This article contains instructions, advice, or how-to content. (April 2015)
On boats, particularly wooden boats, brightwork is exposed metal and varnished woodworking, though amongst the yachting set it more often refers to the woodwork. The metal is usually brass or bronze that is kept polished, or stainless steel, which requires less maintenance. In the past, due to the environmental exposure experienced by boats, corrosion and UV damage made maintaining brightwork both Sisyphean and extremely labor-intensive. However, with the development of improved UV-absorbers and filters in the chemical composition of the various marine varnishes (spar varnish, polyurethane, or linear polyurethane), this work is not as intensive as it once was. Varnished finishes are maintained by sanding and re-finishing, and metalwork is maintained by polishing.
Novice boat owners who wish to do their own varnishing may be intimidated by horror stories recounted by ill-informed or malicious advisors, but with the use of quality products and modern techniques, there is no reason why the upkeep of marine varnish on a well-used vessel even in the tropic latitudes should be overly daunting.
As in all artisanal practices, prep work is key. One can hardly expect aesthetically pleasing or long-lived results if proper attention is not paid to the preparation of the wood surface before the application of whichever finish is chosen.
Every professional varnisher seems to have his or her own dogma concerning the actual application of the varnish, and tends to be just as dogmatic in his preferred choice of what type of varnish, and which particular brand, to use as well.
If the intrepid would-be varnisher resorts to the forums of well-known yachting websites on the internet for information, he will find a bewildering variety of often conflicting advice. No two commentators seem to share exactly the same opinions, regardless of whether they are professionals or amateurs.
To further confound the seeker of authoritative information, he will see the same confusing diversity of instructions at the different online how-to sites.
Unfortunately, there is no real consensus to be found, online or off, about the best products or the best techniques to use in varnishing brightwork. A good rule of thumb is to consult professionals and ask where one can see examples of their work, in person. Though one professional's advice may differ from the next, if his or her work is top-notch in appearance and he has a good reputation, one may be reasonably sure of getting good advice (it is common courtesy to offer compensation for their time in consultation). Once a product choice is made, it is advisable to follow the manufacturer's instructions, usually to be found printed on the cans containing the products. It is always prudent to read accompanying pamphlets.
As in any do-it-yourself project, when surveying the field of products available, "let the buyer beware". Advertising claims found in supplier catalogues or even the information within boating magazine articles should be regarded skeptically if the tone seems too enthusiastic. It is fair to say that comparative price is usually a good indicator of product quality in a reputable store. Some naifs may think it wise to buy a cheaper, in-house brand to save on cost, but this is a mistake—any such savings are negligible compared to the cost of one's time. It is not advisable to risk a chance of possibly inferior results when by far the greater cost is in the labor rather than the materials.
The demanding labor of brightwork maintenance has been a storied part of maritime life for some 250 years, since before the days of William Mountaine and The Seaman's Vade-Mecum (first published 1744). As a result, it is occasionally referred to in the broader culture. For example, in the song "When I was a Lad" from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, H.M.S. Pinafore, in which Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty, recounts that he climbed the political ladder in large part by his ability to "polish up the handle of the big front door". Lord Nelson might have cast a jaundiced eye on such an attitude, but surely those brave boat owners who persevere in completing their own brightwork varnishing project will feel that they have "gained the most splendid and decisive victory", albeit one that was perhaps "dearly purchased".