The varnishing point

In spring, pretty much everyone – me included – is talking about spring. But can we get serious about seasons for just a minute? Because, really, there are only two, neither of which is spring. There is Not Nearly Enough, and then there is Much Too Much. Because that is how the cycle of food works.

Winter, with its several harvest-free months, is Not Nearly Enough. We don’t grow anything, we don’t catch anything, we don’t shoot anything. We work our way through the things we grew, caught, and shot in last year’s Much Too Much. And we are only now entering this year’s Much Too Much. Right now, it’s eggs. We have ten hens, which means we’re getting about a dozen eggs every other day. Even the most ovonivorous two-person household can’t eat anything like that much. Fortunately, we have friends.

We are seeing glimpses of the next phases of Much Too Much. The mint is coming up. Raspberry vines are sprouting a good five feet from where raspberry vines were last year. And we are mere weeks from striped bass.

When I broached my two-season theory to Kevin, he laughed in my face. “You know what season it really is?” he asked. Umm … “Not Nearly Enough?” I tentatively ventured.

“No!” he said. “It’s Sanding Season.” He escorted me to the boat and handed me his brand-new, handy-dandy palm sander. (Which is a very cool tool, in case you have something that needs sanding.) Up the ladder, over the gunwale I went. My job was all the wood outside the cabin. He’d take the inside wood.

But, before we started, he wanted to know if I knew what came after Sanding Season. I gave up. What? “Varnishing Season!”

My heart sank.

While sanding is pretty straightforward, a lot can go wrong with varnishing. Which you wouldn’t necessarily think, but the first inkling is written right there on the can. It says, in actual English, “For professional use only.” Varnish? Seriously?

I tried to use this as an excuse to get out of the job. “Look!” I said to Kevin. “I’m sure they’re talking to me.” But Kevin wasn’t buying it. “They don’t really mean that,” said.

That seemed like a stretch to me. If they didn’t really mean that, why would they put it on the can? And then, perhaps more to the point, how would Kevin know they didn’t mean it? I’m pretty sure he wasn’t invited to the meeting.

“If they don’t mean that, what do they mean?” I asked.

“They mean that, if you’re an amateur and you screw it up, it’s not their fault.”


Varnish is precisely the color and texture of Grade B maple syrup (there’s a mistake you only make once), and it is impossibly sticky. Which means that there is no end to the things you can entomb in your varnished wood trim. Hairs are inevitable. Any kind of wind-borne schmutz. Curious insects. At one point, I stopped to scratch my head and watched in dismay as little flakes of dandruff fluttered onto my gleaming doorframe.

Millennia from now, archeologists will excavate our boat, and say things like, “It’s fortunate that pre-historic fishermen put wood trim on their boats, so we can extract DNA from entombed hairs and map their genome.” They will undoubtedly isolate the gene on chromosome 16 that shows me to be a very bad varnisher.

Which brings me to a very important question. Why the hell is there wood on the boat anyway?

Granted, there are some very good reasons to use wood on boats. The most compelling is that it floats. Given that floating is definitely Job One for boats, this makes sense. But it doesn’t make sense for trim. If your steel hull gets punctured by an iceberg, no amount of decorative mahogany will save you. Once the boat itself is made of something other than wood, I say you can give up on it.

Another pretty good reason is that, unlike the primary material in all of our boats, which is fiberglass, wood is an environmentally friendly building material. But the whole hull vs. trim objection still stands. Once you’ve used a couple thousand pounds of a completely nonrecylable, nondegradable material, a few tree branches won’t redeem you.

Which brings me to the real reason there’s wood on our boat. Someone thought it looked nice. And it does. But this is a stupid reason right out of the gate. Do the cost/benefit analysis, and it’s clear. The cost is that, every year (or, in our case, every other year or even every third) you have to sand and varnish the damn stuff – and by ‘varnish,’ I mean at least two coats, sometimes three. And then, to add insult to injury, you have to sand the varnish.

And the benefit? Well, you get to look at it all year, thinking about what a drag it is that you’ll have to sand and varnish it again in the spring.

I suppose that wood trim hearkens back to a time when boats were actually made of wood – because it floats, and because it’s an environmentally friendly building material. So that teak trim is actually there to remind you that your boat is made of a dastardly, sinking material. Great!

I am told that there are people who enjoy sanding and varnishing their boat’s woodwork every spring. It’s part of the ritual of boat-owning, and the prelude to the real joy of boats, which is fishing.

Me, though, I could definitely skip the ritual and go straight to the fishing. If a ritual is essential, perhaps we could stick pins in a voodoo doll of whoever it was who first had the bright idea that boats should be trimmed with wood.

That’s what I thought yesterday, at any rate. Today, Sanding Season and Varnishing Season are over. Kevin has checked all the electronics and gotten the deck coated with this indestructible stuff called Line-X. The boat is a good scrubbing away from being ready for her shake-down cruise. And the shake-down cruise means that the striped bass are almost here.

Much Too Much is just around the corner.

5 people are having a conversation about “The varnishing point

  1. Happy Much Too Much season! Keep your eye on the prize, striper, tuna and bluefish (personally I have to say yucky on this one, but I know you folks like it).

  2. I’m dealing with Much Too Much by having signed up an actual CSA customer (just one!), but now I’m worried that I’ll induce my own Not Nearly Enough for the entire year. Oh well. Ya gotta start somewhere.

    Congratulations on getting through Sanding and Varnishing seasons.

  3. I laughed so hard all the way through this posting. Thanks for the great entertainment, Tamar! From the Ottawa Valley, Ontario, Canada, where we have all four seasons: 1. Winter Already! 2. Winter. 3. Still winter. 4. Road construction.

  4. Accidental Mick says:

    Hi Tamar,

    You own a boat o feed your body with things you like to eat.

    The sight of a wood trimmed boat that has received some TLC feeds your soul.

    Live with it woman 🙂

  5. Don’t worry. It will be Spring soon enough. Our snow is almost melted. Just a little left in the shadows and such… I know it’s coming. I have faith, based on a lot of past experience. Really!

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