In the beginning, our toe rails and windows were flaking, the brightwork worn away by three years under the sun and marinated in salt and surf. It took good quality strippin, a bit of sanding and 12 layers of vanish to bring it all back to life. Wanna learn how...check out this post-

This post has lots of words like strippin, good wood, saving the wood, vanish, brightwork, sanding and other stuff that could easily offend the faint of heart.  Don’t read this article if you are easily offended by doing just a bit of work to make the wood hard for years to come!

High quality varnish and clear-coat.

In The Beginning

Coming into Shelter Bay Marina after running the Panama Canal, I knew Tulum would need some time to rest and that she needed special attention on her brightwork…toe rails and windows specifically.  Four years ago in San Diego, I had completely stripped the brightwork and started over again…doing the toe rails and windows with 8 coats of varnish and three coats of clear coat, specifically using the AwlGrip 3-part system.  Even though Tulum was basted with sun and salt and saltwater spray daily during the last three years of cruising, that system seemed to hold up well enough and I was impressed enough to use it again.  The AwlGrip 3-part system isn’t cheap.  Especially since I bought the larger size knowing I was doing multiple coats and doing both (50) ft toe rails and all the wood around Tulum’s windows.  I would also go on to clear-coat the back swim step and Tulum’s cockpit sole, but that didn’t take much work in the end.

So I was pretty disgusted with my wood when we arrived in Shelter Bay.  Tulum shines when her wood is done and she seems to stand up just a bit straighter as a bad-ass cruising boat when she’s clean and has great brightwork.  Here’s what those toe rails looked like upon arriving in Shelter Bay:

Prepping For Varnish

The varnish was literally peeling off as I pulled on it and some of the work was done pretty easily, just pulling varnish off in huge handfuls like this one:

If you’re lucky, you can pull long strips of varnish off by hand, which is easier on the wood and takes off a lot of varnish all at once.

Once all the easy work was done, it was time to just get in there with the tools of the varnish strippin trade….heat gun and stripper to get down to bare hard beautiful wood…while trying not to damage said wood.

Stripping Tools of the trade: Hat (Tilley Endurables Hat,,,cause it’s hot when there’s sun, kneepads, scraper, heat gun, extension cord….go to work!
Here’s how it really looks like trying to strip vanish in the rain, while on the hard. Over 10 feet in the air in the boat yard with numerous rain showers and squalls a day. Since one of the tools I use is powered, I stop work once it starts raining and go back to work once it stops. This happens several times per day, sometimes I lose entire afternoons to rain squalls.

After strippin varnish, it was time to tape.  Often, the taping process is the most work for me besides a daily coat of varnish, as taping is just tedious.

Both sides needed to be taped so I used my paddle board for taping and varnishing.

After taping and before varnishing, I needed to fill in any gaps I found in the wood.  Why?  Specifically to makes sure salt water stays out of the large crevices in the wood.  So yep, I added caulk to the wood on the toe rails where I needed to…just like I did four years ago when I did this same process back then.

Toe rail with caulk added and drying.
Taped up with caulk added and drying.

After the caulk dried completely and I had removed the “caulk tape”, I gave the wood a very light sand….just enough to smooth it out.  After that, I clean all the wood with alcohol based solvent then allow it to dry…completely.

Here’s the toe rail after being stripped, caulked and getting a light sand.

The Big Show- Varnish

Some think varnishing is really simple and just needs to be done.  In some cases that’s right, but often there are variations in temperature, humidity and rain squalls that effected my varnishing, making a 12 day job into something that took more than 30 days to get done.  The first coat I use on all my varnish jobs is a primer coat, which means I use a heavy dose of thinner with my varnish and get that first coat on the wood just to prep for actual full thick varnish.  I used 1015 Captain’s Varnish Amber, (ordered from the US, took 3-weeks to get here), but it is what I used when I did the same job in 2018.  For this varnish job, I put on a total of 10 coats, taking a break at coat # 8 to do a complete light sanding job, cleaning it all up with some alcohol and then getting two more coats on the wood.  After I finished all the actual varnish, I put on two full coats of clear-coat, using the three AwlGrip Awlbrite System.  Keep in mind to do all this work, we could not turn the boat around so I did one whole half the boat from my paddleboard….morning after morning working standing on my paddle board to get the job done.  I think people thought I was nuts being out there on a paddle board working on my rails….stripping, sanding, varnishing.  But I got the job done and it was done right.  Now both sides really look rad and I also took the time to knock out the windows, cockpit sole and stern swim step while I was at it.  

Note:  Heat and Rain took their toll on this job.  Applying varnish in extreme heat and direct sun isn’t recommended, but I didn’t always have a choice….because heat and sun means there’s no rain, so I varnished when I could.  Rain also had an effect.  In all, there were only 2-3 days per week where I could get a solid layer of varnish down and done well.  The rest of the days there were too many clouds or actual rain and I just didn’t varnish during that time. 

Take a look now, after all that work:

Teak swim step after the last layer of clear-coat.
A cockpit sole doesn’t look like this without some elbow grease and clear-coat.
Window done with multiple coats of vanish and clear-coat.  Yes, the tape came off with minimal fuss.
Tulum’s mighty toe rails, finally DONE. 10 coats of varnish and multiple coats of clear-coat (Awlbrite) later, done done done.

A big, steady performance cruiser like Tulum-5 will always require some level of care and preventative maintenance, but it’s often just a love affair with the boat.  She’s in great shape and looks good, but we continue to work hard to upgrade and care for her as we go.  

LF2SF is a cruising, sailing and travel with kids blog site that’s written from a cruising sailboat in Panama as we continue to travel our way….slowly.  

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