Teak has been a favorite material among boatbuilders for generations. Teak is a tropical hardwood that has a legendary resistance to water, and teak’s durability is why it is still used today to build everything from hulls to decks to decorative trim aboard boats of all kinds. Interiors, exteriors, even deck furniture is made of teak. This regular use of teak in boatbuilding, of course, means that boat owners need to know how to care for the wood. There are a few schools of thought about how best to care for teak; here’s a look at each.
Let the Teak Weather Naturally
Depending on where a boat is kept, teak will weather differently, albeit naturally. In tropical waters such as the Caribbean, teak tends to turn a bright silver-gray and look almost stately. In colder climates such as the Great Lakes, teak can turn almost black and look, well, filthy no matter how clean it actually is.
And teak is, after all, wood, which means that if it’s left unprotected in the elements, it will eventually check and split. Thinner trim is likely to succumb faster than thicker slabs, but wherever splits occur in a boat, the teak must be removed and replaced. To avoid that type of a problem with teak, boaters can protect the wood using teak oils, sealers and varnishes.
Teak Oils and Teak Sealers
Teak oils and sealers both will protect the wood, and some teak oils claim to be ultraviolet-resistant. The idea behind teak oil is that it soaks into the wood and replaces its natural oils, making it less brittle and more resistant to water seeping in.
Teak oils come in numerous brands and finishes; some have a pigment to them that can give teak on a boat the appearance of being freshly sanded. Most teak oils last only a month or two—and not even that long in harsh conditions—which is why some boaters turn to teak sealers.
A teak sealer is just what it sounds like: a product that does a better job of actually sealing the wood, providing UV protection and, usually, lasting a while longer than teak oils. Teak sealer also has benefits such as withstanding mildew, and it comes in clear as well as tinted varieties, so if the color of teak on a boat is already ideal, the wood can be sealed without changing its look.
Varnish for Teak
If a high-gloss, hard surface is the goal, then UV-resistant varnish is the way to go with teak. Like many woods, teak can be varnished until it’s smooth and glossy. The wood’s natural oil is removed using a cleaner, sandpaper and acetone, and then several coats of UV-protective varnish are applied. Different varnishes come with different recommendations; some varnishes should be thinned for the first coat that’s applied, so it can seep into the teak the way water might.
Varnishing, of course, is done in layers. In between coats of varnish, the teak needs to be sanded and then gone over with a tack rag to remove dust and grit. Three, four, five, six coats of varnish are typically used—it all depends on how hard the boater wants to work, and on how rich and glossy the finish is expected to be.
As for color, teak varnish comes in clear as well as tinted versions. Manufacturers offer everything from “quick dry” to “rubber effect,” with satin, gloss and matte finishes. Which varnish is the right choice depends on the boat, the desired effect and the budget. Any good marine-supply store or chandlery can help compare and contrast the available options.
For more maintenance tips, read:
- Basic Boat Maintenance: How to Maintain a Boat
- How to Restore Faded Gelcoat on a Boat
- The Care and Feeding of Teak Decks
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in August 2000 and updated in January 2018.