Our companionway stairs had worn through to bare wood. The nonskid tape had started to lift in a few places. The entire surface looked tired and un-loved. But how do you re-varnish your companionway stairs? There is no way I can get in and out of the boat (safely) without them, and stripping and re-varnishing would take a week or two. I had a similar issue with applying non-skid to the cockpit – it needed it, but you can’t get in and out of the boat without crossing it. I had finished non-skidding the rest of the deck, but this area had to wait until we were off the boat.
Thanksgiving provided the perfect opportunity. We planned to spend over a week at my mom’s house using their shop and doing projects you can’t easily do while living on the boat. The morning we left we removed the companionway stairs and packed up the car with all our stuff for the week, including tools. Then I applied nonskid deck paint to the cockpit and cockpit seats which took about an hour as I had already taped it off. Then over the hills and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go.
Removing the nonskid tape
The first step was to remove the nonskid tape on each of the steps. A heat gun made quick work of the tape itself and it pulled right off. However the sticky residue left behind had to be thoroughly scrubbed with a citrus cleaner. This took a lot of elbow grease but finally I finished.
Stripping the Varnish
I stripped the varnish with a heat gun and scraper. The grooves (see above) were a bit tricky, as were the curved edges and inside the handle cut-outs (see above). By the way, if you’re still using a cheap paint scraper from the paint store, do yourself a big favor and buy a pull-scraper. This $20 2-inch carbide scraper from Amazon makes the job much easier and is worth every penny.
Sanding and More Sanding
Sanding next. I used a Detail Sander / Palm Sander with press-on sandpaper – another great tool if you don’t have one. I started with 80 grit and did as thorough a job as I could. I had to use sheets of sandpaper in some of the crevices, inside the handle cut-outs, and on the curved edges. When it seemed to be pretty uniform I switched to 120 grit and repeated the process until the wood was smooth and uniform. There was some discoloration of the wood, possibly from deterioration years ago if left unvarnished. But old wood carries untold stories and I don’t mind leaving hints of those events, even if I can’t hear them quite.
I did the preparation in one day and was ridiculously exhausted by the end. I do have to remember it was just three weeks ago I was in the ICU hooked up to oxygen. I feel fine, but my oxygenation may not yet be back to normal. I had spent 6 or 8 weeks in the summer letting a couple of tears in the meniscus of my knee heal, which apparently led to clots forming in my legs. One scary morning a month ago the clots apparently moved into my lungs preventing my from re-oxygenating the blood from my heart. I could not walk 15 feet without getting close to passing out. I got an ambulance to the hospital and after a couple of days of oxygen and blood thinners was pretty much back to normal. I remember however being in the back of the ambulance and not being able to give the EMT guy my social security number. I just couldn’t think at all. That was scary. Oxygen seems to be essential. I will be on blood thinners for another couple of months, then if the ultrasound shows the clots are no longer forming I am back to normal.
I started with cut varnish – about 25% as much mineral spirits as the varnish. Note that although odorless mineral spirits are a marvelous thing, do not be conned by buying the stuff in the plastic jugs. It comes out white and milky and makes it difficult to read the varnish during application. I don’t know if it affects the final varnish – I wasn’t brave enough to try. I only use the stuff in the metal cans now. This time I used Petit Captain’s Varnish and was very pleased with it. It has a slight pink tinge in the can which disappears during application. It went on well and smoothly.
Then each day after that I added another coat of varnish. After four coats I decided to add the nonskid. But first I’ll talk about the tools I use.
My favorite varnishing tools
I do have some favorite tools which I’ll share with you. Of course I use a tack cloth for getting the last speck of dust off. Varnish strainers prevent the dust getting into the varnish. I strain the varnish into paper cups for easy disposal. Nitrox gloves keep the oils from my fingers off the varnish.
I also use foam brushes even though I’m sure badger hair is better. If I were being paid for my work I’d step it up, but cleaning the brushes without a stable work environment is a bear. The right way to do it is to have a series of glass jars where you can suspend the brush, moving the brush from dirty jar to cleaner jar, occasionally straining out the solids from the cleaning jars. However on a boat I just can’t leave brushes in open jars of mineral spirits so I use disposable brushes.
But my favorite new tool is a mini silicone ladle. This wonderful tool with a ladle less than 2″ across means that my jars of varnish last much longer. I no longer pour the varnish into the strainer, I ladle it. This means that no varnish ends up on the lip of the varnish can, so closing the can securely against drying is much easier. It also makes it easy to measure the varnish as it goes in. And, finally, clean up is easy – I let it sit out until the next varnishing session and then just peal the dried varnish off the ladle. The flexibility of the silicone makes this a easy job.
Applying nonskid to varnish
I considered several kinds of nonskid for the stairs. Nonskid tape, nonskid paint like KiwiGrip, and shake-on grit like sugar, salt, walnut shells, or commercial rubber pellets.
I could add nonskid tape easily enough and that was what was on the stairs when we bought the boat. But after removing the sticky gooey tape I wasn’t so sure I wanted to have to face that again in the future. Also the current stairs have a nice groove carved into them which gets covered up with the tape. I thought I could do better.
Nonskid paint like KiwiGrip would be fine, but it would introduce another color. I had very light KiwiGrip on the decks because light decks are much cooler. But I didn’t want to put a light grey color on the varnished steps. Why varnish and then cover it up?
The forums are full of advice on shake-on products that can be added to varnish or paint to create a nonskid finish. Some, like sugar, are put on to deform the surface, then rinsed off when the finish is dry, leaving tiny pockmarks in the surface. Others, like commercial pellets and walnut shells are left in and can be painted over. Some have a distinct color which would not be appropriate for varnish but would work well when painted over. Some are meant to “disappear” in varnish. I happened to find a $5 bag of walnut shells at my local chandlery (Blue Pelican in Alameda) so I bought it to try. They are kind of wood colored so I thought they’d be attractive on the steps.
After the third coat of varnish (two more would have been better, but time was an issue) I taped off the treads in a diamond pattern around the carved grooves. I decided I just wanted the shells to adhere to the treads, not inside the grooves. So using a 1″ foam brush I put a coat of varnish on the treads, leaving the grooves dry. Taking small amount of shells in my hand I sprinkled them on the wet area, dispersing evenly. I only used a couple of tablespoons of shells for the five steps, but it appeared to be enough.
After letting it dry for a day I varnished carefully over the shells again. The varnish brush caught on the shells, many of which were not firmly adhered and was hard to spread so I “mooshed” or pressed the brush into the treads to get better coverage. This seemed to do the trick. I removed the tape right away, fearing it would pull up the varnish if I waited. After a night of drying it looked great and the walnut shells were firmly adhered! The grip is excellent, even when the step is wet, and yet feels fine on bare feet. I would like to add a few more coats of varnish on the whole thing – but it will have to wait until we can leave the boat again.