How to Look after Teak
Of all woods, teak is considered to be the most noble, durable and decadent. Especially luxury yachts use if excessively for decks and decorations. Caring for teak is a different issue – surely, it is a very strong material, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind with teak care. In this article, I try to give to practical advice for proud teak-owners.
Teak is a noble wood, it is expensive and should be treated with consideration. Generally speaking, Teak requires little care compared to other woods. It is hard and durable and for these reasons, has been used in Southeast Asia for centuries. If exposed to the air, untreated teak bleaches to a noble grey or mousy with a shiny surface.
If you are an environmental sailor, like myself, you should either avoid teak or check where it comes from and if it was lumbered legally. Teak is a tropical wood and in many Third World countries, native forests are sacrificed to the wood industries. Teak is very evenly patterned and rich in oils. It is the oils that make it unattractive to termites, which is partly the reason for its popularity in Asia.
Like essentially all woods, even teak might need some protection to extend its lifetime. There are several ways of protecting teak, and they all aim for mainly two things: Protection of the oil content in the wood itself on the one hand and sealing off hazards like UV radiation, water and fungi.
Paint, oil or varnish?
Apart from crudely painting over the wood (which is commonly done with all sorts of wooden things, because it is cheap and requires little maintenance efforts, but should be avoided with luxury woods like teak), or leaving it untreated, you can protect teak by applying varnish or oil and seals.
If your teak is not oiled, sealed or varnished at all, there is no need to panic: Many boatowners prefer plain teak, even if it might lose its shiny touch after a while. Depending on the local climate in your area, it might well be possible to leave your teak untreated. If in doubt, ask sailors from your area for advice – they should know what products and treatments are best for protecting your wood.
Regardless of what protective layer you decide to get, you should always start with cleaning the wood unless it is newly bought. There are detergents available that are specifically developed for the needs of teak. To wash the wood, use warm water with a mild detergent and a small amount of bleach as an alternative to “special teak detergent”. Apply this solution, let it soak for a bit and rinse it off with clear water.
Wood on boats needs to be clean
If the first treatment did not lead to the desired result, repeat it and increase the concentration of detergent and bleach. Be careful though, teak is sensitive and you should not destroy the surface by chemical means or through rubbing wildly. Use soft brushes or cloth. If you decided to go for “professional” teak detergent, follow the instructions. After rinsing the wood, let it clean in a warm, well-ventilated spot.
Once the wood has dried, you can go for the varnish: It is generally composed of protective waxes, solvents such as alcohol, and other substances with specific effects such as sunscreen-like chemicals that will absorb harmful UV radiation. Especially if you are from a very sunny area and you need varnish for teak on the deck, check for products with highly protective properties with respect to UV.
Do not try to safe money on the varnish! Low-quality varnish might spoil your wood, and it would be a waste of the luxury teak. You should apply several layers of varnish, at least six are generally recommended. Renew at least one layer of varnish once every couple of weeks and before winterizing the boat.
Teak care with oil versus lacquer finishes
A more natural alternative to varnish is oil. There are hundreds of products available, many of them specifically developed for the needs of teak. They replace natural oils in the wood and thereby enhance the look of it and prevent the formation of cracks, fungal growth and the penetration of water.
Wood oils are made of tung or linseed oil and much like varnish, often come with other ingredients such as sun blockers, solvents or water repellents. Some oils tend to darken the wood, so be careful to buy only oils that were developed for teak and outdoor-applications.
Apply oil generously, but avoid drops to sit, as they will leave unattractive stains on the wood. Let the teak dry in a warm and well-ventilated place. Repeat this procedure at least three times and renew the oil once every few weeks during the summer and once before winterizing the yacht.
Finally: Seal your boat
To protect oiled wood even more, you can apply sealers as a finish. They generally consist of resins and solvents with the mentioned additives. Don’t seal wood for at least two weeks after the oiling, since “greasy” wood will not hold the sealer. Wash the wood slightly with soap to remove oil from the surface, rinse it and dry it properly.
Then apply the sealer in a thin layer, let it dry and repeat the treatment. Three layers of sealer should be plenty (follow the instructions given for outdoor conditions), and depending on the quality and strength of the sealer, it won’t have to be renewed for weeks or even months.