Varnish Smackdown: Going the Distance on Maintenance Coats

I’ll start this post by confessing I’m a varnish aficionado. I just swoon over the look and feel of 8 coats of high gloss varnish over teak or mahogany. I realize it’s not for everyone; properly varnished marine bright work typically requires at least 7-8 coats plus a minimum of 2-3 maintenance coats per season. Each coat typically requires 24 hours to dry with sanding in between coats. Who wants to spend precious days varnishing when you could be sailing? So I completely understand the tendency to procrastinate on varnish work—even if inevitably the finish ends up fading, peeling and cracking, leading to more work down the road. Nobody likes to spend their days varnishing, with the possible exception of yours truly.

About a year ago, I started looking around for a more practical way to satisfy my high gloss varnish fetish. That’s when I came across Halcyon from Jamestown Distributors under their TotalBoat line. Halcyon is a water-based varnish that allows up to 5 coats per day with no sanding in between. And to boot, it comes in a tetrapak container that lets you squeeze out excess air which avoids the tendency to “skim over” in the can, which is a huge irritant for me. The ability to lay down 3+ maintenance coats in a single afternoon would greatly reduce the incentive to procrastinate, thus keep my bright work looking great season after season. Could this possibly be the varnish of my dreams?

So last winter I ordered a pack and marked two test areas on a scrap piece of mahogany. On the left side I put down 7 coats of my go-to polyurethane varnish, Epifanes Clear (this took nearly a week with sanding in between coats). On the right side, I put down 7 coats of Halcyon Clear over a couple of days.

First impressions were very encouraging. Halcyon cured noticeably harder than Epifanes, and although the gloss wasn’t quite as glossy, it was good enough for my purposes. The bright work on deck and in my cockpit takes a beating, and I reckon that even a perfect high gloss finish won’t stay that way very long. The biggest difference was that Epifanes Clear is not perfectly clear—it provides a warm amber hue that I quite like—where as Halcyon Clear is almost perfectly clear.

First test piece with Epifanes and Halcyon Clear

Happy with my initial tests, the following spring I eagerly broke out the Halcyon Clear to refinish the bright work around my companionway, with the plan to “convert” the rest of the bright work to Halcyon over time. Meantime, I left the test mahogany out in my back yard to see how the two varnishes would hold up to the Virginia spring.


Just five weeks later it became clear that the Halcyon was not standing up at all to even mild outdoor exposure (my back yard is fairly shaded). Here is the same test strip after just 35 days:

First test piece after 35 days

When I started this project I had no idea it would develop into a product trial, and unfortunately, I did not control well for differences in sunlight, exposure, time of day, etc. as I was documenting the project. So I apologize for the difficulties in comparing photos taken over time. Still, it’s pretty clear that after just five weeks the Halycon Clear was failing quickly compared to the Epifanes. Yikes!

Of course, the varnish on my companionway bright work was deteriorating just as badly.

So take the product description with a grain of salt:

1-part low-VOC formula offers powerful UV protection to prevent yellowing.

Um… no. Not even in the ballpark.

Okay, so Halcyon Clear was a swing and a miss. But was my pursuit of an easy-to-use rapid overcoat maintenance varnish destined to strike out as well? I decided to find out.

The Varnish Smackdown Begins

By now it was already early June: well into the 2022 boating season. I decided to add 3 additional high gloss varnishes to my test (for a total of five) and see how they fared for the rest of the season. So now the test panel consisted of:

  1. Epifanes Clear as a “gold standard” reference
  2. TotalBoat Halcyon Clear
  3. TotalBoat Halcyon Amber: similar to Halcyon Clear (i.e. water based) but with an amber tint that might therefore provide more UV protection
  4. TotalBoat Lust: a one-part polyurethane that allows up to 5 coats per day
  5. TotalBoat Gleam 2.0: similar to Lust, but a bit easier to apply and allows up to 3 coats per day

Obviously there are many, many other varnishes and wood treatments out there, and this is not a comprehensive test. What I wanted to learn was whether a rapid re-coat varnish could allow me to reduce the time needed for maintenance coats while still looking good and providing acceptable longevity and protection.

I followed the instructions on the data sheet for each varnish regarding build coats (thinning as recommended with the prescribed thinning agents). I applied 8 coats of each varnish.

Additionally, because I had already used Halcyon Clear on my companionway, I wanted to see if over-coating with Halcyon Amber might ameliorate some of the fading that had already occurred. So I split the Halcyon Clear sample into two sections: the original with no additional coats, and a modified one with 3 additional coats of Halcyon Amber. Hopefully you can see a slightly more amber hue in the retouched section of the middle sample shown below.

Here is my modified test panel; I added an unvarnished piece of mahogany stock at the top for reference, and moved the test site to the top of my deck in the boat yard where it would be fully exposed to the elements:

Revised varnish test with five varnishes

Again, this is not an ideal or completely fair test. By this point the Epifanes and Halcyon Clear samples were 50 days older than the Halcyon Amber, Lust and Gleam samples. Lighting and exposure varied with the seasons, time of day and cloud cover. Still, by comparing the samples to the unfinished wood and to the Epifanes sample, you can get a general sense of how they hold up over time.

Initially, Gleam, Lust and even Halcyon Amber were similar in hue to the Epifanes. And although it doesn’t really show up in the picture, each varnish provides a respectable high gloss finish with decent leveling. Gleam 2.0 was especially easy to apply out of the can.

Here is what things looked like after 20 days. By then you could already see the Halcyon Amber losing color relative to the Epifanes, although not as dramatically as the Halcyon Clear, which had faded even further. Lust and Gleam 2.0 were in good shape so far.

Varnish tests after 20 days

After 40 days things looked pretty much the same, except by then I had repainted my deck and fixed those ugly dings in the fiberglass:

Varnish tests after 40 days

After 65 days I had to wrap up the test and move make room for other projects. By then I could see changes across all of the samples. Even the Epifanes was starting to yellow somewhat, and all three polyurethanes were showing slight unevenness in various respects. Still, Gleam 2.0 and Lust were holding up pretty well, with the qualification that they had a 50-day initial advantage.

Varnish tests after 65 days

Bottom Line

The Halcyon varnishes clearly do not pass muster for exterior applications. I don’t know how TotalBoat can claim these provide UV protection; perhaps woods other than mahogany fare better.

Lust and Gleam 2.0 held up much better, so I plan to provisionally add these to my arsenal. The difference between the two is fairly minor in my view. Lust is thicker out of the can and requires thinning under some conditions, and always for the first coat or two on untreated wood (it also allows more over coats per day). Gleam 2.0 is less viscous and is designed to lay down as-is without thinning in most cases. Both products level out nicely and so far look to provide acceptable UV protection. I still prefer Epifanes for its gloss, flow, and slightly better build. But the preference is minor and for maintenance coats is greatly outweighed by the ability to lay down multiple coats without sanding. For a while at least I expect I’ll switch back and forth depending on the project, conditions and other factors.

Now if only they sold these in tetrapaks ;)