How To Care For Teak

Teak is a wonder wood that has been prized aboard ships for centuries. It wears like iron and develops a unique non-skid property underfoot, even when wet. It is highly rot resistant and rarely warps or cracks. Best of all, it radiates colors ranging from a warm golden glow to a practical silver-gray that enhances the look of any boat.

Boat builders are using less teak each year. Part of this is due to the rising price of the imported wood. But much of it has to do with boat owners' reluctance to maintain exterior wood. This is a shame, as beautifully maintained teak sets a boat aside as a yacht that is loved by its owner.

The key to striking teak is vigilance. Once in pristine condition, a few hours of routine inspection, cleaning and re-coating will keep it that way. Preventative maintenance includes eliminating chafe spots that wear through the teak's finish and touching up any dings before they ruin the entire job. Let go too long, exterior teak can require hundreds of hours to bring it back to a beautiful glow again.


Before any finish can be put over teak, it must be clean and dry. Sanding is the most aggressive form of cleaning and is necessary to remove some hard finishes or when the teak is "wash boarded". This ridged effect is generally caused by scrubbing with a bristle brush -- don't do it. A light scratch-up is needed between coats of most varnishes. The preferable way to remove hard old finishes is with a cabinet scraper kept razor sharp. Heat guns work well with some finishes. Liquid paint strippers should be the last choice as the possibility of damaging the teak, decks and eyes are great. Two part cleaners are very harsh chemicals, but are needed to bleach out severe stains. Milder solutions of powdered oxalic acid work on minor staining. For removing an old oil finish, general grime and mildew, its hard to beat a solution of sudsy ammonia and a 3M green Scotch Brite pad. The ammonia kills all the organisms and dissolves old oil, while the pad smoothes the surface without gouging. Wear rubber gloves and rinse repeatedly. Leave the teak bare for a scrubbed look or let dry for a day or two before re-oiling. If left bare, the teak needs to be cleaned often.


One way to start a heated discussion on the dock is to open the subject of teak treatments. There are literally hundreds of brands, each with their own patrons. Your choice all depends on the look you want to achieve and the type of maintenance you are willing to do. And remember regional differences: what works well on a Northern boat may fail in a few months of tropical sun and humidity. The object of any teak coating is to seal the wood's natural oils in, to keep dirt and moisture from penetrating, and to make the surface easy to clean. Once these functions are no longer being achieved, it's time to re-coat.

Basically, teak treatments fall into two categories - hard and oiled.

1. Hard finishes range from sealers, to natural and polyurethane varnishes, and on to the newer coatings such as Cetol and Armada. Some sailors mix these, beginning with a sealer, or even oil, for a deep-penetrating first coat, followed by their choice of varnish. Most modern finishes do stand up longer to intense UV, and also allow multiple coats without sanding between. But it is more difficult to obtain a uniform high-gloss. Finish with them.

2. Oils also have a wide variety of styles and brands. Typically oiled teak is far easier to clean and re-coat than varnish, but has a shorter life. What adds longevity to oils is the amount of UV-resisting pigments in them. Clear golden oil will look great when first applied, but won't last long. Heavily pigmented brands such as Semco, on other the hand, have a rather artificial appearance at first but wear quite well.


Spend more time sailing and less maintaining teak by caring for the details. Add chafe strips of brass or stainless where mooring lines or painters rub the finish off. Handrails or toe rails kept out of the sun with acrylic covers will have a much longer life. Mix your finishes -- varnish the toe rail but oil the step pads at the gates so that a quick wash and re-oil will rid the area of scratches and ground in dirt from the dock. Wash the teak often with copious fresh water to get rid of the salt. Dry it occasionally with a towel as you inspect for deep scratches or dings that have broken the surface of the finish. Once you see the first signs of deterioration, don't put maintenance off for a few more weeks, unless you are prepared for a full scale strip and refinish job.