Water based Varnish and steam bending plywood

Hints and tips on making a small table for a small yacht. Covering useful idea’s for integrated cable management, wood staining, wood finishing using varnish plus steaming plywood into a tight radius all on a micro budget.

As is usually the case when coming up with idea’s for furniture on a small yacht there is more than a handful of conflicting requirements.

The drive for this table was the requirement to improve my hobby space, some where I could do electronics stuff without having to get everything out, do what I could, and pack it all away.

The space available is what is in effect the infill between the two berths in the f’csel. This defines the triangular shape of the table. As Hajra is a Junk Rig, the mast is keel stepped and runs through this area. This is why there is a horse shoe shaped cut out at the apex of the triangle. This aperture is ripe for things dropping down so I determined a fiddle fitted here would be a useful feature. This required steaming some plywood to create the fiddle. There already exists a vertical panel forming the support for the one permanent berth in this area which is caped off using 12mm wood. This defines the level that I need to attain for a flush surface.

The support for the table required a little thought as there exists fixings, the existing berth trotter box, only on one side. Therefore I required something underneath the table to provide the support that I would not find digging into my knees. There was a further issue of cables that run through this area to a flat panel computer screen. To end up with a neat installation these cables needed to be handled.

Further the installation is not expected to be permanent on a ‘forever’ basis leading to considerations that a solution should have the minimum number of holes drilled in places to make good the fixings.

On top of this on a personal perspective I have always tended to go out and buy bits of wood while scrap wood lays around the yard. This time I would use some ‘reclaimed wood’ which means some junk plywood that was littering the boat yard.

I chose a piece offered to me by a small cabin cruiser that was being launched. It was an obnoxious looking piece of scrap with no straight edges and 18mm thick. Just the sort of thing that I would turn my nose up to.

Work in progress. The offcut is what the wood looked like in the beginning

Work in progress. The offcut is what the wood looked like in the beginning

The result is something I feel quite pleased with. So learn from my experience, come on the journey with me, and see what you could do better on yours.


A better view of one side of the scrap ply - this is the side I chose to use as the finish side

A better view of one side of the scrap ply – this is the side I chose to use as the finish side

The grain on this side of the wood was far smoother than the grainy, rutty side it apposed. Also less paint had found its way on to this side and the previous owner had done all his marking out on the rough side. I felt I would be happier with this side with it being easier to sand down and had less damage. In this natural and discarded state I found this wood completely uninspiring.

The alternative side just looked to rough to me

The alternative side just looked too rough to me

Shaping the wood to fit the space

Cutting a big small hole

The diameter of the hole to pass around the mast was just under the minimum diameter I could manage with the Router. In other words the Router base was wider than the hole I needed to cut. Requiring only a horse shoe U shape, half the hole could be cut using a panel saw. The half circle as you can deduce from the picture above was done by drilling a series of closely spaced holes. Using a Coping Saw I just managed to cut around the perimeter finishing off using a half round Bastard File.

It wasn’t perfect, the result was a good approximation.

Managing the thickness difference

6mm needed to to be trimmed from one edge making rebate. Two slots of 18mm width, 6mm deep needed to be rebated into the underside so that the under supports wouldn’t upset the levels. The supports are to be lightly glued in place.

The supports

Image of the under table support brackets including cable management

The under table support brackets including cable management holes

The picture above shows the two knees made to support the table.

It is not expected that the table is fitted ‘for ever’ so the supports are a little on the short side and not expected to take the weight of a person standing on them or falling on them in a sea way – things to think about if your making a permanent installation.

The cable management is simply the two holes cut in at the side. Originally I hatched a plan to use some 40mm water pipe I have on hand. Its black PVC pipe and would have looked quite smart. But, if ever you have used a cable management system before,usually within 3 weeks of having got it all finished, you need to run in another cable and this ruins all the hard work you’ve put into it. In anticipation that a new lead with a plug that was wider than 40mm would spell the end of this system, rather than restricting the plug size based on the pipe diameter the opportunity was seen by allowing the cables to slot into the run, rather than having to be passed through a restricting hole. Its not quite as smart but is likely to enjoy a longer life.

But that’s not all!

Having cut the holes so fixing what I was doing, had I taken a little more thought over it a better solution would have been to put the holes further inboard making them a closed circle. This would be followed by using the Router to cut a channel that formed an inverted J, the bottom hook part, now inverted and at the top, leading into the upper side of the hole. Thus the flex of the cable would be slotted into the tail of the inverted J, pushed along the channel until the cable dropped into the hole from the top. That’s a much more elegant solution as with what I have done I must ease these brackets away from their supports, lifting the table while pushing the cable into the slot.

Steaming Plywood

Image of wallpaper stripper set up to steam bend Plywood

Initially I considered using a kettle on a camping stove. Anything to boil water with someway to bring the steam into a tube would do.

But then it dawned on me that a Wallpaper Stripper is a self contained ‘do it all’ unit that would be ideal. The question is ‘would it work?, does it generate enough heat?’. The plywood to hand was a 1/8 inch, about 4mm.

The tube as the steamer box was an odd length of exhaust pipe laying around the yard. I had considered using anything, even drain pipe. However in thinking about some metal box section or metal pipe or even scaffolding poles, they are probably less than suitable as their mass will tend to make them into a heat sink, stealing heat from the steam and radiating it to the surrounding air. Plastic pipe would be a better choice. The exhaust pipe being of double layered rubber was probably quite a reasonable choice given that its double layered providing some inherent insulation to keep the heat in.

Once the steam started to emerge it was left for about an hour, the time it took the steamer to boil the water level from the ‘high’ level mark down to the ‘low’ mark.

The heated and removed Ply had a heavy feel to it and it was hot to the touch, but not ‘untouchable’. It didn’t take long to cool down at all, and my feeling is this was at the bottom end of a suitable temperature for bending.

Steaming Plywood – what didn’t work

With a horse shoe U shape that the wood was to be inserted in, it seemed reasonable to me that I could bend the steamed Plywood in my hands, inserting it to the aperture. The natural spring tendency of the wood to return to its unbent shape would be to my advantage and used to contain the steamed wood in the aperture.

image of The result with bending steamed Plywood in your hand

50% of my judgment was right. The bit that didn’t work was bending the steamed Plywood in my hands. It soon crumpled with a splitting sound at what had become the apex of a poor curve. The wood buckled along the curve and it really suggested it needed to be formed around something.

What better than to use the inner part of the circle that had previously been cut out? This worked really well. The only issue was that I didn’t have a clamp to hand so had to stand holding the wood around the former for ten minutes. Plenty of time to think about planning! I only needed two lengths, an inner and outer, so it wasn’t much of a chore. This was the first time I’d ever steamed wood so it was all quite exciting to me.

Image of Bending steamed Plywood around a former

Bending steamed Plywood around a former – the way to go

The inner band was glued and nailed to the inner side of the aperture while the outer band was to hide the joint and imperfect circle of the aperture. The outer band was glued to the inner band and the whole lot was then Routed level, sanded and beveled to make a pleasing finish.

Image of Clamping the steamed Plywood to shape

 The set up was left over night and I was surprised to find that the wood had forgotten it was once straight, by wanting to retain its curved shape even when released from the clamps.

The wood stain – from light to dark


Work in progress - before and after

Work in progress – before and after

As already stated, the plan was not for a permanent installation. Therefore there was room for experimentation. As I enjoyed ‘black ash’ furniture during the 1980’s, I wanted to investigate ebonising wood. Ebony wood is black wood.

I don’t know why, but rather than going out and buying some Ebony Wood Stain, I decided to look up what the Internet could tell me on the topic.

When I saw the comment ‘all you need is Iron Acetate’ I turned off initially, as it sounded that would be far from easy to obtain, but the author went on to say you can make it with household items. Now that was worth more attention.

How you make it is to soak Vinegar in Wire Wool. That was great as I have had some wood working wire wool for nearly 10 years and not done much with it. After sorting out a suitable plastic container, an old butter container, I bought a bottle of dark Vinegar from the local shop.

The Wire Wool needs washing to remove any protective oils that might otherwise stop the process working, and for that I just soaked it in washing up liquid rinsing it through in plain tap water.

The process requires about a week to complete,  and you see almost nothing happen. A horrible film appears on the top of the Vinegar but that’s all. To make available for use, strain the Vinegar through a piece of paper towel. All the paper towel needs to do it stop any bits of Wire Wool making it into the solution your about to use.

Next up is making a mug of Tea, thats normal drinking Tea but without the milk and sugar and I used 8 Tea bags instead of the suggested 10, not being sure if I was being taken a for a ride.

First you paint on to your wood the Tea. Don’t skimp on it. Put enough on to make a watery film. Leave to become nearly dry, so its just damp. At this point paint on the Vinegar solution. From time to time you will see a black pigment appear in the surface.

For real hard woods, the Tea is not always required. What is happening is the Vinegar reacts with the Tannin in the wood if its real wood, or in the case of softwoods used in cheap crap Plywood, lacking in natural Tannins, the Tea, apparently, certainly helps. What you see in the picture is the before and after, so this process clearly works.

As the stain really didn’t appear to be doing much, thinking that I was asking way too much from it to take this light coloured Plywood to black wood, multiple layers of Tea followed by Vinegar were applied until really I got bored with doing it. It might have been five or six alternating coats. Leaving it over night helped too.

The difference between a Wood Dye and a Wood Stain is that a Dye when it gets on your fingers, stains you skin and won’t come out by washing it. A Stain on the other hand sits on top of the wood grain, like dried glue on your fingers. Therefore a Stain ‘fills the pours of the wood’ and sits on top of the wood, unlike a Dye, that gets into the fibres of the wood itself.

Image of Plywood Stained with Tea and Vinegar

Work in progress – before and after

At this stage although having sanded between coats the varnish was beginning to build into a lumpy mess. By itself this wasn’t a concern except at some point the idea was to stop sanding and varnishing and actually install and use the table. That required a varnished surface that I was happy with. So far I wasn’t there yet.

i wondered if the varnish needed to be thinned for a finish coat and indeed the answer is yes.

A 25% thinning of the varnish with mineral spirits helps the varnish flow helping to allow the brush marks to flow out. However when I looked at the quantity of varnish left in the tin there was not as much as I thought. In fact it had pretty much run out.

I took a punt and added mineral spirits to what was left, probably more on a 1:1 ratio with the result that the varnish was now thinned so much that it didn’t evenly cover the surface evenly leaving little patches of semi gloss. Oh dear! Thats the result of pushing the materials too far.

Enter the land of Water based Varnish

At this point I a friend in the yard saw what I was doing and was very impressed. I said I had run out of varnish and he said he had an old tin of part used varnish I could have. He went and got it. As it turned out it wasn’t a spirit based varnish but a water based one. Undaunghted I gave it a go and felt it had promise.

However you don’t get something for nothing. As the tin was old, there was a rim of dried varnish on the underside of the lid lip. As I mixed the stuff up parts of this flaked off into the wet stuff and it was only a matter of time before some of it found its way onto to my finish. The lid could also become really ‘stuck on’ just by the varnish drying out making me wonder about its suitability as a glue! After using this odd ‘half a tin’ it became time to buy some more.

A tin of Spirit based varnished sold for about £12 where I looked and the White Spirit to clean your brushes was about another £6. Compared to a tin of branded Water based Varnish retailing at £12 in which you could ‘wash your brushes in water’ that seemed a useful saving. Better than that, an ‘unbranded shops own brand’ of similar stuff was a cheap £8 in comparison. Thats half the price of the Spirit based offering and felt worthy of experimentation. I got a water based varnish as shown.

Image of crud build up in a brand new tin of varnish

Already forming in a brand new tin of varnish, the crud line is already forming

For readers not familiar with the UK, Wilko is an in-between store, above Poundland shops as much of their stuff is above this price, but generally considerably cheaper than the mainstream shops, such as B&Q, Homebase etc which in the USA would be equivalent of Home Depot, Ace Hardware etc.

The project ran over almost two and half weeks. I took many pictures along the way, most of which I remember their significance. But, dear reader, you are probably not wanting my war stories blow by blow, but rather the ‘how to’ recommendations of my experience.

So what can I share with you?

  • Don’t leave your wood out over night when your not expecting rain, because forecasters often get it wrong. I did. The result on water based Varnish was that the whole piece once again took on a white cloudy appearance like it does straight from the can. All of this evaporated away once the removed from the rain, leaving more sever pin pricks of white spots. Most of the pin prick white spots that formed came out within 24 hours. That’s most, not all.
  • If you can see it on the surface, then varnishing over it does not really hide it. I had brush marks down to the previously prepared surface and I hoped that the new coat of varnish would ‘hide’ these strokes having ‘in-between coat’ sanded heavily. To a degree it does, but, once you know they are there, when you look into the varnish from different angles, the light will pick them up. To hide them the only effective way is to keep sanding until you have removed the offending level.
  • Image of varnished surface damage

    Part of the experiment. Can I leave ‘damage’ like this in the varnish finish and get away with it?

If the newly applied coat isn’t satisfactory the best thing to do is right after application – put it under a running water tap and washing the offending stuff off. Some of it will not go so easily and ideally you will use nothing other than the fine wet n dry cutting paper last used to finish sanding to assist its removal.

The Tin says ‘touch dry in one hour’. Its true, it is. Thinking of getting more than once coat on a day because of this? You need to think again. After leaving my table out in the sun for four hours it does sand, but its still soft. It needs 24 hours to harden up.

Image of White Spirit wipe down on Water based Varnish

Potted reflection probably caused by White Spirit wipe down

The tin says ‘wipe the surface down with White Spirit before application. I did but I soon stopped after persistent ‘pooling problems’ where it was like there was silicone on the surface. That is the varnish just seemed to ‘run away’ from certain area’s and stay away. Once I stopped this practice the problem stopped. It might be advisable on an old surface, but for work in progress it didn’t seem to help.

What to do and how to apply

I tried troweling it on thickly. This built up the surface level quickly but the varnish has shrinkage at such a wet thickness. I looked like it knew it was going to ‘fall over the edge’ table so it pulled away from the edge to safer ground. I wouldn’t recommend this method.

Applying it thinly just left brush marks. There was not enough wet stuff to allow the brush marks to flow out, and this stuff begins to set really quickly.

Goldielocs – Just Right. The right level is the brush one third to half way full of varnish.

The Tin says ‘do not over brush’ and they are quite right. The moment the varnish hits the surface you have about 5 seconds working time for it. If you have idea’s about ‘laying it off’ this varnish will do nothing of the sort.

Whatever the size of your brush, the idea is to load it  up up to one third to half way up the bristles. Hold the brush over the container but do not wipe it against the sides of the container. Once the brush has shed it excess varnish take it to the work.

LIGHTLY touch it on to the work and immediately some varnish will pool at the base of the bristles. Where to place the brush? In the middle of place your wanting to varnish. Don’t start at one end or edge!.

I don’t mean ‘start in the middle of the board’. What I mean is, your best off starting in the middle run of an edge, not in the end corner of an edge. Start in the middle of the edge.

So your in the middle spot, holding the brush. With little pressure run the brush from the middle to one edge and at the edge rock the brush on to its other side, just off the vertical and run it back to the center starting point and through it, off to the other edge, where you rock it on to the other side and now run it all the way across the strip lifting off just before you get to the far edge so you don’t built up the varnish on the edge. And that is it.

Now dip the brush in the pot again, drip off the excess but don’t wipe,  and work the next strip ensuring you run part of your brushes width into the previous strip.

An area that you see that is not properly covered you may attempt to work but the problem is this: If you leave it, its a problem because you’ve missed a bit. If you try and work it, if you have a laden brush, the chances are that you will repair it, but as soon as your brush touches the surface, more varnish will pool off the bottom of it meaning the varnish in that area will be thicker than the surrounding area.

Image of reworked varnish

Reworking a problem area is a problem

If you think you’ll use a brush without much varnish on it, then it will probably just drag the surface of what you’ve previously laid, and now the problem is worse. The more you try and work it out, the bigger you’ll make the problem.

So, if you don’t its a problem, if you do its likely to be a problem. A laden brush is the only thing on your side. To repair a thinly covered area you need to put something on it, not just drag about the stuff that’s already too thin in the area in the hope of bridging an area that is already short of varnish.

Getting a great shine. True Grit.

The Tin says ‘Brings out the beauty of the wood and has a great shine to it’.

I think the wood dye does more to bring out ‘the natural beauty of the wood’ by the contrast it induces in the timber. And the Varnish? Well, they all say same the same thing. They would have you believe its down to the varnish that creates the shine.

As long as the varnish is clear, you’ll be fine, because the shine has little to do with the varnish, its down to the grit of the paper you use between coats. You won’t achieve anything above the clarity of the optical quality of the varnish itself, that much is true, and applying it with a brush isn’t going to be to your advantage anyhow. So there is a limit to what you can do.

Image of water on a flattened off surface

Careful what you wish for – a water clear finish? This is water on a flattened off varnish surface

I started with 120 grit paper over the first and second application of varnish. The third layer I sanded with 120 grit, then again with 240 grit. Then apply the varnish. Obviously, washing down to get rid of all the bits of dust, and if you want a tack rag.

The next layer I started sanding with 240 grit, and finished off with 400 grit, because its what I had to hand. Then apply the varnish.

What you are aiming to do is bring the level of the varnish up above the grain of the wood so eventually you have a totally flat surface. The rougher the wood, the more layers of varnish you need to build up to come above the highest grains of wood.

I used wet n dry paper with just a small amount of water on the board and a bowl with water in which I rinsed off the sanding block frequently and rubbed clean against my fingers. Eventually you get to the point where the varnished surface literally sucks the sanding block onto the board as you push it. This is it cutting. You don’t want to sand right through the layer of varnish you’ve just applied, so you need to use some judgment. But as I have said, if there are imperfections and you can see them, then when you apply the next layer of varnish, you lock that into the finish. It may not be serious, that’s up to you.

After 400, the next layer was initially sanded with 400, then finished off with 800, and the same cycle continued through 1,000, 1,500, 2,000 and having got to 2,000 this was used on every layer there after.

What does all this effort do?

What I noticed is that it doesn’t really make the surface any shinier than it was. What it does do is affect the clarity of the reflected object. The amount of jaggedness in reflected straight lines is less, and these lines are better defined.

Unless you  want to get into an automotive style finish, which would be to use a cutting compound followed by a finishing compound followed by a glaze, and if your going to do that you might want to think about spraying the finish on in the first place, this is about the end of the road with a paint brush. But I was still not satisfied with the result.

The reason for this that I could still see more brush marks than I was happy with.

In the real world do you want a surface that you’ve taken so much time and trouble to create, that you’ll not allow anything on the finished work? You’ve created more of an ornament rather than a useful piece of furniture, or that you’ll cover it with a cloth so hiding the finish? Whats the point? Its just a compromise.

Every Solution has a Problem

When ever you see a man who has a problem with the finish of his varnish work, the usual culprits are the varnish or the paint brush is at fault. It is never the operator that is at fault.

I had determined to use a cheap brush and cheap varnish, and accept that I was at fault until I was proven otherwise.

The reality before me was that there were moments of superb results using these materials. It started off with one eight inch, one brush width bit of finish being fabulous. But the rest of the finish was mediocre.

Later I got another one brush width, 16 inch strip of fabulousness, but the rest of it was mediocre. And the worst bit about this, was I had no idea why I got these fabulous bits. The first one was easy because it was at the beginning, but the second one happened in the middle of the board. I had no idea what I had done there.

Time however was moving on, and I wanted the table because I wanted to use it.

I decided I would go to WH Smiths, a stationary supplier that happened to also sell artists paint brushes. If they were not too expensive I would buy one. Luck favored me as their entire range was priced at £1.99. It didn’t matter if it was the size of a pin, or their biggest size, £1.99 was what you paid. I naturally got the biggest one. And this is it.

This Artist Brush solved the problem of excessive brush marks left in the finish using the previous brush. It was a solution looking for a problem but it couldn’t do that until I turned up to get it.

Image of two paint brushes

Brushes. The original and the new. Every solution has a problem

I had now been working away on this project for weeks. And the reason it started was because I wanted a table, so I could use it. At some point you have to stop sanding and varnishing and actually fit the thing, but to do that I needed something I was going to be happy looking at.

I tried using the big brush to get the material down and then using the artist brush dipped in water and with a flick of the wrist, mostly dried out, dragged across in a ‘laying off’ motion. The results were another disaster.

The final method was simply to apply the varnish using this small 1 inch powder brush, loading it up half way up its bristles. I worked across the board for its short runs, starting in the middle working as described.

As soon as this was done and completed, the finish took on an orange peel effect that looked terrible. But, as it began to dry, it became less and less noticeable, in a relative sense.

From what I’ve gathered researching on the Internet, the most likely cause of this is the ambient temperature being too high, causing the varnish to dry before its had a chance to flow out. I’ve been working outside in the UK climate and I can’t say its been warmer than 15 degrees Centigrade. But there we are. What temperature it likes best I don’t know. I do know it begins to go off almost as soon as its touched the surface.

Things you might do to slow this down is to try thinning it with additional water. One manufacturer of a similar product, but probably the people who made this product, their advice for a first coat was to thin with up to 10% water. That might be useful for the finishing coat too.

Image of the final varnish finish

My Final Cut off point is reached. This will do me.



Image of a close up view of the final varnish finish

Close up of the final varnish finish quality concerning reflected lines


And of course, what it had all been about, installing it pending using it.

Image of The varnished table Installed and finished

The varnished table Installed and finished


After a few weeks use this is what it looks like in close up.

Image of Table surface a few weeks later. The Orange Peel is just visible but only if you look for it.

Table surface a few weeks later. The Orange Peel is just visible but only if you look for it.

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