Each of us, at one time or another has heard someone say "it's only cosmetic." Surely, safety comes first, but given the fact that by definition a yacht is something used purely for pleasure, shouldn't cosmetics be regarded as an important aspect of vessel maintenance? When it comes to cosmetics, a vessel's woodwork can have a huge impact.
Most yacht woodwork tends to be teak, though mahogany and other woods are sometimes used. Teak quality can vary enormously, but in medium to high grades it is a fabulous material capable of outlasting most other parts of the boat, if cared for properly.
Care does not necessarily involve a lot of hard work but, like all other parts of your vessel, neglect it for too long, and bringing it back to order will become a cumbersome chore. The teak on Wired had been neglected for too long, but given the immediate visual impact, I elected to tackle it as my first order of business.
Teak can be "finished" in a number of ways. It can be top coated with varnish – this is common on rails and other trim work. It can be oiled. Or it can be left natural without oil. Each option has advantages and produces a unique appearance. None of these options are maintenance free. Just letting your teak go is not considered "natural." This finish, if it is to complement your boat, is at least as labor-intensive as the others and involves regular maintenance to avoid acquiring a fuzzy, barn-board appearance.
Wired has minimal teak, but any finish that had been applied had long since worn away and the wood had taken on a gray soiled appearance. A survey of the deck boxes yielded a variety of old, partially-filled bottles and cans of almost every popular brand of teak oil and cleaner.
I decided to chuck the lot and start fresh, with a trip to the chandlery and an opportunity to check out the boatyards to see what other skippers were using and to inspect their results. Two interesting observations: that the advice of the chandlery staff is often more influenced by what they have on their shelves than personal experience, and that teak is organic. Like leather, it is full of "features" or "character." Even among the "superyachts" I inspected, the teak often exhibited irregularities or inconsistencies.
In the end I opted for the common combination of oiled and sealed decks and varnished handrails. I decided to start with the decks.
Step one: cleaning. Before twisting the top off of that expensive "teak cleaner," go to the galley and grab the dish soap. Using a stiff deck brush and lots of water, thoroughly scrub off as much soil as possible. Diligence will pay rewards here. Get down on your knees and get into the corners. Use a sharp scraper or putty knife to loosen the crud that collects in crannies and carefully scrape off any paint or varnish drips. When you are finished with the soap and water, do it all again. This step is fast, cheap and very effective. Scrub hard and rinse generously.
Step two: now it is time for the teak cleaner. A bit of advice here: despite what the directions might say, it is safest to mix your cleaner with water in a bucket. Avoid the temptation to spread the product directly onto the wet deck. This approach can result in a blotchy appearance and in extreme cases it can result in chemical burns to the teak. Whether to use a one-part or a two-part formulation is largely a matter of personal preference. I've used both and see little difference in the results. Except for premixing, follow the directions on the bottle and use care to be even and consistent, covering the whole surface evenly.
Many of the systems come as a "kit." If not, then you need to buy brightener separately. This is where you begin to see results. For some, this is the end of the road, the last step. I like to apply brightener even if I intend to allow the teak to gray. The brightener helps to even out any discrepancies in the cleaning, especially if the early stages involved scraping away stains or drips. Once you have applied the brightener, take a break. You want this product to dry thoroughly without being trampled on.
Step three: oil. The main reason for applying oil is to extend the amount of time before the golden brown hue begins to return to gray. If kept clean and well scrubbed, gray teak can be very attractive, but I am partial to the look of fresh oil. Besides, applying oil is easy compared to the preceding steps. I prefer to use a clean white rag instead of a brush. Using a rag allows you to get oil into every recess of the grain without excessive flooding. Your oil will go further, and with a bit of elbow grease you can arrive at a very uniform coating. As with paints and varnishes, there is merit to multiple thin coats. For longer lasting results allow the oil to dry and recoat several times over the next few days.
I applied three coats to Wired and the results are super. The cockpit on Wired looks great. The job took about 12 hours over four days.
Peter Patterson is a Canadian Coast Guard certificated Master and an ABYC certified marine technician. He is a former Canadian Yachting Association Instructor/Evaluator and powerboat instructor. Currently he is on trickle charge while he re-invents himself.