Refurbish a cabin sole
Roger Hughes lavishes some attention on his yacht’s teak and holly-strip cabin sole
How to make teak and holly soleboards look like new
When my family and I were living on our British-built ketch in the Mediterranean we visited many American boats and I always admired the way they employed teak and holly for their cabin floorboards – or to use the more nautical term, the cabin sole.
A shiny teak and holly sole certainly enhances the interior of any vessel and it was one of the reasons I bought my present boat, Britannia, an American-built Down East 45.
Since I have owned her I’ve made some quite drastic alterations. I changed the rig from a ketch to a brigantine schooner, with a squaresail on the foremast. I completely remodelled the aft cabin, both bathrooms and the galley and fitted a new ceiling throughout. During all this time 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 strips of holly were hardly visible in places, and the whole floor was desperately crying out for attention.
As the other 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’d 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!
The easiest sections to start working on were the dozen 3⁄4in 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 1⁄4in chisel I was able to carefully ease the 3⁄8in strip of holly out of it’s groove. After cleaning out the damaged groove in the sole board I glued a new strip in place and clamped it tight, pressing it down with a flat plate.
Many of the edging strips around the boards were also broken or missing, so I cut new 1⁄4in-wide teak strips on my table saw and glued them along the edges.
I also filled smaller indentations and chips with plastic wood filler which can be sanded when cured.
I suspect the underside of the plywood must have been insulated at one time, but all that was now left was a thick, dirty layer of dry adhesive.
It quickly clogged my belt sander, so I had to use paint stripper and a wide chisel to scrape it off, then sand the plywood smooth afterwards.
As part of the preparation I also removed the brass lifting handles which are recessed into each board.
Eventually all the boards were repaired and ready for sanding and 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, but was even thinner in places where it was scratched and dented.
I began sanding a board using a square orbital sander with 80-grit abrasive paper, but it hardly removed anything and would have taken an age to sand the hard varnish off.
So I switched to my 3in belt sander with 100-grit. This removed more of the old varnish and grime, but it also highlighted areas of dips and troughs 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’ve 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 to attempt to overcome my error until I started varnishing, so I carried on with the belt sander – but considerably more carefully.
Even belt sanding did not remove all the varnish or ingrained dark spots and scratches in the wood, so I pasted the boards with a product called Goof Off Semi Paste Pro Stripper, then scraped if off with a 1in-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 a proprietary teak cleaner 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 to a clean bronze colour, with beautifully highlighted holly strips.
Before starting to varnish I wanted to do something about the undercuts I’d made with my belt sander which exposed the plywood. I’d previously used a wood stain called Golden Mahogany, by Varathane, on plywood to make it look roughly the same as teak. 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. I did this
because if varnish dried in the cutouts it would need scraping out again to allow the handles to fit back flush with the floorboard – creating more work!
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 also 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. I’m sure there will 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 suggested was simply not to sand the floorboards between coats of varnish. I especially liked this idea, because hand sanding 12 floorboards every time, between five coats of varnish – not to mention the large fixed floor areas in the boat – sounded like very hard work.
Even though two-part urethanes would probably have given a harder finish, I didn’t want to use them due to the number of times I planned to apply different varnish/thinner mixes.
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 well 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 oversanded areas I’d 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 colour 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, trestles and anything else I could find to keep them flat and off the floor. After two more applications of 75/25 mix the boards were gleaming.
A final coat was neat varnish, and I also gave the edges of the boards two coats.
Since I’d 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’d 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 – more difficult 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 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 is that I hardly dare walk on them!
Definitely looking the worse for wear: a section of cabin sole before restoration
Replacing damaged holly strips was a delicate operation, but easy enough with sharp tools, and the new inserts blended in well with the others RIGHT This shows what was left of the insulation which was at one time stuck to the underneath of the sole boards. It was now a dirty sticky mess and had to be removed with paint stripper and a chisel
Some edging strips were broken or missing so new strips of teak were cut, glued and pinned in place before being planed and sanded smooth
The cleaning process released an amazing amount of dirt out of the grain, but needed sanding again afterwards
LEFT There’s a lot of engine and ancillary equipment beneath the sole boards of Roger Hughes’s Down East 45
The final result was well worth the effort and Roger no longer needs to make the excuse every time guests come aboard: ‘I’ll be getting round to restoring the floorboards eventually’.
Sanding didn’t remove all the old dirt and varnish so stripper was employed
Here are the restored boards in place (lower half of picture) next to the as yet untouched fixed sole
The first, thinned, coat of varnish soaked right into the bare wood, but immediately brought out the nice grain of the teak