’s the prep that makes or breaks a good brightwork job. If your time or experience is limited don’t even attempt it on your own. Give us a call. We’ll come out and give you a very reasonable free quote for a top-notch brightwork restoration and refinishing overhaul, an area in which we are highly specialized. Feel free to get another estimate from a licensed and insured marine professional or boat yard, but be careful. Just because they may be professionals, it doesn’t mean they are brightwork artists. We’re confident you’ll like our price. We know you’ll like our work. 

Or, if you have the time on your hands to do it yourself, sign up for one of our comprehensive 3-day workshop seminars and learn to do things right, before you start. 

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Quality Care for the Finest Yacht. Yours.