Stew Cues: Wood finishes need special care

Mar 12, 2018 by Alene Keenan

Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan

Wooden boats have been around for thousands of years, and the characteristics of traditional woods have stood the test of time. Teak, oak, cherry, walnut, and maple are woods commonly used on yachts. Teak is a premier hardwood for marine construction. It is decay-resistant and has a high resin content that makes it water-resistant. Many yachts use teak for decking, but it is popular for salons, joinery, floors and cabinet structures on the inside, too.

Luxury furniture made from exotic woods is expensive and in high demand on yachts. Mahogany, ebony, and rosewood are examples of exotic woods that may be restricted due to environmental issues. One option to reduce cost is to use wood veneer, in which thin sheets of exotic woods are applied to less expensive surfaces to make them look more attractive. They are delicate, chip easily and require careful treatment.

For stews, housekeeping is not just about keeping things clean. As with all surfaces, wood must be protected from scratches, dents, and damage from sun, heat, humidity, chemicals, salt air and exhaust. Stews oversee care of interior woodwork, but it is important to respect and understand how to care for exterior tables, decking and furniture, too.

Varnish, polyurethane, lacquer or shellac may be applied to furniture as a protective finish. Varnish creates a hard, durable surface that prevents damage from water and UV light. Polyurethane is a water- or oil-based liquid plastic that dries to a satin or glossy finish.

Shellac is made by combining the secretion of the female lac bug with a solvent, such as alcohol. It protects wood, but also adds a warm color that enhances the appearance. Lacquer is a durable, scratch-resistant,  high-gloss finish. Treat it gently, or the smooth finish will thin out and discolor.

Ask the captain, chief stew or first mate to help you understand the different wood finishes on board and how to care for them. Even dust build-up can cause scratches. For best results, dust often using a soft cotton or microfiber cloth very slightly dampened with water only. Avoid using furniture polish or anything that contains silicone. Silicone can soak into the grain of the wood and cause permanent damage.

Most wood finishes should be washed occasionally. Always check to see which products are acceptable. A cotton or microfiber cloth lightly dampened with a very mild solution of one teaspoon of pH neutral dish soap, castile soap or baby soap to 2 cups of water is usually safe.  A weak vinegar-and-water solution of one teaspoon vinegar to 2 cups water may also be used. Oil soaps might be allowed on some surfaces, but always test first. If it turns white or hazy, do not proceed. Avoid excess water, especially around joints, and always dry wood completely with a soft cloth.

Wood polish or wax treatments may be applied once or twice per year to add shine and protect wood. Waxes used include carnauba, paraffin and beeswax. Oils include tung, linseed and mineral, or petroleum. With waxes and oils, it is important to prevent buildup. They require cleaning with appropriate solvents.

Temperature and humidity are care considerations, too. Constant exposure to heat from the sun or proximity to electronics can cause warping or splitting. Humidity levels should be kept constant at 40 to 45 percent. If the air conditioning can’t keep up, you may need a dehumidifier.

Protect from water damage and wipe up spills immediately. Hot items placed directly on wooden surfaces can cause permanent damage, so use care when serving hot foods and drinks.

Wood is a beautiful natural substance that appeals to people on many levels. Heirloom pieces develop a patina and carry the memories and the stories of the person who created them, as well as the generations that lived with them.

One of my fondest memories in yachting is when some Feadship craftsmen came to visit the boat I was working on during a boat show. Some of them had worked on that build, and seeing their faces light up with satisfaction at the way the wood had been cared for made us appreciate the hands that had crafted it – and proud to be charged with its stewardship.

Alene Keenan is lead instructor of interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale. She shares more than 20 years experience as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht,” available at Comments are welcome below.


About Alene Keenan

Alene Keenan is a veteran chief stew, interior training instructor/consultant, and author of The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht.

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