Varnish Your Cans?

“In some of the older books on cruising, they talk about dipping cans in varnish or some such to keep them from rusting.”

And so began a question from Tami on my article about storing canned goods, asking about ways to do it.

Good news!  This is one job you can cross off your to-do list. (Good thing, too — I hate varnishing!)

Yes, I’ve read the old books talking about varnishing cans or dipping them in wax . . . but don’t know anyone who actually does it.  And while cans may pick up a bit of light rust, they’re fine to eat from (see Are Rusty Cans Safe to Eat From?).

I’ve never known anyone with a real problem with cans getting seriously rusty.  Maybe years ago, but not within the last 20 years at least.  I think it’s for several reasons:

  • Boats just don’t leak as much — even wood ones use better sealants and the rise of fiberglass has dramatically reduced the number of damp lockers
  • Plastic bins — by putting cans into plastic bins, which also helps organize them, they’re protected from any dampness that might be in a locker
  • Can technology — yeah, they’re using greatly improved coatings and manufacturing technology so that cans rarely rust through, and little bits of rust don’t affect the can contents.

I do suggest washing and drying cans if they’re at all dirty before stowing them (more a problem in less developed countries), but that’s all.

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10 Comments
  • Ray Johnson on Facebook
    Posted at 06 August 2012 Reply

    I think I’d rather spray them with wd40…its made from fish oil (so I hear) One the other hand, I’m sure mixing varnish with your food isn’t harmful 🙂 which seems to me what would happen when you opened the can. I’ve personally used cans that have rusted, however no rust was on the inside when opened/used. Old saliors used to help preserve their eggs by coating them with butter.

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 06 August 2012 Reply

    Ray — no need to use the WD40, either . . .

  • Ray Johnson on Facebook
    Posted at 06 August 2012 Reply

    agreed…it was a rather 😉

  • Amy Smith Walker on Facebook
    Posted at 05 April 2013 Reply

    a sort of related tip- I write the contents of the can with a sharpie in the lid which saves time and effort. really doesnt take that long to do either…

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 05 April 2013 Reply

    Absolutely, especially if you store them in a top-opening locker! It’s nice not to have to pull everything out to find the one can you need!

  • Jacqui Carlsten on Facebook
    Posted at 05 April 2013 Reply

    I always do that too 🙂

  • S/V Dos Libras on Facebook
    Posted at 06 April 2013 Reply

    I took off the labels and marked the cans with sharpie. The thought of icky labels finding their way to the nether regions of the boat wasn’t my thing. Also, I read somewhere that removing the labels is good because bugs like the glue that holds them on, similar to removing cardboard boxes from the boat. Any thoughts on that Carolyn?

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 06 April 2013 Reply

    I don’t think many people remove labels any more . . . another one of those things you read about in the old books. If you store your cans in bins, any that do come off won’t end up in the bilge and the glue now is such that labels really don’t tend to come off. And anything newer that I read says there’s no proof about bugs liking the glue. I don’t think that I ever had a label come off in 7 years, and definitely didn’t have bugs in the lockers where the cans were. Taking them off isn’t going to hurt anything, but I never felt it was necessary and provisioning and putting stuff away is already a long chore, so any steps that I can eliminate helps!

  • Diane
    Posted at 05 November 2014 Reply

    Many years ago the labels were made of flimsier paper probably consisting of just wood fiber, and the glue was starch based. Both are mighty tasty to bugs and very susceptible to humidity. Now labels have other materials mixed into the fibers and/or are coated. Adhesives are now polymer based. More durable materials but no longer biodegradable.

  • Susan Lynn
    Posted at 06 November 2014 Reply

    Seems easier to get plastic lids and put on bottom of cans. (My cappuccino comes with a plastic lid on each can that fits most of the bigger size cans so I re-use them.)

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