The Holy Grail of Wood Protectors

Testers rate 53 varnishes and varnish alternatives at the six-month mark, a time when many treatments need reapplication.


Did you ever wonder why its called “wood finish?” You’re never “finished” with it. Unfortunately, that rings true for most boat maintenance tasks. With that harsh reality in mind, we set out to find the best exterior wood finish on the market, one that’s durable and easy to apply.

After multiple delays, including two brushes with tropical storms, we mounted the test rack outdoors last summer to begin the exposure test (see “How We Tested”). This report takes a look at how the test panels are faring after six months facing the elements on The Rack (pictured above), the moniker we’ve given to our test set-up.

So in our quest for the Holy Grail of wood protectors, we refrained from limiting the test to a single type of coating and are looking for a wood finish all-star. However, to make the data easier to digest, we’ve broken the test field into four categoriesone-part varnishes, two-part varnishes, synthetics and treatments, and sealers and oils. This apples-to-apples and apples-to-oranges comparison, we hope, will answer that often-asked reader query: “What wood finish should I use?”

The number of coatings on the market today is mind-boggling, hence the dozens of products in this evaluation. And, as with bottom paint, delving into formulation differences and the science behind the magic tends to only muddy the waters. So when choosing a wood finish, knowing the basic characteristics of each finish type is helpful in determining which best matches your aesthetic tastes, maintenance appetite, and protection needs.

To get the results of our testing, download Painting Your Boat, Vol. 4: Brightwork, Spar Varnish and Mast Paints today.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida.


  1. This is not an article, this is an advertisement.
    If Practical Sailor has decided that it will do its tests and reports, but then not provide them to subscribers unless they pay for a separate report, why I am paying for a subscription?


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