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Time-Out for Teak

To keep your brightwork in Bristol condition, use a two-part, liquid-based cleansing system, followed by a sealer.
Superlative results can be had when utilizing a two-part liquid system, spread with a bristle pad or nylon brush.

Superlative results can be had when utilizing a two-part liquid system, spread with a bristle pad or nylon brush.

Maintaining exterior teak is a labor of love. Teak is fantastic for strength and durability, but when it’s used on decks, cover boards, swim platforms, ladder rungs and trim, it needs routine care.

There are two ways of thinking about teak. Some boat owners simply ignore it, and allow the wood to gray and weather. No effort is required, but this approach can lead to cracks or checking, screwheads pushing up bungs, and possible leaks. If you prefer the rich, warm glow of oiled teak that looks yachty and retains a durable surface for safe walking, then maintenance will be needed.

Teak is composed of soft and hard grain. Over time, the soft grain can be scrubbed away, leaving a rough surface that ages gracefully, but that encourages dirt, grime and fish blood to find a home within the wood pores. Left unchecked, black mold anchors its grip and will not give up, even after repeated soap-and-water cleaning. To prevent this from happening, always work across the grain when scrubbing teak with a stiff, bristled brush, to leave the soft grain intact.

If your teak is woefully hilly, a power sander or hand sanding with a block and medium-grit wet or dry sandpaper will help moderate the high spots. Your fingers will judge the smoothness, but keep in mind the thickness of the wood. A friend of mine had teak bulkheads in the cockpit with mold traces; he started sanding, only to realize that the teak was no more than a veneer. The paper-thin layer quickly wore through to the plywood substrate, creating a mess that required a paint job.

I have used all types of teak cleaners, and have come to prefer a two-part liquid system for the speed and thoroughness. This system protects the soft grain because the liquid formulas do not require harsh scrubbing. Excellent results are achieved by spreading the cleaner solution with a soft bristle brush or nylon scrub pad.

In addition, the liquids can be diluted for spot-cleaning should your guests drop potato chips on the deck. (Always read the labels carefully. The cleaning agent is generally an acid base. Follow the instructions to prevent calamities.)

Acid-based teak cleaners do a wonderful job extracting dirt and other impurities from the wood, but precautions are necessary, as with any industrial-rated product. My teak cleaning drill is to focus on the wood, but also to be aware of the adjoining fiberglass, metal and painted surfaces. These acids can damage anodized aluminum, so I always generously wrap the metal with layers of tape. I also remove the teak treads from the flybridge ladder and treat them as a separate process, because rinse water will flood and spray everywhere. Similarly, throughout the process, I spray copious amounts of water down the hullsides and transom, and out the scuppers, to prevent streaks in the gelcoat or at the paint waterline.

After donning a pair of boots and rubber gloves, my cleaning chores begin with a thorough rinsing of the teak. The wood needs to be wet for the cleaning solution to do its job. Overcast days are best, as the lack of direct sun keeps the teak moist.

Next, I pour a generous amount of step-one formula into a 5-gallon bucket and start spreading the cleaner with a clean, handheld nylon scrub pad, or a pad attached to long-handle brush. This technique makes it easy to control the cleaning solution in corners and around fittings. The teak immediately begins to darken as the wet dirt rises to the surface. If you notice patches beginning to dry, lightly spray them with water, and work a little faster. Be sure to direct ample cleaner into the teak, so all of the wood attains the same dark shade.

Two-part cleaners work fast. Once you have covered all the teak with the cleaner, rinse out the bucket and scrub pad with plenty of fresh water. Pour in a similar amount of the step-two formula and begin spreading it onto the dark wood. The lightening results are almost immediate as it neutralizes the step-one potion.

While step two is working, spray the hullsides again, and then turn the spray onto the teak. When the wood is fully rinsed, it will have a rich, brown shade of freshly sanded teak. Be thorough with the rinse cycle, and double-check surrounding areas to make sure no traces of the neutralizer cleaner remain.

Then, rinse again. If any telltale strains of gray appear in the teak, reapply both steps and scrub a bit with the pad. Then, rinse. I also lift up deck hatches and rinse the undersides and hatch gutters.

When the teak dries, it will gleam with a light-golden tan. Some skippers like this look, though there is nothing to seal the wood pores to protect the teak. With twice-weekly boat baths, it should look good for several weeks.

The air will cause the wood to oxidize, so to retain that golden glow, you will need to apply a few coats of teak oil. There are many brands on marine store shelves, but my favorite is Tip Top Teak sealer. It enhances the wood grain and smells great.

Other sealers may include pigment that augments the color of the wood. Be sure to shake sealers that contain pigments, to ensure that the color is constant. Beware of homemade teak oil sealer brews that are created by mixing linseed oil, pine tar and turpentine or other mixtures. Another friend tried something like this, and although it made the wood look nice, the mixture did a number on his teak deck’s rubber seams and never fully dried. The dark color also was brutally hot on bare feet.

Teak has to be absolutely dry for the wood pores to absorb the sealer, so the hotter the day for this application, the better. Apply light coats of sealer with a bristle paintbrush or a clean terry cloth rag. Wrapping the rag around a putty knife is a good way to get the sealer into tight corners.

Avoid getting the sealer on fiberglass, metal, varnish or painted surfaces. If you do, a cloth dampened with denatured alcohol will remove it.

After two or three light coats of sealer have dried, try another swipe in a small section, and see if it dries. If the wood can still absorb this sealer, then finish the rest of the area with another coat. The teak will only absorb so much oil sealer, so do not overdo it. The excess will remain tacky and attract dirt. Everywhere you step, you will spread it around the boat.

After a few washings with boat soap and water, you can test again to see if you can freshen up the area with another coat. If not, enjoy the well-earned compliments.

This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue.