Making Varnish for Rods

Some info!

This took me five days to write this so I hope you read it, a bit involved, but the finish is what makes or breaks a rod! Before the invention of these Modern finishes, the old-fashioned way was the use of primarily Oils and some additives, Banana, Linseed, Walnut, or Tung, which I still use for a non-gloss finish, mostly on rods where I do not use metal Ferrules. The oil is the drying agent. Walnut oil will give you a little darker and richer look. I have tried Ace, Cabbot, Waterlox, Epifanes , Helmsman Spar Urethane and others. Behlen’s is a short-oil varnish, not good for a rod. A short oil varnish is less oil and more resin, I do not recommend this type. Waterlox is a short-oil tung oil/phenolic resin, good finish, but will not last the time frame issue. Pratt&Lambert 38 is a alkyd/soya oil resin varnish. I’ve wanted to try Supermarine SM-600 but its kind of pricier for just a try; if someone has tried it please let me know your results. I have had the best results with McCloskey Man Of War. I thin the varnish with 10% Mineral Spirits (sometimes a little more) and 5-7% VM&P Naptha, which is basically Mineral Spirits with a curing agent added to it, helps it set/dry quicker, 5-6 days between coats rather than 10-15+ days. Any type of product containing oils has to be reduced before use. Linseed needs a 50% reduction, Tung oil a 15% to 35% depending on the hardness of what you are applying it to. For Bamboo I reduce Tung oil 20%.

I have a 3" PVC pipe, 6' long that holds 7+ quarts (a 5' long pipe holds about 5 quarts), with a 3" rubber Qwik-Cap #QC-103 with a hose clamp. Use Bloxygen. Hold the Varnish 1-1/2" from the top because when you heat the pipe/varnish to 90-100 degrees the varnish will expand close to the top. I wipe the dipping cabinet inside with a fairly wet rag, the same with the drying cabinet and pan of water at the bottom w/ the wet rag hanging a little in the water. You need to have about 15-20% humidity in the cabinet and the temperature in there 75-85 degree range. I do two coats on the blanks letting each coat dry a Minimum 5 days, this way I avoid hallow space when wrapping the guides and 2-3 coats with a 50/40 mix on the silk before the final dip coats . The issue with Urethane is that it takes forever to set up, and to spend weeks between coats just isn’t acceptable, I spent 6 months doing one rod, ugh!

In the last year I have been making my own Varnish which I have more control over, and found in the long run it has saved me money, about 50%. To make Varnish you will need to understand the oil, to resin, to solvent ratio. Which oil, which resin, which solvent. Don’t give up yet, it’s a bit involved but well worth taking the time to figure it out. Your environment is to be considered, the temperature and humidity, temperature not so much an issue unless you do not have a controlled drying cabinet. Humidity, yes a definite issue, to dry like where I live, 10% to as low as -5% is a big problem, it dries to fast, simply does not work, bubbles, runs, bummer! The other end at 80% to 100% is too much, it dries to slow, and your waiting forever. So you are shooting for a range between 20% minimum to 50% maximum. At 20%-drying time of 5-7 days, at 50%- drying time of 10-15+ days. You’ll have judge by the humidity where you live. This is at 75-85 degrees, no less no more initially and lower as time goes. Actually the slower it dries the better the finish is. I tend to push things a bit because the waiting part is the hardest thing for me.

Now, oil first, I use Tung oil, kind of pricier, but the best. Linseed is hard to use because all the mixtures I made jelled within six months and became wasteful and frustrating. Banana Oil is great all by itself for the natural, non gloss finish and requires re-oiling occasionally. The Resins are Phenolic, Alkyd, and urethane. Base Solvent is Mineral Spirits, Naptha or Paint Thinner and Gum Turpentine. Oil to resin has a dramatic affect on the varnish. Small amount of oil with more resin makes a very hard varnish, but a brittle finish that cracks easily. So I make what they call a “long-oil varnish” that has a greater percentage of oil resulting in a softer more flexible finish that will not crack. I have not used urethane or urethane/alkyd resin mixtures because I tried Helsmans who uses is a urethane/alkyd resin and drying time was way too long. Epifanes uses a phenolic with modified alkyd resins that had also a long drying time, but a little less than Helsmans, still not good for my time frame on rods, but the one I reach for when I do other wood projects. Epifanes also has UV-blockers for 24/7 projects In the sun.

Phenolic (Phenol formaldehyde) resin, a polymer, is to change straight varnish into Spar/Marine Varnish. Have you ever seen a circuit board or magnetic coil with it’s nice shiny coating, same stuff, also used in jewelry, that how I learned about it. You can make it yourself, but it is extremely dangerous and poisonous, do not try to do this. Alkyd is soya oil for the clarity and preventing yellowing. UV- blockers in my opinion are not needed because a rod is not going to be in the sun 24/7 and only added to the cheaper polyurethane varnishes using urethane resins.

Varnish is not a fixed formula! There is great secrecy in formulas. That Is why everyone is having such an issue with it, myself included. Issues of hardness, drying time, elasticity, clarity, drying oil type, air, humidity, resins, and thinners. Making your own needs adjustments to you shop situation. It took me about a year to prefect my formula, but now I love it and glad I spent the time. Here’s what I came up with. The Varnish part is regular/standard varnish (not spar/marine) purchased at a professional store who they should also have the Alkyd/Soya Based Long Oil for paints. Do not purchase any hardener additives as this is what this formula is about. Professional paint store folks are very knowledgeable and can be a great help, but make sure you are getting exactly these ingredients. (Ex: do not get an Alkyd/Soya Based Short Oil for paints.) I am using store bought Varnish because of ease, cost and have found making the varnish itself is VERY DANGERIOUS and MUST be done under a very controlled environment, breathing any amount of the dust or fumes in your lungs will cause severe health issues. If you think I’m trying to scare you, your right!!!

Varnish: 1+ gal. Tung Oil: 1-1 ½- qt. Gum Turpentine: ½- C. Mineral Spirits: ½- C. Naptha: ½- C. Phenolic resin: 1+/- oz Alkyd/soya oil: 1+/- oz.

Dissolve Phenolic resin in Mineral Spirits, requires a lot of mixing (can take awhile). Add Naptha and Gun Turpentine, mixing a lot. Add Alkyd/ soya oil, mix some more. Do not add more resin or soya thinking more is better. Add mixture to Tung oil, mix some more. Add the whole mixture to the varnish, mix a lot more for 1-2 weeks.

Very important! Observe the viscosity/thickness of varnish before you add other mixture, after you add the mixture compare it to see if it is thinner, which should be, or if it is heaver. If it is about the same or heaver, add some Naptha or Mineral Spirits a little at a time to make it thinner, try not to get it to thin!! If it is to thin add more varnish and/or Tung oil till you get it thicker. I made this mix over a year ago and it has not jelled to now, using Bloxygen of course.

As this recipe was experimental to me and took over a year, you on your own and I hold no responsibility to the accuracy of its amounts/quantities due to your environment differences or inaccuracies, accuracy is a must, especially if you are making small amounts. This mix was made for a very hot/dry environment so you may need to make small changes, like more oil and/or more Naptha.

Finding the products is like finding Nickel/silver, it’s hard. If you goggle it they will try to sell you by the tons. I get the Phenolic resin at a local jeweler’s supplier; it is used for heated inlay and can be colored. Get the hard chunks to dissolve over the granulated as breathing any powder is poison to you or your pets please do not let children or pets have access to any of these chemicals. Alkyd/soya must be a Soya Based Long Oil for paints, not short; it is an amber color and has gloss retention, short oil will be a darker color and cause a harder finish, not a food product! A painter buddy I know found it a painter’s supply store, not a common item he said. With this process I do not have to wait weeks to month for a rod to be finished, 8 to12 weeks, kool ah!

Hope this fills in some FYI for ya all !!!

An interesting link a guy who makes his own varnish, kind of a dangerous method, but neat to read.

I will start here with some extra FYI.

All of the brands are the same sort of stuff. Each has their own formula as to not infringe on the other. There are others that even use other drying oils such as Oiticica, Perilla and even Watco. It’s taken a lot of research for info. Sherman-Williams even have their own brand but a short-oil and it will yellow more than others. The durability solely depends on the type of oil & resin used. Short-oil is less than 45% oil content. Medium-oil is more than 45% but less than 60%. Long-oil is more than 60% but less than 75%. Very-long oil is more than 75%. The question is not should it be thinned, the question is how much. Straight out of the can it is too thick to flow properly.

If I remember right P&M 38 is a good price and is the one that has a purple look in the can, Forby’s is the same but costs more. My notes say that it is a Medium-oil with a modified soya/alkyd. It also says it uses Linseed rather than Tung Oil. It also says that you can use Kerosene in place of Mineral Spirits. Notes say it is more resistance to scratches and has a pale amber color. Says that it dries to touch quicker and can recoat in 2-3 days and will yellow in time. So what this tells me is that it an excellent varnish, will have a little more amber color in the finish, but has a yellowing issue. I only used it for a wipe-on finish with a 50/50 mixture on other projects, worked great. “I personally would not use it on my rods”, but for other stuff, 1st in line.

I use 100% varnish because it gets thinned as part of the formula.

I have been using McCloskey Man Of War on my standard rods with the last mix reduction I did at 12% Mineral Spirits and 8-10% Naptha because it was kind of thick when I opened the can. Drying time is more than my preparation and get away with four- five coats at .8 mils thick with a minimum of 5 days drying time for each coat. I am using the varnish I prepared on the premium rods I build because I get away with thinner coats, less than .6 mils, thinner coats dry smother and faster, and do 6 or 7 coats, at 3-4 days minimum drying time. So curing time is about the same. Of course sanding between coats and wiping it using a very lightly dampened rag with Mineral Spirits/Naptha, don’t make the mistake of using anything else.

The thinning with 10% Mineral Spirits and 5-7% VM&P Naptha is a base thinning start for whichever brand you buy. You need to use your own judgment and look at the thickness/viscosity when you open the can, if it looks thicker you can thin a bit more, if it looks thin, thin it a bit less. Test dipping a blank tells the truth though, if you get what appears to be a run/build-up, it is too thick and need a little more thinning. I have had to pour the dipping tube mix back in the mixing can 3 or 4 times before I got it the way I wanted, reduce it with little amounts (like 1/4 of a cup) at a time cause you don’t want to get it to thin. I over thinned one time and had to go get another gallon and ended up with extra amount, boo! hoo! Never shake varnish. The slower the better when drawing it up/out of the Varnish, mine runs at 3rpm, takes about ten minutes.


As Always Have A Nice Day!