Stella Blue with "new" toe rails

The Mistake: Allowing our toe rail (and other exposed teak on the deck) to go untreated for one year.

The Challenge: Strip every weathered curly piece of old varnish off of the rail, sand until silky smooth, apply oil oil and more oil, and make it through the week without burns and with our fingers and sanity intact.

The Outcome: Have a look at the photo above. Success.

Brightwork is the term for exposed metal or woodwork on boats – usually referring to varnished wood. All of the wood on Stella’s deck is beautiful solid teak which had just been varnished before we moved aboard last year. Even though we were warned of the painstaking work that would fall on our shoulders (turned out to be mostly our backs!) if we let the wood go untreated, we just couldn’t find the time or more realistically the motivation to tackle the seemingly easy project. Oops. Some things I guess we just have to learn for ourselves. And let me tell ya, we learned this lesson really really well. (Molly – if you are reading this, feel free to say “I told ya so” and shake your head at us!)

So last Monday we borrowed a heat gun and cracked open Brightwork: The Art of Finishing Wood, by Rebecca J. Wittman. This book is invaluable if you are going to be attempting any brightwork of your own. The detailed work processes are accompanied by great pictures, witty humor, and even a little encouragement for when your sweat is mixed with teak dust and your back is aching. Book and tools in hand, we started working. We worked for seven days straight until we managed to return our toe rails to their original splendor. I know what you’re thinking: “Jeeze la weez, what’s the big deal with wood on a boat?!” Well after that many hours that close up, you sort of fall in love with it…sometime right after you finish despising every last inch of it.

The first step was to strip off the old varnish with the help of a heat gun and a variety of scrapers. While the heat gun makes this process much less painful, the varnish still comes off one tiny bit at a time. So I spent two days with one leg over the rail scooting backwards every couple of minutes. Top of the rail, outside of the rail, inside of the rail – whew! One inch done! Scoot.

Next Logan taped off the deck and rub rail with one inch 3M masking tape to protect the fiberglass and stainless steel. It was time to sand. He used 80 grit sandpaper to remove any left over varnish and smooth out the bumps. Then he sanded again with 120 grit sandpaper to really buff the surface. We were beginning to get dizzy from all this going around the rails like this!

Before we applied any oil, we wiped down the rails with mineral spirits and painted on a coat of teak brightener. Are you counting…this makes five passes around the rails. Finally it was time to oil. We had a tough time deciding between finishing the wood with oil or varnish. There are pros and cons to each treatment, but in the end we decided the oil would leave more options with less of a commitment if a decision was made in the future to use varnish or leave the teak untreated. So we oiled. Four times. Two penetrating coats, one coat wet sanded in with 400 grit sandpaper and one more penetrating coat.

So, after nine trips around the rail, we are now intimately familiar with our glowing teak toe rail. It was a lot of work, but we were constantly cheered on by our neighbors here at Palm Cay and we learned one more trick to add to our bag. And now every time we walk up to Stella Blue we smile and enjoy a wave of gratification that only comes from good old fashioned work.


9 thoughts on “Brightwork

  1. It looks beautiful and I have seen in it person. Well worth the work. The picture you posted is proof for Leslie that we kayaked over to see you. So glad you stayed for dinner tonight.

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