View Full Version : To paint or To varnish, that is the ?

08-06-2001, 07:07 PM
I've got a small cedar strip row/fishing boat that I am begin to prepare for refinishing. Right now is is pretty much bare wood. It had been covered with a thin layer of fiberglass, which I removed, and I'm curious whether small boats of the 40's or so, painted up to the spray guard, or all the way up the sides. You can view pictures of the boat at:http://www.geocities.com/lumberdudeth/ I would like to restore this boat back as original as I can. I thought about varnishing the whole thing, bottom,sides and top, but I'm not sure that this would provide enough below the water line protection. This is defenitely just the beggining of what will probably amount to hundreds of questions, so I hope noone gets annoyed. (It's a good thing this is just a 14' fishing boat and not those gorgeous chriscrafts or something bigger!)

08-06-2001, 09:34 PM
Looks like you have yourself a handful of interesting small wood boats.You will be keeping busy for the next decade at this rate http://media5.hypernet.com/~dick/ubb/smile.gif
I wish I could find one like the first pictures you posted.Ever figure out it's maker?
As for the one you described here,I can offer only that if the boat was built to work,it would have been painted completely.

Dale Harvey
08-06-2001, 09:43 PM
When in doubt always varnish first. You can always paint over varnish, but a real bear to get painted wood back to varnish. Depending on wether or not the planking is tight seam or thick enough to hold cotten, this boat could have been canvased. If so it will require a skin to float with any success.

Todd Bradshaw
08-06-2001, 10:56 PM
Most of the boats that I have seen which are similar to your's were planked like a canoe (no calking, planks often butted side to side without trying to make a waterproof joint) and then they were canvas covered. The canvas was filled and then painted. Old Town built a few that had clear fiberglass on the outside, instead of canvas, but it was pretty rare in the industry and this boat is probably 15-20 years too old for the original covering to have been fiberglass. My gut feeling is that your boat was probably fiberglassed by somebody at a later date after the canvas got old.

The original filled canvas would have been painted and the inside varnished. Common colors were dark green, grey, red, white, with varnished transoms. Some of the fancier models would have a varnished, mahogany rub rail down the sides and two-tone paint jobs (like white below the rubrail and red above it.)

Other than the gunwales, transom and possibly an outside stem (if there is one), I seriously doubt that anything else on the outside was finished with varnish. However, this doesn't mean that the boat can't still be lovely to look at. I think we tend to fall into a self-made trap at times, trying to cover every possible surface of small boats with varnish, rather than a mixture of varnished and painted components. Some boats, like most of the clear-fiberglassed and varnished versions of plank on rib canoes originally designed for canvas covering, don't really gain all that much beauty by having a clear outside finish. The planking patterns weren't really designed to be seen in that context, don't follow or contribute to the boat's lines and look somewhat disorganized if you really take a good look at them. Covering the surface with a good paint job may actually make the boat's hull and lines look more graceful and better than just having wood everywhere.

Mike Field
08-07-2001, 01:14 AM
Kory, Dale's right in that it's best to varnish firat if you're in any doubt. An all-bright boat can look lovely (I think my Aileen Louisa looks terrific bright.) And if you were worried about the level of underwater protection, you could paint below the waterline (perhaps antifoul, as I have, but not necessarily.)


On the other hand, there's no doubt that keeping the varnish up to the mark is quite a bit of work - much more so than if the hull were painted. This is especially the case, of coursre, if the boat is left out in the weather -- on a mooring perhaps, or just on a trailer.

There's an alternative that hasn't yet been mentioned, and that is oil instead of varnish. One of the nicest dinghies I ever saw was oiled, but then she was a period piece, a replica of a ship's boat from the days of early Australian settlement. Oil is a treatment that's much easier to keep looking good, but the high gloss of varish is lacking.

Now this is a matter of aesthetics, but I think it's hard to get a stripplanked boat looking good with varnish, even if the timber has been carefull selected. There'll always be a mix of colours, and the narrowness of the strips means a kind of patchwork quilt of colours which I myself always find too "busy"-looking. I think that was what Todd was getting at, and in the case of your boat I think I might tend to agree. But this is so much a question of beauty being in the beholder's eye, that I wouldn't consider making a judgment about it on your behalf.

So, following Dale's advice, I'd say, varnish first, see what you think, then paint over the top if you don't like it. And if you do finally decide to paint her, look at a lot of photographs first, just to see what should be painted and what shouldn't.

Todd Bradshaw
08-07-2001, 03:35 AM
My first concern would be to determine if the boat is supposed to have a skin over the wood to keep the water out. I can't tell for sure from the pictures, but I'm about 80% convinced that it's supposed to have one and originally it was canvas. It would also be typical of most of the Pen Yan and Thompson type small boats that I have seen.

Question: What fasteners are used to connect the planking to the ribs (frames?). Clench nails? Screws? and are the heads countersunk and plugged or do they show on the surface?

[This message has been edited by Todd Bradshaw (edited 08-07-2001).]

08-07-2001, 06:21 AM
First off, I want to thank all of you for the comments.
Todd, It seems to be put together with a mix of nails and screws. Most of the fasteners are countersunk below the surface, and covered with a white, presumably epoxy type filler. It is very hard stuff, and so far, hasn't chipped out of the holes while I've been sanding. I'm thinking that the screw holes may have been filled during the stripping process before they fiberglassed. One question I have is, the planks look extremely tight against one another, is it possible they are tongue and groove and didn't have an original covering other than paint. (Actually, that's what I'm hoping for, because I'm not sure I want to tackle the whole canvas thing) The second part of the question is, if it was supposed to be canvased, and I paint, will that be enough to keep it from leaking? I'm not sure if I had mentioned it or not, but I did find evidence of some red paint around some of the screw holes along the very bottom, and possibly some sort of white primer. In a canvas covering situation, would there ever been a reason to paint?

Thanks again for the help. When you're new to this it's hard to get information, especially when you live in an area that probably has one wooden boat in about a 200 square mile area! Suffice it to say, I've never seen one on any of the lakes around here, except the big cabin cruisers.

08-07-2001, 10:19 AM
Lumberdude,You are sure going about things the right way,with research and all.My guess is she will turn out great under your hand.Post pictures as you bring her along.

Tim B
08-07-2001, 10:32 PM
Strip planking was 'invented' by a multitude of small boat builders around the early 1900's. The strips are approx 1" wide and 3/4" thick. One edge is convex, the other concave. The great advantage of this planking method is that caulking was not necessary. As the planks are put on they are nailed into the plank below it. You can't see them, but there are nails that are two to three planks long that are staggered throughout the planking. Additionally, the planks are attached to the frames (ribs) by various means. Sometimes screws were used. Other means incuded canoe nails and rivets.

Many strip plank builders finished their boats with just paint and varnish. Afew of them covered the boats with canvas, although this is not necessary to make the boat watertight. In the late 50's and 60's many of the manufacturers began seathing the completed hull with fiberglass.

Strip plank boats were quicker to build and required a less skilled labor force than carvel or lapstake planked boats. The strip planks were manufactured all before assembly. Even the nail holes were pre-drilled. Individual planks did not require detailed fitting or shaping.

Strip plank boats start to leak after they have dried out afew times. Welcome to the club, all (most) wooden boats share this problem. Since the strip plank builders understood their customer's practice of keeping the boats out of the water typically, they were always looking for ways to make the boats tighter. Many builders used fixtures that would apply pressure to hold the plank tightly (100's psi)down to the plank it was being nailed to. Adding a fiberglass covering was considered another way to keep the boat tight.

Most builders had their own standard color scheme. Typically the outside of the hull was painted in the company's color and the inside was varnished or had a combination of paint and varnish. Custom finishes could usually be requested. Varnish outside and in would be done on request. There were hundreds of strip plank builders in Minnesota alone. Most of the information I have is from the book, "The Real Runabouts". I suggest you find a copy. The white-ish, very hard substance over the screws is probably Durham's Rock Hard Water Putty.


Todd Bradshaw
08-08-2001, 12:07 AM

This is about the closest thing to your boat that I have found, but it's not an exact match.

I've also pretty much jumped over the edge of my knowledge of old powerboats and am in the land of speculation, rather than fact, but for what it's worth:

If the boat was not sheathed in canvas or even glass, I would think the planking would need to be at least 1/2" thick for durability. There are several types of smoothside planking laps that could have been used and it would be possible to build a watertight hull that wasn't sheathed. This was even done on guideboats and some canoes, both of which had very thin planking, though they weren't usually subjected to much pounding as a powerboat might be.

Canvas filler is generally an light colored (white or lt. gray) oil-based, paint-like mixture with powdered flint mixed into it. It's brushed, scrubbed and rubbed into the canvas after the boat is covered to fill the weave and provide a fairly hard surface. Two or three coats are applied and it is left to dry, often for a month or so. The common description of the dried surface is like that of a chalkboard. It is then primed and painted. During the filling process, it's not unusual for small amounts of the filler to seep through the fabric, leaving what looks like paint specs on the wood, but I'm not aware of anyone who paints or painted the wooden surface before canvasing.

The fact that you may have found traces of paint may mean that the hull was just painted. Had it been varnished, the screw holes would probably have been filled with wood, rather than putty. I would tend to doubt that anybody would have dug out all the wood plugs and puttied the holes instead, prior to glassing. The putty is probably original, but could have been covered with paint, canvas or fiberglass as an outer surface. It would seem to indicate that at least the top layer of the finish was paint, not varnish.

Unfortunately, we're still awfully close to square #1 - find out what the boat is. That would probably answer most of the questions. Chances are that there is somebody out there who knows these boats like the back of their hand. It's just a matter of finding him. I think I'd still start by researching old catalogs and comparing construction details trying to zero-in on the manufacturer. There are enough discussion forums for specific types of boats on the web that if you can figure out who built the boat, knowledgable help may not be that hard to find.

08-08-2001, 06:06 AM
You guys are fantastic for help!! I really appreciate the time everyone has taken to reply to my questions. It's refreshing to find a group of people so interested and caring.

You've given me some very good information that will help me make my painting decision.

...Now, what color??....(just kidding)

08-08-2001, 09:37 AM
Here is an excellent resource for cedar strip boat restoration questions. I don't have any connection with the site, just saw the guy's video on restoring these boats.


Tim B
08-08-2001, 12:52 PM

Took a peak at the Real Runabouts book over lunch. There are afew manufacturers in it that have the floor pattern your boat has. However, Tomohawk Boat Works of Tomohawk, Wi. made a 14 ft utility that looks very similar to yours. Tomohawk boats were fiberglassed up to the spray rails after 1954. Color scheme was Red bottom up to spray rails, White sides, Varnished decks and interior.


08-08-2001, 06:28 PM

The book you are referring to , Real Runabouts, is it the first book or some one of the latter ones? I looked up the title on-line but found there were 2 or 3. Let me know which one has the tomohawk info in it.

Kory (lumberdude)

[This message has been edited by lumberdude (edited 08-08-2001).]

Tim B
08-08-2001, 08:46 PM

Volume 1 is the one that contains information on strip plank boats, including Tomohawk.