How to Strip & Re-varnish Your Boat's Wooden Floor

Nothing on a sailboat ages quite so ungracefully, or rapidly, as the cabin sole. The victim of dropped tools, flooded bilges, and heel-induced bombings from the settee, it is usually the first indication that the old gal needs some serious cosmetic work. Gravity, of course, will always have the upper hand in this struggle: Scratches, dings, and dents seem to multiply with each mile under the keel. And for those sailors like me out there who wish to keep their floating money pit in Bristol condition, this is not good.

I know what I’m talking about here. Sailing my recently purchased Catalina 34, Ukiyo on an open-ended cruise starting in Tampa, I soon learned that a wooden floor on a boat bears no similarities to a wooden floor in a house. Teak is very soft and can be scratched with just a fingernail. Little “sole-dingers” would occur almost daily. At first I would wince painfully when a crescent wrench or utensil would slip from my fingers, and I watched as it fell, slow-mo, to the floor—ouch. But as the collection of boat blemishes accumulated, I became desensitized to the whole thing, and adopted a “what can you do?” attitude. The coup de grace came last Christmas day when I awoke to find that the bilge pump had failed overnight and the cabin was awash in three-inches of saltwater.

By the time we anchored at Washington, DC Harbor the soles made the boat look, er, lived in. We found jobs, we bought a house, we swallowed the proverbial hook. And, a landlubber again, I knew, reluctantly, what my first winter project had to be.

All old varnish must first be stripped
All old varnish must first be stripped

The Whole Sole

Off came the soles with a power screwdriver; several screws had to be drilled out as they were stripped upon installation. What little I knew of this undertaking was that the proper equipment was paramount here: I bought a Black & Decker 1/3 sheet finishing sander, a dust mask, gloves and goggles, and stripped the garage of everything I didn’t want covered with dust. I placed an old desk in the middle and covered it with a wool blanket. That allowed me to walk around the odd-shaped soles as I sanded, eliminating the need to move the pieces as I worked.

I naively began the job believing that I could sand down only the dents and scratches and varnish over them. But each time I did this it left a large, discolored splotch on the sole. Spot treatment was not possible, I had to strip the whole sole all the way to the bare wood for this project to work.

A word of caution here: sawdust is extremely flammable, under no circumstances is there to be any lighted object in the room. No smoking, and no gas appliances.

The sanding was simple, if tedious work, and unless you’ve got a back like an Olympic weightlifter, I recommend doing it for no more than an hour per day. Using 60 grit paper I went back and forth, always in the direction of the grain, putting light pressure on the sander. I avoided circular motion as that would leave unsightly sanding marks in the wood. The B&D made quick work of the seven or eight old coats of marine varnish.

When finished, I switched to 150-grit on the sander and repeated the process. To complete the job I wiped a rag moistened with mineral spirits over the surface, which picked up sawdust, and gave a facsimile of the sole’s finished appearance. Any missed spots of old varnish showed up as shiny spots, and I marked them with a piece of tape and waited for it to dry. Unfortunately the dust gets into everything; it’s best to leave your old “sanding” clothes in the garage until the job is done.

L to R: Before, during, and after
L to R: Before, during, and after

Now the Fun Part

Nine pieces and a fortnight later, I was ready to varnish. I moved everything out of the garage and into the basement knowing that even small traces of sawdust would coat the wet soles and ruin the new finish. Don’t scrimp here, buy the best varnish and brush available at the marine store. I wanted a shiny finish, which meant buying a quart of satin for the base coats, and a quart of glossy for the final coat.

I used long strokes of the brush in the direction of the grain, and allowed it to dry for 24 hours. Between coats I gave the sole a quick once-over with the sander and 150-grit paper, and wiped it again with the wet cloth. The finished product took just over a month of evenings and looked so good that I didn’t want to put it back in the boat.

Steady as she goes, carefully brush on the new varnish, and make it a family project
Steady as she goes, carefully brush on the new varnish, and make it a family project

Once Was Enough

Whooee was that fun….well, maybe fun’s not the word to use here, but the soles looked so good that it was well worth the sore back and dusty garage. I do not, however, want this to be an annual project. After all, I have better things to do with my time, like changing filters or swabbing the deck. Feel the same? To keep those like-new soles the envy of cruising sailors everywhere, remember to allow three and only three things to come in contact with it: flesh, rubber or cloth. That’s it. Anything else will leave scratches. Our cooler and toolbox now have rubber glued to their bottoms, and visitors are politely asked to remove their hard shoes before coming below. If they ask why, I show them the accompanying picture and tell them, “You wouldn’t want me to do this all over again—would you?” End of discussion. Happy sailing.

Again, From L to R, before, during, and after. it's so shiny!
Again, From L to R, before, during, and after. it's so shiny!

To Keep Your Solemate Looking Pretty

*Stow everything BEFORE you get underway: Most sole dents come from items tipped off bunks or the settee.

*If it’s not flesh, rubber, or cloth, it doesn’t belong on the sole.

*Put down small area rugs, especially in heavy traffic areas like the companionway. Put an area rug on the dock

and wipe your feet before climbing aboard.

*Wipe up spills quickly.

*Sweep or vacuum on a regular basis, especially if your boat is exposed to sand.

*Remove and store the soles during off-season. Use new screws for re-installation.

*If your bilge should flood, remove all soles immediately, hose down, and dry in the sun.

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