The Best Kind of Clear Finish to use Outdoors – The Difference Between Varnish and Spar Varnish

Popular brands of wooden boat varnishes bought at a marina.

We’re entering mid-summer and you may be thinking of applying a clear finish to some project that will be exposed to sunlight outside. What finish should you use? Be careful. All finishes marketed for exterior surfaces aren’t the same, no matter the claims of manufacturers.

The distinction in exterior clear finishes is whether they contain UV-resistant additives, called “UV inhibitors” or “UV absorbers.” And whether they contain enough of these additives to be effective.

Exterior finishes that contain these additives are much more expensive than those that don’t, but they are the only ones that hold up in sunlight. Exterior finishes that don’t contain these UV absorbers still work well in shaded areas.

Exterior finishes generally go by the name “spar,” as in “spar varnish.” Sometimes, a distinction for UV resistance can be made between common spar finishes (without UV inhibitors) and “marine” or “boat” finishes (with UV inhibitors). But there is no industry agreement on the naming, so you’re left with price and where you buy the product being the best indication of which you’re getting.

The spar finishes you buy at home centers and ordinary paint stores generally either don’t contain the absorbers or contain too little to be effective against sunlight. To find exterior clear finishes that contain an adequate amount of the UV-resistant additives, you usually have to go to a marina in a coastal area, or find one of these marinas online and purchase by mail order.

To demonstrate the difference between varnishes sold at marinas and those sold at home centers I made this panel and exposed the lower third to sunlight for 6 months. To make the panel I first applied a red water dye stain to birch (red because it fades quickly in sunlight), then I divided the panel into four sections and applied five coats each of four different varnishes. At the left, a UV-resistant varnish sold at marinas; in the middle, two common spar varnishes with claims to UV resistance sold at home centers; and, at the right, an indoor varnish with no claim to UV resistance. You can see that the varnish from the marina was fairly effective at blocking UV light. But the middle two varnishes were hardly better than the indoor varnish, despite claims to the contrary from the manufacturers.

Even with a finish with good UV resistance, if the finish is exposed to a lot of sunlight, you still need to maintain it a lot more than you are used to with a finish indoors. The sun will dull the finish, then begin breaking it down. This happens on the surface first, of course, so the easiest procedure to follow is to sand through the damage, then apply another coat or two of the finish. You don’t necessarily need to strip the finish all the way to the wood. It’s less work to keep up the finish than to replace it.

This is the procedure most wooden boat owners use.

– Bob Flexner

8 thoughts on “The Best Kind of Clear Finish to use Outdoors – The Difference Between Varnish and Spar Varnish

  1. pmac

    HI Bob.
    Thanks for posting this. I am a little confused. The sample board has something called zspar and another called flagship. The first pic has one can labeled zspar flagship (can 2) and can 3 also says z-spar. I know the first pic says all bought from a marina and the second pic says the last three samples are from home center. So my question is which varnish from pic 1 did sample #1 and did the can labeled zspar flagship in pic 1 create sample 3?
    Thanks
    Patrick

    1. Bob FlexnerBob Flexner Post author

      I apologise for the confusion, but the two pictures don’t have anything to do with each other. The story is told by the second picture. But I didn’t think that picture was the best for introducing the topic on my blog home page. There’s no explanatory text there, just a title, which I don’t have total control of anyway. So I decided to use a generic picture of four brand I happen to have.

      You might be trying to figure out which brand I think is best. As with all finishing products within a category, and woodworking tools for that matter (for example, tablesaws), everyone has their favorites, which is usually (always?) the brand they use. With marinas it’s the brand they sell. The idea of trying to do comparative tests seems to me non-productive. How many brands? How many years? Did the manufacturer change any part of their formula in the meantime. They aren’t going to tell me. So I limit myself to trying to define types or categories. In the case UV resistant varnishes, it seems pretty clear to me that some manufacturers are misrepresenting their products.

      1. pmac

        Thanks Bob. It was just seeing the word flagship in both pics that confused me. I wasn’t looking for a recommendation. Though in re-reading what I wrote, I can see how you might have thought that. Thanks again.

  2. Sullivans Papa

    Hi,
    As luck would have it, I just finished two garden benches using a well known gloss spar varnish applying the recommended three coats. Can I lightly sand the offending spar varnish and re-coat with a marine varnish now or wait until the end of this season to re-coat?

    1. Bob FlexnerBob Flexner Post author

      I would think you could add more coats of a more UV resistant varnish just as soon as the existing varnish is dry enough to sand.

  3. JumpingJax

    Well presented.
    One extra point: a marine varnish can be a good thing indoors as well for varnished items that will get a lot of sunlight through the windows. UV is almost as bad indoors as out since window glass typically doesn’t filter out UV to any major extent.
    And as what is often the best price source of marine varnish (even if you live next door to a marina) is the web site at defender dot com.

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