Friday, January 28, 2011

Bright workin'

This day they are working on a boat down on the Multnomah Channel, out just south of Scappoose off Highway Thirty. Driving down the road, gazing at the bluffs on the one side, there are dozens of small cascades from the recent heavy rains. Some are no bigger than your fore arm, others big enough to drown a goat. The little water falls come rushing from the seeps and holes in the rocks, between the mosses and ferns abundant there.

Turning in off the Highway, one would never imagine that a few hundred yards down the road was an affluent community of floating homes and boat houses. It's very rural here. This place is not like the manicured lawns and pristine monitored parking beyond the coded iron gates at Columbia River Yacht Club. Entering in there is all about the image of The Club.

Going down the dock ramp, under the moss covered blue canvas awning, Hank spies the resident great blue heron standing ankle deep in the chill river's edge. It is stoically ignoring the cavorting and diving black cormorants as well as the big gray geese on the bank just down from him. They say one will always be known by the company one keeps.

It feels good to duck into a tidy boathouse from the chilling rain. Bob the owner is considerate about getting the place heated up before their arrival.  An advantage to working in a boathouse just across the dock from the owner's  floating home.  Retired Dr.s sometimes do alright for themselves and Bob has known what he wanted to wind up with for a long time it seems. His boat is a thirty eight foot Grand Banks Classic. A well respected and seaworthy trawler with a comfortable salon, state rooms fore and aft, and all the amenities of home. A good boat to cruise up the coast to the San Juans aboard.  Bless his heart, makes good coffee too.
Hank digs in the supply boxes for the two-twenty grit sand paper, his towels and his deck boots - no street soles or hiking boots on this boat. He'll get up on the boat and then remember his rubber gloves. Best not to get skin oils on the surface of the varnish. Fold the paper and fold it again. It's got to be the right stiffness, the right flexibilty to both form to the curves and hold up to the edges. Long strokes when can and not too much pressure. He wouldn't want to leave scratches too deep or they'll show through the next coat. Where paint is said to hide a multitude of sins, varnish will expose all transgressions against the wood. Stroke and stroke and stroke some more. Wipe the dust off and see what he's got. Gotta maintain that balance between concentration and relaxation to get as light and even a sanding as can. Take the high points off but leave the deep. That's how you fill in the grain for that solid smooth shine. The goal is what they call a "Steinway" for that lacquered deep glass look.  It takes about ten or twelve coats to build up enough varnish to hold off the elements. It has to be sanded and prepped between each coat. Varnish adheres by mechanical, not chemical bond. It has to have a surface with some tooth to grab.

After a couple or three hours between Hank and Sally the sanding on the brow trim up high and the transom aft will be done. The cap and top rails will come later along with the door frames. Then dry dust wiping and alchohol washing to take off more dust. Dust is one of the main enemies of the bright, along with mositure, too much temperature, too little temperature, too much wind or any kind of contamination.  Sally likes to mix the varnish, she's better at getting it just the right thinkness for conditions she's best at gauging.

You can tell within the first few seconds sometimes, how the mix is going to go on, how you have to adjust your technique. It's all about the feel and the flow then. Still one needs to look back behind, check for dry spots or sags to be touched up if can before the wet edge is lost. If you lose the wet edge it will never be smooth, requiring more trouble on the next sanding, or worse causing a final coat not to be a final coat.  At several hundred to a thousand dollars a coat, owners don't like do overs. As soon as the coat is applied it's off the boat and don't go back near unless you have to. To bump it then is not good.

Cleaning the brushes and the cups, or packing them to be done thoroughly at home is the last to do before getting clear and letting it dry and cure for a couple of days. The varnish has to be good and dry before it can be sanded again.

They will find out then just how well they have done, or not.


  1. "Where paint is said to hide a multitude of sins, varnish will expose all transgressions against the wood."

    Great phrasing. You leave me thinking about the balance between concentration and relaxation--and art--and not getting in a hurry. You also have me thinking about the way we deal with troubles, whether we paint and hide, or allow time to smooth and release our pain.

    Thank you for this.

  2. Thank You, Johanna! You always manage to find more a/o better meanings in my writing than I ever thought I put in there.

  3. Such a metaphoric post. Life is the making and filling of grooves, the polishing of what makes us shine and yet illuminates our flaws.

  4. Beautiful post--it captures just how satsfying it is to work with your hands, to create, to put right in other ways.

  5. I love the word 'Scappoose', and I love that you see a waterfall and think, "I could drown a goat in that."

  6. Ah, the love for the work shines through your words. Lovely.