In the last 15 years I have worked on more teak decks than I care to remember. I think I’ve seen every problem that exists. What you have to know straight away is that, like anything, teak decks need looking after. If you take care of your decks they may last 20 years plus, if you don’t you’ll be appalled at how awful they look after half a decade. Because solid teak decks has been the norm for hundreds of years they have understandably earned a serious reputation for longevity. Today’s teak decks are not the same thing at all.
In most cases modern teak decks are little more than a quick way for the manufacturer to up the “class” of their product. They are poorly fitted, the wood is too thin, the caulking gap is usually too narrow. Because of the minimal amount of wood involved the best plug on the deck might only be 3 mm deep. Likewise the caulking, unless of adequate depth and width will not remain glued as the wood moves. However all these problems would amount to little is folk were advised on teak deck care. The most important advice is to wash the deck every week but few people can spare the time. It’s quite simple however, if you don’t wash your deck regularly it will soon go grey and dirty.
DO NOT SCRUB your deck. I’ve seen it done, the owner is standing there, his trouser legs rolled up, his knees red. True his deck looks great…. From the pontoon. If you look carefully you’ll see grooves in the planks where the softer areas of grain have simply vanished. This is how it starts, Consider that you began with a lovely smooth surface, like a CD if you like. After a scrubbing it looks more like an LP but worse, much worse. Imagine now how quickly the “peaks” will wear down as you walk on them. Of course it doesn’t end there, this is only the beginning.
If you must have a clean deck then there’s only one way and that’s a gentle wash with nothing more violent than a light detergent and a large sponge or very soft brush. If you do this regularly you will not wear down the teak but you will wash off the dirt before it gets ingrained. Dirt contributes to the wear on a teak deck. If this approach doesn’t work then you can try oxalic acid. Dissolve some crystals in warm water, do not breathe the vapours and wear gloves. It burns. DO NOT SCRUB. Rinse well. Oxalic acid should not harm anything on the boat except your skin. There are plenty of products that do the same thing but cost a lot more. If acid doesn’t bring back the colour then there’s only one thing left to do if you want a lovely looking teak deck and that is to sand it. But if you want my advise, continue to wash it carefully and often with soap and live with the deck not looking it’s best.
For some reason no one listens to me. I gladly advise people on how to look after their decks for free even if it means I don’t get any work. It’s better for everyone, except me, that you take my advice. Yet despite that I still see people scrubbing their teak. I shake my head in wonder. Did I not explain what would happen if they scrubbed? “But it looks so great!” they say. “So what’s the problem?” The problem is that the next time they see their decks they will look grey and dirty again and the only difference will be that there is less teak there now than there was before. If your feet don’t wear down the peaks then they’ll fill up with dirt making it look even worse and there’s only one way to get it out. More scrubbing. This time you’ll have to scrub harder to see a result. Can you see what’s happening? There will come a point soon when you decide the decks are looking pretty rough and need a good sanding.
Boatyards are very keen to do this work for you and why not, next time you see the boat it will look great and they KNOW you’ll be back because soon the caulking will start to roll out in long spaghetti like strips and the plugs will fall out exposing the screws and making water ingress all the more likely. Now you’ve really got a problem. The plugs are not too much trouble but there will be hundreds to do. The real problem is the caulking. Just because some comes out really easily does not mean that it will be all like that. No, some of it will be sticking just like the manufacturer intended. You can make a special scraper to remove it but inevitably you will slip and damage areas and worse you will enlarge the groove. If you’re really lucky you might be able to use a router for about 35% of the deck but routers are vicious and it’s all too easy to make a mistake. Even a small enlargement of the slot will look terrible. Not only that but you’ll need a curved guide to run the router along for each slot. This takes ages. Bad enough if you’re doing it yourself but unbelievable if you’re paying a yard. Specialist tools exist but they are hideously expensive and it’s only the specialist yards that are likely to have such a tool but they will be charging by the hour and there’s always a lot of work on any teak deck.
Here’s a deck fitting on the 65 foot Swan Evrika. As you can see the deck has been sanded down quite a bit over the years!
So what are the options now your deck is worn out? You can’t just remove it because underneath it will be horrid. If it was laid properly in the first place they will have keyed in the surface, that means a grinder on a plastic boat. You’ll still have to cover the decks to cover the mess. You can use Treadmaster which is a very good surface and lasts as long as teak if it’s glued down properly. Trouble is it’s not the same is it? It might be cheaper but it’s not a teak deck. You can lay an artificial teak deck. There is a plastic like lino you can lay but it looks like lino and not teak. There is even a special decking you can buy that appears to be made of sand and crushed stone in a nice terracotta colour. You lay it like teak with caulking and all. It doesn’t look like teak either and I wouldn’t want to slip along it. If anyone knows a really good alternative to teak I’d be delighted to hear about it.
Personally I would chose epoxy and cloth coated decks covered in non slip deck paint for a wooden boat and the standard non slip pattern on a GRP boat. Both are easy to clean, practical and hard wearing and keep the boat cooler below in the heat of the summer. Also I believe that laid decks on small craft can make them look a bit fussy. Other than painted decks there appears to be no realistic substitute which is a real shame since teak is a tropical hard wood and that means it’s taken decades to grow and it’s probably not being replaced.
So I hope that you can see that I’m advocating care and prevention for your lovely teak deck. To just leave it uncared for is an outrageous waste of a precious resource. If that isn’t enough to make you care for your deck, then consider the cost of replacement. Teak costs approx £3000 a cubic metre. But you’ll need a lot more than you think because just cutting down a big plank to size wastes a hideous amount of wood. The cost of the teak is a large part of the final bill. Basically you can quadruple the price of the teak to take into account the cost of first measuring and photographing the original deck to insure everything fits properly, the cleaning up of the surface underneath and finally replacing the wood. To do the job properly you may have to remove the chain plates and that means dropping the mast and completely readjusting it afterwards. Not only that but all those deck fittings that haven’t been touched for years will need to be removed and in the process don’t be surprised if many of the bolts are hell to remove or break in the process. It’s possible that some of the bolts were made specially or have been glassed over. You’ll need somewhere to do all this, perhaps it’s possible to make a good cover but even this adds to the cost. The alternative is to put the boat in a shed somewhere. Anything is possible but it always costs. Replacing a teak deck is a massive job. I laid a teak deck on a 6 metre boat and it took about ten days of frantic activity and it was a very simple deck with no joggled planks and no joins. To replace the decks on a 30 footer is 6 weeks work. 3 months for a 50 footer. We are talking about many thousands of pounds and your boat out of action for a while.
There are other considerations before you decide on a teak deck. They weigh more, the sikaflex being surprisingly heavy, not to mention the wood and the thousands of screws. Perhaps what worries me most about laid decks on Fibreglass boats is that you have to make thousands of holes in an otherwise perfectly waterproof surface to hold the deck down. Many fibreglass boats’ decks are balsa cored, that is to say that the deck is made of two layers of fibreglass with a layer of balsa wood in between. Balsa wood will not last long if it gets wet yet this strikes me as very likely. The law of averages suggests that, the chances of making 2000 holes in a deck, and them all staying waterproof for years on end is pretty slim. What happens when the balsa is rotted away? I think not making thousands of holes in a deck like this is wise. It is possible to lay a deck without screws but it takes longer and therefore costs more.
So let’s sum up. Teak decks are nice to live with and they look good. On the down side they are expensive, add weight where you don’t want it, soon look dirty, are vulnerable to red wine and sun tan oil and can get so hot in the summer you cannot walk on them. So what can you do about it? For my money I’d choose the standard non slip fibreglass moulding that comes with the boat or an epoxy cloth coating on a wooden yacht. I might have teak in the cockpit but basically I do not consider a teak deck to be a sensible thing these days. In days gone by teak was the obvious choice but things have changed. We are aware that teak comes from tropical rain forests and we all know that deforestation is contributing to global warming which is harming our planet but still yachts are sold with teak decks. Just consider for a moment how many yachts there are in your marina. Probably 30% have teak decks. (It’s more like 50% in the med) That’s quite a few boats and there are a lot of marinas in the UK. Then there’s the rest of Europe to take into account, Australia, New Zealand, USA In fact there must be millions of teak decks out there. It’s true to say that if people chose not to have a teak deck there would be a lot more trees in this world.
Sadly the whole yachting world is convinced that teak decks last forever and need nothing more than a good scrub once in a while to keep ‘em looking good. It’s simply not true. Remember when CD’s came out nearly 20 years ago, how they boasted that you could scratch them and they could still play. What Nonsense. On the one hand I am thankful for owners and teak decks since they allow me the life I lead but on the other I am angry at the waste of it all. People could save themselves a lot of time, inconvenience and money if they just took care of their decks. For some reason no one wants to spend money on “posh” covers to protect their boat. “Oh no, covers are expensive”. I hear said. Covers are “initially” expensive but they will repay their cost several times over. Not only will you not be required to replace your decks but you’ll be able to sell your boat for more because it has obviously been well looked after. It’s not just teak decks that will benefit from protection, Perspex windows, instruments and gel coat will all last longer if kept out of the sun, wind and rain. The Grand Canyon was created by erosion from the elements. When you think like that surely you can understand why I recommend covering up. We all know that the sun can burn skin and give you cancer yet we leave our boats outside soaking up this energy for years at a time. It’s worse for a teak deck because it is laid horizontally and gets the full force of the sun.
So unless I’m wrong people equate teak decks with luxury. “There’s nothing unusual about that,” you say, and if they are prepared to “pay” for it, fine. I don’t believe that anyone wishes to waste money or valuable world resources. I’m sure that it is a simple case of ignorance, call it what you will. No one will tell the truth because it’s in no one’s interests. The manufacturer can make his boat look “Lux” with teak. Other manufacturers follow and the teak deck becomes “the norm”. Boatyards and shipwrights depend on unwitting victims for their income. If you ask them to sand down your decks, that’s exactly what they’ll do. It annoys me that they cannot be more honest. If a client asked me (as they have) if I can sand their decks I explain where that will lead and in most cases they have taken my advice not to touch it. I realise that for a boatyard to take my approach is a recipe for bankruptcy and for myself I am not a rich man but I am content. I care very much about what happens to our world. I personally am glad I will not be among the future generations who must follow in our shoes. I can only do my bit, I can’t change the world, I can’t change fashion but I hope I can slow down the damage by telling the truth. So now you know, what will you decide for the decks on your new boat?