Features October 2007 Issue

Practical Sailor's Exterior Wood Coatings Test Continues for Inexpensive Wood Finish for Boats

Practical Sailor testers find the synthetics and stains application a welcome respite from the sanding, thinning, and mixing drudgery of varnish application.

This round of testing included familiar wood protection products like Interlux’s Cetol Marine and Marine Light, West Marine’s WoodPro Plus, WoodPlus Marine, Amazon’s Teak Lustre, Ace’s Wood Royal stains, and Deks Olje stains. Products new to our tests were Teak Guard, TeaQua, and Interlux’s Cetol Marine Natural Teak. Picking the best marine wood coating for your boat largely depends on your needs, your taste, and your patience. Synthetic coatings and stains are the perfect prescription for the average sailor who wants a product that looks good and protects well, without the fuss of more traditional coatings and without the knee-bruising cleaning teak oils require. They won’t have the classic look of a meticulously applied hard varnish—and in our opinion, the jury’s still out on whether they’re as durable as two-part varnishes—but for ease of application, no other type of wood coating can compare.

WHAT WE TESTED

We tested a total of 14 products; two of these were topcoats and four were stains or sealers that we applied with and without their gloss overcoat, for a total of 15 test panels. Those applied with and without their mated clear topcoat were Sikkens’ Cetol Marine, Cetol Marine Light, and Cetol Marine Natural Teak (topcoat: Cetol Marine Gloss). Deks Olje No. 1 technically is an oil, but when topcoated with Deks Olje No. 2, it performs similar to synthetic systems, so we grouped the Deks No.1-No. 2 combo with this category.

Rounding out the group are Ace’s Wood Royal Deck and Siding Stain Semi-transparent Oil and its Wood Royal House and Trim Stain Solid Color; Nanovations’ Teak Guard; MDR Amazon’s Teak Lustre Gloss and Teak Lustre Satin; TeaQua; West Marine’s WoodPro Plus; and WoodPlus Marine.

All of the products can be rolled or brushed on, and the Deks Olje also can be sprayed. None of them require thinning, and only the Deks must be sanded between coats. However, MDR Amazon suggests sanding between coats as an option.

Sailboat Exterior Wood Coatings

HOW WE TESTED

The protocol for this group was nearly identical to that of the hard varnishes reviewed in the August issue. Each product was assigned a number so that judging could be done blindly, and all applications were conducted per manufacturers’ instructions.

Because synthetics and stains typically have a low-gloss or matte finish, testers opted not to rate their glossiness. Instead, we offer our observations and photos. The same goes for pigment. Whether a red coating looks better than a brown- or yellow-tinted coating is a matter of taste, so we focused on giving accurate descriptions to allow you to decide which would look best on your boat. However, we held fast to the general opinion that no matter the coating’s hue, it should not completely camouflage the wood’s grain. (If this is the desired outcome, you might as well paint the wood.) Our recommendations were made with this ideal in mind.

The main difference between this test and the varnish test was the fact that all of the varnish test panels were cut from the same piece of bare teak. As an unexpected number of latecomers joined the fray after application tests had begun&emdash;and after the original piece of teak had been exhausted&emdash;testers had to acquire additional teak panels, and these unfortunately were not identical to the original set. The latecomers’ size and color differ slightly from the original teak. Testers kept this in mind when rating the panels.

SYNTHETICS AND STAINS

We tested both oil-based and water-based products. (See the Value Guide for specifics.) One benefit to water-based is that they are typically easier to clean up&emdash;requiring no solvents, only soap and water&emdash;and dry faster.

When compared to hard varnish, synthetic systems and stains have a much lower viscosity, making them more flexible than varnishes and less likely to crack or peel. They penetrate the wood better, eliminating the necessity of sanding between coats and allowing them to dry faster as they are absorbed. They also can be applied to woods with higher moisture contents&emdash;because they allow the substrate to breathe. This microporousness won’t trap water in the wood, so unlike hard coatings, blisters are not a threat.

No synthetic system or stain will give you the high-gloss finish of varnishes like Epifanes Clear High Gloss (PS’s top pick for gloss coatings in Feb. 15, 2005). However, a few of the products we tested can be applied with glossy topcoats, and others have some sheen or gloss. While several of the test products tout high-gloss finishes, testers found that the teak treatments lacked the reflective finish of the top performers in our August review. In our eyes, the highest gloss in this group belonged to West Marine’s WoodPro Plus, which interestingly is made by Epifanes.

Several of the test products are pigmented stains, including both of the Ace coatings and the Cetol products. Stains are categorized as opaque or semitransparent. Opaque stains have more solids, which mask the wood’s grain more than semitransparent products but typically offer better sun protection.

As with gloss, this test group runs the gamut for pigment color. The Teak Lustre panels have a yellowish-blond tint; the WoodPlus has a reddish hue; and others carry a brown or amber tint. Pigments act as UV blockers and can mean better durability.

Rather than use pigment for sunscreen, Teak Guard&emdash;a new Australian product we added to our lineup as a result of a reader query—utilizes nanotechnology to block harmful UV. Pigments form a film on top of the wood to protect it, but nanoparticles (really, really small particles) can penetrate deep into the wood fibers, spreading UV-absorbers to a larger area, and in essence, getting sunscreen to those hard-to-reach places, according to Teak Guard’s makers. It’s a clear, impregnating stain, rather than a pigmented stain.

Another new product, Sikkens Cetol Marine Natural Teak, uses what its maker calls "Next Wave Technology," a combination of UV absorbers that allows them to reduce pigment while maintaining protection. Interlux’s previous Cetol pigmented stains, Marine and Marine Light, tend to have a cloudy appearance. But our Cetol Marine Natural Teak test panel shows the wood grain as well as the clear products and has a nice golden hue.

Three of the test products tout being eco-friendly: Teak Guard and both Teak Lustre stains. They are water-based, have no noticeable odor, are non-toxic, and have minimal VOC counts. (VOCs are volatile organic compounds, unhealthy gases that can be harmful when inhaled.)

Sailboat Exterior Wood Coatings
Many synthetic wood coatings include pigments that act as sunscreens. Above, you can see that Sikkens’ Cetol Marine Natural Teak (left) has a slight blonde tint when compared to the totally clear Epifanes varnish (right), but it dries translucent. The TeaQua (center), however, resembles cloudy hot chocolate in the can, but dries to a translucent darker, mahogony-esque hue.

This group of synthetics so impressed testers, as far as ease of application, that we decided head-to-head testing on our test boat was a must. While the test panels are a controlled atmosphere for testing, the test boat is the perfect platform to the treatments on wood that gets handled frequently. We also are curious to see how they hold up against hard varnishes in this atmosphere. So Jelly, the unloved Catalina 22 PS adopted, will get coats of Sikkens Cetol Marine Natural Teak with gloss and Epifanes Clear High Gloss on the cabintop handrails, and TeaQua on the tiller. As her rehab continues, it’s likely we’ll decide to touch up other areas with these products as well.

CONCLUSION

There will always be traditionalists for whom the extra work of hard varnish is worth the result. But for many of us, with so many demands on our time (and patience already worn thin), picking a wood coating boils down to what’s fast, easy, effective, and low maintenance. And as far as application goes, it doesn’t get any easier than synthetics and stains.

Where these products differ is in their appearance. The coatings with the most natural look (grain discernible and coloring natural), in testers’ opinions, were the Ace stains, Teak Guard, TeaQua, West Marine WoodPro Plus, Deks Olje, and the Cetol Marine Natural Teak. Both Teak Lustres and the WoodPlus have obvious pigments, but the wood grain is still discernible. The Cetol Marine and Cetol Marine Light were the only products that overly masked the wood grain with pigment, in our opinion.

The differences in durability and UV protection will no doubt begin to show in the next few months, so stay tuned as we get the panels mounted outdoors and Jelly in the water. We’ll publish regular updates on how well the treatments are holding up.

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