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Not Quite

After joking about how my brain was melted from the varnish fumes Saturday night, I started to feel like maybe it was no joke. I got the chills and had weird, feverish dreams all night. Sunday I was not up to snuff. No appetite. I put in some more hours varnishing, but I just didn’t have the strength to get it all done. Close, though: only six window sashes left. But Celcus informs me that I’ll need multiple coats for the stairs. Plus I put the varnish on way too thick on one stair and it crinkled up pretty badly.


So, I see more sanding and varnishing in the near future. I won’t have quite the sense of closure I’d hoped for heading back to work on Monday, but such is life. I’m exhausted. Thankfully my job isn’t as taxing as this renovation.

Published inOur HousePix


  1. More unsolicited advise…

    Unfortunately, the crinkled varnish will have to be sanded down, but it could suffice as the first coat.

    With varnishes, thin coats is the only way to go, no matter what the surface is to be used for. Even cutting the first coat with a touch of mineral spirits is not out of the question. The first coat will, and should, be partially absorbed, leaving an irregular sheen. A light rubdown with steel wool to give it some tooth is all you need to do…unless there is a defect. If you put it on thin, that should not be a problem. The second is where it really starts to look good, and should be a lot easier to apply. The third should be the thinnest of all, just a thin glaze, and it should go on like velvet.

    And get yourself a paint/varnish fume rated respirator, the cartridge kind. It’s worth every penny, which you will realize the first time you take it off and smell what you haven’t been breathing. Of course, ventilate while you are working (okay, weather didn’t cooperate there) and try the burning candle trick for the enclosed spaces.

  2. With varnish, you definitely want to put it on as thin as possible. Some people like to thin down the first coat quite a bit; this allows it to penetrate all the pores of the wood and cracks between boards. After the first coat, sand lightly with some fine sandpaper (eg, 220). Then vacuum up the dust, (or use a tack cloth) and hit it with the second coat. For a really superior finish, that will last a long time in a high traffic area like your stairs, three thin coats will beat one thick coat any day, and look a lot better too. As for those wrinkles, bust out ye olde 5 in 1 paint scraper and shave ’em off. Do it asap, as the varnish may not be completely hardened yet, which will make it a lot easier. You’ll also want to sand as well to make the wrinkle remnants disappear completely.

  3. rcs rcs

    Reminds me of when I decided to oil my floors (as opposed to polyurethane.) The hard work will pay off and all will marvel at your glorious woodwork, B!

  4. Thanks, y’all, I do appreciate the advice, very much. I did use a respirator Sunday and I think it helped. As for the varnish, the particular brand I’m using says “do not thin,” but I wouldn’t have known to try that anyway. I’m looking forward to the second and third coats now that I’ve been properly schooled in what to expect.

  5. What brand of varnish are you using? More to the point, is it really “varnish” (oil base) or polyurethane (water base)? Based on your description, it sounds like you do have oil base varnish, which you can thin with mineral spirits. If it’s oil base, it’s ok to thin it, despite what the can says. Just thin it a little bit. You can always add more thinner; it’s hard to remove it when you put too much in. Even better than mineral spirits is a paint additive called Penetrol. For oil base paints and varnish, this stuff is really great. It thins it, and also makes it flow and penetrate better (hence the name). Great stuff, however, you may not find it at the Home Desperado – try PPG on Carrollton next to Rocknbowl. Oh yeah, get a good brush too; this makes another big difference. For your stairs, try a 2.5″ angled sash brush, make sure it’s bristle, not polyester!

    Oh yeah, one more thing; just to add to what Celcus said about “unless there is a defect.” It’s almost inevitable that some dust will get trapped under the varnish; also, your staining may well have raised the grain a bit. Use the force! Namely, your bare hand; feel the surface; if it’s gritty or bumpy, then bust out the sandpaper; if it’s real smooth, the steel wool will do.

  6. Lee Lee

    I love the pic B. Your photographic abilities amaze me still.

  7. Jedd, it’s ImpervoŽ Spar Varnish 440, “a premium quality phenolic-modified tung-linseed-castor oil finish reinforced with an ultraviolet screening agent.”

    Lee, thanks, the photo doesn’t actually do this crinkle justice. It was huge and intricate and kind of beautiful.

    I just scraped it off.

  8. Jedd’s right. Penetrol is some good stuff, and you can get it at Home Despot and I’ve seen it at Harry’s Ace. I have not used it in varnish, however (thanks for the tip, Jedd).

    And that’s a “real” varnish as in not polyurethane. Mineral spirits will work fine to thin it. And you should only need to thin it a little bit. And the thinning is only for the first coat.

    Good luck.

  9. Karen Karen

    When I lived in Mexico the painters always drank milk to “absorb” the fumes. Maybe a respirator and a glass of milk, and some cookies for a reward.

  10. […] stairs today. I should say a big “thank you” to Celcus and Jedd who gave me good advice last time I wrote about this. I’ve been following that advice, sanding and steel wooling and restaining over the last […]

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