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Wooden Boat Care and Maintenance

There are basically three options for care and maintenance:

  • Dry dock your boat every winter and have a shipwright or boatyard maintain it
  • DIY
  • A combination of the two above approaches. Tackle the more basic stuff yourself whilst leaving the more complex jobs for a professional boatyard or shipwright


For those considering the second or third options, below are details of some of the basic care and maintenance tasks which could be undertaken by any capable enthusiastic amateur DIYer.


How to varnishing a wooden boat

Correct surface preparation is the key to a satisfactory varnishing job.

  • Remove the old varnish using a paint stripper or a heat gun. Sanding, as well as being labour intensive, can also result in removing some of the wood unnecessarily.
  • Any stains can be removed by using oxalic acid or household bleach. However, ensure you neutralise after treating as failure to do so will result in poor varnish adhesion.
  • Use a hoover to remove any dust.


Applying the varnish

  1. Plan the area you are varnishing. A square foot at a time is a manageable method. Use a reflected light source or wear polarised glasses to see where you have varnished and where you haven’t reached yet.
  2. Thin the first coat by half. A thinner coat will cure far faster and make it easier to sand sooner.
  3. The following day use 180-240-grit sandpaper and sand carefully taking care not to cut into the varnish.
  4. The most important factor in the subsequent coats is achieving a glass finish. Ensure your varnish flows by thinning it to avoid tearing or dragging. Don’t worry if it’s too thin, just make the next coat slightly thicker. The further down the can of varnish you get, the more you’ll have to thin as some of the solvents within the varnish will have evaporated. Try and deliver an even brushstroke by simply gliding across the surface rather than digging in with the bristles. Work fast and avoid going back over previous brushstrokes.


Levelling off

  • Give the varnish time to dry to let any brushstrokes “level off”.
  • Don’t varnish on a hot sunny day. The varnish will dry too quickly and won’t level off satisfactorily. Ideally, varnish on a cooler overcast day with little or no wind.
  • Aim to apply one coat per day. This allows plenty of time for the varnish to cure and level off.


Mirror finish

  • Once you’ve put eight or nine coats on you’re ready to achieve a mirror finish.
  • Wait two or three days for the varnish to harden.
  • Flatten with 320 wet & dry paper in a sanding block. Lubricate well with soapy water.
  • Wash dust off and tag rag. A simple tag rag can be made by using an old t-shirt dipped in white spirit with a few drops of varnish dropped onto it and then wrung out.
  • Thin the varnish as much as you can to make a “wiping varnish”. The varnish will level better and dry faster.
  • Quickly apply the final coat of wiping varnish and leave it alone. Do not be tempted to go back over an area.
  • By the next day you should have achieved a mirror finish.


Wood rot

Most forms of wood rot encountered by the sailor are caused by fungus although it’s often erroneously misnamed dry rot. The fungus needs three things in order to survive; moisture, oxygen and a warm environment. Bare wood absorbs moisture which then in turn attracts the fungus. Another major factor in eliminating rot is good ventilation. Adequate air-circulation prevents dampness, hence why open boats are less susceptible to damp than closed cabin boats. However, all types of wooden boats are at risk of rot especially when they are not in use.

The type of wood used in the construction is also a factor- softer and faster growing woods attract more rot than older growths. There are many products on the market that treat rot effectively.



Chances are your boat will spend as much time, if not more, in storage than in use. This is a vital factor in the care of any boat, but of particular importance for a wooden craft. Take careful note of the following factors in good storage;

  • Wooden craft left afloat at sea suffer less rot than those in fresh water.
  • If you keep your boat on the beach or in a yard, then ensure they’re raised off the ground by at least a few inches.
  • Don’t leave your boat over long wet grass or under leaf shedding trees.
  • Don’t leave your boat near any old wooden structure that may be harbouring rot-hungry spores.
  • Open the drain plug to allow any bilge to drain.
  • Raise one end higher than the other to help rain water clear.
  • If kept indoors, ensure the wood isn’t allowed to dry out too much.
  • Check periodically and let some airflow circulate through the interior.
  • Check your varnish and paint and treat accordingly.

A good quality canvas cover can effectively protect your boat from rain, sun, leaves, twigs and even bird dropping. Covers should be used in a way that allows air to circulate and let any moisture escape. Leave the ends open. Keep any cover clear of the wood by using a simple framework. Covers made from a breathable canvas material are the best type to use but avoid darker colours which may absorb heat in a hotter climate, drying out the wood excessively. Always check your cover for wear and tear and repair or replace if necessary. Use grommets and lines to hold the cover in place but ensure they are anchored to the ground and not the boat itself.


Keep on top of any repairs

Make a habit of routinely checking your boat for any wear and tear. Touch up any damaged varnish and treat any areas of rot before they spread. Pay particular attention to areas of wear such as the coamings where fenders or mooring lines may have rubbed. Check your mooring lines for wear and replace if necessary. If you have any chaffing caused by being dragged up a beach then fix some metal rubbing strips to the bottom of the keel.

Lighter coloured boats reflect the sun which helps to extend the life of any protective paints. Darker colours may result in shortening the life of the paint and even any caulking. The deck of your boat has a hard life so pay attention to its care and maintenance. Repair or replace any cracked deck boards to avoid rot from trapped water, especially with plywood decks. If unchecked it will spread by capillary action and could affect larger and less accessible areas of timber.

Don’t forget items such as spars and oars. Store them out of the sun and touch up any areas of wear. Grease any oar leathers to help prolong their life and make rowing far easier. Any boat kept on the water should have its anti-fouling paint renewed annually to deter borers and marine growth. Check any running and rigging. Also, check any blocks for signs of stress especially on boats with large sail areas.

The more time you spend on caring for your boat when you’re not using it, the less time you will lose to breakages and breakdowns when you are using it. In short, look after your boat and it’ll look after you!


Where to keep your classic wooden boat

Costings based on a 25ft classic yacht:

  • $2,000-$5,000 depending on location for a marina berth. Secure, staffed with shore power and water usually available. The most expensive option.
  • $500-$1,000 Drying, or mud berth. Boat either floats or rests in the mud dependent on tide.
  • $200 apx. Swinging mooring. Moored to a stout buoy anchored to the sea-bed. To access your boat, you’ll need a dinghy or water-taxi service.
  • Free Keep it at home on a trailer. Freedom to sail wherever you can drive



Written By: Samantha Wilson

Samantha Wilson has spent her entire life on and around boats, from tiny sailing dinghies all the way up to superyachts. She writes for many boating and yachting publications, top charter agencies, and some of the largest travel businesses in the industry, combining her knowledge and passion of boating, travel and writing to create topical, useful and engaging content.

Get in touch:Linkedin

More from: Samantha Wilson

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