THE TEAK ADVANTAGE
Teak (tectona grandis) is considered by mariners to be the world's most valuable and versatile hardwood. It is known as the King of Woods and has been the mainstay of the boat building industry for centuries, but few people know all of the remarkable benefits and applications of this unique wood. The rare beauty of teak, its rich golden-brown luster, decorative grain, and unique properties of strength, stability, resistance to wear, resistance to harsh chemicals, and remarkable durability in all types of climatic conditions, have made it the most demanded wood for marine use. There are many uses for teak, but very few substitutes. Because of its natural oils, teak has a very low coefficient of expansion and contraction, so it remains stable even under months in the hot sun or submersed in ocean waters. Teak has natural resins, called technoquinines, which naturally repel termites, marine borers, and makes teak extremely resistant to rot. Craftsmen and sculptors alike revere its attributes, as teak is also a relatively easy wood to machine or work with hand tools. There is no other wood or man-made material that has the versatility of teak. It is a pillar of the shipbuilding industry from aircraft carriers to tall-mast graceful clipper ships, exquisite cruise ships, refined yachts, dinghies, and rugged workboats.
In boat interiors, especially where there is high humidity, teak is ideal for doors, hatches, and cabinetries because it does not warp, twist, or expand which could make opening doors and drawers difficult or impossible. Whereas with most other woods, when they come in contact with water will readily crack. Teak is one of the few woods that has a natural oil to retard water and keeps teak from warping, cracking, or becoming brittle.
On boat exteriors, teak decks and furniture is the only wood that can withstand the harsh dramatic changes of seawater and broiling sun without splitting, cracking, or warping. Decks of the Titanic were covered with teak, and the wood is as good today as that fateful night on 15 April 1912 when she sank. Even recovered sunken teak logs that had been under water for more than 150 years, the heartwood was just as durable and golden brown as the day the tree was felled. For centuries teak decks have been the paragon of excellence. Many of us who have stepped on a wet oak or pine plank had our feet go flying out from underneath us, but this will not happen with teak because it has a high silica (sand) content which gives traction in the wettest of conditions. In a marine environment metals corrode easily turning woods, in contact with metal, black with oxidation - but not so with teak by virtue of its natural oils. Teak needs no paint or varnish, and over time will develop a silver gray patina. Whether it’s severe winter snow storms, monsoon rains, tropical humid heat, or scorching dry desert conditions, do not diminish the strength of teak. It has even been used extensively in the oil fields of the Middle East, as it is the only wood that can withstand those harsh dry desert conditions and not conduct electrical sparks that could cause a deadly explosion.
Teak is a precious resource, and only four countries in the world - Burma, Thailand, Laos, and India - have natural teak forests. These forests are tightly controlled because of their enormous monetary and ecological importance, and teak is probably the best-protected commercial species in the world. Elephants are still being used extensively to log teak because of their low impact on the environment, as they do far less damage to forests than heavy logging machinery and equipment. Burma (renamed Myanmar) exports 80% of the world's natural teak supply. Teak is not a tropical rainforest species, and grows sparsely in mixed deciduous forests. In its natural environment there are only 1 to 5 trees per acre in the best growing areas. Burma established plantations in 1856 with the assistance of some very farsighted foresters who saw the need to treasure this renewable resource and created sustainable yields for future generations.
Teak seeds from Burma have been used to start plantations in Africa, Central America, and other parts of the world. However, teak from these other regions cannot match true Thai and Burmese teak. Because of varying climatic conditions, topography, soil type, drainage, elevation, rainfall, length of dry season, lack of proper silviculture techniques, and professional management result in vast differences in quality, hardness, texture, and coloration which are vastly inferior to Thailand and Burma-grown teak. While teak grown in other parts of the world is suitable for parquet flooring, garden furniture, and other small mouldings, it’s generally not suitable for marine use.
Due to the high price of teak many boat builders have tried to replace teak with oak, ash, maple, mahogany, or cherry, and others have tried to promote substitute species, such as Iroko or Afromosia, as "African teak." These woods may be suitable for various applications, but only teak, tectona grandis, is indispensable in any and all applications on a boat. Many of these boat builders have returned to teak to avert the potential hazard of customer complaints, and simply for the sheer beauty and dependability of teak. As long as ships ply the sea, genuine Thai and Burmese teak will be an integral part of shipbuilding - truly a gift of nature for the marine industry.