When my family and I were living on our first boat in the Mediterranean, a British built ketch, we visited many American boats and I always admired the way they employed teak and holly for their cabin floorboards - or to use the nautical term, cabin sole. A shiny teak and holly floor certainly enhances the interior of any boat and it was one of the reasons I bought Britannia
During all the time I have been doing all the alterations shown on this website I used the forward cabin as a workshop and traipsed through the saloon with all manner of equipment and tools. I didn't remove my shoes every time either - it was just too much trouble - so the floors suffered and became scratched and dull. The white Holly strips were hardly visible in places, and the whole floor was crying out for attention.
As the major modifications came to an end, I began to think how I might restore the floorboards. Whichever way I restored them, a very important criteria for me was to ensure they finished up with a non-slip surface. This was uppermost in my mind because six months earlier I had slipped in the saloon and snapped both bones in my lower left leg, along with a complete dislocation of the ankle. The injury was still giving warnings about moving around on boats, so it was imperative I achieved a non-slip surface - period!
The easiest sections to start working on were the twelve 3/4” inch thick plywood lift-up floorboards. The dirty ingrained varnish needed stripping from the thin veneer, and like any wood restoration job, preparation is the key. The more effort made at this early stage, the better the final result.
Before I could even start cleaning the boards I had to repair some of the damaged and missing sections of the Holly strips and edging. Luckily I had some spare pieces of the original floor, so I carefully scored both sides of the Holly strip joint with a sharp knife, then, using a newly sharpened 1/4” inch chisel I was able to actually ease the 3/8” inch strip out of it’s groove. After cleaning out the damaged groove in the floorboard I glued a new strip in place and clamped it tight, with a flat plate.
Many of the edging strips around the boards were also broken or missing, so I cut new 1/4” wide teak strips on my table saw and glued them along the edges. I also filled smaller indentations and chips with Plastic wood, made by DAP Industries, from Lowes hardware store.
The underside of the plywood must have been insulated at one time, but all that was now left was a dirty layer of dry adhesive which quickly clogged my belt sander. I had to use paint stripper and a wide chisel to scrape it off, then sand the plywood smooth. I also removed the brass lifting handles, which are recessed into each board. Eventually all the boards were repaired and ready for sanding/cleaning.
At this point I give fair warning to anyone reading this, and planning to work on their own veneered floorboards. Even when new, the veneer is thin, and if it has been worked on previously it might be very thin. Mine looked to be generally about 1mm thick, (3/64” of an inch), but thinner in places, where it was scratched and dented.
I began sanding a board using a square orbital sander with 80 grit, but it hardly removed anything and would have taken an age to sand the hard varnish off. So I switched to my 3” inch belt sander with 100 grit. This removed more of the old varnish and grime, but it also highlighted areas which were slightly lower, which the sander skimmed over. Attempting to sand down to these levels with a belt sander was a mistake, because I cut through the veneer in a few places, exposing the plywood beneath.
There has hardly ever been a job I have done on any boat, which has not created another job - or two, and this project was no exception. It brought back the maxim every DIY boater should have tattooed up his arm, so he sees it before he starts a job. “If it ain’t broke, it probably will be when I fix it!”
There was nothing I could do about this error until I started varnishing, so I continued sanding, but considerably more carefully. Belt sanding did not remove all the varnish or ingrained dark spots and scratches in the wood, so I pasted the boards with Goof Off Semi Paste Pro Stripper, then scraped if off with a 1” wide chisel. I scraped the dirt and varnish out of the deeper indentations with a sharp knife then sanded them by hand to blend into the remainder. It was a slow but effective process.
Eventually, over about a week, all the removable floorboards were repaired and sanded. A final preparation was to wash them with Teak Brite and scrub with a nylon brush. This still released an amazing amount of dirt, and I did it twice on a few boards, but eventually they dried a clean bronze color, with beautifully highlighted Holly strips.
Before starting to varnish I wanted to do something about the undercuts I had made with my belt sander which exposed the plywood. I had previously used a wood stain on plywood to make it look roughly the same as teak. It is called Golden Mahogany, by Varathane. I carefully brushed this over the exposed areas and hoped for the best.
I then replaced the brass lifting handles and masked the edges. This was easier than trying to mask the actual recess without the handles in place. If varnish dried in these cutouts it would need scraping out again to allow the handles to fit back flush with the floorboard.
Normally, the objective of varnishing on a boat is to achieve a high gloss finish, but this is invariably slippery, especially when wet. As mentioned previously, my concern was to finish up with a non-slip surface. I therefore asked everyone I could how this might best be achieved, and found different methods.
I called some of the major paint manufacturers and learned that two, Epifanes and Rustoleum, have a fine granular substance which when mixed in the final coat of varnish leaves a dimpled non skid surface. There may be others as well.
I also found an intriguing method on the Internet which advocated sprinkling salt on the final coat of wet varnish. Then, when the vanish was dry, hosing it off with water, thus dissolving the salt and leaving a non-slip surface.
The easiest method that was suggested was simply not to sand the floorboards between coats of varnish. I especially liked this idea, because hand sanding twelve floorboards every time, between five coats of varnish - not to mention the large fixed floor areas - sounded like very hard work.
I decided to use Epifanes clear gloss wood varnish, because their specification specifically mentions the varnish can be over-coated within 72 hours, “without the need for re-sanding.”
The first coat was a 50/50 mix of varnish and mineral spirits, to make sure it soaked into the wood. I laid it on with a new medium hard brush, always with the grain. I was pleased to see that even after the first coat the areas I stained blended quite well with the teak, and the Holly strip repairs were almost invisible.
I allowed the boards 24 hours to dry and had to remind myself not to sand the surface - old habits die hard. The second coat was roughly a 75/25 varnish/thinners mix, which brought out the color and beauty of the wood even more, already with a hint of a shine.
By this time my garage was littered with floorboards resting on benches, boxes, and anything else I could find to keep them flat and off the floor. After two more applications of 75/25 mix the boards gleamed.
A final coat was neat varnish, and I also gave the edges of the boards two coats.
Since I had not sanded between coats, the surface remained quite coarse to the touch, but not enough to be felt with deck shoes or even bare feet. Upon testing a wet board, it proved to be remarkably non-slip, yet it was also glossy.
But there was still one final operation on the removable boards. The underneaths were still bare plywood, so I masked the edges and painted them white.
It was a great relief to finally see all the shiny boards in place on the boat, but they also highlighted the fixed sections of floor which I had not yet touched.
I then set about the back-aching job of sanding and cleaning the non removable sections. Some of these were also damaged and required new Holly strips splicing in. I stripped the old varnish off using a combination of belt sander and vibrating sander - to get into the corners. But I still had to use paint stripper to remove the more stubborn spots. These sections were harder to do than the removable boards. Then there were multiple coats of varnish to be applied, but no rubbing down in between, thank goodness!
It was harder work cleaning the fixed floorboards, but all the time I had the removable boards as an incentive. Eventually they all had a gleaming matching non-slip surface.
Even though I say it myself, the appearance is now spectacular! The cabin sole looks new, with a clean professional, and safe, finish. My predicament now - I hardly dare walk on them!