View Full Version : Varnishing woes continue, HELP!

S/V Sequel
04-11-2002, 05:35 PM
Well as before some coats are so-so, others really poor (after several hours, hundreds of bumps appear on the varnished surfaces).
The items being varnished are small pieces such as drop boards and screens, skylights, and one about 3x5' hatch slide.
I really think we have eliminated dust/dirt doing it in the house in a room without furniture that has been cleaned. We are wearing head protection and clean clothes(!), not the ones we sanded in. The brushes (badger hair) both brand new and some a couple of years old are soaked in turp over nite, spun in (2) turp rinces. The surfaces are sanded with 220 well away from the varnish area, vac'd, wiped with a wet cloth several times and let dry. We then have wiped the surface with mineral spirits (several coats ago) and lately with turp (not the steam distilled however). And lastly tacked lightly several times before varnishing. The Epifanes clear gloss varnish is filter x1, the steam distilled thinner added, then filter thru 2 filters into the final plastic cup.
Then we varnish with great expectations and still the "bumps" about the size of a pin head appear.
I have thought that 1)the cup the varnish is in may have something that "melts" into the varnish, 2)the mineral spirits and/or turp we have cleaned with "gums up" when the varnish is applied, 3) there is still some junk left in the brushes, 4) we maybe jinxed!
Can someone share their thoughts and hopefully provided a solution.

04-11-2002, 06:24 PM
Man, if you are going through all that and still not getting a satisfacory result there is nothing this forum can do for you. Try alt.psychiatry.varnishing.goodenough

But seriously folks, there must be something pretty subtle at work there. Can't even guess as you guessed.

Best wishes.


John B
04-11-2002, 06:30 PM
I gave up on a tin of varnish once because of that. I don't know whether I contaminated it or if it just got through.... never the less, it was contaminated.

S/V Sequel
04-11-2002, 06:36 PM
Thanks for the replies so far. Please keep the cards and letters coming!
This has occured with at least 2 new cans of varnish.
Although the "Rebecca Bible" says to prep the surface with mineral spirits, is it possible that denatured alcohol (ethanol) would not leave a gummy surface (if that is the problem)?
I'm out of thoughts at this point.

04-11-2002, 06:52 PM
Has someone shaken the varnish at some recent point. Itty bitty air bubbles can stay suspended in varnish a long time. Might try thinning it just a hair.


04-11-2002, 07:03 PM
Have you tried contacting Epifanes?I believe they are in Holland.They should have a tech department and may be able to help.Check your can or do a search for a web site.
Good luck;Earl

Jamie Hascall
04-11-2002, 07:07 PM
I keep going back to thoughts of silicone contamination on the work. We banned any sort of silicone lubricants anywhere in Dusty Strings multi room and multi thousand square foot instrument building shop. The effects on the finishing stage were "fish eye" spots that the finish would just move off of. It sounds a bit like what you speak of. The bugger is that no solvents will take the stuff off so I'm not sure how to tell you to cure the problem if that may be the cause. Think back on whether any silicones have been used on the site in recent memory. (Now where's the Chemist when we need him. Somebody notify the Committee and light the Bat Light.)

Good luck

Frank Wentzel
04-11-2002, 07:23 PM
The cure for silicone contamination is "fish eye preventer" which, strangely enough, is a silicone preparation. Basically, it makes the whole surface into one BIG fisheye! Believe it or not it actually works! You can buy it at well equipped paint stores and auto-body supply shops.

/// Frank ///

capt jake
04-11-2002, 07:32 PM
I am not an expert at this topic but, I have had negative results using turp and/or mineral spirits at any point of the cleaning or thinning. I always wash with Naptha. It dries quick, unlike Mineral Spirits. I am presently thinning a poly finish with Naptha and am haveing outstanding results. Don't rub too hard with the tack rag either, as that can also contaminate the surface.
Good luck!
Have a GREAT day! smile.gif

S/V Sequel
04-11-2002, 07:40 PM
I'm listening as I am nearly defeated! Don't think it is silicone (not really fisheyes but rather they are definite bumps or grit like, and the pieces are from separate parts of the boat, this problem occurs on both sides of the parts, and there has been no silicone preparation used that I can think of). Thanks, may I hear from others.

Paul Scheuer
04-11-2002, 07:52 PM
This might seem a little extreme, but.. Have you or could you get a sample of your varnish bumps to a microscope ? I once found tiny cylinders and parts thereof of dried varnish in my project. Obviously at the time, I was just too young to clean brushes correctly. Continuing with the scientific approach, you might try to eliminate the brushes from the suspicion by experimenting with poured or dripped varnish.

I get good results by placing my small projects under craft paper "tents" to dry.

I also get good results from cheap, Chinese boar bristle (basting brushes). I freeze them between coats, and pitch them when I'm done. Yes. I do have to pick out an occasional loose chinese boar bristle.

Bob Cleek
04-11-2002, 08:04 PM
Norm hit the nail on the head. There is nothing like a PERFECT varnish job short of a "clean room." LOL Even then... How many "bumps" per square inch? That's the real measure of "good enough." half a dozen? Average good job. Maybe.

Look, this is gonna make you cry, but let me tell you how you do this. I just finished doing a boom and gallows, some hatches and a spinnaker pole. First, you strip 'em with a heat gun. Then you sand them with 120 grit until they are good and smooth. Turn on the air compressor and blow off the dust and blast it all out the door in the general direction of the neighbor's house.

Then you soak 'em in CPES. Then open that old funky can of WestMarine Skipper's varnish (Same stuff as Z Spar Captain's) that you figure is probably hard by now. Take a screwdriver and punch a hole in the skin on the top to see if there's any liquid varnish left in the can. Aha! There's some. Take an old nylon stocking and cut off the toe (or work your way up the leg, tying off the cut end... I always have a few in the shop drawer.) and stick it over a somewhat clean tin can you got out of the kitchen recycling. (Avoid using the crotch area on panty hose... you could run into fisheye problems or... who knows.) Strain the old goop out of the can and pour some of whatever's handy to thin it. This time I grabbed a can of acetone for a dab of that, and then some plain old paint thinner. Stired it up real good. Took a three inch Jen foam brush and slappped it on as thick as I dared, avoiding any sags. Let it dry. Sort of... I wanted to get two coats on it in a day, so it was dry, but would get tacky if you held onto it too long.

Took a burgundy colored Scotch Brite pad and rubbed it down. (It barely scratches the surface to key the next coat... generates practically no sanding dust.) Sanded a couple of spots where bristles from the old chip brush I'd used to put the CPES on had embedded in the first coat of varnish. Took a handy shop towel (recycled from the linen closet) and wiped it all off. Screw the tack rags. Put on another coat as thick as I could without it sagging, using the 49 cent Jen foam brush again (which I'd stuck in a tin can with some thinner in it.)

Repeated this process for a total of six coats. No problems with "bumps," "fisheyes" or dust or whatever, except for the time I revved up the lawn tractor right next to the boom just after I varnished it. That stirred up a bunch of dust which required a little more rubbing here and there with the Scotch Brite pad after that coat dried. LOL

Let it dry for a couple of days so it was good and hard. Took it outside and sanded everything with 120 grit until it was perfectly smooth. This took out all the runs, bumps and sags, of which there were few anyhow. Blew it off with the compressor air nozzle. Brought the stuff back inside. (I'd sanded it outside because I wanted to varnish the same day and didn't want the dust in the air in the shop.)

Opened a new can of WestMarine Skipper's... actually I think it was maybe 3 years old, but it hadn't been opened before, anyhow. Put it on medium thick (don't want no drips or sags...) with a Jen foam brush. Let it dry. Hit it with the Scotch Brite pad again. Laid down another nice finish coat. Let it dry.

Voila! One refinish job with eight coats of varnish. It looks like a mirror. No bumps, no crap in it. Sure, if you look real hard, I might find two or three little spots of dust, but nobody else is going to ever see them. Just about perfect. Certainly better than you'd pay big bucks to have some BMW do the job for you.

It ain't rocket science. If you work fast with your brush and lay down a thick enough coat, you will cover the dust and whatever. Build it up and get it on. Only then, when the base is there, sand it fair and fret over your last couple of finish coats. I have tried to get a "perfect" dustless job on flat surfaces and it is very difficult. Even when I did it in the dining room! The problem is that you lay the surface face up and every bit of dust that floats down lands on it. Try slapping on the varnish and then turning the piece over to dry... or at least set it up vertical. You'll find a lot less dust on it. Most all of the dust that will hit the surface anyhow won't really stick if you leave it alone. After the varnish has hardened, wipe it with a terry cloth towel and probably three quarters of whatever landed on it will wipe off.

And remember... it ain't a piano. As soon as you take that fine varnished hatch out sailing, some clown is going to rake the Levi's rivets on his ass right across it and so it goes! LOL Mind the details, but rememeber the job is going to be judged as a whole. Don't sweat the small stuff.

04-11-2002, 08:14 PM
Epifanes North America, Inc.
70 Water Street, Thomaston, ME. 04861 USA
Tel. 207.354.0804 Fax. 207.354.0387
Toll Free: 800.269.0961 Email: Sales@Epifanes.Com

It sounds like you've just about covered your bases, but there's a fair amount of good advice at:


Being the poster child for self-induced-varnish-perfection psychosis myself, the advice given about looking closely at the bubbles/specs is good and will at least narrow down whether or not you've got dust or other contamination vs. air bubbles.

BTW if you're entertaining any ideas about hand rubbing the finish out - very effective for many minor imperfections FURGETABOUTIT - one of the things that makes Epifanes such a strong exterior treatment is its ability to "stretch" - I'd ordered rotten stone and pumice and wasn't exactly finished with some interior pieces, but was salivating at the thought of the varnish Utopia I was about to enter, when I found out I'd be lucky if the Epifanes got hard enough to rub in 6 months.


[ 04-11-2002, 10:38 PM: Message edited by: Concordia..41 ]

Roger Stouff
04-11-2002, 08:31 PM
As soon as you take that fine varnished hatch out sailing, some clown is going to rake the Levi's rivets on his ass right across it and so it goes! Now THAT was funny! :D

Scott Rosen
04-11-2002, 08:50 PM

That was the best varnishing post I've ever read. That's almost exactly the way I do mine. Except I use a real tack cloth on the last couple of coats. I don't think it makes any difference, but I use it anyway.

Sequel, you've gotta start from the beginning and try a whole different method. Take a piece of scrap and do it Cleek's way and then see what happens. Better yet, do what the rest of do and varnish in the dusty boatyard on a cool windy spring day. If you still can't get satisfaction, try paint.

04-11-2002, 09:30 PM
It ain't a piano??? Now you tell me!

However, pianos are made of wood (or at least used to be) so I see no reason it can't look like a gosh danged piano! She sings as sweet...

- M

04-11-2002, 09:37 PM
Dear gosh Scott - so you really think we should fire up a lawn mower and spray grass clippings in the varnish??? I mean, I thought I'd tried everything by now - had the guy next door blow off his driveway one time, but never really considered grass clippings :eek: :eek: :eek:

04-11-2002, 10:46 PM
The thing that bothers me about Sequel's varnish problems is his discription of the bumps being the size of a pin head. That aint dust, folks. Chunks that big don't pass through the screen, well, window screen maybe but... Pick them off with said pin while the varnish is still wet. Bubbles that big would be easily identified as such. Prick them with said pin. I suspect my varnish techniques is one or two knotches above (or below depending on how you figure) cleeks so by the time I get through rubbing out the varnish all the bubbles are so tiny they've burst or are invisible to the unaided eye. Epifanes is my plastic coating of choice and I'm sure my technique is suitable for painting barns and still I've encountered no problems similiar to Sequel's. Intriguing. I hope we can find the problem.

But spunge bob "brushes?" Never!


S/V Sequel
04-11-2002, 11:12 PM
It's nice to know you are all out there and willing to help. Will try contacting Epifanes also.
These coats now are going on over last years perfectly fine coats so don't guess I will torch it to bare wood yet. Will however try to decrease the level of "blue air" in the varnish room tomorrow!
Will keep in mind I am seeking first protection of the wood, and then hopefully for some coats that I can be proud of when I pull into the anchorage.
Off to the sack now, but maybe the west coast will have more to say as the evening goes on.
Thanks again to all.

Bruce Hooke
04-12-2002, 08:39 AM
I have my doubts about whether this will solve your problem but one technique used in a boatyard I worked in for the best varnish jobs was to have the varnish in one container and tape another container to it. Any wiping off of the bruch would be done in the second container so that anything that the brush picked up with one stroke would not get back into the varnish to contaminate the future strokes.

Some careful observation of your situation might help narrow down the problem. For example, keep checking the varnish as it dries -- do the bumps show up immediately and stay there or do the slowly accumulate as the varnish dries? Look closely at the bumps - is there any sign of air or grit inside? Try putting a tent over some of the items - does that reduce the number of bumps? Can you get your hands on a small quantity of another type of varnish for a side-by-side test?

04-12-2002, 09:36 AM
Could it be something from your 'cup'. If you are using a paper cup, the kind with waxed paper you could be getting some wax on there. I always used the tin cans that tuna or chicken comes in, they make the best. Be sure to clean all the oil out first. I have had trouble with various cups before, even plastic ones.

04-12-2002, 10:34 AM
I've been using Epifanes in my garage which is about as far from a clean room as you could possibly get. First off never, ever wipe your brush against the side of the can or bucket. The first couple of times I wiped off excess and had a brush full of little tiny bubbles. Now I dip the brush about a half inch or so in and then hold it over the can at an angle until the dripping excess slows or stops. Then apply as usual.

Second thing I found was my drying time was killing the finish as bugs, grass, dust, dirt and kids finger marks would always find there way into the fresh varnish. I bought one of those infrared lamps at Home Despot and it cut my drying time down by about 2/3. I'm now getting a pretty decent finish. Don't get too close as the wood will start outgassing and create bubbles also. Just a little warmth to help the drying.

Best way I know but I'm no expert.

Memphis Mike
04-12-2002, 10:52 AM
I had the same problem and guess what?
Found out it was too cold in the shop.
Now I'm no expert but I set the varnish
on the shop stove to warm and viola! No
more bubbles.

Don Bailey
04-12-2002, 11:27 AM
My bet is that it is coming from the brush. I switched to foam brushes for varnish and got much better results smoother and no gritty bumps.

John of Phoenix
04-12-2002, 11:36 AM
Try alt.psychiatry.varnishing.goodenough
I've added it my favorites! GOOOOD one Norm.

Becky's Bible, pg 96, last sentence, "'Fish-eyes' show in the separation of a wet varnish film in the form of many small crater-like voids. Cause: The presence of silicone or wax or other contaminants on the surface beneath the wet finish."

Somewhere along the line you're picking up some type of contamination. In the sandpaper or scuff pad? Turp or tack cloth? Filters or cup? Brush? I'd go with Mr. Cleek's advice (like who wouldn't?) with emphasis on two points; Jen poly-foam brushes and a paper cup.

Good luck.

04-12-2002, 12:50 PM
Obviously, many of us can "share your pain" of varnish frustration. I too have had less than perfect results when I tried to remove all the variables of dust,contaminants, etc etc. Then, when I am ready to break things and scream, I think of the classic West Indian Varnisher-whether in the West Indies, the Northeast, the Med or wherever, varnishing some big beautiful yacht on a breezy day outside in the middle of the afternoon and it'll look like she's been coated in glass-not fiberglass-GLASS. Don't know all their secrets, and secrets they are, but they use good brushes, filter their Epifanes, sand alot, and of course play reggae, smile and laugh and a little ganja once in a while too - maybe it is all in the attitude?!?!?!

04-12-2002, 04:35 PM
Lots of good suggestions here. Let me add a few that seemed to work for me.

In my early coats of a recent varnishing project I found evidence of dust even after all attempts to clean the shop as thoroughly as possible, appropriate shop temperature and humidity, use of foam brushes, etc.

I added two more steps than seemed to make a noticeable difference in remaining coats.

1). Took 4-5 buckets of water and wetted the shop floor prior to each varnish coat. A pain but only takes a few extra minutes.

2). Wore clean clothes and sprayed myself with Static Guard. The Static Guard appeared to reduce my tendency to be a magnet and draw dust to the boat.

Of course I wonder how many of these steps are superstitious, but if it works....

Good luck.


S/V Sequel
04-12-2002, 06:00 PM
Thanks to all for the helpful suggestions and hints.
Today I prepped with denatured alcohol after all the usual cleaning. Started varnishing with the expensive badger hair brushes used before. My "bumps" appeared. I paced, swore, implored the gods, then decided I couldn't loose anything by refiltering the varnish and pulled out some new foam brushes (it hurt my pride). VOILA! Glass like finishes resulted.
So it's the brushes and either what is in them or what they pick up. I haven't figured it out yet. As I said it occured with new and old brushes. I probably had old varnish in the bristles which leeched into the new varnish being put on the brush.
Right now I am going with the theory I don't know how to clean a brush. Forgot who it was that replied he was using some 50 year old brushes, but maybe he could clue me in as to how he maintains them, and how I could clean up mine for future use. Many thanks.

Memphis Mike
04-12-2002, 09:02 PM
Well,,, I feel like a fool!

Scott Rosen
04-13-2002, 07:03 AM
I'll bet I know what you're doing wrong. Here's how to clean a brush.

First, and most important: start with a new, clean pot after each varnishing. I buy the plastic ones in bulk from Jamestown. The quart and a half size is perfect for any size brush up to three inches. Do not save and reuse your cleaning pots. If you re-use your cleaning pot, your brush will pick up the residue from the last cleaning and will deposit it on your finish.

Use laquer thinner as the cleaning agent. It is strong enough to dissolve the partially hardened varnish and it won't leave a residue on your brushes the way mineral spirits or turps will.

Fill the pot with enough laquer thinner to cover the bristles with brush standing up. Spend a couple of minutes working the brush. Then spin it dry.

Repeat the process at least one more time, with fresh laquer thinner. Spin after each rinse.

Store the brush in a dust-free container.

[ 04-13-2002, 08:08 AM: Message edited by: Scott Rosen ]

Rich VanValkenburg
04-13-2002, 12:10 PM
Most of you badger die-hards will probably cringe at this, but sometimes I've had to resort to drastic measures to get my badgers clean. Never fails, but I always seem to get varnish dried in the heel of the brush. I use paint remover and a wire brush. Then laundry detergent in a bucket of hot water and I work that brush as much as I can before my arm gets sore. The detergent relaxes the surface tension on the bristles. Hot water rinse. Repeat. Then a good swishing around in denatured alcohol. The alcohol gets the moisture out of the brush pretty quick. I dry it in the sun and work the bristles with my hand before I wrap it up in paper for next time.

Now, on the big projects, I just use a nap roller and tip it off with foam. That started after one of the yard guys, that didn't like wooden boats, fired up the parking lot sweeper every time he saw me with a brush in my hand. The roller and foam gets it on faster, and he never had time to see me varnishing. SWMBO and I can get the entire topsides done in 30 minutes. :D

Memphis Mike
04-13-2002, 03:09 PM
You can always brush on several coats and sand
and then spray the last coat. Works every time.

Wild Wassa
04-15-2002, 07:12 PM
Hi S/V, these could be possibe causes as well. I would go back to the original bits and touch the ingredients with two finger tips. Actually feel the varnish. Are the bumps or grits in the wet material? You may have bought the varnish recently but how long may it have been sitting on a shop's shelf? Filtering should have worked.

Solvents will raise wood grain. Sanding the bumps off takes the bump off but exposes end grain. This might repeat a few times.

If the boat is cold, humidity can be dragged out of the air also if you have wiped the surface dust off with a damp rag, even the night before, possibly wetting the open bumps. The old water and oil.

Out gasing if the boat is too warm. Especially if a cold boat warms up quickly. Moisture in the scratches. We use high quality unforgiving materials.

It is also possible that the solvent might be slowly eating through the mixing vessel. If using a new cup, each time, mould lubricants might be causing contamination.

I would just apply more coats in an area 15x40cm and watch what is happening. This is not too much to strip off if the problem remains.

ps After reading the site, and the Gurus, don't you hate dust? How big's a swelling particle that started out as 1 micron? We should pretend that we are making circuit boards, when we paint.

[ 04-16-2002, 03:37 AM: Message edited by: Wild Wassa ]