To Varnish Or Not To Varnish

I’m taking about a month off from our house construction project. But I am still working.

People we know, I’ll call them the Rodriguezes, have a large house with a lot of big wood framed windows. Many of them are high and difficult to access. They asked me if I would be willing to re-varnish the woodwork on the windows. One of their comments to me was that the varnish didn’t seem to last very long to the exposure to sun, wind, and rain, and they wondered how well the previous job was done.

It has been many years since I varnished anything, so I headed to the Internet to see what I could find on the subject to educate myself before saying “yes” to the job. Varnish, I learned (or re-learned) is a product made from oils and resins. One of its main uses is on the rigging of boats. The masts and other wooden parts are called spars, hence the term, spar varnish. The spars flex in the wind, and they need a flexible finish that will bend with the wood. The significant amount of oils in varnish allow this flexibility.

But I discovered that the oils in varnish evaporate rapidly, hence the necessity of the annual re-varnishing of wooden boats. But windows on a house aren’t like boat rigging. They don’t flex and bend in the wind and don’t need a flexible finish. So why do we use varnish? Because, I assume, it is clear and you can display the wood.

In my research I came across this article, and this related one. In the second article, the experimenter coated four oak doors with various products and set the doors in the back yard to weather. He painted one of the doors with exterior oil based paint; he used the paint base, before the tints of color are added. This product, he explains, is milky in the can but dries clear. The door painted with this product was the “clear” winner of his back yard test.

I sent the links to the Rodriguezes and they liked the paint-not-varnish argument. We walked around the house and noted what needed to be done.

I was curious if I could buy this product in Panama, so in one of my trips down the mountain I stopped at the Cochez hardware store. I tried to get my point across to the “paint gal,” but I guess I wasn’t “clear” about what I wanted and she couldn’t understand me. So I drove down the road to the Sur brand paint store. By the time I was done, four staff people were trying to steer me to varnish.

But I held my ground and insisted on them lining up on the counter cans of the four different alkyd paint base mediums. One can was actually marked, “base transparente” so I started with that one. The stuff in the can was thick, like white jelly. I dipped a finger in it and spread the paint on a piece of wood I had brought with me. With some fanning and blowing, the white stuff turned clear as it started to dry. I proclaimed, “I want this one.”

“You want this one? You don’t want varnish?”

“Yes, I want this one. It is better than varnish for wooden window frames.” The shaking heads and rolling eyes finally gave in to my insane out-of-the-box desire and sold me two gallons of high quality alkyd oil-based paint. I also got two gallons of lacquer thinner to thin the product so that it would soak into and seal the wood.

I collected my tools and equipment and started the job. But the rubber backer that holds the sandpaper disks on my Porter Cable random orbital disk sander had in the humid climate turned to jelly and powder and rendered the tool useless. I ordered a replacement part on the Internet, but it will be two weeks before it arrives.

I went back down the hill and bought a DeWalt random orbital sander. I’ve been using it for a few days now and like the tool a lot. I seem to be able to sand longer without my hands painfully vibrating.

I now have several windows sanded down to bare wood and first coated. The thinned paint raises the soft grain of the wood, as I expected it would. One window frame has now dried — it took three days — and I have sanded the primer smooth and second coated it. So far it looks very good. I plan three coats on all the woodwork.

The prospects of doing one of the windows, 25-feet-off-the-ground, 22-feet long and 6-feet high, scared me to death. I did not want to stand on a ladder with my face plastered against the glass like a suction cup to keep me from falling off the ladder, trying to sand and paint. Not safe, not fun. Same category as dealing with the snake in our kitchen.

After a lot of sit-and-look pondering, I decided to fabricate some staging. I noticed that above the window there were three-quarter-inch bolts that acted to join rafter tails to the rafters of the house. Hmm. I could make the staging using 2″x3″ metal carriolas. I could drill a one-inch hole at the top of each carriola staging frame and hang the entire staging from these beefy bolts. I went off to my shop in container #3 and spent a day cutting and welding. The staging is now in place and I have sturdy planks, two wide, to walk on while I work. Such a guilty pleasure.

Here’s a photo of the staging I built to access the high windows:

The red arrow points to my staging.

The red arrow points to my staging hanging in place.

Thanks to Steve at Hardwood Lumber and More for the eye opening info about varnish in the links in this post.

That’s all for now.