Top Tips for Teak

Choosing and using the right teak-care products

4th August 2000.
By Chris Caswell

In the forest, you wouldn’t glance at it twice, although it can stand more than 100′ tall with a diameter of 12′, because the teak tree is essentially ugly, covered with a whitish sapwood and bearing huge leaves that are so rough they are used throughout Indochina as sandpaper.

The journey of a piece of teak starts high in the mountains of India, Burma or Thailand, where it is air-dried for months until it is light enough to float. At that point, it is hitched to an elephant, which drags the log, weighing up to four tons, to a river. Floated downstream, it eventually reaches a seaport, is loaded onto a freighter, and delivered to a boat builder, where it may once again spend time drying. All told, a typical teak log takes six years for the trip from mountain slope to American marina.

Teak is an almost perfect wood for boats, since it resists rot and is very stable from warpage and cracking. On the downside, it dulls tools quickly because it is full of silica, and the very oil that helps preserve it from rot also makes it hard to paint or varnish.

But unlike it’s nondescript appearance in the forest, a flawless teak deck always draws oohs and aahs from guests, and owners preen in the reflected beauty of this exotic wood. It is axiomatic that nothing….not the topsides finish or the varnish…says more about an owner than the way he maintains his teak.

There are also few things that can generate as much intense discussion between boat owners as the “proper” way to care for teak. Some simply don’t worry about it, allowing it to turn to a pale silvery color that will remain that way indefinitely. Others bleach it back to it’s original golden tone and then lay on endless coats of varnish to fill the rough grain to a silken finish.

In between are the oilers, an uncomplicated group who care more than those who leave the teak alone, but not enough to spend hours with a varnish brush. Over the years and with various boats, I’ve served my time in all groups. I like the no-nonsense attitude of those with weathered teak, since I’d rather spend my time cruising. But the sight of a varnished teak caprail, gleaming in the summer sun, is enough to send me rummaging through the dockbox for bleach and varnish. In general, however, I’ve spent most of my time in between, trying different brands of teak oil in the hope that one of them will prove to be a Fountain of Eternal Beauty. The bad news that I’ll share right up front, however, is that I’ve never found it.

In spite of promises of long-lasting golden hues, my experience suggests that teak oil not only won’t last a full season, but probably won’t last more than a few months when left unprotected. In my opinion, you need to set aside time for regular maintenance of your exterior oiled teak every 2-3 months if you hope to avoid having to bleach back to Square One and start over.

Here are some caveats and recommendations on teak oil. First of all, whatever brand you select, be sure to read the instructions. Seems a simple task, but even I’ve forgotten to do it. In one case, I noted that an instruction said to apply the oil with a “lint-free” cloth, but I didn’t heed the warning. The result was a slightly furry deck as the sticky oil grabbed at every stray fiber!

As you study the various cans and bottles at the local marine hardware store, check to see what is required for application. In some cases, you have to brush the material on, others insist that you rub it on with a cloth, and some even supply a spongy applicator. Brushing is the easiest and the neatest, cloths will instill an aroma of teak oil on your fingertips that lasts for weeks, and applicators are a mixed bag.

I’ve had the best luck with Starbrite’s Premium Golden Teak Oil, which isn’t the prettiest when first applied, but it seems to have good staying power before it starts to break down. It dries fairly quickly, although a second coat stays tacky for several hours. By the way, Starbrite also makes another oil, simply labeled Teak Oil, and it doesn’t last nearly as long as the Premium Golden version.

West Marine, a national marine catalog company, has an equally good product called Gold Teak Oil Premium Blend. It’s a bit syrupy, and applies better with a brush than the recommended rag, but it holds up well.

Also running strong in the longevity category, according to my experience, is Matthews’ One Step Teak Oil & Sealer. It comes in a kit with an applicator pad, a bottle of teak cleaner, and a scrubbing pad for cleaning. After three coats, the surface begins to darken the tone of the wood although you do get more luster.

If dark teak is your preference, you might check out Watco’s Marine Teakwood Finish. If you’ve ever owned Scandinavian furniture, you’re probably familiar with Watco, which is recommended by many companies to touch up their chairs and tables. The marine version is molasses colored and turns light teak to a warm and dark tone. For longevity, it is right up there with Starbrite and West Marine.

If you like the glossy finish of varnish but aren’t willing to invest the time, you might want to try Deks Olje. Like teak itself, this product brings out strong feelings among boat owners, with some who swear by the product and others who swear at it. The Deks Olje finish isn’t easy to apply, because you have to brush on one coat every 15 minutes or as soon as the previous coat is absorbed. When no more oil is absorbed, you buff the excess off with a rag lightly moistened with the oil. Because it can develop runs and sags just like varnish, it is more difficult to use on vertical surfaces or on large areas, where you may need helpers to keep up with the process. Deks Olje #1 is supposedly a matte finish, but it turns out quite shiny when compared to other oils. If you want a high-gloss finish, top off with a coat of Deks Olje #2. I understand that Deks Olje can last more than a year if properly applied, but the appearance is more like that of varnish than of teak oil.

Obviously your starting point for a teak oiling project is to bleach the wood back to an even and light tone. There are a variety of bleaches on the shelves, in one-step or two-step formulas. Two-step bleaches require you to add a separate neutralizer after you apply the original bleach, while the one-steps simply require rinsing with water.

I’ve always been a fan of Teak Brite’s powder bleach. Rinse the deck or wood off with freshwater, sprinkle on the crystals, and scrub vigorously with a stiff-bristled brush. Let the resulting paste “cook” for a few minutes, and then rinse thoroughly with water. When the teak dries, you’ll find it evenly toned and pale. This is, by the way, the same procedure you’ll use if you want to keep the teak natural, but don’t want it to turn to silver.

If you don’t want to pay the price for prepared bleaches, you can always make your own by picking up a bag of oxalic acid granules at the hardware store. These are the basis for most bleaches anyway, so you’ve eliminated the middleman, but be sure to mix up a neutralizer of vinegar and water (1 part vinegar, 10 parts water) and, again, hose off the teak completely afterwards.

As you consider the various teak oils, keep in mind the surface you plan to oil. Some teak oils require you to “saturate” the surface which, on a deck, means to lay the oil on in thick doses, but this method can result is some messy runs if you plan to oil a vertical surface like a bulkhead.

At the same time, be extremely careful when applying teak oil, because it sticks to paint and fiberglass just as well as it does to teak. Dribbles and runs can become a permanent part of your boat (and a source of amusement to others on your dock) if you allow them to dry so, after each oiling, send out a search party with thinner-soaked rags to catch any late-forming uh-ohs.

Many of the teak oils also contain highly volatile chemicals and the fumes can affect nearby painted surfaces (especially recently painted ones) just like paint remover. I’ve used professional striping tape to mask off painted areas, only to find that some teak oils cause this sturdy tape to wilt and shrivel. If you plan to work around fresh paint, you might want to try a small test panel.

That brings up an interesting point since, unlike cans of paint, you really don’t know what color the oil will turn your teak. If you haven’t seen the finish used on another boat, you should probably commit only a small area to a test to see if you really like the look before you face an entire boating season with a color you hate.

Once you’ve oiled your teak (according to the instructions, of course), keep an eye on it. The early warning signs for teak that needs more oil are tiny whitish specks, usually in the valleys of the grain. These are teak’s way of saying, “feed me”. As soon as you can, apply at least one coat of oil, or you’ll find the whitish dots quickly become white patches and then bare patches. At that point, you’ll need to start over with bleach, so keep a weather eye on your teak unless you really like puttering around on sunny weekends.

A word of caution: be careful when disposing of oil soaked rags or brushes, because spontaneous combustion can result as they dry. One manufacturer even suggests immersing oily rags in water before drying them in a non-flammable area to prevent fires.

What’s the answer to your teak care? Accept the fact that teak is always going to be a love-hate relationship….you love the look and hate the work. As with anything aboard a boat, if you stay ahead of the maintenance, your life will be much easier. And if you find a teak oil that lasts forever, please….give me a call!


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