Teak Trimming Tips

Caring for teak with sealants and oils

4th August 2000.
By David Brown

Teak is probably the most popular wood for exterior boat trim today. There are several reasons. For one, boat builders like it because teak doesn’t require a lot of expensive sanding and varnishing to look good. This means they can install teak wood trim at far lower cost than the equivalent varnished mahogany trim popular a couple decades back.

We’re not getting ripped off. Teak really looks good on boats. Most people seem to prefer the look of teak trim whether it’s in the form of toe rails, hand holds, bow platforms or window frame moldings. When the builders and the buyers agree about something, you’re going to see a lot of it on boats.

Teak also happens to be an excellent wood to use on the outside of a boat. It holds up well to sun, water and even air pollution. It has a legendary resistance to rot. But, it is wood and that means teak is not completely maintenance free. Some care is required.

If you want to start an argument, get three boat owners talking about the “right” way to protect and beautify teak trim. One will recommend varnish or polyurethane sealants. Another will argue that special oils are the only correct dressing for teak. The third will probably say that teak should be left to weather naturally to a bright silver-gray color.

Who’s right?

Everyone.

Each of these three ways of caring for teak trim produces what the speaker desires. If the boat owner is satisfied, then he’s using the right method to take care of his teak. You don’t have to agree with him, however. Everyone is free to choose his own method.

Perhaps the best way to decide how you want to care for the teak on your boat is to stroll around the marina. Look carefully at the teak on other boats. When you find one boat that is particularly attractive to you, introduce yourself to the owner. Ask him how he takes care of his teak. He’ll probably take the question as a compliment and tell you more than you ever wanted to know.

The Natural School

Theoretically, if teak is allowed to weather naturally, it will turn a bright silver-gray. It really does happen and it is attractive. I’ve seen weathered teak in the Caribbean with the character and grace of the wrinkled skin of a kindly grandmother. Unfortunately, that was in southern waters.

Around the Great Lakes teak doesn’t weather silver-gray. It turns almost black. The reason is probably the air pollution around major cities, although I also suspect the lack of salt water is involved. Whatever the reason, weathered teak in our region seldom looks anything but dirty.

Trying to clean the dirt off weathered teak simply exposes the un-weathered wood beneath the surface. The result is a mottled or splotched appearance hardly more attractive than the dirt.

Like any unprotected wood, teak will check and split, especially when less than 1/2-inch thick. Cosmetic trim boards are particularly subject to weather checking. In most cases repairs are not possible. The split wood must be removed and a new piece installed. This is usually custom (i.e. expensive) work.

Letting teak weather naturally is good in theory, but somewhere else. Around here we have to protect our teak trim with oil or sealers to keep it looking Bristol Fashion.

Cleaning And Scrubbing

New teak should always be thoroughly cleaned with a two- part cleaner/bleach solution before any oil, varnish or sealer is applied. Even though wood straight from the factory has a bright, fresh- sanded appearance, the surface is full of natural oils and dirt. If this oil and dirt is not removed, it will begin to darken in the sunlight. The wood will eventually turn almost black.

Two-part cleaners like Te-Ka, are essentially a combination of a powerful soap and a mild acid bleaching agent. This combination cleans deeply and leaves the wood a bright golden brown. Rubber gloves and eye protection are recommended when handling these powerful chemicals.

Scrub the wood with a soft nylon bristle brush or a Skotch- Brite ™ pad. Avoid using bronze or steel wool or excessive force. You don’t want to remove the soft, pithy wood from the teak grain. This leaves the wood looking old and rough. Let the chemicals do the work.

One-part teak cleaners are generally less harsh, both to the wood and your skin. They are recommended for in-season scrubdowns when you don’t want to completely remove the old finish, just the surface dirt. Deks Rens is typical of these products.

Tip Top Teak makes a special Trim Cleaner which is specifically formulated to remove dirt, oil, grease, fish flood and other stains from teak railings and trim.

Most teak cleaners contain chemicals which don’t like metal, especially aluminum. It pays to keep them from splashing on aluminum port or hatch frames, deck hardware or even your wrist watch. Some teak cleaners will damage antifouling paint if allowed to run down the side of a boat stored on dry land. (This isn’t a problem when the boat’s in the water.)

Teak Oils

Most people protect their teak with one of a number of teak oils. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll consider oils as those preparations which soak into the wood and replace the natural oils. Some actually seal the wood, but they do not provide a high-gloss, hard surface like a varnish.

Teak Wonder by T-Jett Enterprises is a typical teak oil. It is about as thick as water, so it easily penetrates the wood. This particular product contains a light tan pigment which helps give the teak a fresh-sanded appearance.

A majority of the teak oils on the market are blends of oils containing mostly linseed oil. Boiled linseed oil is available at most paint stores. If you get the “non-photochemically reactive” kind, it works quite well straight. Don’t expect miracles and there are drawbacks. Straight linseed oil tends to collect more airborne dirt than commercial teak oils.

Generally speaking, teak oils will last from four to six weeks under normal conditions. They last longest in spring and fall when there are fewer hours of harsh ultraviolet light.

Teak sealers are much like oils, but they contain a higher percentage of solids. The solids usually provide protection against ultraviolet light. This means sealers build up faster on the wood and generally last longer than oils. Six to eight weeks of service are possible. Again, expect a shorter lifespan in midsummer due to high doses of sunlight.

Is It Oil Or Varnish?

Deks Olje is one of those products you either swear by or swear at. It is also on the cusp, halfway between a penetrating oil and a varnish-like sealer. It comes in two versions, Part 1 and Part 2. Part 1 gives a matte finish similar to other teak oils. If you want a varnish-like appearance, you apply Part 2 over top of Part 1.

The difference between people who swear at Deks Olje and those who swear by it is that those who swear by it have read the directions. Part 1 must be applied in multiple coats about 15 minutes apart until it has fully saturated the wood. Too many people quit applying the product before full saturation has been achieved.

If Deks Olje Part 1 behaves like an oil, Part 2 thinks its a varnish. It provides a moderately high gloss, hard surface similar to varnish, but with several important difference. Damaged or worn sections can be repaired by simply scrubbing the surface clean and applying more Part 2. When the time comes for complete refinishing, Deks Olje can be removed with a two-part teak cleaner. You don’t need paint remover as you do with varnish.

Varnished Teak

Contrary to popular opinion, teak can be varnished to a smooth, high gloss. If you don’t believe it, take a look at the toe rail and cabin window trim on an Egg Harbor boat. However, getting the custom yacht look of varnished teak takes work.

First, as much of the natural oil as possible must be removed from the wood surface. Usually, this involves using a two-part cleaner, then a thorough sanding followed by a rubdown with acetone.

Several coats of ultraviolet inhibited varnish will be required. Interlux Schooner varnish seems to work well. The first coat should be thinned up to 20 percent to insure thorough penetration of the wood.

Sanding is required between coats. A tack rag should be used after sanding to remove all dust and grit. The second coat should also be thinned about 10 percent. Third and fourth coats should be thinned only enough to ensure easy brushing. Never work in direct sunlight, on hot days or when the wind is blowing.

Sun Shield is a popular product which provides a varnish-like appearance, but is actually a man-made finish. The only drawback is a slight orange cast apparently the result of the ultraviolet inhibiting solids. Properly applied, this product has a legendary lifespan.

Varnished teak becomes a problem whenever repairs or complete refinishing are necessary. Messy chemical strippers are usually necessary, the best of which can damage fiberglass gel coat.

Living With Teak

All teak should be washed down regularly with a mild boat soap and rinsed off with clear water. This prevents the buildup of airborne dirt and gets rid of grit which will eventually dull the surface. Surface damage should be repaired as it is discovered.

It doesn’t really matter which teak care system you choose as long as you’re satisfied. All have advantages and drawbacks. The truth is, you have to do about as much work using one system as another. If there’s a difference among them it’s when you do the work, not the amount that has to be done.

People who prefer oils spend an hour or so every few weeks sprucing up their teak. Sealer skippers have to do a little more hard scrubbing, but they do it less often. Those who opt for varnish work like the very devil whenever they refinish, but between times they sip a tall cool one while watching the oilers and sealers at work.


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